If you live in the Los Angeles area, I’ll be giving a fireside on October 8, entitled “Reading the Old Testament in Context.” Flyer (PDF).
As you might guess, this presentation is oriented more towards understanding the Old Testament, reading it like an Israelite or a Hebrew scholar, than devotional or personal application readings of the Old Testament. Those aren’t entirely separate categories, but I assume most Mormons are experienced in the latter and not so much in the former.
I will talk about becoming a “competent reader” (a quasi-technical term) and introduce four kinds of context, moving from the simplest to the most complex. For each of these, I have numerous examples from the Bible, modern parallels to help drive the point home, and study suggestions/questions.
- Textual Context– By this I mean we need to read what comes before and what comes after a line or verse, especially across verse and chapter boundaries. Those divisions are largely medieval impositions on the ancient text and sometimes break up stories or sections. If you start a book or movie in the middle of one section, and then end randomly in the middle of another, you’re not really getting the whole story as it is meant to be communicated.
- Historical Context– This includes elements of the historical setting which are relevant. Because the Old Testament authors spoke to their contemporaries who shared this knowledge, they did not provide explanations about or identify people, places, customs, laws, or events. These things went without being said, but modern readers need them to be made explicit in order to understand
- Linguistic Context– What should we know about language of the Old Testament to better understand it? This includes aspects of both Bible translation from Hebrew/Aramaic into English and usage characteristics of Hebrew. I single out three: poetry, paranomasia/wordplay, and allusion.
- Literary Context– This is the most complex section, where I introduce the idea of genre. We experience this natively today, with books, movies, restaurants, which all come in different kinds, each with its own conventions and expectations; You know what kind of clothes to wear and what kind of food to expect if I say “burger joint,” you know the conventions and truth-claims of the Romantic Comedy genre. But we rarely understand that this kind of thing applies to scripture as well. I talk about the Bible as a library of different kinds of writings, a collected edition or anthology of different genres, set off by genre markers. I drill down into the historical genre, arguing that modern expectations of historical writing are largely journalistic ideals (i.e. verbatim quotes, neutral reporting, a priority on historical accuracy), but ancient history-writers did not remotely follow these conventions. What were the conventions of ancient history-writing? I cover much of the same ground as in my LDSPerspectives podcast and elsewhere on the blog, but more formally and organized, with citations and examples.
I’ll make the text of this available one way or another in late October or early November, as part of my gearing up for Old Testament in January. I have several things in mind for the blog, so check back. In the meantime, listen to the podcast and watch my screencast about the rediscovery of the world of the Old Testament.
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