Sunday, January 10, 2016

The New Testament From The Standpoint Of A Philologist (Part 2)

Part 1 is available here.

AP: The New Testament can only be understood by inserting it back into the place and time of the Jewish world in the first century. If we methodologically put away this concept of "inspiration" (i.e., of a special divine guardianship that makes it a timeless book), then we can understood that the New Testament is a child of its time, and it is absolutely conditioned by the mentality of the time period: that of an Israel inserted into the Roman Empire and the mentality of it, especially in its eastern part.

Therefore, the early Christian works cannot be understood very well without some previous knowledge regarding the century in which they were born. What must a person know ahead of time if they hope to understand the New Testament in the 21st century? Readers should be aware of the following backdrops: historical, religious, philosophical, social, ideological in general, etc.

A modern reader cannot claim to fully understand even the most elementary aspects of our society if that person does not have a foundational knowledge of what is involved even in his or her own culture. Take fútbol, for example. I believe my friends across the Atlantic call this soccer. If a person does not know the rules of the game, they will have no idea what is going on. For someone lacking this knowledge, even though they know Spanish, watching such a game would be like reading Chinese. I'm sure you've encountered this before. Pre-knowledge is essential to understanding what we see, read, hear, etc.

For this reason, many introductory books have been written over the years to help modern readers understand the world of the New Testament and the world into which Jesus was born. In Spanish, there are several available. I am just going to highlight two here, one written by me and another by someone else.

John Riches' book is The World of Jesus: First-Century Judaism in Crisis (Cambridge University Press, 1990). It has been translated into Spanish. The book deals with: the political, economic, social, and cultural context of first-century Judaism; the unity and diversity within Judaism in the first century and the change from the Hellenistic period (fourth century B.C.) that led to Judaism at that time; the concept of community of the people of God; the various groups and religious personalities of the first century in Israel, including John the Baptist, the eschatological hopes of the Jews in the first century, and Jesus' concept of the Kingdom of God in the context of Jewish apocalyptic theology.

The book written by me is Año I. Israel y su mundo cuando nació Jesús (Madrid: Ediciones Laberinto, 2008). This book covers the following topics: What was the world like in the first century, with the Roman Empire in general and the Roman East in particular (Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor)? Then it delves into the religious atmosphere of the Roman Empire: existence of a practical monotheism; philosophy as a way of life, almost a religion; ethics; the popular conception of the "divine men"; the beliefs of afterlife; religiosity all the way to the desire for salvation: the "mysteries"; the deification of human beings; the worship of men: from heroes to the emperor; etc. Finally it clarifies the fundamental lines of thought of a religious atmosphere that contributes to the shaping of Christianity: gnosis and Gnostic movements.

My introduction also thinks through two major issues important for understanding the background of the New Testament:
A. The Jewish religious world and its sects (Pharisees and proselytizing: the conception of the "restoration of Israel" at the end of history, the Essenes, the world of Qumran: the end of the present world; the Sadducees and the Zealots; the Pharisees and their branches.
B. The beliefs of Jewish people in Jesus' day, because they are the basis of the religion of Jesus and much of his followers: the main ideas of the Old Testament; the main notions of apocalyptic theology of the Old Testament Apocrypha, which form a large part of Jesus' own way of thinking.
The conclusion is that from the point of view of a philologist and a historian of ideas. When we study these aspects we find a world that is well prepared for the birth of Christianity. It is straddling two worlds: the Greek world and the Jewish world. Thus, Hellenized Christianity was born.

Likewise, the philologist is interested in understanding and explaining how different New Testament authors reacted to such ideas (pagan or Jewish), and what society and specific historical situation made it so that the works of the New Testament were in this way or another.

Exegesis is not the interpretation of "fantasy." Exegesis is putting data back into the parameters in which a text was written: historical, religious, philosophical, economic, cultural, etc. It is not to apply the doctrines of the New Testament to myself, for my own spiritual life today, but first and foremost to understand.

From here a person can draw applications and go where the evidence leads them. Some will stay in the realm of mere history, or theology, or cultural history. Others will be challenged by the message of the New Testament. But such is not the task of the philologist. The philologist transmits the text and explains it.

No comments:

Post a Comment