Lately, I have been thinking quite a bit about the way texts, and particularly biblical texts, were developed in relation to imperial power structures. Not only through violence but also through narrative, empires have historically been able to establish systems of domination and hegemony that can influence every aspect of a person’s life; biblical texts can offer a powerful counter to these narratives of oppression. Actually, at the 2015 Ambrose Research Conference, I presented a paper that addressed how the apocalyptic vision in Dan 9 functions as a critique of the temporal rulers of the author’s day (this document may be accessed on my ‘Writings‘ page). What got me thinking about this subject again, however, was reading N.T. Wright’s lectures-turned-book Paul: In Fresh Perspective, wherein Wright highlights Roman power as one element of the social matrix in which St. Paul operated and wrote (5).
Overall, Wright’s understanding of Paul is fairly strong, even if I might sometimes object to how he treats apocalyptic literature in the Second Temple period. Rather than summarizing this book, however, I will simply note that Wright’s thought is part of a broader willingness within the scholarly literature to emphasize the Judaic background of the New Testament and early Christianity. As Wright so often does, I will direct readers interested in this approach to the bibliographies of either my ARC 2015 paper or of a work such as Everett Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity. The particular advantage of this scholarly approach has been to reveal that biblical texts have an essentially temporal backdrop that frames significant aspects of their thought; here, I want to argue that ignoring this backdrop results in an impoverished understanding of scripture.
Essentially, I am addressing this post to Christians themselves, although to a certain extent I am also addressing those who have grown up in Christian contexts. In such situations where there is frequent exposure to the Bible, it can be easy to grow accustomed to what the Bible has to say and to treat the weekly messages from the pulpit as a crutch for one’s own biblical interpretation. In my previous post I discussed how becoming acclimated to the biblical message may be a problem for theologians and Christian exegetes in particular. My solution there was to attempt to look at the Bible from an outsider’s perspective so as to better understand many of the easily missed nuances of the scriptures. Here I want to suggest that Christians need to develop, through a better understanding of history and theology proper, the ability to engage the temporal aspects of scripture directly.
The need for such an approach is made obvious by reading apocalyptic literature such as Dan 7-12. Written during the period of Seleucid persecution of the Jewish people (c. 165 BCE), this text uses rhetoric (which includes the switch between Aramaic and Hebrew, see A. Portier-Young, ‘Languages of Identity and Obligation: Daniel as Bilingual Book’, VT 60 : 98-115), disjointed syntax (see Portier-Young, Apocalypse Against Empire), and, of course, Daniel’s overtly anti-imperial visions in order to call into question the entire Seleucid programme of domination and hegemony. These chapters require that readers have at least a basic understanding of the historical background that was leading the author(s) to write this piece; without such knowledge, one finds it nearly impossible to truly appreciate the fact that this document has a distinctly political agenda. Moreover, the symbolism employed throughout presupposes that reader’s are familiar with the actions of the Seleucid rulers (cf. Dan 12).
Since I have neither the space nor the expertise to exegete the entire Bible in order to show the need for historical and theological understanding to understand the texts therein, I will use the case of Daniel as my primary case study. What I want to underline is that this text is not neutral in the sense that it conveys its message outside of the human concerns of its authors and its readers; it makes no attempts to mask its political objectives. Rather than diminishing the value of Daniel, however, I believe that this points to the power of God to speak directly to the human experience. The danger of an exegesis that doesn’t consider such human and temporal aspects of the biblical texts is that readers today are prevented from witnessing the multiplicity of ways by which God has operated throughout history.
I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to suggest that the Bible as a whole upsets the traditions and paradigms of its original cultural and political matrix. Daniel 7-12 shows in a particularly overt way just one instance in which this occurs. My own analysis emerged from thinking about the Bible in relation to empire, but I suspect that there are any number of worldviews that the Bible positions itself in contrast with. Ultimately, the point I wish to make, as I will in so many of my other posts, is that a greater understanding of the backgrounds underlying the Bible makes it possible to access these valuable messages.
Perhaps I have overstated my case a little bit, but I think that when Christians ignore the fact that their scriptures emerged from particular temporal and spatial conditions, and that the Bible has a concern with addressing particular human concerns, they have an impoverished reading of their sacred texts. Certainly, understanding this human aspect of the Bible allows Christians to engage an important element of the interpretive conversation.