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Extrabiblical Sources as Context - An Excerpt from Reading Romans in Context

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reading romans in context

How best should we approach extrabiblical sources when studying Scripture? That is the question asked in today’s excerpt from Reading Romans in Context. Since taking historical context into account is valuable, we cannot ignore a historical source simply because it is not in the biblical canon. Yet we want to be certain to handle it wisely.

Read on to get a glimpse into the recent release, Reading Romans in Context.

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Paul’s letter to the Romans is widely celebrated as the apostle’s clearest and fullest exposition of the good news concerning Jesus Christ. As William Tyndale lauded, “[It] is the principal and most excellent part of the New Testament, and the most pure Euangelion, that is to say glad tidings and that we call gospel.”

Writing from Corinth toward the end of his third missionary journey in AD 57, Paul wrote Romans in part to win support for his anticipated mission to Spain. To that end, he aimed in the letter to introduce himself to the believers in Rome, to summarize his theology, and to offer pastoral wisdom to troubled Christians and divided house churches. Over the course of sixteen chapters, Paul incorporates many of his favorite theological themes, including sin, death, law, justification, participation (“in/with Christ”), the Spirit, and ethnic reconciliation. Given its careful argumentation and nearly comprehensive coverage, it is easy to see why Romans has remained at the center of Christian discourse throughout church history and continues to be cherished by believers the world over. As Martin Luther memorably wrote, “It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well.”

Not all readings of Romans, however, are equally insightful. Romans, like the rest of the Bible, was written at a time and in a culture quite different from our own. Accordingly, reading Scripture well, as most biblical studies students will know, requires careful consideration of a passage’s historical-cultural context. The study of Romans is no different. And although it is true that some contextual awareness is better than none, it is also true that not every contextual observation has equal bearing on determining the meaning of a passage.

The History of Religions School of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, exposed an array of parallels between the religious beliefs and practices of various ancient Mediterranean societies and those of the earliest Christian communities. Yet subsequent scholarship has demonstrated the irrelevance of many of those parallels for NT studies in general and the study of Romans in particular, especially relative to the Jewish context of early Christianity…Nevertheless, influential scholars such as W. D. Davies, Ernst Käsemann, and E. P. Sanders later stood on Schweitzer’s shoulders by offering thorough readings of Paul in the light of his Jewish theological context.

The impact of Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism has been especially long-standing. While Sanders conceded that identifying parallel motifs in Paul and his Jewish contemporaries can be illuminating, he has been influential in challenging students of Paul to go beyond detecting surface-level similarities to conducting close comparative readings of Jewish and Pauline texts. “What is needed,” Sanders insisted, “is a comparison which takes account of both the numerous agreements and the disagreements — not only the disagreements as stated by Paul, but those evident from the Jewish side, the discrepancy between Paul’s depiction of Judaism and Judaism as reflected in Jewish sources.”…Not all of the details of Sanders’s readings of Jewish and Pauline texts have been accepted. Nevertheless, as a result of his work, Pauline scholars today are more aware than ever of the importance of interpreting Paul’s letters in their Second Temple Jewish context and in close relation to contemporary Jewish literature.

Even so, many Christians, especially in the evangelical tradition, remain suspicious of extracanonical literature and its value for biblical interpretation. For some, this is simply a matter of canonicity — those books lying outside of Scripture should not be allowed to influence Christian, especially post-Reformation, theology. For others, it is a matter of utility. John Piper is a case in point. In his widely publicized critique of N. T. Wright’s understanding of Pauline theology, Piper directs his initial criticism toward Wright’s biblical-theological methodology — namely, his extensive reliance on extrabiblical sources. Rather than encouraging Christians to explore the Bible’s theological claims by reading them in the light of early Jewish literature, Piper cautions that “not all biblical-theological methods and categories are illuminating,” for “first-century ideas can be used (inadvertently) to distort and silence what the New Testament writers intended to say.” According to Piper, such exegetical distortion can occur in at least three ways: “misunderstanding the sources,” “assuming agreement with a source when there is no agreement,” and “misapplying the meaning of a source.” He concludes, “It will be salutary, therefore, for scholars and pastors and laypeople who do not spend much of their time reading first-century literature to have a modest skepticism when an overarching concept or worldview from the first century is used to give ‘new’ or ‘fresh’ interpretations to biblical texts that in their own context do not naturally give rise to these interpretations.”

While we share Piper’s desire to interpret the NT accurately in the service of the church, much contemporary scholarship demonstrates that Piper’s misgivings fail to appreciate the many advantages of utilizing Second Temple Jewish literature for illuminating the meaning of the NT. Obviously, misreadings and misapplications of ancient texts remain real dangers in biblical studies; over half a century ago Samuel Sandmel warned the academy against illegitimate uses of background material, such as “parallelomania.” Accordingly, the appropriate solution to the misuse of comparative literature is not its outright dismissal, but its responsible handling by students of Scripture. As Wright asserts in response to Piper, “Of course literature like the Dead Sea Scrolls, being only recently discovered, has not been so extensively discussed, and its context remains highly controversial. But to say that we already have ‘contextual awareness’ of the Bible while screening out the literature or culture of the time can only mean that we are going to rely on the ‘contextual awareness’ of earlier days.”…

Piper seems particularly anxious about the illegitimate imposition of external meaning onto the biblical text. That is a fair concern. What he fails to realize, however, is that many comparative studies are interested just as much, if not more, in exposing the theological differences between texts as observing their similarities. To interpret his letters rightly, then, students of Paul must not ignore Second Temple Jewish literature, but must engage it with frequency, precision, and a willingness to acknowledge theological continuity and discontinuity. (Pgs 17-21)

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Reading Romans in Context is available now. Order your copy from Zondervan Academic today.

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