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In Defense of Tilling

May 27, 2009

Yesterday, Chris Tilling posted a brief article summarizing two important interpretive “keys” to “unlocking” Romans in a short commentary he is authoring to which Jim West responded: couldn’t the same key unlock lots of NT texts? I thought I would weigh in with my two cents.

In his book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now James Kugel offers four assumptions of ancient interpreters:

  1. They assumed the Bible was fundamentally a cryptic text
  2. They assumed the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day
  3. They assumed the Bible contained no contradictions or mistakes
  4. They believed the entire Bible was essentially a divinely given text

Kugel then goes through great lengths to demonstrate how these assumptions affected the interpretations of many ancient authors. My only beef with Kugel is that at the time period he is writing on I think it would be much more appropriate to speak of sacred texts rather than Bible as at the time there was no “Bible” and different groups valued different texts, but he is writing for an audience that may not understand the distinction.

I bring this up because it seems to me that these assumptions have come down from antiquity to many modern Christians except for one: assuming that the Bible is a fundamentally cryptic text. Instead, for modern Christians the belief that the Bible is simple dominates, so a “plain” reading of Scripture is favored in a lot of circles. Therefore, I would posit that the four interpretive assumptions of many modern evangelical Christians look something like this:

  1. They assume the Bible is fundamentally a simple text easy to understand by the Holy Spirit
  2. They assume the Bible is a book of lessons directed to them
  3. They assume the Bible contains no contradictions or mistakes
  4. They believe the entire Bible is essentially a divinely given text in its canonical form

This set of assumptions is what characterizes much modern preaching, and number one informing number two is where the majority of dilletante dreck comes from.

I point this out because Tilling’s two keys, while a given for any biblical scholar in its interpretive approach that is to say thinking historically and trying to recapture Paul’s thought world, are very far outside the approach to the text that the uninitiated, unaware, and untrained take. When you believe that Paul wrote Romans for you the actual events in Rome and the salvation history of Israel are probably pretty far from your interpretive world.

So the end of the matter is this: Chris and Jim are both right… it just depends on who the audience is.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 27, 2009 11:06 am

    FYI: that rascal, Jim, moved the linked post. Here’s the corrected URL —

    At the risk of being branded “dilletante”:

    Forgive my proletarian ignorance, but it seems to me that the central thrust of Tillings’ first key requires encyclopedic knowledge of First Century Palestine, does it not? Similarly to Jim’s occasional insistence that to fully grasp the biblical text, one must first be conversant in ancient Greek and Hebrew, etc., this would necessarily leave interpretation in the bailiwick of the exhaustively educated minorty, would it not? Doesn’t this at least partially undo the Reformation, by putting the knowledge of “what they really mean” into limited hands vice making God available to all, equally?

    I’m not (solely) trying to start an argument here; I’m trying to follow the academic mindset to its logical, practical end (tho’ I don’t know if that’s the intent of the various players–perhaps, for example, Jim meant his “kissing through a sheet” metaphor to apply only to academics and theologians?); color me a mildly retarded but earnest (or at least well-intentioned) pupil…

    Perhaps when the SBV goes to print, you should include a reasonably concise analysis of 0 CE Jewish culture, to establish a jumping-off point?

  2. May 27, 2009 1:40 pm

    I fixed the link. Thanks.

    I don’t think the central thrust requires “encyclopedic knowledge of First Century Palestine” but it does require some familiarity with the texts and some ancient Roman history.

    The Roman historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (ca. 70-140 CE) wrote: He [Claudius] expelled the Jews from Rome, since they were always making disturbances because of the instigator Chrestus.” This seems to paint the background to Acts 18 “There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them.”

    Aquila and Priscilla (sometimes referred to as Prisca) become fellow workers with Paul.

    Then at the end of Romans in his personal greetings section Paul greets Aquila and Prisca who are apparently back in Rome.

    Because of this, and many things in the letter, some scholars argue that Jewish-Gentile relations were a problem once Jewish persons came back to churches that were mostly Gentile.


  1. Interpretive assumptions – ancient and evangelical (Bailey) « Ben Byerly’s Blog

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