On Contexts and Biblical Interpretation

Huw and I have been having an interesting conversation at the Episcopal Cafe that I think is worth expanding. It began with a discussion of the parable of the workers in the vineyard with the occasional infusion of the parable of the wicked tenants. In this exchange I was focused mostly on the first… Here are some of the pertinent comments to date:

From me:

I think in speaking about the “generosity” of the vineyard owner of Matthew 20 it’s important to note that the Scripture doesn’t call him “generous”. That’s a liberty taken by our translators; rather the word is “good” (ego agathos eimi)…

I don’t think a traditional meaning “doesn’t fit” the meaning of the text at all. Actually, I think it works better when we consider not only the content of the parable but its literary context as well.

If we look just before this parable we see the account of the young wealthy man who asks what “good thing” (ti agathon) he must do to be saved to whom Jesus responds that “there is one who is good” (ho agathos) (Matt 19:16-22).

Then Jesus speaks of the difficulties of the wealthy who wish to enter the kingdom [“easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God…”] (Matt 19:23-30).

Then we get this parable about the householder who hires laborers (Matt 20:1-16) which ends with the householder saying, “Why do you cast the evil eye [on me] because I am good?”

How do we interpret the householder given the rest of the discussion around wealth and the good? Is he a negative example that confirms the difficulty of the rich to do good or a positive exemplum of one who uses wealth as a manifestation of the nature of the kingdom?

If he is a sign of evil what, then, is the sign of the kingdom thus displayed?

I agree that we must always be on our guard against the domestication of the sharp edge of the Gospel. I just disagree that this reading strips the story of a Gospel challenge.

From Huw:


Donald – As you noted in your reply, “It is exciting when scripture pushes us to a kind of arguing that seems rabbinic”.

When I first read your post my guts knotted up a little. Your reading of the text comes at such a different angle to what is traditional that I felt as if the floor had dropped out on an exciting carnival ride. THAT’S what I like about this sort of Rabbinic Conversation! It’s like a roller coaster with the Holy Ghost at the switch as long as we trust each other.

Derek, your description of the text works well with my ex-Orthodox comfort level – which is therefore suspect. Thanks for that tracing of “good” through those passages. But does that literary context say anything about what *Jesus* intended by this story? Or does it tell us more about what the Matthewite community wanted to focus on in the hearing of this passage? Mind you – I don’t think it’s possible to make that choice in a satisfactory way; and I think such a realisation opens the doors to the possibility that there are many other ways of reading this text.

And this is even more true if the traditional reading is based, in circular fashion, on a context that simply expects the traditional reading.

It’s the use of Allegory that is the problem here: was Jesus intending Allegory? Did the Early Disciples hear Allegory? We may never know in this world, but certainly the Church Fathers saw nearly *all* the scriptures as conveying Allegory. Should we do likewise? Even if we follow in their footsteps, does that mean that only one allegory drawn from the text is right? If we decide to use their method do we need to duplicate their results?

One traditional allegory on the “Walking on Water” has Peter getting out of the boat showing us what happens when we dare leave the Church. It goes on to say that Peter was at fault for daring to leave the boat at all! After the Great Schism this reading becomes laden with political overtones. It’s no wonder we never hear it in the west outside of the Orthodox Church. I head it every year when that Gospel came up. And when Peter cries, “Save me” Jesus puts him in the boat (ie, back in the Orthodox Church). It has nothing to do with Peter “loosing faith” when he tried to Walk on the Water. Attempting to walk away from the boat and the other disciples was, in this reading, the sin.

Which reading is right? Does one need to be right and the other wrong? Do we need to pick one over the other other than as needed for a sermon in a given situation? Which one is intended by the Gospel writer? Which one would have been heard by his first community? Or would they have heard just a cool story? Do we need to know those answers beyond prying new, interesting readings out of the text? 

From me:

Hey Huw,

Yes, a both/and reading is typically preferable over an either/or. I do think, however, that certain readings are to be preferred based on the principle of edification. I need to be challenged by readings like the ones Donald and Deirdre offer. At the same time, others need to be challenged again by the meanings that endure in the traditional readings. I do not accuse Donald or Deirdre of this at all, but there are some who believe that the Bible was entirely misunderstood until the 1960’s and I think that’s a mistake.

As for the parable and its setting, What you and Donald are doing is stripping away one setting and replacing it with another one. The one that you are discarding comes from the same general time-period and culture as Jesus himself, written by a people far more familiar with their cultural and interpretive practices than we are. The setting that you are replacing it with is a 21st century recreation that some scholars think might be possibly what Jesus was like. Or not. Personally, I’d rather work with the setting that we actually have and, since Matthew is the only gospel who preserves this parable, it’s the only one we have to go on.

From Huw:

Derek – ” I’d rather work with the setting that we actually have”

If by that you mean *only* the literary setting, then ok. As I said I thank you for drawing out the line on “agatho” through the preceding several scenes. It was something I wouldn’t have noticed without your sharing.

But, again: that only tells us about the text. Not about the community or the intent of the writer(s). It tells us nothing about Jesus. We don’t even know if the community would have heard those several passages read together. Even our assumptions about who that community was are mere guesses.

Any attemt at a cultural reading or a setting (New or Old) is a reading-into the text of material that isn’t necessarily there. Our choice, as you’ve noted, is to find out if it is a reading towards the edification of the people – and ultimately to their deification in Christ.

From me:

But, again: that only tells us about the text. Not about the community or the intent of the writer(s).

True. And the text is what we confess as part of the mystery that is the Word of God–not the community nor the intention of the writer(s).

It tells us nothing about Jesus.

Au contraire, my friend… It tells us how Matthew and possibly other pre-Matthean sources communicated who Jesus was. It may not give us historical “facts” about Jesus but it does tells us how the author and the transmitting community understood the ethos, aims, and point of Jesus. That’s pretty important in my book.

Speaking simply, we make meaning from a text based on two primary factors: content and context. I think that Huw and I both acknowledge that the more malleable of the two is context and the discussion here is not about what one context the text belongs in, but what we should consider the primary context (or contexts) and which should be secondary, tertiary or beyond. So we agree that there are  multiplicity of legitimate contexts; the normative context is the one up for grabs. 

From a scholarly point of view, I’m a literary guy. Thus, my intention is to give the text pre-eminence over other factors. Theologically, I do believe that the biblical text is the Word of God, inspired by God. I see it as something more a kin to a hypostatic union where it is simultaneously a limited human word and a revelatory divine word rather than following a dictation model. As a result of these convictions, I argue that the normative context for any pericope/section of text is its immediate literary context, the larger context of the book in which it is found and the wider context of the whole of Scripture. Another primary context for me is the history of interpretation—how the Church has understood, incarnated, and wrestled with the passage through the centuries.

I see Huw and Donald (who started this discussion) assigning a primary—perhaps normative—context of historical Jesus research to the parable. That is, they are suggesting (and do correct me if I’m reading you wrong, Huw) that a (if not the) central context for the parable is based in Jesus-as-he-was rather than the gospels which are texts that transmit not the pure Jesus—Jesus-as-he-was—but Jesus-as-the early-church-viewed-him.

I take issue with this. I’ve been trained in the New Testament guild. That means several semester-long in-depth seminars on the history of New Testament research and on the whole “Quest for the Historical Jesus” problem. I know where we’ve come from and where we are now. And frankly, I see most historical Jesus research as problematic. We have very limited data that we can say is “historical” in nature. Our main sources were not primarily interested in giving us the kind of historical data that we are after. As a result, most of the research greatly outstrips what I believe our sources give us. Whenever that happens, we begin wandering into the realm of fantasy. Historical reconstruction as wishful/hopeful thinking. Albert Schweitzer was the first to expose this for what it was at the turn into the 20th century and while we’ve progressed into new areas and sociological models he couldn’t have dreamed of, his central charge still holds true. The Jesus we go looking for is the Jesus that we find.  I do not believe that the sources that we have—the gospels—contain the data for us to access Jesus-as-he-was and therefore any attempt to do so provides Jesus-as-we-wish-him-to-be mistaken as Jesus-as-he-was. And that, in my opinion, is why using historical Jesus research as a central context for understanding the parables is misguided—we’re not giving them a contemporary context, we’re giving them a modern context that masquerades as historical.

Having said all that, it’s only fair t note that the parables have been a central battleground for historical Jesus research through the 20th century because one of the few things that everyone actually can agree on is that Jesus taught in parables. (Naturally, we get into major arguments when various folks start pronouncing on which parables belong to Jesus and which are from the early church–or, worse yet–which pieces of which parables are from Jesus and which from the early church…) In this discussion, I’m not denying the validity of the work of folks like Jeremias or Perrin who did some careful and important work on the parables with either implicit or explicit ties to historical Jesus research, I just don’t think that even their careful research (not all of which I agree with either…) gives us enough of a solid context to justify replacing the context we do have with the one we reconstruct.

20 thoughts on “On Contexts and Biblical Interpretation

  1. bls

    I loved – and was quite shocked to find, actually! – this quote that’s in the EFM materials for Year 2, New Testament:

    While individual members of the Jesus Seminar have done valuable work, we must regard their project in general as a fantasy, and their own (and the media’s) estimate of its significance as vastly inflated. Just as the liberal Protestant Jesus would have been at home in the faculty rooms of nineteenth-century German liberal Protestant universities, so Jesus the laconic sage, breathtaking in his political correctness, would be at home in the common room of the North American universities that produced him. And that is where he belongs (see Bryan 1996, 348).

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    I would entirely agree with that quote. (And I’m a little surprised to see it in EFM materials as well–pleasantly surprised!)

    Whenever a reconstruction yields a Jesus that is too palatable we should worry. Too, I’ll remind folks that the traditional Jesus is not the warm fuzzy domesticated character that gets paraded by those who either support or oppose “traditional” Christianity. Rather, the tradition has continually cast up a parade of differing challenging Jesuses, from the Lord of Glory through the Suffering Servant to the Righteous Judge. I have Pelikan’s Jesus through the Centuries on my shelf and have only so far had the chance to dip into it occasionally…

  3. Huw Richardson


    ” a (if not the) central context for the parable is based in Jesus-as-he-was rather than the gospels which are texts that transmit not the pure Jesus—Jesus-as-he-was—but Jesus-as-the early-church-viewed-him.”

    Jesus-as-he-was doesn’t exist. Jesus-as-he-is does. Jesus-as-the-Church-filtered-him is important: it provides the building blocks. But pretty much *everything* recorded is “Jesus-as-Filtered”.

    Rather than a hypostatic union (I like that image, btw) I see the text as a record of the Tradition where it was in several stages. I see us as moving in that tradition (or not – but trusting God’s mercy that we are!)

    Perhaps I’m after something a bit more radical (possible than Donald, even, but probably not). The context is Church. But we can’t be church 2000 years ago (as much as we might want to be), or 1500 or 500 years ago, we can only be Church now.

    We can look at depths of historical text, context, commentary and even manuscript fragments if we have them; we can decide that anything after (Year X) is too far removed or that anything before (Year Y) is too superstitious, but ultimately that stuff is only “to go on” what we have to do is build on it. And for that we have us, here, now, in relationship to Jesus-as-he-is.

    In my head, the error is in trying to recapture the “original meaning” rather than saying “I want to read this as X and let’s see where it takes us. I like Donald’s read – especially as it speaks to me in the financial crisis now – but maybe the error is in Donald offering that his is possibly “the original meaning” rather than just *more* reading, maybe in or maybe out of the tradition. (the answer to that question, btw, I don’t think can arrive for two or three generations; like I said, trusting to God’s mercy.)

    Thanks, Derek, for this discussion. It really wasn’t until you asked me to offer a correction if needed, that I had even thought it through. Thanks very much.


  4. Derek the Ænglican

    Fantastic! I very much like the notion that the correct context is Jesus-as-he-is. You’re dead-on there.

    However, that doesn’t answer the question—it changes the question: how do we access Jesus-as-he-is who will provide us the proper context?

    I stick with my contexts—the literary contexts of the Scriptures and the reflection of the Church–and add another two primary contexts (that aren’t really allowed when I have my “guild” hat on…): the Creeds and the liturgical worship of the Church. We know Jesus as we encounter him in the liturgy and preeminently in the Sacraments.

    But I’ll insist that my first two contexts stand and deserve primacy in experiencing Jesus-as-he-is.

  5. Huw Richardson

    I think I may have to agree-to-disagree on the last sentence (but only as too confining by my experience) I agree with the rest of it. I recognise I played bait-and-switch with the question. But I think often moderns are asking the wrong question entirely.

    I think we can have many mutually-geeking discussion on this topic!

    Asking your prayers…

  6. Derek the Ænglican

    I thought you might agree-to-disagree on that one… :-) and I’ll defend it for the very reason you aver—I know only too well my idol-making propensities. The limits and constraints of the text and tradition are precisely the boundaries I need to have interpretive freedom. They don’t mean that I can’t or won’t fall into idolatry, but they’ll make the task more difficult.

    If I can try and summarize what I think we do agree on, though, it would look like this:
    1. There are multiple legitimate contexts for interpreting words from Scripture (and the Tradition for that matter…)
    2. Some contexts are more useful and edifying in some situations than others–and these obviously vary based on the situation.
    3. The normative context that trumps all others is Jesus-as-he-is.
    4. We disagree about how precisely we access Jesus-as-he-is but recognize it as the real heart of the exercise.

    Thoughts? Comments?

  7. Huw Richardson

    I would dicker on the parenthesis in #1 for, the longer I experience it, the less I feel we can “interpret the tradition” as such. My own blog, during the time I was Eastern Orthodox, was taken up with the discussion of the differences between (T)radition and (t)radition. Increasingly I’ve become convinced that we cannot interpret Tradition. It simply is, as a product of what has gone before. We are either building on it or not. (Pardon me for referencing my own blog!) And within that setting I say scripture is only a textual part of Tradition.

    I think, even on #4, we might both agree. I believe in Jesus, the same, Yesterday, today, forever. He is found in the communion of people seeking him prayerfully, together. Giving way in love to each other. You insist there are checks and balances in Scripture, as such, but I’ve yet to see that actually play out – for any read of Scripture is “IMHO”. When I see it happen by the “plain sense of scripture” (as GAFCON says) then I’ll believe it.

    But I think we may have reach a working Quadrilateral for peaceful intercoblogging. Let’s run it up the Crucifix at the next Lambeth and see who genuflects.

  8. Christopher

    But I’ll insist that my first two contexts stand and deserve primacy in experiencing Jesus-as-he-is.

    I’m having a hard time gutting out the Creeds and Sacraments, as you might imagine, primarily because these are primary places wherein the Church too is challenged and confronted.

  9. Christopher

    What I want to make sure of is that our Jesus is always extra nos. As Person with whom we are in relation, but Person, not merely a reflection of ourselves. The Church too has been guilty of this, sometimes in interpretations of tradition. Hence, a need over time for understanding who Jesus is for us in different ways to maintain this Jesus outside of ourselves. Christ and church too must be in tension.

  10. Christopher

    What I want to make sure of is that our Jesus is always extra nos. As Person with whom we are in relation, but Person, not merely a reflection of ourselves. The Church too has been guilty of this, sometimes in interpretations of tradition. Hence, a need over time for understanding who Jesus is for us in different ways to maintain this Jesus outside of ourselves. Christ and church too must be in tension.

  11. Christopher

    What I want to make sure of is that our Jesus is always extra nos. As Person with whom we are in relation, but Person, not merely a reflection of ourselves–including the Church. The Church too has been guilty of this, sometimes in interpretations of tradition, and it has often been when this is the case that the Church has most overstepped. Hence, a need over time for understanding who Jesus is for us in different ways to maintain this Jesus outside of ourselves. Christ and church too must be in tension.

  12. Christopher

    Well, I hope I got my point across…I don’t know what happened with the multiple postings. At any rate, I’ve posted a piece in response to this thinking about Sunday’s Gospel proclamation.

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  14. donald schell

    I’ve followed the conversation from the posting in episcopal cafe to this thread and Huw and Christopher’s responses. Added a bit on Christopher’s blog which I’d post orreference here if I were more skilled with my iPhone. Glad we’re continuing this. Love, donald

  15. donald schell

    Derek and Christopher,
    I want to make clear as my post at Episcopal Cafe may not have that meeting Jesus-as-he-is and keeping ourselves conscious that he is entre nos as other are my agenda too (though also as us because I believe we do as his community “have the mind of Christ”). I find the Jesus Seminar problematic by their method of voting and though I do regularly check in with their “five gospels” for a quick and dirty snapshot of consensus around a particular text, I’m often frustrated by a “vote” that seems doctrinaire and explanations that so both too much and too little. I was intrigued at names of scholars that Deirdre Gpod and Ana Hernandez offered in their responses at the Cafe, andust admity formative training in the parables is old. I rely largely on Norman Perrin forethod and framework and on Joachim Jeremias for historical a d cultural context and leads on rabbinic stories which Jesus’ parables evidently draw on, helping us wonder at least about how a massive allegorization – like we heard Sunday with Matthew’s telling of a king who threw a wedding banquet for his son – may tell us more about the first century church’s concerns (destruction of the temple, place of Jews in God’s new work, how Gentiles are welcomed into fellowship, etc.) than about Jesus’ teaching. Perrin’s method of reading the parables much at once or in relation to one another as possible AND filtering what we hear through a scrutiny of “dissimilarity” (if we read something that evidently reflects specific concerns of the first century church, we think we at least may be hearing the eat tradition trying to make we sense of their immediate challenges and dilemmas while they’re remembering and interpreting Jesus’ teaching – as the church has always done and as Derek sees the Jesus Seminar doing). Dissimilarity in Perrin’s method gives particular weight to parables or chunks of parables that don’t reflect the questions and concerns of the first century mission in a broad Roman-Mediterranean world. He doesn’t say “if of sounds like the early church we know it isn’t Jesus, but does say if it’s coherent with other parables and doesn’t sound at all like the early church, let’s try to make it an important piece in our synthesis of his teaching from the parables. Part of what I five d compelling about his work is that he’s actively and systematicallyl listening for the voice of another among us. Love, donald

  16. Derek the Ænglican

    Donald, One of the major issues that we have not yet addressed that needs to be is the notion of “allegory”. All to often this becomes a code-word in modern academic discourse for “reading strategies we don’t do”. It’s disengenious on two levels. First, because modern scholarship *does* do allegory and second, because a whole host of premodern methods and strategies get lumped together and uniformly dismissed.

    Anyone who doesn’t believe that moderns do allegory should rethink the way we twist texts around to reconstruct history. A *classic* example is Martyn’s reading of John 9 (the man born blind) as a two-level drama where he tells us that the dialogue between the man born blind and the rabbinic authorities is *actually* the story of the Johannine community being put out of the synagogue.

    I’m quite familiar with the criteria of Perrin and Jeremias. I’ve been reading through it quite a bit over the last year as part of my dissertation is on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. I find the modern allergy to allegory and its quick dismissal problematized by folks like Aristoboulus, Philo, Paul and the gospel writers. It’s another case of saying: the pre-Christian community did it, the Christian community did it, but Jesus couldn’t *possibly* have done it… Really? Why not?

    As I know you know, Donald, one of the consistent “issues” with the criterion of dissimilarity is that it has repeatedly been used to sever the connection between Jesus and his Jewish heritage. I sometimes wonder if the scalpel that cuts Jesus off from allegory doesn’t also have contain more than a trace of anti-Catholic sentiment coming as it does from primarily Protestant scholars seeking distance from the “allegorizing” of Christian Tradition.

    Christopher, I don’t think I’m gutting out the Creeds and Sacraments at all. Even without explicitly identifying them as primary contexts three and four, their necessarily inherent in primary context two…

    Huw, we *do* interpret Tradition. Precisely because Tradition is multivalent and emphatically not univocal. As we as a believing community listen adapt, accept, and react against various strands of tradition, our sense of the Tradition is constructed and informed. That’s not to say we can just pick and choose what we like, but it means that Tradition can never be a strictly objective appeal.

  17. Donald Schell

    Derek, I’m with you on all of this, I think. And, as a serious and enchanted reader of Gregory of Nyssa, I can’t afford to be allergic to allegory. I do, however, think Perrins’ and Jeremias’s case that we see the Gospel writers progressively reshaping the parables as allegories is compelling. That’s not to say that some great Christian preachers didn’t preach real Gospel using allegorical tools and an allegorical approach.

    My own experience as a preacher and teacher is that our people WANT to ‘know’ what everything in a parable stands for and work hard to make interpretations that will do that for them, focusing most of their energy on the parts of the parable they find problematic or disturbing. It’s similar, I think, to trying to find ‘the moral’ or ‘the lesson’ in the parable. Both seem to be a way to tame the wild beast that Jesus the storytelling, provocative teacher has loosed on us. His penchant for telling stories about unsavory or unappealing or morally suspect people clearly troubles us (as it probably troubled his listeners). A person who leaves church having a settled interpretation of a parable is probably done with it. A person who leaves church (or walked away from hearing Jesus teach) with a troubling, possibly scandalous story is likely to continue working it, thinking about it, and in some sense being in its grasp. It looks to me like that’s what Jesus’ teaching method did. I don’t think I’m casting him in my own image – except maybe I should confess that as a Myers-Briggs P, I prefer powerful questions to settled answers. But what I think we see Jesus doing in the parables is way beyond my own reach as a teacher – except maybe to free his stories from the constraints we’ve made over centuries to protect ourselves from them.

    Ah, again, let me add, this isn’t what I see the Jesus Seminar doing. And I also gratefully (and I hope humbly) will acknowledge that a huge number of great teachers, preachers, and ordinary people have been reading the Bible without critical tools over two millennia and have met Jesus there, not just their own imaginings, not simply a cultural construct or projection, but the Lord Jesus we know and love.

    Thanks for carrying the conversation forward.



  18. Donald Schell

    I’m pondering that ‘image of ourselves’ in Jesus question a little more. I do gladly admit that I admire what I think the rabbinic tradition did (better than at least some Christian tradition) of sustaining a practice of provocative, engaged, sometimes fierce, but still loving argument. That tradition acknowledges something unresolved. I see it in Jesus’ arguments with scripture and his quoting principles from the prophetic literature against quotations from the Law or in his reading something like ‘The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,’ and combining it with ‘the Living God.’ I also confess to admiring the provocative quality of Zen stories and think I sense something like that going on in the parables. In both of these, I’m considering how my reading or parables may be a matter of personal taste.

    I’ll also acknowledge that I think good discourse, faithful discourse actually is, like a curve approaching an asymptote approaching something that’s true beyond personal taste. The Truth may be known in the face of Jesus and words may be wholly inadequate to speak it, but words can approach, I think, something that is true. In other words, I don’t think my approach to parables makes me a relativist or completely post-modern. I hope the intention to be faithful to Jesus and to honor the tradition is evident in the quality and voice of this wrestling with text and context.


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  20. Huw Richardson

    Derek – I’d never say Tradition was objective! After 5 years in Orthodoxy, I’m happy to say it is NOT.

    We may be saying the same thing in different words: I simply mean to say that we can not point at it. It’s like a fish trying to point at the water. We are either in it – building on it, with it, within it – or we are not. That process of building seems to be what you are calling “interpret” and, if so, then I agree with you.

    I do admit that many of our textual tools can easily be turned into anti-semitism, and many of our Protestant tools can easily be disguised anti-Catholicism, although I think the more important criticism of both the Anti-Catholic and the Anti-Jewish is that both are Anti-Mystery. We don’t like mystery in the modern world. There are several bloggers out there who clearly point at our Puritanism as a problem: I see that problem linked directly to our fear of mystery.

    I certainly don’t imagine Donald to be anti-Mystery! As noted above, I think our choices are to build on the tradition or not to do so.

    Donald – you return us to the Rabbinic debate. Thank you! As I noted in my first post above, I worry when we try to recapture “the Original meaning” rather than just more meaning. I doubt we can get to an “original meaning.”

    But the rabbinic debate can pull us more and more meaning out.

    Pardon me for, again, referencing my own blog, but I just completed a post for a reading club on the Church Fathers and the Bible. I relied heavily on this discussion for that post. Thank you all for keeping it up!

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