The Problem with the Use of Extra-Biblical Data in Interpretation
It is often said that an interpreter of the Bible needs to establish the historical context of a specific passage to interpret it properly. What is intended is not a mere mirror-reading—finding clues in the text—but a careful examination of relevant historical and archeological evidence to shed light on the various features of a text (words, images, practices, etc.). However, I have long thought that this raises several important problems. I am currently writing a book on biblical interpretation, the second volume of which considers several ways of reading the Bible that do not correspond to what it says about itself. In many ways, I think this normal view is one of these erring ways of reading Scripture. To see some of the reasons I say this, consider the following proposition and its implications: when a historical parallel is used to explain a text, the evidence necessary to establish a link between a piece of extra-biblical data and the text needs to be sufficient to make the point independently. That is, if the extra-biblical data is said to say something the text itself does not say, this is called imposition or eisegesis—reading into the text something that is not there. But if this is true, it means that historical material is not necessary to understand a biblical text. That is, if sufficient evidence to justify the use of historical material is only present when the text says as much as the evidence is used to say, historical material is in a significant sense redundant.
What then is extra-biblical data used for? Before we give an answer, a secondary point needs to be made. Much use of extra-biblical material is actually a fallacy sometimes called illegitimate totality transfer.1 That is, word or symbol has a semantic range that is narrowed by context to indicate something specific. When a true parallel is made between an extra-biblical item and the text, this does not justify reading the whole semantic range of that item into the text. The connection is made between two specific points on the semantic range of the text and the item, such a connection does not justify expanding from there to the whole range. For example, one may argue that Paul is using the word-group παιδαγωγος (paidagogos, guardian) in Galatians 3-4 in relation to the Roman views of adoption and inheritance, of which this is a key word-group. Granted that this connection is legitimate, it would be fallacious to read any more about Roman views of adoption and inheritance into the text than Paul makes clear. If we do not allow such a jump, from one point of the semantic context to its entirety, we are then left with our initial proposition: the text must be able to make the point extra-biblical data is used to establish.
The Uses of Extra-Biblical Data
What then is extra-biblical data useful for? I contend that it is useful for illustration, illumination, and confirmation, and application. First, it is useful for illustration, helping us preach the text. That is, we can understand how Paul used the word παιδαγογος (paidagogos, guardian) in Galatians by examining the range of meaning. But by drawing the connection to the broader social context of the word, we are provided rich illustrative material to make clear Paul’s point.
Second, it is useful for illumination, to help us see the text. Sometimes we have cultural blinders or certain limitations that prevent us from seeing what was there the whole time. Historical material can unearth these hidden features.
Third, it is useful for confirmation. Sometimes there is heated debate over specific stances on interpreting a passage. There may be a case where the argument reaches a standstill and producing a piece of extra-biblical evidence will tilt the case one way or another. One instance is 1 Samuel 13:21. After telling us that the Israelites went to the Philistines to have their tools sharpened, for there was no blacksmith, we are told …וְהָיְתָה הַפְּצִירָה פִים לַמַּחֲרֵשֹׁת (vehāytāh happesîrāh pîm lammahǎrēsōt). The meaning of this verse is not immediately evident, for “פציר” (pṣyr) and “פים” (pim) occur only here in the Hebrew Bible. The syntax, along with the probable meaning of פציר, “fee” (from פצר, pṣr, to urge), suggests the following rendering: “and the charge was a pim for the plowshare….” However, the translators of the KJV attempted to translate פים etymologically as “file,” suggesting that Israel had the ability to sharpen some of their tools themselves. This does not quite conform, though, with the previous verse, which says that Israelites went to Palestine to have these same weapons sharpened (v. 20). Archeological evidence confirms that פים should be understood as a Philistine measurement, weighing about two-thirds of a shekel. This supports the first interpretation over-against the KJV. The implication is that Israel was dependent on the Philistines even for their tools, so they had no weapons. Some commentators argue that the price suggests they were being gouged, but this is not necessary to understand the use of the term in its context. Thus, extra-biblical data helps us follow one interpretation over another, it may also have functioned in this case for illumination.
Lastly, it is useful for application. By bringing forth extra-biblical material we expand the sphere of application for a text: we can let the item and the text interact to shed insight on, for example, a historical question. For example, by bringing forth the archaeological find of an inscription reading “house of David,” we can use the bible to shed light on the meaning of that phrase and its relevance.
The Challenge of Using Extra-Biblical Data
But how can we even be sure our extra-biblical evidence is being used rightly? I want to propose one test and some challenges that need to be overcome. Firstly, the test: can you make your point from the text alone? This is another implication of the proposition with which we began. If the historical evidence disappeared, can you convince someone from the data available in the text? If not, this is an invalid use of extra-biblical data.
Secondly, the use of background data is fraught with more troubles than is commonly acknowledged. 1) There needs to be a sure connection between the data and the text, but how can one establish this? What evidence can be produced to establish this connection? Many times, dating and locating are uncertain; how then can it be known that the author or audience was even aware this? The problem is compounded when we add that we are unsure of the social stratification of author and audience: if the data is right concerning time and place, how do we know they had access to and then used it? 2) This data itself needs interpretation. Because the Bible claims illumination, self-sufficiency, and truth for itself, it is a better interpreter than other data. Therefore, it is more appropriate to interpret extra-biblical data by the Bible than the other way around. 3) I would raise again the problem that the extra-biblical evidence can add nothing. This is an instance of the so-called third man argument; if we judge the meaning of a text by its context and the meaning of the evidence by its context, by what do we judge our construal of their relationship? The only judge is the hypothesized mind of the author or audience, itself derived from one of the above. We are thus left with no standard of verification for our interpretation.
Some objections might be raised at this point. 1) The author originally wrote to an audience, don’t we need to understand what they would have heard? The same argument could be made about the author. Two answers are in order. First, if we follow this assumption, this does not remove our point. The reason is this, the text is our standard of verification, so our conception of the author or audience’s interpretation must always conform to the words of the text in their literary context. Thus, such an interpretation is subject to our verification test. If it does not pass, it is invalid; if it passes, it is redundant. Second, though the text was originally produced for one audience, it has been divinely edited into another document written for us (e.g., Rom 4:23-24, 15:4; 1 Cor 10:11). Thus, we are the ultimate recipients and have been given the text and a history of interpretation as our tools (I go into far more detail in my work on interpretation).
2)Another objection may go like this; have we not now de-historicized the text? By severing its relation to the external data, have we not de-historicized the Bible, made it merely an interpretation that says nothing about the facts of history? This conclusion is unwarranted. The text speaks about history from within the flow of history—it provides the true interpretation of history—and so applies to history. Yet it is self-interpreting, written in such a way that it fully interprets history without needing external data to interpret itself.
3) Lastly, this disembodies the text doesn’t it? In reply, we can make two points. The first is this: the points I am making are universal points of interpretation. Given a cogent text (one not meant for insiders with extensive external knowledge), the best interpretation is the one that corresponds to an author’s words. Second, the Bible was embodied as disparate works and then reembodied as a New Covenant document written for a community stretching 2000 years. That is, it carries with it the very culture in which it was finally embodied and thus creates the necessary interpretive community. We are therefore not disembodying the text, making a unearthly entity, but properly considering the way God has chosen to embody it.
1 Cf. D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 60–61.