A little thought experiment might help explain how I understand the work of New Testament scholarship. Say you come across a note written by a young Esau McCaulley from around the year AD 2000. On it you find the following words:
Maine, I am trying to tell you, your boy got miked during the game yesterday!
What does this mean? No one from my neighborhood would have any trouble interpreting that sentence. It would be perfectly clear. First, the term miked. It means slapping someone below the ankles while they are running in American football. But if you are not from Huntsville you might not know that. Say really want to know what miked means. What would you do? How would you find out what a young Esau was talking about? You would do a little research and find out about where I lived. Young Esau grew up in northwest Huntsville. You would then search through document after document written around the same time as my little note to see if anyone else used the term miked. If you are lucky you will find a few references. Then you will be able to piece together young Esau’s meaning.
This is one aspect of New Testament lexical research. It is why we pour over texts inside and outside the bible. It is so that when Paul or Jesus or John uses a word, we might understand its meaning. Many of us do this type of work because we believe that the bible is the inspired word of God. But, it is God’s word to us through a particular time and culture. Understanding that time and culture helps us understand God’s word. This is the work of translation and interpretation.
But we are not done. Maine does not mean anything. It is not the state; it is a variant pronunciation of man. In other words, it just means a person. Sometimes New Testament scholars chase red herrings. We do tons of research only to find out that our conclusions do not make much difference. Lesson learned, life moves on.
But why doesn’t a young Esau just tell the person? Why is he trying to tell someone something? More research. You would find out that trying to tell someone something is a means of emphasis. I am trying to tell you means, “listen up this is a great story.” Your boy is not a child; it simply denotes the person to which you are referring (It is also slightly dismissive). Now we are ready to translate our little sentence:
Maine, I am trying to tell you, your boy got miked during the game yesterday.
Listen, yesterday at the game, something amazing happened. Some guy got his ankle slapped and he flipped into the air and fell on the ground.
Now a text that would be difficult to understand is accessible to all.
Who cares about whether some guy got his ankle slapped back in high school? No one. But if we are trying to understand a sentence in one of Paul’s letters this kind of analysis becomes a service to the church.
New Testament scholarship is not all lexical analysis nor is this kind of work my favorite. I love the hunt for allusions to larger narratives. Here is an example. Spike Lee, probably the greatest African-American filmmaker of my youth, named his production company 40 acres and a mule. This title came from Special Field Order No. 15. It was issued by Union general William T. Sherman in 1865. It promised the newly freed slaves a plot of land (40 acres). President Johnson revoked this grant and returned the plantation land to the former slave owners. For many African-Americans, 40 acres came to symbolize a host of failed promises. It was Spike Lee’s interpretation of American history in a phrase. Over time this spread into popular culture; You might hear African-Americans who knew nothing of William Sherman speak about just wanting “their forty acres and a mule.” The point of this analogy is to show how small phrases and shorthand can evoke entire narratives. To understand shorthand you must immerse yourself in a culture that is different from your own. What was common knowledge to Spike Lee would be alien to many outside of the African-American community.
What does this have to do with the New Testament? We are not first century Jews. There are certain things and stories that they took for granted that would be foreign to us. The New Testament scholar immerses himself or herself in the world of the New Testament, not to escape the bible, but to hear it properly. Of course a PhD is not required to understand much of the bible. Heaven forbid! Certain things are universal. It does not take sophisticated cultural analysis to understand what it means for Jesus to be the light of the world that shines in the darkness. At its best, biblical scholarship helps create a greater appreciation of the interconnectedness and beauty of God’s word to his people. It also guards against false interpretations of the bible that assume what a phrase or concept means to us is exactly the same as what it would have meant to a first century Jew or Roman.