Lecture 27: Hermeneutics for Historical Narrative (Part 1) | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 27: Hermeneutics for Historical Narrative (Part 1)

Course: Biblical Hermeneutics

Lecture: Hermeneutics for Historical Narrative (Part 1)

Alright, we want to go now to the question of historical narrative – different genre altogether.  We talked about parables, then we talked now about narrative.  How did the early Christian, first couple of centuries – how did they know if something in the Bible was historical – say up to the time of the Reformation.

How did Christians when they heard or if they were able to read, read something in the Bible, how did they know if this was a true historical event or not? What would they do?

Student:   [Hard to Hear] interpretation of the church

Dr. Stein: Alright. Yeah. I think you might say some of them didn’t personally think for themselves.  They had the tradition that went that way.  But supposing you were thinking for yourself and you read something in the Bible, how do you know if it is historically true or not before the Reformation?  How do you know if something that you read in the Bible is historically true or not?

Student:  [Hard to Hear] Fulfilled

Dr. Stein: Well. It is not a prophecy as such. IT is an event. Is this a true event or not?

Student: [Hard to Hear] I would say [Hard to Hear] NT [Hard to Hear]

Dr. Stein: New. Old. Whatever you want.

Student:   In the NT, they did keep some records [Hard to Hear] I guess they had something.

Dr. Stein: Alright.

Another student: I am not sure if [Hard to Hear] what you are asking. People read historical narrative in the Bible. 

Dr. Stein: No. I didn’t say. I said, if you read anything in the Bible, how did you know if this is a historical event or not?

Student: By faith.

Dr. Stein:  Uh. Yeah. That was an element, but there are things that even if you have great faith, you don’t believe everything that is historically true.

Student:  It might be simplistic, but it sounds like an account. It sounds like a record.

Dr. Stein: Alright. Ok.  And what do we call that in our vocabulary?

Student: [Hard to Hear]

Dr. Stein: Subject matter. Ok. Well what about the subject matter in this passage we read in Luke 16. I think I know what you are getting at.  I am looking for a different term.

Dr. Stein: Genre!  Do you believe parables are historically true? Do you believe that there was a real prodigal son? Why? It is a genre of the parable. This is a story. These are fictional stories so that … which ones did you believe [Hard to Hear] The ones that had a historical narrative genre type.  In other words, you could tell rather differently … when you interpret these two stories differently. Once upon a time and early in the morning of June 6th off the beach at Normandy.  Now don’t you expect something historical? A historical account.  So it’s the matter of genre.

There is a sense in which I can see where subject matter refer to this as historical stuff to it. Narrative has.  So the way the early church would understand something were historically true or not – they would look and say – “Is this a parable? Is this a metaphor? Is this poetry? Or Is this historical narrative?”  The genre of historical narrative is accepted as being true historically.

So it’s the issue of genre.  How do we understand the genre if it is historical narrative? Historical narratives are true.  Prophecies use exaggerated terminology.  Poetry uses its own kinds of exaggerated terminology.  Parables are made up stories and so forth.  Narrative ? Historical narrative? No. We know those things to be true.

Alright. That … that is pretty much I think the way that things were up to the time of the Reformation. Well. Uh. Let us bring us up to today.  This coming Sunday, you were going to begin to teach a Sunday school class – an adult Sunday school class in the church and you suggest to them, “What would you like to study during this time that we have together? We have two months in this opportunity to do this. What would you like to study?”

And somebody says “Well. You know I have heard a lot of stories about what happened with the Exodus and in fact the other day on tv, I watched a movie called the 10 Commandments and I never knew that Moses looked so much like Charlton Heston and so forth.  I would really like to know what happened in the Exodus. I would to know what historically took place.” 

And the others in the Sunday school say, “Yeah. Let us do that. That sounds great. We want to do that.” So you have a consensus. Now how are you as a Sunday school class at the First Baptist church of wherever you are – how are you going to go about doing it?  How are you going to find out what really happened?

Dr. Stein: You read Exodus. Right? And you find out what happened. 

Alright, well now we are a different group and this coming Monday or beginning of January when you are starting a J-term and you are in a class at the University of Louisville and this is a class on Humanities and we can study anything we wanted.  And so you throw out suggestions and somebody in class says, “You know - I have heard a lot of myths about what took place during the Exodus and I would really like to know… I saw the 10 Commandments the other night on T.V.  I would like to know what really happened way back then.”  And everybody else in class says “That sounds good. Let’s do that.  I’d like to know what really happened in the event which we call the Exodus. Alright, class is agreed. Now, where would your class go to, to know?”

Student: Archeology.

Dr. Stein: Archeology. Saviour of the world is archeology, right?  Yes. And so you look up archeological evidence. You look up reports going back to the time of the Exodus, sometime between 1280 to 1290 and 1400, something like that.  And you look at cities… you are not looking at cities like Peru.  You are looking at cities on the way from Egypt and to Israel, cities like Hatsor or Megiddo or Jericho.  You look up the records and see what can be learned from that. Right?

And if you find out that around the time that the Bible says an Exodus took place, all these cities tended to be burned, destroyed and a different kind of civilization and the burn layers had lots of Ashtoreths and fertility gods and goddesses in it but this new level of civilization was much more simplistic and didn’t have those things and you say… “Ah… there might be some evidence here.”  Alright that is one thing – archeology. What else?

Student: Egyptian history.

Dr. Stein: Yeah. Now, how do we learn about that? Inscriptions and you have this big ANE – Ancient Near Eastern literature. You have all this Babylonian materials, Egyptian materials and so forth and… so you read Ancient Near Eastern literature of that time and see if you can find something out about that.  And you have an archeology involves not just digging things but inscriptions and things of that nature.

Alright well. Good. What else would you do?

Student:  [Hard to Hear] Try to determine if the events themselves are possible…

Dr. Stein: Ok. Somebody might say, well none of these are possible because it talks about a miracle and miracles don’t happen. Yeah. You would have to discuss that. Ok. Sure. Someone hasn’t mentioned something.

Student: You could try to describe … [Hard to Hear]

Dr. Stein: Sure, you might try to find out, if you could explain some of these things on a non-supernatural basis.  Yeah. Wouldn’t you read Exodus in the University of Louisville? Wouldn’t there be people… that is crazy…it doesn’t count there. Ancient Near Eastern literature – we have some. We all know it. So you would read – you would read the book of Exodus as well.

So, what you would do then would be look at all the sources that are available and you try to analyze the account in the Exodus. The account square with that – is it possible by science to explain it this way and so forth and so on. Ok.  But notice the difference.  Notice that up to the Reformation and even today in our Sunday School, if you want to know what happened in the Bible, you find out, “Is this historical narrative?” and then you read it. Then you know.  And that’s the way things continued for about 1700 years. 

Until the 1700s, that’s the way people learned what historically had taken place.  Now in the 1700s, something does take place that is different and let me get for you some quotations. You don’t write them down… it is just something that we can discuss. 

Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative – great book.  Too bad it is not translated into English.  “In the early Protestant interpretive tradition, we have noted the literal – that is the meaning of the author – and the religious meaning, the significance or meaningfulness is the term he uses, of the text, and the judgment of their factual accuracy has been wholly united.

The point to realize is not that they had been conceived to be in harmony with each other, but they had not even been generically distinct issues.  As the 18th century wears on, this situation is increasingly at the end of the back  [Hard to Hear]”


In other words, if, up to the end of the 1700s, if you read a story in Mark about the healing of the paralytic and someone asked you, “Well.  I wonder what really happened?”  [Hard to Hear]

“I just told you what really happened.”  Then the paralytic was lowered via a roof and Jesus healed him.  [Hard to Hear]

“No” – He says “What I really want to know is – Did this really take place?”

“Of course it took place. I just read it to you.  Don’t you understand words anymore?”

The idea of the difference between the account and what really happened, quote on quote, is a foreign thought in their minds.  It has not yet arisen. 

The idea of the difference between what the text said and what really happened has not yet really been understood.  The faith commitment of people was such that it was not an issue.  Now however that does become an issue. And so from the 18th century on, you are now going to have, the idea arising is the account and the event described in the account, are they the same or are they different?

Furthermore, if the account and what really happened are different, where are we going to find meaning in all of this? That is the issue that comes up and that Hans Frei writes very nicely - writes in a very complicated way, but very astutely about.  We are going to pick it up at that point in 15 minutes. Thank you.

… questions about all these miracles that was supposed to be happening in the church, like the hands of Jesus on a crucifix bleeding during passion week. You began to look seriously at those things. You began to look at all the early myths in the church and you began to question those, and you looked at myths in the other societies and other religious writings and you began to look at them more objectively. 

Well when you once get into that mode and you treat other literature with a kind of prove it to me attitude, it is hard to stop if you disbelieve the bibles in a religious works. How can you not question the miracles in your own works, like the Bible?

And so the Bible began to be looked at with the same kind of enlightenment curiosity and also skepticism and you read an account of an axe floating on water in the Old Testament and you say “I … I can’t believe that stuff. Axes don’t float on water. They sink.” You begin to question some of those miracles and then time goes on and you start … where do you stop?

Well you say, “Well. No. The one place where you surely stop is at the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.”  But how can you stop there if you are willing to question all the others. So this rationalism began to take place in the enlightenment and people began to doubt the miracles of Scripture.  Now in light of that what you have is a historical narrative which you no longer believe is true. You no longer believe that what it is talking about - the subject matter - corresponds to the authorial meaning.

Now using our paradigm in our vocabulary, if what the historical narrative is saying and what the author means by that narrative does not corresponds to what took place, you have a problem.  And what would we do with it, what would we say? If you really believe this – let us get it to the realm of …

Student: [ inaudible ]

Dr. Stein: “Yeah. I know what the meaning is. I reject it. It has no significance for us.” So we just – on the basis of that – reject it as having no significance.

The problem with that – that was the one thing you couldn’t do. You have realize that there were sincere people who were involved in that, said, “The Bible – this Bible story meant a lot to Grandma and Grandpa and led them to a life that was a good life, a happy life, a noble life. So although I don’t believe what the author meant, there must be somewhere a meaningfulness about all this.”

Ok. So that’s where we are going to have to look. Where are we going to find this meaningfulness?

The other approach, some people had to find some meaningfulness there, not simply because, they honestly saw good coming out of it, that maybe they did, but because they were hired by the church. And if you are a pastor, you know you are not going to last long in Lutheran Germany in the 1800s by saying, “Now let us look at this Biblical text which says something that never happened.”

And if you are teaching in the University, a lot of the appointments were very closely associated with the church and if you want to have a job, you were going to have to find something meaningful here somewhere.

So for some it wasn’t quite as altruistic or not, but somewhere along the line, you are going to have to find meaningfulness.  You have to find some sort of significance as we would call it, but the word as Frei would use it, is meaningfulness.

Alright now again, Hans Frei. There came about a polarization between hermeneutical extremes. One side stood, those who the identity of the real and intended meanings of the narratives, that is they agreed that the literal meanings and the historical contents are unified. Those would be the supernaturalists.  

On the other side are those who claim that the narratives, though literally intended, (you also meant this[ inaudible ]) were as fully historically conditioned as other ancient manuscripts and that the real meaning that being interpreted (means that they are not a miracle, no real miracle) and that the real meaning is therefore not the same as the authors literal intention.

So here you have, you can’t accept what the author meant, because you don’t believe it is true, but you have to find meaningfulness. On the other side you have those who say what the author meant and what they are talking about are one and therefore you can still trust the author’s meaning.

The result of this – what takes place – is a sharp distinction between two levels or stages in the process of interpretation.  First of all you have the determination of the literal or grammatical sense of a document.  Using our terminology, the determination of the literal or grammatical sense of the document. What is that? We are after what?

If you are after the literal or grammatical sense of the document, you are after the – meaning of the author.  The author’s meaning is what you are after.

Now, that is only the first stage according to this.  For us and for a man named Anesti that is all that hermeneutics is about. Hermeneutics, to know what the author meant.  To know the literal or grammatical sense of the document.

However they argued that there was a second stage that was necessary and that was the historical assessment of what really took place. So you have not only the interpretation of the authorial meaning and intent, you are also seeking to understand the subject matter and now, the ultimate goal, is to combine what is being said – the subject matter – and what the author meant. And both of those have to be dealt with. I would argue that the second stage is something very different from interpretation. When you interpret a text, you interpret what the author meant. Period.

Now, historical assessment involves a different area, not interpretation but significance. That is a separate stage altogether.  In Germany, these two things are part of one whole process.  When you talk about the interpretation of a text, it is not stopping here with what the author meant, but in its historical assessment as well. The result is that, the interpretation of a text is something very very different, than what we mean by the interpretation of a text.

How do we define the interpretation of a text? Verbal expression of our understanding of what the author meant. Period. There is no historical assessment there.  Now that raises the question: Does hermeneutics – interpretation – extend to the subject matter? Does it exegete study of the subject matter? Or is that something different? Or does it exegete – hermeneutics – extend only to what the author is trying to teach by that subject matter? Period.

Or let us word it differently. Does interpretation involve what is written apart from whether it is true or not? Or does interpretation involve the truth of what is being written? So a commentary on Mark, does it involve what Mark writes? Apart from whether it is true or not? Or does a commentary on Mark, and interpretation of Mark involve the truthfulness of what he is writing or not? Historic assessment?

Student: [ inaudible ] Acquire the meaning of a text [ inaudible ]

Dr. Stein:  Yeah. The role of the Holy Spirit in bringing conviction as to truthfulness will involve our understanding of this. However is a commentary on Mark dealing with what Mark is teaching by this material or does it involve the truthfulness of what he is talking about? You see the difference there.

Student:  [ inaudible ]

Dr. Stein: Oh. Yeah. This is a definitely a value judgment. This is historical value judgment. But is that interpretation is about? Or is that something separate from interpreting text? I would argue it is separate, because thats not what happens in the 19th and 20th century.  And the reason again is – you can’t simply say “this is what Mark means… this is what Luke means in Acts, but of course that is not true”.  That becomes difficult.  So you have to do the assessment and come out with some sort of a remedy for that. I am trying to make Frei as readable as possible. 

If you think what I am talking about difficult, you will call me blessed if you ever try to read Frei yourself.  Alright now, here is the problem.  You have these assumptions. Interpretation involves the exegesis of the text.  But it also includes something else. The assessment or explanation of the subject matter.  So now in the latter 18th century or 19th century, we are talking about interpreting from the perspective of what the author meant, the exegesis and you tend to deal with the historical issues involved in what is being said.

But now there is a little problem here and the problem is that the text up here and the subject matter are not the same. They are different. You have no problem like people did up to the Reformation in interpretation historical narrative when you believe that what the author meant and is describing is what happened.  The problem comes when you no longer believe that what the author meant - the text and what really happened are not the same - the subject matter.

Yeah. Next time you preach on Easter, instead of just being so worried about the work in getting a sermon prepared for Easter. Stop for a minute and remember these words, “Thank God it happened!” Wouldn’t it be miserable on Easter Sunday to preach the story of the Resurrection when you know it is not true.

Sometimes I feel real sorry for radical liberal scholars.  And I think of the congregation out there and I become somewhat frustrated and angry.  But it must be a sad thing to have to preach on Easter and sing these great hymns and not be part of it. That is really tragic.

Now however even though the text and subject matter are not the same the text possesses meaningfulness and now the great issue will be where are we going to find that meaningfulness. Where are we going to find the meaningfulness of a text so that we can preach it? Where are we going to find meaningfulness?

First of all, let me say, how many – in the communicative process – what are the elements present? 

Student: The author, text, reader.

Dr. Stein: The author, text and reader. You have three possibilities. No one ever thought in the 18th, 19th century that you could go to the reader to find meaning. That is a 20th century phenomena. They still believe that the world rotated around the sun and not around us as individuals.

So there are only two options for them.  Where to find meaningfulness or meaning? One will be the subject matter, sometimes called the ostensive meaning.  What happened – let us look at what happened and we will look for meaning here.  We are trying to find meaningfulness in what took place. The other will be the author in some way. The reader never is considered.

No one sought it in the reader. They were looking for something objective outside their own subjectivity. Looking for objectiveness here. Alright now if you have the subject matter that we are investigating to find …we are trying to find meaning in what happened and by the way there is a lot of preaching like that going on today.

You read most Christian preaching on the Gospel’s or historical texts in the Old Testament, the book of Acts, deals with the event and the preacher gives the meaning to the event.  How many of you hear the people say, “Now, what Luke is trying to teach us by this event in the book of Acts – you just talk about the event and this is what happened.” Amazing you have an inspired writer who is trying to give some meaning to it and you don't need that, you've got me. I’ll tell you what happened.

So rather than the divinely inspired interpretation of the text, we will look at the subject matter and we will tell the interpretation of what goes on. 

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