Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Contextual Hermeneutics: 1 Thessalonians 4:4 as a Test Case

Scholars often debate the finer points of interpretation based on various backgrounds or nuances to specific words, phrases or ideas. In 1 Thessalonians 4:4 we are presented with a verse that causes much distress to the interpreter for precisely this reason. The background context will determine how one understands this verse. The passage in context reads:
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; 4 that each one of you know how to acquire/control your own vessel/organ/wife in holiness and honour, 5 not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7 For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness.
The key words are that of skeuos (vessell/organ/body/wife) and ktasthai (acquire/control). How one interprets or understands these words depends very much on the probable backgrounds to which interpreters appeal. Given that Paul is writing to a mainly Gentile audience, a roman background is possible. But Paul is a Jew, well versed is the writings and thought-world of Judaism. So interpreting this against a Jewish back-drop seems equally possible. Enter here the problem of “background information of the early Christians.”
How much background information can we assume in any of Paul’s churches? This has to be one of the most perplexing issues in NT scholarship. We have literally no information from them, or about them, to determine their own background understanding. The audience in all of Paul’s letters remains practically anonymous to us.[1] Thus, how is one to determine the concrete meaning of a phrase, such as the one above? For example, J. E. Smith’s article “1 Thessalonians 4:4: Breaking the Impasse” spends forty pages analysing three distinctive interpretations.[2] This study is exhaustive in its attempt to investigate these options thoroughly. But again the problem persists as to whether or not we allow Paul’s understanding to dominate our interpretation, or whether we allow the audiences assumed understanding or limited knowledge to affect the way we interpret scripture. Illustrative of this is Wanamaker’s comment:
The Thessalonians did not know Hebrew and therefore Paul could not rely on them to make the kind of connections made by Maurer and others in arriving at this interpretation.[3]
So my question is: Do we sometimes over interpret scripture? Looking for every possible allusion and echo to the Hebrew narrative [or elsewhere], when it is highly unlikely that the audiences would even be aware of such scriptures and allusions? Is much of the research we acquire, a bit of a waste? Any ideas?
[1] M. Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word (Baker, 2006) pgs. 68ff. considers possible “implied readers” which may offer some assistance to this problem. However, it will not solve the specifics of this problematic feature of our discipline.
[2] Jay E. Smith, “1 Thessalonians 4:4: Breaking the Impasse” Bulletin for Biblical Research 11.1 (2001) 65-105.
[3] C. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, pg. 152


Anonymous said...

i can't help but wonder if the audience would not have been able to recognize all the OT allusions that we find in Paul's letters.

That isn't to say that I don't think that they are there. Very often when we write things that we passionate about, there will be all sorts of allusions in the text simply because of who we are.

J. Matthew Barnes said...
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