Dispensing With Merely Human Meaning: Gains And Losses From Focusing On The Human Author, Illustrated By Zephaniah 1:2–3 -- By: Vern S. Poythress

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 57:3 (Sep 2014)
Article: Dispensing With Merely Human Meaning: Gains And Losses From Focusing On The Human Author, Illustrated By Zephaniah 1:2–3
Author: Vern S. Poythress


Dispensing With Merely Human Meaning:
Gains And Losses From Focusing On The Human Author, Illustrated By Zephaniah 1:2–3

Vern S. Poythress*

* Vern Poythress is professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary, 2960 Church Road, Glenside, PA 19038.

How important is it for biblical interpreters to focus on the human author and his intention? For many books of the Bible, we know little or nothing about the human author, except what we might tentatively infer from the text itself. We who are inerrantists say that we believe that Scripture has a divine author, and that we have come to know him. What gains are there in focusing on the human author whom we do not know?

People might list several benefits: (1) focus on the historical and social environment, as a context for the text; (2) reckoning with human capacity, the characteristics of human linguistic communication, and the limitations of human understanding; (3) reckoning on limited canon available at the time; (4) reckoning on the structural coherence of a single biblical book, written by a single human author.

All of these are indeed valuable benefits. But a robust conception of divine authorship and divine purpose leads to exactly the same benefits. In addition, focusing on the divine author leads to fewer interpretive problems, because problems are generated by what we do not know about an author.

We will use Zeph 1:2–3 to illustrate the difficulties. In the process, it may seem at times as if we are multiplying the uncertainties about human intentionality. But I believe we can have confidence on the other side of the uncertainties.

I. The Human Author

Consider first what we know about the human author of the Book of Zephaniah. Who was Zephaniah? Zephaniah’s paternity, given in Zeph 1:1, shows that he was a great-great-grandson of Hezekiah, presumably the same Hezekiah who was once king of Judah. Hezekiah was also the great-grandfather of Josiah king of Judah, during whose reign Zephaniah prophesied. In a broad sense, Zephaniah belonged to royalty, and he may have had special access and an honored position in the royal court. Or maybe not. He may have been out of favor or just ignored.

Nothing more is known about Zephaniah the son of Cushi. The Book of Zephaniah contains no personal information, other than what is found in Zeph 1:1. We know that Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of Josiah king of Judah (640–609 BC), which gives us a rough location in time and space. But that is all.

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