The Ambiguity Of Biblical “Background” -- By: Noel K. Weeks

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 72:2 (Fall 2010)
Article: The Ambiguity Of Biblical “Background”
Author: Noel K. Weeks


The Ambiguity Of Biblical “Background”

Noel K. Weeks

Noel K. Weeks is an Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney in Australia.

In theory any information that one can obtain about the background of a biblical passage is to be welcomed as an aid to interpretation. Yet, just comparing the number of interpretations proposed in the scholarly literature with the number that command widespread acceptance makes clear that there is a considerable gap between the postulation of a significant background and the acceptance of that postulation as an interpretative key. This article will suggest that uncertainty applies to much that is proclaimed as background to particular biblical teaching. Why is there such a disjuncture between the ideal and the actual?

My focus in this article will be primarily the problem as it impacts OT studies, but I suspect that some of the issues may be present in NT studies and I will include NT examples in the discussion. Since my essential thesis is that wrong models for individual human and societal dynamics are often involved, there is some relevance for thinking about later periods of history also.

I. Background As Corroborating The Text: The Fall Of The “Albright Synthesis”

The significant shift that has taken place in OT studies in the last years of the twentieth century will be well known. In effect the field has gone from a situation in which “background” was used as proof that the author had used reliable sources and hence the text was generally reliable, to a predominate use of “background” to show the entrapment of the author in his historical context and thus to make any trans-historical authority of the text problematic. It is my contention that the earlier stage, though generally welcomed by conservatives, had serious flaws in reasoning and some of those flaws continue to trouble us to this day.

Let us then examine the older position, or as it is commonly called, the “Albright synthesis.”1 The strong point of the synthesis and its eventual Achilles’ heel was the contention that the patriarchal narratives contained a reflection of the genuine social and legal customs of the second millennium B.C. and therefore

those stories must have been based upon genuine traditions.2 When one examines the evidence to support the thesis one sees that it depends upon evidence gathered widely from the Ancient Near East. In Albright’s version of the thesis, evidence from Mari, a town on the middle Euphrates in the early ...

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