There's a bandwagon, so I figure I'd better jump on it.
Eric Sowell (of The Coding Humanist — hi Eric!) asked a question about what to study for New Testament background; specifically, if it was better to concentrate on OT Pseudepigrapha or Philo. It wasn't an either/or question, it was more (as I read it) a question about which corpus to examine first. One of the responses was from Jim Davila (ever-insightful author of PaleoJudaica). His response (as noted by Stephen C. Carlson from Hypotyposeis and Mark Goodacre from the NT Gateway, among others) is full of insight and well worth reading. Go do it now if you haven't yet. I'll wait.
Ok, you've read it? Good.
I'll be the first to admit that I need to do more study in the area of New Testament Background, though N.T. Wright's work (his "Christian Origins and the Question of God" series — New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, still need to read The Resurrection and the Son of God) has been very helpful in introducing me to the literature and also in applying it to the New Testament situation.
That said, I'm going to head off on a tangent. Here's your opportunity to stop reading ...
Still here? Ok, here we go.
This whole discussion is somewhat parallel to what I've been doing as I've been working my way through the Pastoral Epistles. However, instead of focusing on background culture and setting, and on the larger and rather important picture of the development of the thinking/religion/culture that produced the New Testament (which is good and needed) I've been looking simply at word usage in these sorts of corpora.
One of the things that interests me is not only how words are used in the New Testament, but how other authors in other corpora use the same word. This is why BDAG is my favorite Greek Lexicon. I don't agree with it carte blanche, but what I so enjoy are the citations not only to New Testament references, but to references in the LXX, to Philo and Josephus, to the Apostolic Fathers and pseudepigraphal references. Don't forget references to papyri, or the treatment in Moulton & Milligan or even the work of Adolf Deissmann.
Have you ever stopped and actually looked up some of these citations when working through a verse?
I've been doing this in my (albeit slow) work through the text of the Pastoral Epistles. In working through a pericope, I'll break into logical units. Since my primary intended reader isn't a Greek scholar (because I am not a Greek scholar) these logical units are more like phrases based on the English translation (I'm using the ESV as the English base). For each of these phrases, I work through the interesting bits in the Greek; typically the verbs, nouns and adjectives, though I pay attention to the balance and mention it if it is significant. I work through the appropriate sense as defined in BDAG, looking up and examining the citations. I examine other lexical sources as well (LSJ, Louw-Nida, TDNT on occasion) to reduce reliance on a single resource.
I typically follow a pattern that extends in similarity of literature. I've convienently labeled these in terms all beginning with the letter "C":
- Context: This would be occurrences of the same word in the same pericope, NT book and/or the same NT author.
- Covenant: This would be occurrences of the same word within the same "testament" or "covenant" (thus, words in the New Testament for my purposes).
- Canon: This would be occurrences of the same word in the LXX for the books in the Protestant canon.
- Contemporaries: This is an amorphous blob of, essentially, everything else that was written (very roughly) in the same era as the Pastoral Epistles, but isn't in the Protestant canon. Stuff like Josephus, Philo, Apostolic Fathers, OT Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and any cited (and transcribed and translated) papyri I can get my hands on.
In these "C" categories, I also leave room for the aspects of Chronology and Culture, though those are less often explored (outside of whatever I end up writing as book background).
I realize these labels have problems, but the primary intended audience of what I'm working on (should it ever see the light of day — which is another question altogether) isn't the scholar, it is the student/pastor/interested layman who has perhaps had some Greek instruction in the past but may not remember much beyond the alphabet and how to sound out words. It's my own subversive effort to suck these sorts of folks into not just the Greek NT, but to introduce them to the other sources of that era. These labels have the advantage of being easy to remember and they describe the basics (albeit roughly). That, and they're concentric. That is, Covenant includes the group of Context, Canon includes the group of Covenant, and Contemporaries includes them all. Again it is imprecise and rough, I realize, but I think it is appropriate for the target audience. I like it so much I've included it in my current working title: Pastoral Epistles: Context and Contemporaries.
I do freely admit that I have a strong interest in the Apostolic Fathers so I tend to examine these writings with more frequency than other "Contemporary" sorts of literature. Josephus finds his way into the discussion a fair bit, as does the OT Apocrypha. When an infrequent word is encountered, these sorts of sources play much more of a role in the discussion.
My shtick, if you could call it that, is freely quoting from these sources, in translation, in the main body of the text. I italicize the English words within the extended quotations that relate to the Greek words under discussion. Folks who write good commentaries have examined much of this material and it has played a role in their work, but then they relegate it to a citation in a footnote and simply give their conclusion (if that). Including the actual text cited in a form that the reader can interact with brings them into familiarity with the material, and may even suck them into examining such material in the course of other related study.
A bit nefarious, I realize, but if it works, and more folks start to become aware of and interact with this "contemporary" literature — all the better.
I should also mention that my examination/quotation of such material isn't at the level of examining parallel concepts, establishing doctrinal practices, or recommending practice or application. I'm strictly interested in examining word usage to get a better grip on word meaning. I'm not appealing to these sources as canonical equivalents but instead simply examining word usage to see if any commonalities exist in usage among the instances.
Back to the original topic, Eric's question about NT background.
I see the sort of study that I've described above as tangential to the question. That is — and I know this isn't a unique insight, but I wanted to mention it anyway — in the same way that studying the background of the New Testament through literature like Josephus, Philo, the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc. is important to proper understanding of the New Testament setting; so too is the examination of the language of these documents in working through the written New Testament.
I know; I went through a whole lot to come to a short conclusion. But I saw a tangent and wanted to take it. As essay-type blog posts such as these typically do, at least for me, it has helped me think through this approach in a little more detail. If you have feedback on such methodology; be it encouragement, agreement or criticism, please feel free to drop a comment or zap me an email (address is in the right column of the page).