Comparative Studies and Biblical Interpretation

There are those who argue that comparative studies leads to the admittance of historical information that can be misconstrued in such a way as to muddy the interpretative process. Critical scholars and postmodern deconstructionist use comparative evidence as a means to de-canonize or deconstruct the biblical text. Postmodern deconstructionist argue that historical texts are always interacting with one another and eventually they either undermine one another or one text is deconstructed by the other. For example, the flood stories in Gilgamesh Epic and in Genesis are put under the deconstructive lens, and the result is that they undermine themselves, and a worldwide flood becomes a mythical event. Deconstructionism touches the New Testament when the Gospel of Thomas and the traditional synoptic gospels are compared and the outcome, for the deconstructionist, results in a deconstructed Jesus that would be unnoticeable to his early followers. Thus, some confessional scholars resist the “slippery slope” of comparative studies. [1]

I agree with the assessment that comparative studies can often cause more problems than solutions when it comes to understanding the biblical text. Critical scholars may misrepresent historical evidence or present incomplete historical evidence. They may not acknowledge their presuppositions, and so the outcomes of their historical investigation will reflect their preunderstandings. However, we should not throw the comparative studies baby out with the bath water, but rather we need to change our approach.

We should recognize the limitations of modernism and the de-dramatizing of the Bible. The modern mindset emphasizes scientific investigation through the use of biblical criticism and historical methods, but this modern endeavor has failed at delivering on its promises of universal truth, reason and knowledge. Yet many biblical scholars continue to use the same modern approach and are surprised when comparative studies turns and bites them.

I argue that we should engage in comparative studies, but while doing so, we should move beyond the modern ethos and accept some of the tenets of postmodernism. We should embrace postmodernism’s focus on individual and community narratives, but with the perspective that, as Christians, our individual and community stories are contextualized in God’s metanarrative. Christians should argue for God’s metanarrative of salvation and redemption of humanity through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. God has ultimately revealed his good news story through language in the form of Holy writ, and so when we engage in comparative studies, we should proceed with a theo-drama perspective. The comparative data should not be used to scientifically or historically boost one’s position over another in order to arrive at objective knowledge, but rather it should be viewed as the theatrical background stuff that bolsters our understanding and our experience of the theo-drama.  

[1] John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Cultural, Social and Historical Contexts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 36.

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