Extra Biblical Literature

Consider the issues relating to the use of extra Biblical literature to interpret the Bible. Discuss your conclusion(s) by considering and evaluating at least one passage in which you think the wrong source(s) have commonly been used to interpret the text

In order to discuss the use of extra Biblical literature (or EBL) to interpret the Bible, an approximate definition should be made. EBL includes writings which are seen to be relevant to the cultures, linguistics and thoughts of the Biblical texts which do not form part of the cannon of scripture. This commonly includes such writings as those grouped in the Pseudepigrapha, rabbinical literature, dead sea scrolls, Gnostic texts and classical works of Greek.

Interpreting the Bible is a work which should primarily be concerned with discovering what the Bible actually says as opposed with simply identifying texts which fit a preconceived set of doctrines. Interpreting the Bible therefore is a work of Biblical theology.

Why use Extra Biblical Literature?

It would be naïve for today’s Biblical theologian to assume that they can approach the text of the Bible and understand it plainly, without knowledge of the language or culture in which it was written. A huge chasm exists between those who originally received and read the scriptures and those attempting to interpret them today. The chasm stretches across not only 2000 years, but a far greater cultural distance.

Not only must today’s Biblical theologian learn the language in which the Bible was written but in order to understand what is written they must have a knowledge of the customs, culture and metaphor of both the authors and the recipients.

In his book Paul’s Metaphors, D.J. Williams introduces this very need, “Metaphors open a window on the world of those who employ them….If metaphors are an index to their user’s world, it is equally true that a knowledge of that world is necessary to understand well and appreciate his or her metaphors.”[1]

Whilst Williams is specifically speaking about the writings of Paul, the principle remains for the interpretation of the entire Bible. “It is incumbent on us, if we are to clarify what is unclear, to know the context from which the image is drawn – to make ourselves as much at home as we can with the image. We must try to keep in step, so to speak, with the author and to see the matter of which he is speaking as he sees it himself.”[2]

This same issue is witnessed today when people from different cultures attempt to understand one another. Consider the use of the word ‘trunk’. If an American were to use the word they would no doubt mean the rear of a car, the part a British person refers to as ‘the boot’. However the same word used in the same context, for example speaking about the location an item is being stored, spoken by a British person would refer to some sort of chest or large box. But yet again, depending on context, for example in biology, the word could mean part of the anatomy of a large mammal.

It quickly becomes clear that to understand what is being spoken about we need an intimate knowledge of the culture of the person who is speaking and the context within which the discussion is taking place.

EBL can help bridge this cultural and contextual gap. Charlesworth in a recent review of Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies says that, “The New Testament texts come alive with fresh meaning when read in the context of the literature of their time. Evans demonstrates how these texts provide meanings for words and concepts, clarify the history and sociology of the period, and illustrate the historical, exegetical, hermeneutical, and canonical context of the New Testament documents.”[3]

N.T. Wright goes further. Not only do the texts ‘come alive,’ but it is impossible to understand what an author s saying unless we, “…begin with the wider world he lived in, the world we meet in our lexicons, concordances, and other studies of how words were used in that world, and must then be alive to the possibility of a writer building in particular nuances and emphases of his or her own.”[4]

By studying a times literature it is possible to better understand it’s customs, beliefs, practices and vocabulary.

Issues Requiring Caution.

Issues arise however when discussion turns to the extent to which this literature is of value and the method of its employment.

While some such as Charlesworth or Wright might extol the virtues of using EBL, Samuel Sandmel presents a far more cautious attitude when he describes the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls as, “the greatest exaggeration in the history of biblical scholarship…I am not denying utility and worth to the scrolls. But I do not hesitate to express the judgment that they are not nearly so useful and worthy as was initially claimed.”[5]

When the history of such usage is surveyed, caution would seem the prudent course. Certain practices and assumptions have in time been shown to cause error in Biblical interpretation. For example the notion that an education in classical Greek was necessary to read and understand the Greek of the New Testament has since been shown to be inaccurate. Also, the view that Paul’s writings were Hellenistic was proven to be false with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. What further revelations might in time cause those who have made grand statements about the use of certain EBL to issue retractions?

Holland warns that many are using EBL in a cyclic fashion. First claiming to understand a particular theology in an external text and “Not recognising the differences in the meaning of the same terms within this range of literature, scholars have read their own meaning into the term, and then used that to show what the NT meant.”[6] As with the example of the use of trunk, simply knowing that several meanings exist is insufficient unless the context it is being used in is identified. Claiming to know one such meaning and then stating this is what someone else means whenever they use the term is to neglect the context and is to introduce significant error.

Holland further warns against such a disregard for the context of the Biblical text, suggesting that not only could different authors use words differently, but so could the same author in one letter. “What justification might mean in one letter must not be presumed to mean the same in another, even though written by the apostle himself!”[7]

Divila cautions against the prevailing assumption that when a parallel is identified between two texts it is always the external text which influences the Biblical text. “A ‘parallel’ is not necessarily a ‘borrowing’ and, if it is, the direction of borrowing must be demonstrated, not assumed.”[8] When a parallel is found Sandmel argues that a demonstration of this directionality is a difficult and that many scenarios could quite plausibly explain such similarities. “That Scripture is as a source common to Philo and the rabbis is quite as reasonable a conclusion as that Philo drew the item from the rabbis, or the rabbis from Philo.”[9]

Another underling assumption in the widespread use of EBL is that a word or thought has the same meaning across several communities. However one thing that a more detailed study of EBL has shown is that, “There was no such thing as a Jewish theology, only Jewish theologies. Even Rabbinical Judaism was a minority viewpoint at that time.”[10]

‘Common Thought’ or linguistic usage was largely varied at the time of New Testament writing, just as it is today. Holland queries whether or not a ‘Jewish thought’ can be defined using EBL as one thing discoveries in this area have revealed, is an extreme diversity of thoughts, practices and use of language amongst the scattered, sectarian Jews.[11]

Contemplating this plurality of ‘Jewishness’ Sandmel suggest that it is inevitable that many documents overlap, “These varieties of Judaism, then, are bound to harbour true parallels which are of no consequence. The connections between two or more of these Judaism’s is not determined by inconsequential parallels”[12]

Still more worrying is the assumption that simply because a document exists that all people would have had a familiarity with it. Perhaps the instant access experience of sharing information quickly and across vast distances through such mediums as radio, TV and the internet has misled scholars into believing that similar availability has always been the case. Holland questions whether or not certain documents would have been circulated at all, “…how widespread were the Pseudepigraphal writings known? How far had their message penetrated wider Judaism? Were they known beyond Palestine and how do we know that the population of Palestine knew them? How can we know that an apparent reference or even an echo from the Jewish Pseudepigrapha, or latter recorded Rabbinic tradition for that matter, could have been recognised by the readers of the NT? How do we decide each individual NT writer’s knowledge of the Pseudepigrapha?”[13]

Often it is a strange assumption that the meaning of a word, phrase or idea is clearer in EBL than it is in the Bible. The heavy reliance on extra Biblical material for interpreting the Bible breeds distrust in the clarity of the Bible itself. If it is essential that we find the meaning of the Bible elsewhere, then this suggests to everyone that the true meaning can only be found outside the Bible.

Furthermore a heavy reliance creates the assumption that we are more aware of the origin of external texts and their authenticity than we are of the documents available which comprise the Bible.

With regards to the understanding and interpretation of the New Testament especially, it is a sad truth that a dependence on EBL can cause theologians to overlook the obvious links to the Old Testament. Ironically a desire to understand God’s Word better can result in knowing it less. It is an oddity of modern scholarship that the first port of call is often these EBL rather than the Old Testament itself. The ‘common’ text for the NT church would have been the Jewish scriptures and this should be the starting point for any investigation into the usage of a term. This is especially true when the usage of Greek in the LXX is considered. Holland is often at pains to point this out in Contours and he sums it up best when he writes, “It was not from Athens that the writers of the NT had drawn their understanding, but Jerusalem.”[14]

Conclusion via an Example of Misuse:

Despite then the obvious need to gain a better grasp of the language and context of the Bible, the dangers of inappropriately handling EBL in interpreting passages of scripture are numerous.

A case in point would be the exegesis of Colossians 1 and the debate surrounding the term ‘firstborn’. As the presumed need for an antecedent in EBL has penetrated this passage, the obvious source of the term (and thus the imagery Paul is invoking) has been quickly lost. It is assumed that the ‘firstborn’ is derived from the Wisdom literature of the Pseudepigrapha rather then the firstborn of the Passover and an ontological meaning is inferred rather than a soteriological meaning.

This causes problems when marrying the Colossian hymn with the context of the passage that surrounds it. Unless Paul’s drawing on the Passover account is acknowledged then the hymn rests like an uneasy bedfellow of verses 21-22 with their clear soteriological nature.

The firstborn at the Passover was the one who died in order to redeem the people of Israel. This is clearly an appropriate understanding of firstborn in the context of Paul describing Jesus as reconciling the Colossians through his bodily death. A Wisdom literature explanation cannot do justice to this strong emphasis of Paul’s words.

This Paschal interpretation is corroborated by Holland when he says, “Because scholars turned to the Pseudepigrapha and borrowed from its Wisdom tradition they failed to see that calling Christ ‘the firstborn of all creation’ was soteriological and rooted in the Passover.”[15]

This passage should provide an example that the biblical theologian must first explore the context in which a word or idea is expressed (e.g. within the letter of Paul) and then the context within the entire Bible before an excursion is made into the EBL. Whilst the EBL is capable of shedding light on certain aspects of life and language it can never sit in the driving seat, forcing Biblical texts to inherit its meaning.

[1] David J. Williams, Paul’s Metaphors Their Context and Character (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 2

[2] Williams, Paul’s Metaphors, 2.

[3] Mark M. Mattison and T. Holland, “Tom Holland on the New Perspective,” n.p. [cited November 2009]. Online: http://www.thepaulpage.com/tom-holland-on-the-new-perspective/.

[4] N.T. Wright, “The Shape of Justification,” n.p. [cited January 2010]. Online: http://www.thepaulpage.com/the-shape-of-justification/.

[5] Samuel Sandmel, “Parallelomania,” Journal of Biblical Literature 81 (1962): 4.

[6] Holland, Contours, 45.

[7] Mattison and Holland, “Holland Discussion,” n.p.

[8] James R. Divila, “The Perils of Parallels,” n.p. [cited January 2010]. Online: http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/divinity/rt/dss/abstracts/parallels/.

[9] Sandmel, “Parallelomania,” 3.

[10] Mattison and Holland, “Holland Discussion,” n.p.

[11] Holland, Contours, 38.

[12] Sandmel, “Parallelomania,” 4.

[13] Holland, Contours, 47.

[14] Holland, Contours, 37.

[15] Mattison and Holland, “Holland Discussion,” n.p.


Barrett, C. K. The New Testament Background: Selected Documents. Rev. ed. 1956. Repr., London: SPCK, 1987.

Charlesworth, James H. and Craig A. Evans, eds. The Pseudeoigrapha and Early Biblical Interpretation. Sheffield: JSTOT Press, 1993.

Dampier, Joseph H. “The Scrolls and the Scribes of the New Testament.” Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society 1 (3  1958): 8-19.

Divila, James R. “The Perils of Parallels.” No pages. Cited January 2010. Online: http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/divinity/rt/dss/abstracts/parallels/.

Holland, Tom. Contours of Pauline Theology. Fern, Ross-shire: Mentor, 2004.

Mattison, Mark M. and T. Holland. “Tom Holland on the New Perspective.” No pages. Cited November 2009. Online: http://www.thepaulpage.com/tom-holland-on-the-new-perspective/.

Sandmel, Samuel. “Parallelomania.” Journal of Biblical Literature 81 (1962): 1-13.

Vermes, Geza. “Significance of the Scrolls for Understanding Christianity.” Journal of Religious History 26 (2  2002): 210-219.

Williams, David J. Paul’s Metaphors Their Context and Character. Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999.

Wright, N.T. “The Shape of Justification.” No pages. Cited January 2010. Online:              http://www.thepaulpage.com/the-shape-of-justification/.

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