Why composition history matters

One of the things only true Bible nerds care about is composition history. Composition history, as the name suggests, is the study of how the biblical texts came to be written. For the average Christian it seems quite simple but it is actually a complicated issue and a lot of scholarly ink has been spilt over it. As with many academic matters the ordinary Christian is not concerned about them. Even though debates about composition can get incredibly technical and sometimes steeped in a lot of conjecture and educated guess work, I still think it matters for how the ordinary believer reads the Bible, even if they are unaware of all the details.

I have come to this position because a few days ago I noticed that knowing composition history has affected the way I read, study and interpret the Bible. I am not a trained Bible scholar and theologian but I am a Bible nerd. I have been aware of the issues surrounding composition history for some time but I always thought they were peripheral and they did not actually affect how I read the Bible. So it was surprising to me as I was pondering some over arching biblical topic that I noticed it actually influenced how I was studying. In retrospect, I realised it had been a background influence for quite a while now on how I approached the Bible in general.

I think knowing about composition history has overall been positive because it has made me a more careful exegete. When you are aware that each book of the Bible was written independently, under specific circumstances, with particular goals, and usually with minimal or no contact with the other biblical texts in the same testament (at least not in the form we presently have them), you pay more careful attention to each book and what it is trying to say. I really enjoy big picture biblical theology where you connect the dots across large portions of the Bible but being cognizant of composition history makes me more circumspect with drawing such grand connections.

If you are a Christian canonical readings and interpretations of scripture obviously matter a lot because to believe the Bible is the word of God means you affirm a special relationship between the canonical books. However, you have to be aware that the biblical authors did not know what they were writing would be included in a little, single volume, library of books that would one day be collectively venerated. It is being acquainted with composition history that makes you aware of this and helps you follow one of the key principles of good interpretation of any text: context.

By context I do not only mean the passage a particular line is part of. Every book of the Bible has its own story of how it came to be, so what ever you read in that book has to be interpreted within the full context of the entire book, before you look at how it relates to other canonical books. Composition history helps you recognize the individuality of each book. This is very important because the canonical books often cross-reference and allude to stuff in one another. It is therefore very easy, especially when there is a direct reference, to assume exactly the same thing is being said when you believe the Bible as a a whole is authoritative. You have to first determine how it is being used in the source, how it is being used in the reference, how the uses are similar and in what ways they differ.

Composition history takes the very useful heuristic “context is king” and makes it concrete and specific through the knowledge that each biblical text is different because it was written under particular circumstances for specific purposes. Knowing this spurs me to learn more about the book in question, through commentaries, article, books and other scholarly resources, as well as giving special attention what is written so I can hear its unique voice and take more clearly. This makes me more responsible in the way I read the Scriptures and where there are proper connections, I actually see them more clearly because I appreciate each text in greater depth. Anything that encourages you to study the Bible more closely in my book is a clear plus.

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