Read the Primary Texts!

I am guilty of a tendency to reach for a commentary before I reach for my Bible. Or I might read an introduction to a philosophical work before I have ever looked at the actual philosophical work. Apparently, this tendency is more widespread than I had thought. Michael Barber, at the Singing In The Reign blog, wrote this:

As I continue to wrap up my dissertation on the historical Jesus’ understanding of the role of the cult in the eschatological age, I am continually struck by the fact that many incredibly relevant passages in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Pseudepigrapha are rarely mentioned by scholars. One frequently sees certain passages cited over and over again (e.g., 4Q174), but other striking texts are often ignored.

Why is this? I’m coming to a rather troubling conclusion: scholars seem to be reading each other, but not the primary sources. I think anyone publishing works on New Testament studies should have at least read through all of the published Dead Sea Scrolls, and the the pseudepigraphal writings–especially 1 Enoch! It seems to me though certain fragraments from Qumran get usually get attention from scholars and certain chapters in pseudepigraphical works are mentioned, a lot of relavent data gets overlooked. In other words, it is suspicious that different scholars treat the same texts while ignoring others.

This reminds me of what C. S. Lewis said:

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books….

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology….

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why – the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (”mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

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