One of the most important limitations of the historian concerns sources. Historians use ‘primary documents’ and ‘secondary documents’ in their studies. A ‘primary document’ is a document from the time period with which we are concerned. For instance, Codex Sinaiticus, one of the earliest complete Biblical manuscripts, would be considered a primary document from the 3rd century. A ‘secondary document’ is a source written about a source. For example, a history textbook about the life and theology of Paul–such as N.T. Wright’s wonderful recent work–would be considered a secondary document.
Christianity as a historical religion must be approached with an understanding of and a respect for history, for it is only through engaging with the historical narrative that we are able to understand the language and symbols in the Bible and the so-called ‘Church Fathers.’ It is also arguably critical that we make use of the literature and artifacts of the surrounding cultures to which the Christian movement was speaking and in which the Christian movement was living in order to better contextualize the message of Christianity. I think we as Christians ought to adopt a robust appreciation for the practice of a most honest history. N.T. Wright seems to me to have grasped this fundamental concept well. We would do well to imitate his example.
So what are our primary documents when it comes to the Bible? Well, textual experts recognize a number of Biblical manuscripts and fragments from which we are able to piece together the Bible. Strictly speaking, the Bible as we have it today is a composite of the whole collection of these manuscripts and fragments. We owe a profound debt to those throughout history who have preserved this wealth of information for us. I am reminded of the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Romans: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4 ESV.)
I believe that as we come to recognize these important realities in our approach to hermeneutics, the science of interpreting the Bible, we equip ourselves to be as faithful as possible to the message that was proclaimed in the past and therefore better able to apply it to our present lives and future hope.