exhaustive comprehensiveness in biblical research; What good is your medicine if you can’t tell me why I got sick? and what was Luke thinking?

In my readings today, I came across this old quote in an article by Pilch; it made me smile.

The obsession with exhaustive comprehensiveness in biblical research does not necessarily characterize scholarly excellence so much as it reveals one of four possible thinking styles (McKenney 1974: 79-90). Scientific training in biblical exegesis has perhaps emphasized the collection of detail and minutiae at the expense of developing the ability to construct the bigger picture. Individuals who excel at collecting data are often less gifted in creating the larger picture. On the other hand, intuitive thinkers who create the large picture are bored by the pursuit of detail. Obviously, good research will benefit from the blended contribution of all thinking styles (Briggs-Meyers 1980).

Biblical data-gatherers can resonate with social scientists who view their methods as “tools of data retrieval” (Ohnuki-Tiemey 1981: 9). Yet even when the data is gathered for interpretation, Romanucci-Ross (1978: 135) reminds the investigator that four processes were involved in the project:

  1. I perceive what is going on
  2. I perceive what is not going on
  3. I do not perceive what is going on
  4. I do not perceive what is not going on

With specific regard to western scientific methods utilized during her field work in Melanesia, Romanucci- Ross (1969: 119) observed that the natives credited western medicine with “excellent descriptive categories and precise instrumentation but judged it poor in explanatory models: ’What good is your medicine if you can’t tell me why I got sick?”

– John J. Pilch, “The Health Care System in Mathew: A Social Science Analysis” BTB 16 (1986): 102

I’m with Pilch in preferring the big picture and getting bored with the data collection (I do it nonetheless). Unfortunately for me, it’s harder to get the kind of data that I’d really love for the data gathers to find for me:  

  • When exactly did Luke write Acts? (A 3-10 year window will do. What important things were going on at that time for Luke? Empire-wide events may or may not actually matter.)
  • Who was Luke writing to? Jews? Gentiles? A mixed group? Or even more specifically, Diaspora Jews? What kind of Gentiles? Godfearers? Pagans? (Audience, pressing issues, and shared cognitive environment shape the message more than we sometimes realize.)
  • What were the common views of the “restoration of Israel” among Judeans at that time? Were there significant differences between Judeans in “Palestine” and Judeans in various parts of the Roman Empire with regards to views of restoration, the land, the temple? How representative is the data we do have (e.g. Qumran and other 2nd Temple writings, Josephus, Philo, etc.) as compared to what the general Judean public believed?
  • What other documents did Luke have in mind when he wrote? (apart from the obvious Isaiah and Deuternomic history and some of the Greco-Roman stories that seem to shape some of his narrative)?

Can one of you friends get this data for me?  ;-). I’d be much obliged. It would sure make it a  lot easier to think about how the second half of Acts fits together with some of the emphases on restoration found in Luke and the first half of Acts.

2 thoughts on “exhaustive comprehensiveness in biblical research; What good is your medicine if you can’t tell me why I got sick? and what was Luke thinking?

  1. J. B. Hood says:


    I really love this quote–brilliant stuff and quite incisive.

    RE Luke and Acts, have you seen Bauckham’s lengthy article on Restoration of Israel in Luke-Acts?

    • Ben says:

      Thanks, J. B. I do have Bauckham and have read and highlighted him several times. He does a great job – especially on the expectations and programme laid out in Luke 1-2 (almost half his article) – and is clearly the definitive work so far on restoration in Luke-Acts. (Other articles in that same volume are also really helpful for background and context.) Other especially pertinent monographs can be found here.

      Maybe what we really need is a sociological study that interviews a random sampling of people both from the diaspora and the homeland during that period of time. Then we can compare their readings of Acts with what Luke himself tells us about what was going on in his head ;-).

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