Mirror Reading

Several years ago I took a class from an expert in Second Temple Judaism who made this argument on the first day of class:

The biblical text is always reacting against a certain set of assumptions, beliefs, or presuppositions, so when interpreting any biblical text, you must always ask, “What is this reacting against in its context?”

I raised my hand and asked follow-up questions to make sure I understood the argument correctly.

I wasn’t convinced then, and I’m not convinced now.

Here’s what three other New Testament scholars have written about this:

1. Bob Stein

Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 205–6:

The Danger of a Mirror Reading of the Epistles

It is immediately apparent in reading the Epistles that their occasional nature assists the reader in reconstructing the situation in life for which they were written. By reading Galatians we can come to a reasonably good understanding of the Galatian problem, and by reading 1 Corinthians we can identify some of the troubles occurring in the Corinthian church. There is a danger, however, of interpreting every command or prohibition and every teaching in an epistle as reflecting a particular situation within the church. Such a “mirror reading” is unwarranted. Not every command or prohibition need reflect a present problem in the church; not every teaching need reflect a present doctrinal issue. Rather, they may serve prophylactic and preventative purposes, reflecting common problems and issues in life or encountered in Paul’s ministry elsewhere. (Should a church visitor hearing a sermon on “Thou shalt not steal” assume that this church congregation has a particularly high percentage of thieves? Or could this sermon be due to it being a part of a series on the Ten Commandments or being the next passage in the book of the Bible through which the pastor is leading the congregation?)

Some indicators that a mirror reading is perhaps legitimate are references to

  • specific problems in the church being referred to (1 Cor. 1:10–17; 5:1–5; 6:1–10; 11:7–34; 15:12–56; 2 Cor. 10:1–12:21; Gal. 1:6–9; 5:2–12; 1 Thess. 4:13–18);
  • specific questions having been asked by recipients of the letter (1 Cor. 7:1–24, 25–40; 8:1–13; 16:1–4); and
  • unusual emphasis on certain issues (1 Cor. 1:18–3:23; Gal. 1:11–2:21; 3:1–5:1).

In the attempt to understand the situation in the church concerning which Paul and the other writers of the NT letters wrote (the why), we need to remind ourselves that this, like the mental acts of the author, involves a hypothetical reconstruction. It is also not the same as seeking to understand the communicative intention of the authors in these letters (the what). We possess the latter in the text that they have provided for us, and this should always be the primary goal of our study.

2. Clint Arnold

Here’s how Clint Arnold answered my third question in this interview: “Would you explain what ‘mirror reading’ is and discuss whether we can determine a letter’s background by connecting the dots?”

“Mirror reading” is a way of reading a NT letter under the assumption that most of what is said by the biblical writer is reflective of a problem or situation confronting the church. For example, someone might say that because Paul admonishes the Colossians to rid themselves of “anger, wrath, malice, and slander,” that this must have been a big problem in the church at Colossae. Such a way of reading the letter could easily be overdone. Some of the instruction that Paul gives may simply be based on the fact that these are universal human problems (because of the presence of sin).

It is not “mirror reading,” however, to examine explicit features of the so-called heresy in light of the religious and cultural environment. In other words, when Paul says, “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions” (Col 2:18), this is a specific indicator of what the opponents were teaching that calls out for historical examination. We need to look at all such explicit indicators and attempt to discern what the church was facing.

It becomes much more difficult in determining which aspects of the positive teaching of the letter should be understood as contributing to our understanding of what the problem was. In my view, some of the positive teaching must be seen as contributing to a portrait of the situation because Paul was writing as a caring pastor who was expressing theology in a way that was relevant to their specific needs.

It should be noted, however, that this does not make the theology of the letter dependent upon one particular reconstruction of the heresy. The truth Paul expresses about Christ will remain true regardless of how we understand the rival teaching at Colossae. In other words, it is true that “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13) whether one sees the Colossian philosophy as mystical Judaism, Gnosticism, or local folk belief. Our interpretation of the relevance of this statement for our own ministry setting, however, may be impacted by our understanding of the nature of the false teaching.

3. Doug Moo

mooDouglas J. Moo, 2 Peter, Jude (NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 199), 129–30:

[Reflecting on 2 Peter 2:10b–12]

[W]e simply do not know how the false teachers were “blaspheming” evil angels (vv. 10b–12). All that we can do is speculate and admit that whatever conclusions we come to must be tentative. Naturally, we would like to know more about the situation so that we could be more precise in our interpretation. Faced with these gaps, we can go in two possible directions.

Some scholars insist on trying to fill up the gaps by spinning more or less plausible theories about the background situation. I do not want to criticize these efforts; study of these backgrounds is laudable and sometimes turns up genuinely valuable information to help the interpreter. But the tendency among some scholars is to build elaborate theories on the basis of slim and uncertain evidence. Then, despite little—or even conflicting—data, they use these theories as a basis to interpret and apply a biblical text. Some recent interpreters call this process “mirror-reading.” The mirror is the specific background theory; and when a text is reflected in the mirror of a specific background theory, that theory decisively shapes the text.

Perhaps the best example of this process is the spate of recent interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:11–15, the passage in which Paul tells Timothy that he does not want women “to teach or to have authority over a man.” Many of these interpretations assume—rightly—that we must interpret Paul’s prohibition in its first-century context. But they then go on to suggest specific background scenarios that usually have little basis in the text of 1 Timothy and sometimes, indeed, little basis in what we know of the first-century world. Yet scholars following this line of “mirror-reading” conclude that Paul’s advice is not directly relevant for the church today because of one of these theoretical background scenarios.

Now, I do not want to be misunderstood, for background study is necessary and often of basic relevance in understanding the Bible. But the problem is obvious: We had better be pretty certain of the influence of a given background situation before we make it decisive in our interpretation. Otherwise, we can make texts say almost whatever we want them to or dismiss as applicable to us almost any passage of Scripture.


  1. Dave Ainsworth says

    Do you think this caution also goes for Old Testament texts, particularly as they relate to Ancient Near Eastern themes? It seems like this “mirror reading” is often used to discount the reliability of the Genesis creation account. According to that thinking, God’s purpose in Genesis 1-11 was not to present a faithful picture of creation and early history but mainly responding to the polytheistic creation accounts of the ANE.

    I know we need to understand ANE culture to understand the Old Testament, but what are some helpful principles? Do you recommend any authors who can serve as models?

  2. Chad Bresson says

    I’m not sure I completely agree with Arnold… mainly due to the exegetical practices of Dick Lucas (St. Helen’s Bishopgate) and his expositional workshops. Any given indicative or imperative of a passage is inseparable to the melodic line of the book (the author’s intention and theme). While any given imperative may have a universal function, it cannot be ripped from the original occasion in which it was given. So yes, it would be safe and proper not only to assume that someone in the church at Ephesus has a background in thievery, but also that Paul’s directives to “no longer steal” and “do honest work with his own hands” are progressing the “one new man” storyline of Ephesians along. In the end, while there is distinction between the hypothetical reconstruction and author’s intent, it’s a false dichotomy to pit the two against each other because the occasion gives rise to the intent.

  3. Mike Ballai says

    It sounds like your original expert made certain assumptions and presuppositions about interpretation! I think we want to find some exciting slice of life from the original period to spice up our exposition but this really is secondary to the gospel message.

  4. says

    I think that Chad has a point. We must be careful to not ignore the historical occasion and the context of the book as a whole. It is important to pay attention to these details understanding that there was a legitimate occasion. Hence, the fact that Paul was writing epistles directly to specific churches indicates that he didn’t write to my church per se, or to every church in the 1st century where his letters were read.

    It seems that the best approach to proper reading is to “mirror read” when the text warrants it. When Paul is thankful that he did not baptize any of the Corinthians, except Crispus and Gaius (I Cor 1:14) its is important to know why, it is important to know what remains with the Corinthian historical context and does not come into the present day. Thank Christ that most of these occasions are described in the text itself. Whether in the epistle itself or perhaps in the book of Acts.

    As a result of being faithful to the text, the expositor will find that the power of his sermon really does come from the word via proper interpretation (II Tim 2:15), rather than fancy illustration or cute humour. That said, I do see how this can be overdone, many imperatives, themes, pericopes and the like contain timeless principles that are implicit toward all people everywhere. But even in light of the warranted “mirror reading” many times a timeless principle is there, i.e., the false prophets that brought on the NT occasion might have slightly different heresies than we see today. But doctrines that deny Christ and His free grace are refuted in much the same way.

  5. Andrew W. Hall says

    I love what Ernest Best once wrote—though my paraphrase doesn’t do his words justice: Scholars can’t imagine that the biblical writers weren’t writing against someone—because that’s what scholars primarily do!


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