“Boss text” is a concept that was shared with me years ago, although I’ve been unable to track down who shared it. Even so, it was so helpful for me that I use it often to talk about hermeneutics and how we interpret scripture.
What Is a Boss Text?
A boss text is a piece of writing or a passage that informs how we understand other things, especially other passages within the same work. In the context of the Bible, using one passage to interpret another is an example of using a boss text to interpret a non-boss text.
I like to use the analogy of a sprawling landscape with lots of mountains, valleys, hills, and plains. Scripture often resembles such a landscape, and which passages rise up (mountains and hills) and which passages fall back to the pages (valleys and plains) is different for each person and community.
Any time that we compare two or more passages within scripture, certain ones will “rise” above others. Those passages that rise above are the ones that get priority in how we interpret and understand. That is, we interpret those risen passages first, and our understanding of the other passages depends on our interpretation of those first passages.
Boss Texts In Action
For an example of boss texts in action, let’s consider the following passages:
- 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (NRSV)
- 1 John 4:8
“Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (NRSV)
- Joshua 24:19
“But Joshua said to the people, ‘You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.'” (NRSV)
The passage we choose to interpret first — the one to which we give the most priority or the most “weight” — will influence how we understand the other passages.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7
If we take 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 as our boss text, then we’re primarily going to use Paul’s definitions about what love is to inform our understanding of who God is. 1 John 4 tells us that God is love and that we need to love in order to know God, so it would be logical to assume that we must be patient, kind, not envious or boastful, etc. When we exemplify Paul’s characteristics of love, then we know God, and we might assume that God (as love) also exhibits those characteristics.
This creates a problem, however, when we get to the Joshua 24 passage where, according to Joshua, God is keeping a record of wrongs (i.e. not forgiving transgressions or sins). Joshua presents God as jealous and resentful to an extreme of unforgiveness. This image of God seems at odds with Paul’s assertion that love isn’t envious, irritable, or resentful.
If 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 is our boss text, we give it priority — more weight. Whatever we decide about Joshua’s claim concerning God, it has to be filtered through Paul’s claim about love. Some possible conclusions might be:
- Rejecting Joshua’s view of God, altogether.
- Reasoning that Joshua is being metaphorical or hyperbolic to make a point.
- Considering that maybe the “Old Testament God” was somehow different that the “New Testament God.”
- Wondering if maybe different members of the Trinity have different characteristics.
If, instead, we take Joshua 24:19 as our boss text, then we accept first that God is jealous and not willing to forgive certain people for their transgressions and sins. This might mesh well with other passages in scripture, particularly in the Old Testament. When we get to 1 John, then, we have a different framework with which to interpret “God is love.”
Love may not necessarily require forgiveness of others, because Joshua presents God as jealous and selective in God’s forgiveness, so Joshua’s view of God informs how we understand love. If we have to love in order to know God, we might be able to be jealous and unforgiving to some and still claim that we love, because that’s how God is presented by Joshua.
Similar to how Paul’s version of love created issues for us in Joshua, Joshua’s version of God creates issues for us in 1 Corinthians. We might handle this by saying, “Yes, Paul describes love quite well,” but with the caveat that love is only sometimes like that. Sometimes, love is jealous and unforgiving, like God.
The Boss Text Matters
Do you see how the boss text matters for how we interpret and understand passages? The one to which we give the most weight or the most priority informs how we understand the others.
Sometimes, it’s more mundane than the examples above. For instance, 1 Thessalonians 1:1 is the salutation opening Paul’s letter. We often breeze over it, because we accept that Paul wrote the letter, and it often has little interpretive weight, because people don’t usually perceive it as pivotal information.
That’s probably fine. Not every passage has to compete for the title of “boss text.” It’s just a way of describing something that we naturally do when we approach scripture. Everyone who spends time in scripture has boss texts, and the more passages we include in our studies, the more complex the relationships become. It might be nice to say that we give equal weight to all of scripture, but that isn’t realistic. Our boss texts are part of our hermeneutics. Understanding that they exist will help us better understand our own theologies.
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