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I want to better understand this site's scope, and my role in it, please. A question posed recently, and the reaction to it, seem to be a good tool by which I can have that better explained to me.

I see 4 stated concerns with this question. If I may be so bold as to restate the sentiments of others (in chronological order):

  1. The question as stated is impossible to answer
  2. There can be no answer to this question (because there was never 'meant' to be one).
  3. There is no purpose (or application) in knowing the answer, therefore it is out of scope in this site.
  4. The question cannot elicit "facts, references, or specific expertise", therefore it is out of scope in this site.

First, of course, if I am misunderstanding or misstating the comments of others, then I wish to be corrected. My purpose here is not to grandstand my views. Such an activity would be a waste of my time. If any of the 4 need to be restated, then this is likely connected to why this question was received poorly.

If not, then I would like to better understand my lack of understanding. Please allow me to give you my understanding point by point, so that it may be corrected.

  1. I believe that it can be answered, and even that it was answered. It is possible that the answer is a poor fit for this site, and that attempting to use the original words and their various context in the text to better understand the meanings is not an actual or viable hermeneutical approach and that I have been sorely misled, in which case I would like to be a) first, corrected, and b) second, have my answer downvoted into oblivion.

  2. This argument hinges on the unstated position that the state of mind of the speaker can be known today. That is an interesting and oft stated or unstated premise on this site, but I think that site rules require this premise to be defended. But, instead of 'attacking' whether this is true, I think we can contrast this line of thinking with a highly voted question with highly voted answers, about what the same speaker 'meant' when talking about the size of camels and needles. It appears that this question is on topic, is it not? Perhaps as an aside, I can't think of a system of beliefs that is common enough today that would dare make this argument ("Had there been a purpose in knowing [X], Jesus would no doubt have mentioned it") that can both hold Jesus as infallible (and therefore capable of thinking far enough ahead to know what would need to be known), and and also maintain that everything on any topic was said by him explicitly (rendering, say, the Pauline Epistles unnecessary). Regardless, such an argument would require a defended explanation that is much too long for the comment section. Whether that is in fact the underlying belief system behind this concern or not (I doubt that it is), ascribing unstated intent in order to prescribe action by anyone today is specifically out of scope in questions and answers. On the other hand, I can't find anywhere stating that doing so in moderator activities is not acceptable. Perhaps it is. Am I missing that instruction?

  3. In a foundational Meta article, it is stated that

    It is agreed that for this site: Questions are on topic if they are focused on the text, rather than things to which the text may apply.... Questions that seem to be seeking to apply the Bible are off-topic. Questions about the application of the Biblical texts are best asked on sites devoted to specific religious traditions such as Christianity.SE or Judaism.SE. We try to avoid eisegesis as much as possible.

    Therefore, it seems that an argument that questions require clear modern application in order to be on topic or in scope for this site is the opposite of correct. Is this Meta article FAQ wrong?

  4. While anything I say is decidedly not "expertise" (ask my family, they will tell you), I think that the supplied answer in the question in ... question(?) ... showed one way that facts, references, and specific expertise can possibly be used to answer the question. The comments appended after that answer show a completely different way that facts, references, and very specific expertise can be used. If, on the other hand, the concern here is that the answer itself is not worded academically or theologically authoritatively enough, and therefore the question is off topic, we have a big problem across the entire Stack Exchange network. We can't use the quality of answers to judge whether questions are in scope. How many Jon Skeet answers have been preceded or followed up by spam... do we close the question because spammers respond out of scope? (A reminder that 'protecting' is decidedly not the same, in site mechanics or psychological impact, as downvote and vote to close.) This is perhaps an extreme example, but the principle still applies. Has this site worked out a different definition of "facts, references, and specific expertise" than I am working with?


Please bear in mind that my goal here is not this specific question. I have gotten all the benefit I possibly ever could out of this question, and if it becomes top voted or closed and deleted, I very much doubt it could affect my knowledge on any topic in scope for this site either way. My goal here is to understand site scope, and my role in it.

On the other hand, since I am using a specific example, and the example I have chosen has already been put on hold, I think the burden of proof might lie with me to argue for its reopening, at least just to have this Meta post be taken seriously.

My understanding of the site scope, as stated in the first link in the tour, the top answer of that link, is that is that questions about what a single word means should be asked.

"What does word mean in Verse X:Y?" should be approached from a hermeneutical background that examines the text in context.

Keep in mind we have already touched on the idea that speaker or author intent is not the crux of this site, and as such we hold such questions to be off topic, but as seen in the very first explanation of scope we give to new questioners, asking for an exegetical approach to better understanding a specific word is not only within scope, it "should" be asked.

I concede that the question, as originally posed, does not "show your work", nor does it explicitly ask for exegesis on the word in question. The "show your work" argument is a valid one here, but was never brought up. Not only was it never addressed in comments toward the OP, it is actually not a valid close reason in BH.SE. Perhaps it should be, but, if I may be so bold, I think the work has already been shown in an answer, so this hurdle may be considered cleared, if only by proxy. If I am correct in that assumption, the remaining concern here would be the lack of an edited in "Does a study of the text give us additional understanding here" question. If that is really the case, I hold that to be a banal requirement, as this should be assumed for every question posed on this site. It is kind of the point of the site. It is certainly not a sufficient reason to close without even a comment the first question of someone who registered and read the tour before asking that question.

The last point I can think of that might need to be brought up on this specific question are my own concerns, in comments days ago. It may not be the best fit for this site, and migration may be a better option. Personally, I think that more insight on meaning can be gained by examining this archaeologically and culturally than linguistically (though questions about those topics are explicitly in scope, see the tour or the cultural-analysis tag), but this opinion is irrelevant to the question at hand. Please do not take those comments to be an argument for closure, they were never meant as such, and I feel that was clear. (I feel confident I can declare authorial intent in this case.) Migration is not done without comments and discussion in Stack Exchange sites, and it is certainly not done by closing and not even telling the OP through comments that they can go to ... elsewhere. As we know, closing without clear or accurate reasons or helpful suggestions for improvement is often perceived as telling the OP exactly where they can go, and it isn't a place with a 'be nice' policy. We can't fix newly registered members' perceptions, and I am not interested in making this post about coddling people who don't belong here. On the other hand, we can't expect people to know those rules unless we tell them. Migration is never mentioned in the tour, the FAQ link currently redirects back to the tour, so learning about migration is basically impossible if you aren't already familiar with Stack Exchange... meaning you would already be familiar with migration.

I feel I have addressed the 4 stated, and the 3 unstated (that I could think of), concerns that might lead to closure, as I understand site scope and mechanics. But, remember, the linked question is only an example, a tool, for facilitating the discussion.


So, back to the point of this question: Why is this question so poorly received, or what aspect of it departs from site scope, and what is my role in maintaining site scope and quality of the site itself?

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As someone who voted to close, I might be able to explain some of the poor reception for the question.

The original question asked:

What was the volume of oil in the flask, the 5 wise bridesmaids took with them?

My reasoning for closing was that the text mentions flasks of oil, but doesn't give any hint at the volume. The fact that the text doesn't mention a detail doesn't mean that detail is unimportant, but there is simply no way to know a detail from a parable from the perspective of the text unless mentioned in the text. And so the question was primarily opinion-based: "answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise." The fact that the question didn't "show its work" nor express itself well, while not a reason for closing, might have also been what sealed its fate.

However, after thinking about it some more, I do think that this could still be a valid question for the simple reason that it's wrong to start with the assumption that a close reading of the text won't come up with an answer (for example, while I highly doubt that there are parallel or apocryphal passages that deal with the volume of the flask, they could make a valid answer if they did exist).

Despite that reservation, there was still hardly any way to answer the question as it was written. The original question asked about the volume of oil, and the answer was about the volume of the flask. The question was later edited to ask about the flask. This is a much better question, since it asks about something more general that one specific detail in the parable (and your answer shows that there is a way to answer it with a linguistic/textual proof).

In any case, I think that improving the question (as Soldarnal did) is a better option than closing it if the question is salvageable. I voted to reopen, and having reconsidered, would not have voted to close. Hopefully this can serve as an example of how to improve such questions in the future.

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  • Thank you. I hope my tone didn't betray me too much, I was concerned that someone who read the tour (there is no FAQ right now) and asked a question about the text was being dismissed for no reason. It appears that this may have simply been a word choice disagreement, and not a symptom of a more pervasive attitude toward newcomers. I agree, and had thought that, welcoming and improving is a more effective tactic to community longevity (survival?) than silently closing. It sounds like you are saying that is the answer, and our best role in maintaining site scope and quality of the site. – CWilson May 24 '18 at 19:22
  • To address the rest of your answer: I am curious... I don't know many languages, and I certainly don't know ancient Greek, but in those that I do know, the phrasing used in the text leads to assume the container is full. Consider the American English phrases 'tank of gas', or 'put gas in the car'. Do you (or anyone) have information about Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic that leads you to think that such usage would be anachronistic here? – CWilson May 24 '18 at 19:33
  • @CWilson I try to vote to leave as many questions open as possible. If anything I think the scope is a little too narrow for my taste. / Regarding the container: That was just my first impression, not based on the language (I know just a little bit of Greek, but not even close to enough for that kind of nuance). I was thinking more along the lines of "how much gas is in the tank?" (implying it's not full). – b a May 24 '18 at 20:52
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I wonder if people simply seized on the word "volume" and thought of the question in terms of mathematical precision. I think that is the driver behind objections 1, 2, and 4.

I've edited this particular question to try and make it more obviously suited to the site. Hopefully people will vote to re-open it.

In general this sort of question is on-topic. Other similar questions:

These are all questions searching for information outside of the text in order to help understand the text, which is the primary criteria for questions on this site - they are aimed at trying to understand a Biblical text (or the meta task of understanding the process of understanding).

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I voted to reopen (though that was after editing). But frankly, your statement above is right on and totally relevant for an answer on this site:

Personally, I think that more insight on meaning can be gained by examining this archaeologically and culturally than linguistically (though questions about those topics are explicitly in scope, see the tour or the cultural-analysis tag), but this opinion is irrelevant to the question at hand.

Historical context is huge in a grammatical/historical hermeneutic, so by all means do not skip doing this or relegate this information into the comments of your answer (or comments about what you might have done, as your current comments indicate as of my writing this), but make that historical info part of the answer:

Now, mind you, if this question had been on another site, one discussing the culture of the time, like say Mi Yodeya or History, I might have answered the question completely differently, discussing the recent technological advancements at the time in "Herodian oil lamps", the archaeological evidence as to their sizes and common fuels, the length of time a full lamp with the most likely type of fuel burnt, the volume of the lamp itself, and how many refills would have been required to keep such a lamp burning all night. – CWilson May 17 at 2:01

I then might have cited archaeological evidence for the types of vessels used to transport fuel in the Roman Empire at the time, and how much each of them full might have weighed, or perhaps the relative likelihood of a listener to the parable owning one of those vessels. I might have gone on to discuss the likely carrying capacity of one described as a 'virgin' in this story, other items she might have been laden with, and culturally what she might have expected to do with all of her belongings later on that evening. – CWilson May 17 at 2:01

All that together would give me a picture of the likelihood of the various vessels that have been found by archaeology or have lasted through the years, and I would probably pick a few as being what I thought most likely. Lastly, I would probably attach some pictures of those vessels, which are not difficult to find online. But, such an answer isn't really hermeneutical, is it? – CWilson May 17 at 2:01 upvote flag

On the other hand, real scientists have actually devoted their lives to answering this very question, pottery in 1 Century CE Israel. Let’s not call a question poor or foolish, just because we have never thought of it, or think it is not worth knowing. Instead, please encourage interest in the general topic that is apparently already of interest to you, even if this particular detail isn’t.

If you added that kind of information into your answer, I'd upvote it. As your answer currently stands, I did not find it very useful (but neither quite worth my downvote).

Here is a similar type of question in which I gave some historical information to try to help answer: https://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/9121/2070.

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  • Thank you for addressing scope (and giving me an appreciated reminder)! I had lost my definition of hermeneutics by delving too deeply into the site, and had been thinking that, if it didn't "start from the text", it wasn't worthwhile. Thanks for the little nudge that stackExchange<>realLife. But, I think that you are also saying that an answer need not "start from the text", only the question must. Is that correct? – CWilson May 23 '18 at 20:41
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    @CWilson Questions need to start from the text (well, with a few exceptions), but (good) answers can come from textual context and/or historical context (or really, whatever one's hermeneutic holds, but some hermeneutics people take better on this site, as they are logical and can be followed). – ScottS May 23 '18 at 23:48

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