Or, why a bit of history is good [for understanding the Bible]
The summer evening was still light and warm. We’d just finished dinner in the garden — the first excursion of the year — and Naomi Reed and I were kicking back to chew the fat.
Part way through, the conversation quickly moved from films to books — in particular, a 1930’s novel comically critiquing the hedonistic, but ultimately vapid, lifestyle of that era’s young socialites. Perhaps unsurprisingly (Eccl. 1:9), as history repeated itself through the yuppies of the 80s and the It girls of the 90s into our own day, the book about the Roaring Twenties still has power to expose the emptiness of parts of our own lives.
“As much as I appreciate the book”, Naomi said, “there are still things in it I probably don’t understand. I imagine I would find it much more funny, more powerful, if I were from the 1920s. Then I would get certain passing references or slights of hand.”
“It’s a bit like with Dickens”, she continued. “If I were a Victorian then I would know what a certain type of jodhpurs said about a man”.1
This got me thinking.
In particular, it got me thinking about how much I get of the Bible. For instance, if I were a first century Jew living in Galilee then it’s probable, I reasoned, that I would find Jesus’ teaching more immediately powerful, funny, shocking than I do looking back from twenty-first century England. Being from the time — knowing and experiencing and believing the things of that time — would perhaps make my appreciation or understanding of a text or a teaching more immediately intimate.
Understanding the books of the Bible in their historical settings helps us understand the books better. The opposite is also true: not understanding the historical setting of a book of the Bible diminishes our understanding of the book. Further, trying to understand a Biblical text against the incorrect background will almost always skew our understanding of God’s word. I guess it’s important to realise this and try, as best we can, to minimise it. As someone once said:
The Jesus I learned about as a child spoke King James (or Revised Standard) English and seemed to fit without great difficulty into modern Western culture and values. But the historical Jesus spoke Aramaic … and lived in a nondemocratic world very different from [the modern West]. This sense of cultural distance is important and must always be kept in mind if we are not to remake Jesus and his world in the image of our own thoughts and world. As the British novelist L. P. Hartley once put it: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”2
In a sense, the Bible always comes to us second-hand, through others who lived at different times and in different places. This is the basis of an important principle of [understanding and interpreting the Bible]: The correct interpretation of a biblical passage will be consistent with the historical-cultural background of the passage.3
History is scarred with moments when people have misunderstood the scriptures by reading them without a historical context or forcing them into a background they were unfamiliar with. For instance, rather than understand the Lord Jesus’ death in its own historical setting of the first century, Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury attempted to understand it against the background of his own day, one thousand years later. The Medieval period, during which Anselm lived, was a time of chivalry with its notions of ‘honour’ and ‘satisfaction’.4 If somebody did something to insult you it ‘was regarded as a stain upon [your] honour, and it could only be wiped out by satisfaction’, by honour being restored.5 And, as ‘Julian Pitt-Rivers has put it, when all other means have failed, the ultimate vindication of honour lies in physical violence’.6 It was during this age ‘in which chivalry was born [that] the Medieval Church was taking on its most characteristic forms and elaborating its most characteristic ideas’.7 Anselm, as a Medieval person — ‘a child of his age’8 — understood the Lord’s death within this framework.9 Humankind had sinned and broken their loyalty to their Master. God’s honour is ‘dragged in the dust’;10 it is ‘slighted, and satisfaction must be made’.11 Anselm saw Jesus’ death as part of the satisfaction made to restore God’s honour.12 Anselm had forced the Biblical narrative into the historical backdrop of his own day resulting in a misunderstanding.
More recently, the infamous Jesus Seminar13 ‘denuded [Jesus] of his historical context’14 and, by this,15 produced an ‘inoffensive’ Jesus who ‘was not a controversialist, never initiated debates or controversies, and was passive until someone questioned or criticized him or his followers. He was not a prophet or a radical reformer. He is seen as a person who never spoke of himself or claimed to play any decisive role in God’s final plans for humankind, never claimed to be the Messiah […] [did] not preach [and] did not come to save…’.16 Rather than appreciate what Jesus was and is really like, the Jesus Seminar seems ‘to have looked into the well of history searching for Jesus and seen their own reflection’.17
In contrast, to ‘immerse ourselves in the cultural context of the New Testament authors and hearers is to open ourselves up to hear the New Testament with the fuller resonances it would have had for authors and addressees alike’.18 For example, understanding that there were social and political volatility in first century Israel means we cannot be left with a Jesus Seminar Jesus.
Even if things were not always bellicose during Jesus’ time, they were nonetheless far from bucolic. If they were not invariably violent, they were nonetheless volatile. The image of a gentle Jesus, meek and mild, going about Galilee offering entertaining stories called parables or engaging in abstract academic debates about various religious notions fails to convey the sensitive and sometimes hostile atmosphere in which Jesus operated and the effect his teaching would have had on those who lived in this environment. It was an atmosphere in which politics and religion were almost always mixed, and messianic claims, actions or ideas were normally viewed by those in power as threats to the political status quo.19
As a community we are, to some degree, good at desiring to understanding the historical background and context of the scriptures. We’ve long pointed out that it’s anachronistic to place some of mainstream Christianity’s teachings (e.g., the Trinity, officially formulated in fourth century) into the world of the Bible. We’ve often emphasised understanding the Bible’s ancient Jewishness as necessary to understanding the scriptures. We’re keen on archaeology20 and history as aids to helping us better access the message of the Bible. And I suppose this is simply a call to more — and, of course, always better — of the same.
Mind the gap
Before moving on to offer suggestions for how one can attempt to better understand the backgrounds to the various books of the Bible, perhaps I can reiterate by focusing on the mundane process of someone writing to someone else. The inspired authors of the various books of the Bible initially wrote to readers from their own culture. Both ‘author and the readers share[d] a common culture and common understandings’ and, therefore, the authors naturally left many things unsaid which we, in the twenty-first century, would find useful to know21 — they could ‘safely and correctly presume’ that their original audience would unconsciously ‘supply what is required’ in order to easily understand what the author was saying.22 Because we, in the twenty-first century, don’t share a common culture or understanding with the people from ancient times who originally received the oracles of God, there is a distance, a gap, between their knowledge and ours. As we have seen, this gap can have ‘serious implications for interpretation’.23 To help bridge this gap, what we could do with are ‘resources that explain the world of the Ancient Near East as the Bible’s original audience perceived and experienced it’.24
Advice and resources
Thankfully, there are resources available that can help us do this. To this end then, here are some suggestions for continuing and improving our understanding of the historical and cultural background of the various books of the Bible.
When learning about the historical background to the books of the Bible it ‘is important to consult recent, well-researched works because of the explosion of information uncovered in the last few decades’.25 ‘Many [older] reference works have been rendered obsolete by advances in archaeology, textual criticism, palaeography, and other related disciplines. … Exercise caution when using them, and cross-check against more recent publications’.26 Choose sources by ‘professional scholars in relevant fields, reflecting academic consensus. Avoid fringe scholars27 … and sources with an obvious bias. […] Take care to evaluate the merits of any material before using it … ’28 — reading reviews online can help towards doing this.29
As a starter, ‘a Bible dictionary provides detailed articles on Bible-related subjects. It is particularly useful for researching names, places, ethnic groups, historical events, and socio-cultural details from the biblical era’.30 Here are a few recommendations:31
Evans and Porter (eds), Dictionary of New Testament Background (IVP, 2000)32
Freedman (ed), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Eerdmans, 2000)33
Wood, et al. (eds), New Bible Dictionary (IVP, 1996)34
Other books that can help us understand the historic background to the Biblical texts include:
Arnold (ed.), Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentaries (New Testament in 4 vols.)35
Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (SPCK, 2008)36
Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemic Theology of the Old Testament (Crossways, 2013)37
deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (IVP, 2000)38
Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003)39
Lea and Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message (Broadman & Holman, 2003)40
Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 2006)41
Walton (ed.), Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentaries (Old Testament in 5 vols.)42
Additionally, ‘Perhaps the best single source [of information on the historical background of a Biblical book] is the introduction to the better commentaries. Many contain quite detailed, up-to-date summaries of the issues’.43 ‘Reject commentaries which lack proper referencing and extensive bibliographies. The best commentaries examine Scripture in context, not [only] verse by verse’.44 It’s best to ‘[c]onsult at least three different commentaries. Beware of theological bias; your own as well as the commentators’.45
Some books that show the value of understanding the historical background of the first century for understanding Jesus are:
Evans, Fabricating Jesus (IVP, 2007)46
Witherington, The Jesus Quest (Paternoster, 1995)47
Witherington, What Have They Done with Jesus? (Monarch, 2007)48
Wright, Who was Jesus? (SPCK, 1992)49
Wright, The Challenge of Jesus (SPCK, 2000)50
Links to reviews of the books listed above can be found on the What do jodhpurs say about a man? resources page of this website, as well as in the endnotes below.
Finally, here are a couple of recent resources produced by Christadelphians that deal with historical contexts of scripture:
Nat Ritmeyer, Biblical Historical Context: http://facebook.com/biblicalhistoricalcontext
Graham Jackman, Re-reading Romans in Context (self published, 2013)51
1. Some months after Naomi was chatting about jodhpurs, I heard Martin Lewis say pretty much the same thing on BBC Radio 4’s A Good Read (28/06/16; presented by Harriett Gilbert; produced by Sally Heaven; the relevant part is at 23:36-24:23). Speaking about Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Mr Lewis said:
When you read a historic novel, they’re very careful to introduce you to what’s going on. I do think somewhat, and I do find this a bit difficult, this was a novel of its time, in the 1920s, and there were references to people who we don’t know … I wondered how much of the satire was actually lost on us from the book because there were so many references to the time.
I expect this is true of all literature. Around the time I originally wrote the article, I was reading part of a paper given by Judith Dray (at the time, a PhD student of Medieval literature) about a Middle English poem called Emaré. About her paper Jude says, ‘Grounded in historical context … this paper argues Emaré is suggestive of a critique of unethical gift exchanges. As such, the paper not only provides an alternative reading of Emaré but also a brief insight into how people might have conceived of gift giving in late medieval England’ (‘A Look in the Gift Horse’s Mouth: The Ethics of the Gift in the Middle English Emaré’, paper given at Cardiff University [20/03/14]). Jude says that by understanding a text in tandem with its historical context our insight increases. That’s great for any work of literature; but if our insight into the scriptures is increased, it’s infinitely more so.
2. Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995), p. 15
3. William W. Klein, Craig Blomberg and Robert L. Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), p. 230
4. David Smith, The Atonement in the Light of History and the Modern Spirit (London: Hodder and Stoughton, n.d.) p. 75
5. Smith, The Atonement, p. 75-6
6. Nigel Saul, For Honour and Fame: Chivalry in England, 1066-1500 (Random House, 2011), p. 187. The reference to Julian Pitt-Rivers is his ‘Honour and Social Status’ in J. G. Peristiany (ed.), Honour and Shame (Chicago University Press, 1966), p. 21-9
7. Richard W. Kaeuper, ‘Chivalric Violence and Religious Valorization’, p. 3; available online: http://yale.edu/macmillan/ocvprogram/kaeuper.chiv_violence1.pdf (accessed 02/07/14). Incidentally, when investigating this period of time Kaeuper says historic context ‘is surely important if we are not to misunderstand the issues’ (p. 3).
8. Michael Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus (Eastbourne: Victor, 1984), p. 71
9. Note Walter Kasper’s comment that ‘Anselm’s satisfaction theory can be understood only against the background of the Germanic and early medieval feudal system’ (Jesus the Christ [London: Bloomsbury, 2011], p. 208), double demonstrating (through Anselm’s incorrect and Kasper’s correct methodology) the necessity of understanding the historical background of a text to better understand the text.
10. Smith, The Atonement, p. 81
11. Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus, p. 71
12. Smith, The Atonement, p. 84
13. The Jesus Seminar was ‘a small group of mostly quite radical scholars’ who, during ‘the 1980s and 1990s … met periodically to vote on the probably authenticity of the various sayings and deeds of Jesus’ (Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels 2nd edition [Nashville: B&H, 2009], p. 216). For a description and brief evaluation of the Jesus Seminar, see Mark Allan Powell, ‘Jesus Seminar’ in The Encyclopedia of Christianity: Vol. 3, J-O (Grand Rapids/Leiden: Eerdmans/Brill, 2003), p. 31-33.
14. Witherington, The Jesus Quest, p. 42
15. Along with stripping his sayings of their literary settings (Witherington, The Jesus Quest, p. 42).
16. Witherington, The Jesus Quest, p. 56-7
17. Witherington, The Jesus Quest, p. 9; cf. p. 57. Cf. Luke T. Johnson’s comment that one of the Jesus Seminar had produced a Jesus who seems to ‘fit perfectly the idealized ethos of the late twentieth-century academic’ (quoted in Craig A. Evans, ‘The Need For The “Historical Jesus”: A Response To Jacob Neusner’s Review Of Crossan And Meier’ in Bulletin for Biblical Research 4 (1994), p. 127-134, at p. 131
18. David A. deSilva, Honour, Patronage, Kinship and Purity (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), p. 19
19. Witherington, The Jesus Quest, p. 16. I had to look up ‘bellicose’ and ‘bucolic’ too.
20. Although perhaps we’d not go quite as far as brother William Boulton and talk about the “Romance of Archaeology” (the title of one of his books [London: Sampson Low, Marston and Co., 1930])!
21. One particularly tricky, and perhaps unsolvable, example could be 1 Cor. 15:29, where Paul mentions people being ‘baptised for the dead’. The original audience knew exactly what Paul was referring to, but our distance from the original situation makes it harder for us to understand.
22. John J. Pilch, The Cultural Dictionary of the Bible (Collegeville: The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., 1999), p. 33
23. Brother David Burke, ‘Socio-historical background’ (29/01/14) on Milk to Meat: http://milktomeat.org/blog/2014/1/29/socio-historical-background (accessed 02/07/14)
24. Burke, ‘Socio-historical background’ (29/01/14) on Milk to Meat: http://milktomeat.org/blog/2014/1/29/socio-historical-background (accessed 02/07/14)
25. Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral 2nd edition (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), p. 38
26. Burke, ‘Avoid outdated sources’ (29/01/14) on Milk to Meat: http://milktomeat.org/blog/2014/1/29/avoid-outdated-sources (accessed 02/07/14)
27. Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2014), in which he proposes an origin of Christianity without a historical Jesus, is an example of fringe scholarship — i.e., the vast majority of scholars recognise that a historical figure called Jesus existed, which places Carrier on the fringe of scholarship on this issue. As Maurice Casey says (Jesus of Nazareth [London: T&T Clark, 2010]), the question ‘Did Jesus exist?’ was ‘settled in serious scholarship long ago’ (p. 33) and it is now ‘the view of extremists that Jesus did not exist’ (p. 105). For a short article on the historicity of Jesus, see John Dickson, Best of 2012: The irreligious assault on the historicity of Jesus (24/12/12) on ABC: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2012/12/24/3660194.htm (accessed 09/04/15).
28. Burke, ‘Choosing and using sources’ (29/01/14) on Milk to Meat: milktomeat.org/blog/2014/1/29/choosing-and-using-sources (accessed 02/07/14).
29. Sometimes you can also find a preview of the resource on Google Books: https://books.google.com When suggesting books below, in the footnotes I’ve tried to include web addresses to reviews from respected sources.
30. Burke, ‘Bible dictionaries’ (28/01/14) on Milk to Meat: http://milktomeat.org/blog/2014/1/28/bible-dictionaries (accessed 02/07/14)
31. Of course, for all these recommendations, the usual caveats apply: sometimes, for example, they might contain incorrect ideas about the gospel. When it comes to the historical and cultural backgrounds of the books of the Bible, however, these resources can be very helpful.
32. Reviewed here: http://www.denverseminary.edu/resources/news-and-articles/dictionary-of-new-testament-background/ and here: http://place.asburyseminary.edu/asburyjournal/vol58/iss1/13/ (accessed 09/04/15)
33. Two brief reviews are available here: https://library.villanova.edu/Find/Record/532617/Reviews (accessed 09/04/15)
34. Reviewed here: https://legacy.tms.edu/JournalBookReview.aspx?ID=83 and here: http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/42/42-1/42-1-pp091-172_JETS.pdf (accessed 09/04/15)
35. Reviewed here: http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/47/47-3/47-3-pp481-547_JETS.pdf (accessed 09/04/15)
36. Reviewed here: http://works.bepress.com/jamesmcgrath/15/ and here: http://www.dts.edu/reviews/kenneth-e-bailey-jesus-through-middle-eastern-eyes/ (accessed 09/04/15)
37. Reviewed here: http://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/review/against-the-gods-the-polemical-theology-of-the-old-testament and here: http://baptiststudiesonline.com/the-journal-of-baptist-studies-7-2015/ (accessed 09/04/15)
38. Reviewed here: http://www.bookreviews.org/pdf/1267_158.pdf (accessed 09/04/15)
39. Reviewed here: http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2004/2004-06-17.html and here: https://legacy.tms.edu/JournalBookReview.aspx?ID=379 (accessed 09/04/15)
40. Reviewed here: https://legacy.tms.edu/JournalBookReview.aspx?ID=328 (accessed 09/04/15)
41. Reviewed here: http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/52/52-2/JETS%2052-2%20357-429%20Book%20Reviews.pdf and here: http://www.dts.edu/reviews/john-h-walton-ancient-near-eastern-thought-and-the-old-testament/ (accessed 09/04/15)
42. Reviewed here: http://www.academia.edu/10094791/Review_of_Walton_Zondervan_Illustrated_Bible_Backgrounds_Commentary_OT (accessed 09/04/15)
43. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, p. 38
44. Burke, ‘Choosing and using commentaries’ (29/01/14) on Milk to Meat: http://milktomeat.org/blog/2014/1/29/choosing-using-commentaries (accessed 02/07/14)
45. Burke, ‘Choosing and using commentaries’ (29/01/14) on Milk to Meat: http://milktomeat.org/blog/2014/1/29/choosing-using-commentaries (accessed 02/07/14). There are a few “commentary surveys” available which could be useful when evaluating resources: Tremper Longman III, Old Testament Commentary Survey (Baker Academic, 2013); Don A. Carson, New Testament Commentary Survey (Baker Academic, 2013); John Glynn, Commentary and Reference Survey (Kregel Academic, 2007). Using resources like these surveys, Tim Challies has started a helpful, online collection of commentary recommendations: http://challies.com/recommendations/commentaries (accessed 09/04/15). Another site worth a look is http://bestcommentaries.com, which ‘combines reviews and ratings from journals, books, and users to create an aggregate ranking for Biblical commentaries’.
46. Reviewed here: http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/51/51-1/JETS_51-1_101-203_BookReviews.pdf and here: http://www.westernseminary.edu/transformedblog/2014/01/13/book-review-fabricating-jesus/ (accessed 09/04/15)
47. Reviewed here: http://www.garyhabermas.com/articles/themelios/habermas_themelios_review-Jesus_Quest_Witherington.htm (accessed 09/04/15)
48. Reviewed here: http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/50/50-4/JETS_50-4_813-887_BookReviews.pdf and here: http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-06-112001-5 (accessed 09/04/15)
49. Although this book, and the incorrect theories it seeks to correct, are quite old now, it is an interesting read and demonstrates the need to understand Jesus in his actual historical background. Although biased, the reviews on the back of the book state that it is a ‘sharp, well-targeted’, ‘easily readable critique’ of three ‘wide of the mark accounts’ of Jesus, along with a ‘scholarly and very readable re-assertion of the truth about the Jesus of history’.
50. Reviewed here: https://www.baptiststandard.com/opinion/reviews/34-books/17620-book-review-the-challenge-of-jesus (accessed 09/04/15)
51. Available from lulu.com: http://bit.ly/1aLGMIC