Among the elements that makes understanding the Bible (and any other ancient texts) so difficult are the various cultural barriers that keep us 21st century readers out of the original world of the author and his readers. Quite naturally, we don’t live in the same world of Homer (the Greek, not Simpson) or Chaucer or Saul of Tarsus. One or two things have changed since these old writers lived and worked.
To see what I mean on a lesser scale, watch an episode of “Leave it to Beaver.” Does your family look like Ward and June? Do you look at the world through the same lenses that the shows writers did? How foreign do things look through those eyes from where we sit today? So it is (though far more magnified) when we approach Scripture written two thousand years ago and more.
It is the task of each generation, then, to reinterpret these ancient texts. Every new community of believers has to learn to read these old stories and letters and translate them so that they take the leap from their ancient context into our own world.
Sticking with the television theme, this practice is the equivalent of “Happy Days” (a show about the 50’s produced in the 70’s & 80’s), “The Wonder Years” (a show about the 60’s produced in the 80’s & 90’s) and “That 70’s Show” (a show about the, well, 70’s, produced in the 90’s & 2000’s). (Has anyone yet mastered the 80’s? Alas, I pine.) These are all the retelling of earlier eras, reinterpreted to speak to our own present situation.
So this is what we are continually doing with the Bible, reading and rereading these ancient texts, trying our best to understand them for what they meant in their own contexts, so that we may then retell them to one another in such a way that they make sense for 2014.
The process, however, is fraught with difficulty.
The hardest part about grasping the message of the Bible is not about whether you know Greek or Hebrew. It’s not about our inability to diagram sentences. The greatest barrier to accurately understanding and then translating the Bible is what we do and do not know about everything that’s not in the Bible.
In my own journey with Scripture, I find that the texts seem to come alive in greatest measure when I’m in the process of learning about the world around the biblical eras, rather than about the text itself. For example, when I’ve learned about Jewish cultural movements in the intertestamental period (after Malachi, before Matthew), it’s opened great windows of clarity on what it was Jesus was up to and what others thought about what he was up to.
It’s like being in on a good (or even a terrible) joke, like twerking our way through the Bible. But if you aren’t tuned into pop culture, you don’t get it, even if you are actually better off. So the question is, Who were the Miley Cyruses of Paul’s day? If they weren’t twerking in first century Palestine, what were they doing? And how might the gospel writers or Peter or James have referenced these cultural phenomena?
More on this anon, specifically, regarding Paul and the Roman Empire.