Understanding the Bible's cultural context: 4-24-19
April 24, 2019
Because the Bibles used by Christians are collections of writings produced over hundreds and hundreds of years, readers will miss a great deal if the texts are read exclusively through the eyes of 21st Century Americans.
Rather, a fuller understanding of what's being said and -- more to the point -- what's meant requires that readers know something about the cultural context in which the writing was done.
Various good study Bibles can help with this. I am now using the Common English Bible version that has lots of notes and explanatory pieces with the text. It's excellent but not perfect. (What is?)
But a new Bible from Zondervan, a division of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, aims specifically at offering readers information about the cultural context of the texts. It's called the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Previously it was available in the New International Version and the New King James Version translations. Now it's available in the New Revised Standard Version, which is more widely used among Mainline Protestants.
It, too, is not perfect, but it strikes me as quite good and really helpful.
When I say it's not perfect, I noted almost immediately a typo in an introductory piece called "Major Background Issues from the Ancient Near East." It said that the "gods in the ancient word. . ." when it meant "world."
More serious is the use of the term "Gentile Christians" in the introduction to the book of Romans. That's an anachronism. There was no Christianity yet, only followers of Jesus. And by simply picking up and using the previously produced "NRSV Authorized Concise Glossary and Concordance," editors of this new edition have picked up similarly anachronistic wording, such as describing the Apostle Paul as "violently anti-Christian" early in his career. There was no Christianity for Paul to be against. Why does that matter? This column that I wrote earlier for Flatland helps to explain.
All of that said, there is much here to recommend the book, including helpful historical notes, maps and various sidebar articles to help readers understand how the original readers might have understood what was written.
There's even a helpful sidebar article called "Homosexual Activity in Antiquity," though it would have been more useful if editors had called the Greco-Roman practice of adult males having boys entering puberty as sexual toys the practice of pederasty. The Apostle Paul's objection to homosexual acts was primarily an objection to that exploitative practice and not to what today we are beginning to understand as homosexual orientation, about which he could have understood little or nothing. For more on that, here's my essay on what the Bible really says about homosexuality.
Here and there throughout this new book readers will find useful information gathered from archaeology and other disciplines, especially findings from the last 100 or so years.
All of that helps to set the Bible in a cultural context and make it easier to know what the writers were trying to say. Serious Bible readers will want to use more than one study Bible to compare and contrast, but this new one should be among those they consider using. In fact, serious readers of any sacred writ should find this kind of help. An example from another faith tradition is the quite-good Study Qur'an.
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SO LONG, PEEPS
Just for fun today, here's the Babylon Bee's post-Easter account of the annual migration of those horrible marshmallow peeps' migration back to the Isle of Disgusting Candy. Think of the Babylon Bee as the satirical religious equivalent of The Onion.