The Social World of the Bible - Why does it matter?
A recent TWeb conversation involving Spartacus and ThePuppyTurtle and my desire to make use of our new sparkly blog feature (thanks, Chris. Dork.) have caused me to talk about this subject matter.
When it comes to the Bible, otherwise sober-minded human beings tend to go insane. Skeptics like to mock it for its alleged atrocities and believers sometimes come away with ludicrous interpretations. If the Bible is to praised, condemned, or otherwise studied, we must judge it by reasonable standards - just like any other ancient or modern text. Before it can be appraised, it must be properly understood. And one major tool we can use to understand it is proper contextualization. Context, context, context. It's a concept believer and unbeliever alike would do well to internalize and understand. There is a saying: "any text without context is pretext", and it's very apropos. Context, roughly speaking, is the set of circumstances one needs to keep in mind when evaluating an event or text in order to understand its true meaning and significance. Why does context matter? It matters because language and the meanings and connotations attached to words and figures of speech are couched in the culture, place, and time that the speaker or writer spoke or wrote them. Bruce J. Malina, professor of the New Testament of Creighton University, begins his book "The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology" with an interesting thought experiment.
Imagine that you created a time machine and traveled back to a first century Hellenistic city. While walking through the streets, you overhear a person say the following:
εισι γαρ ευνουχο οιτινες εκ κοιλιας μητρος εγεννηθησαν ουτως και εισιν ευνουχοι οιτινες ευνουχισθησαν υπο των ανθρωπων και εισιν ευνουχοι οιτινες ευνουχισαν εαυτους δια την βασιλειαν των ουρανων ο δυναμενος χωρειν χωρειτω
Because you paid attention in your Greek language class, you know that the person is actually quoting Matthew 19:12:
“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
You now know the translation of the Greek. But simply because you understand the passage in English, does that mean you truly understand what the speaker was trying to convey? Hardly. Why did Jesus mention eunuchs at all when the topic beforehand was about divorce and why did he list three different types of them? What is the significance of calling someone a eunuch in the time period of Jesus? What was the point? We can answer these questions by considering the context, and we can discover the context by asking four more questions: "What, when, where, and how”.
As it relates to the eunuch passage, investigating ancient literary forms and patterns reveals that Jesus is employing what is known as a "numbered parable" - a kind of wise saying that generally uses concrete images or pictures to illuminate the moral of the last element of the saying, which is generally abstract. Examples of numbered parables in the Bible are as follows:
andFor pressing milk produces curds,
pressing the nose produces blood,
and pressing anger produces strife.
Such insight would be lost on someone who simply takes a wooden interpretation based on merely an English translation. One culture does not think the same as another culture. We must not think that all people groups throughout time think the same way as we do. They absolutely did not. To believe otherwise is ethnocentric, short-sighted, and in respect to historical races, anachronistic. If you refuse to study context when studying the Bible, you might as well not even read the Bible at all, because the interpretations you will come away with will be highly suspect and next to useless.Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a serpent on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a maiden.
Therefore, if we are to understand the Bible and (speaking as a Christian) God's interactions and revelations with mankind, we must interpret the Bible with sociology in mind, along with other fields of study involved with proper contextualization.
NOTE: Please be sure to visit my free-standing blog, Upon Mount Taniquetil.