Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Taking It in Context

Have you ever heard a story that shocked or astounded you?  Perhaps the story concerned someone from another culture and, at first, you understood the story in one way that brought about a reaction of anger or surprise or bewilderment...but then, as you began to understand the culture or setting out of which the story emerged, you began to understand it differently, and your reaction turned to one of acceptance or at least non-reactionary.

Understanding the Bible is like that.  If one only reads the literal words contained in a passage in the Bible and they do not take the time to ask questions of the passage concerning its origin, geographic and cultural setting, the circumstances that may have surrounded it writing, and the time of its writing, then one may form an idea of the meaning of the passage based solely upon the words it contains rather than truly understanding what makes the passage what it is.

So much understanding has been grasped by students of the Bible during the past century as archaeological discoveries have been made in the Middle East and as ancient manuscripts have been translated and interpreted.  The result has been innumerable commentaries and writings that help to explain why various passages in Scripture are the way they are on face value.  For centuries there were beliefs about the Bible that people held that were just commonly accepted to be true.  For example, people thought that David wrote all of the Psalms and that Solomon wrote all of the Proverbs in the books of those two names because that had been the common wisdom passed down through the generations by religious persons.  Those same persons gave Moses credit for writing the first five books of the Old Testament even though in the last one, the death of Moses is recorded.  Biblical schools emerged in the 1900s that completed enough research to declare that these presuppositions were not true.  It really does not matter who the authors of these writings are if we believe that what is written within them is most important.

There has also been a belief within Christianity for the past few hundred years that the Old Testament contains prophecies specifically about Jesus within it as far back as the book of Genesis.  Proof-texting (using a specific Biblical passage to prove your point) has been used to take individual verses that have nothing to say about the coming of a Messiah and to apply them to lists of Messianic predictions.  For example, Genesis 3:15 is often quoted as proof that Jesus would be born to a woman when the passage actually explains why humans are afraid of snakes.  One has to make a real stretch to apply that truth to a prediction of the birth of Jesus.  There are many others in this same category that come from Hebrew Scripture that some in fundamentalist Christian circles would use to promote their own causes.

The point of all this is that the Bible does have something to say to humanity but learning all we can about the author of the writing, the time when it was written and what was going on in the world at that time, where it originated, and what may have led to its writing helps to clarify the purpose behind its writing and what it may have meant to the specific audience that it was sent to.  As one of my seminary professors often said, "Remember that you are reading someone else's mail when you read one of the Epistles."   That statement is true of all of the Bible.  It was written to benefit others who lived in the Mediterranean world in ancient days.  We happen to be the recipients of their knowledge and hold it as our own to read and reflect upon.  We need to use wisdom and common sense in our interpretation and try not to use it for a purpose that it was not intended for.

No comments:

Post a Comment