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The Bible says 7

This is the seventh in a series attempting to nuance the statement, “The Bible says…” I encourage you to read the story so far:
Textual Criticism
The Septuagint (LXX)
Hebrew vowel pointing
The canon
Translation
Continuity problems
There’s also been a related post, “the pope says…

Social Cultural Historical Geographic context

If someone in New Zealand says they are going from Picton to Wellington, the presumption here would be that they normally go by boat. If someone rings a school because some of its pupils were misbehaving in town after class, we take for granted that this is possible because most schools in New Zealand have a distinguishable school uniform. When reading a newspaper, most of us have no difficulty distinguishing a political cartoon from a court sketch, and realising that the former may portray a significant truth but without doing so with literal accuracy. The word “Wicked!” in the last decade has meant totally the opposite of what it meant the decade before. We understand that the Democratic Party is in favour of the republic, and the Republican Party is in favour of democracy, and a Liberal Party may be conservative, and a Conservative Party may be liberal.

In other countries, other cultures, and other times, all this is and will not necessarily be so easily understood. 2,000 years from now scholars may be convinced that our political cartoons record actual events similar to photographs – or at least that we thought they did. They may wonder how we used mice to help run what we called “computers”. And they may think teenagers hated cars and called them wicked.

People regularly pick up scriptural texts of two to three millennia ago and quote from translations ripped out of their social, cultural, geographic, and historical contexts. “The Bible says…”

They may not understand the difference between a Judean (regularly mistranslated as “Jew”), Galilean, Samaritan, Pharisee, Sadducee, or Scribe. They may think shepherds were regarded with honour. They may not know about the acceptance and practice of pseudonymity. They may not realise that although Jeremiah comes well before Amos in our Bible, historically he is a good century later. They may not understand the Exile and misinterpret Ezekiel and Daniel (eg. Ezekiel 37). They may not understand patronage, the place of honour, authority structures, status, Mediterranean village dynamics,… all of which means that when they say, “the Bible says…” they may be quoting something to reinforce their own opinion rather than expressing what the author of the text had in mind.

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11 Responses to The Bible says 7

  1. Here’s another example of needing to know the context of a word to get the meaning.

    Let’s say there’s someone who didn’t know baseball language and heard the phrase, “Boy: that person is out in left field!” They would be turning their heads all around to find out where the left field is. So it is with Biblical language, especially pertinent in the controversy over homosexuality…

    • Thanks for these comments and examples.

      Another one came up after church today – the NZ practice of asking people to “bring a plate to the barbie” – meaning bring some food to share with others at the barbeque. Those outside our culture sometimes find it confusing why they are being invited to bring an actual empty plate to a doll! The discussion continued that in some cultures when you are a guest the host provides everything. From that cultural perspective, asking people to bring something would show that you, as host, do not value these people… Another one: our use of the word “tea” to mean the evening meal… the list could go on…

      • I wouldn’t have fallen for the doll end of that sentence, but I might’ve been confused by the request for an empty plate, right enough 🙂

  2. And if one can, briefly, try to forget all one knew of Jesus, be soaked in Genesis and its variants of “boy meets girl at the well” stories, then imagine opening John’s gospel for the very first time and reaching John 4…

  3. Thanks for this series. I was having a conversation with a well-meaning young man the other day, and after he quoted three scriptures out of context, I thought to myself, “Why is it that those who are most likely to quote scripture are also the most likely to misuse it?” Of course, I would be remiss if I did not confess that I have done the same.

  4. I’m glad you mentioned the Jew/Judaean thing. A lot of St John’s gospel makes little sense if you don’t keep it in mind, especially when the leaders of the Judaeans write Jesus off as an ignorant Galilean. If you’ve ever been to the UK you will no doubt know the feeling, when they refer to you as a “colonial”.

    • Yes, Steve, especially since that mistranslation has caused so much in the past. Other mistranslations spring to mind: “inn” for “upper room”, “betray” for “hand over”,… We really can look at texts again completely afresh…

    • If you’ve ever been to the UK you will no doubt know the feeling, when they refer to you as a “colonial”.

      Sheesh? I do hope this UKian would have a little more taste & discretion… “oh so there’s some outmoded political relationship between here and your country. That’s nice. Where shall we have lunch?”

      😉

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