We Can't Just Simply Read the Bible (Alone) and Declare It Sufficient for Comprehension
Part 2 in a series exploring "How Jesus Became God" by Bart Ehrman
SITUATING THE NEW TESTAMENT IN ANCIENT GRECO-ROMAN CULTURE
Last week I shared some thoughts about the title of Ehrman’s book that we’ll be going through in the coming weeks.
Today, I want to share a few preliminary words about the importance of understanding the larger culture in which the Bible was written. Specifically, in this case, the Greco-Roman world in which the events of Jesus (and the ensuing religious movement inspired by him) occurred.
Christianity arose in a Roman Empire thoroughly infused with Greek culture. If we want to understand the views of the earliest Christians we must situate them in this historical and cultural contexts. Failure to do so guarantees that we bring to the Text waaaaay too many of our current cultural presuppositions. We end up reading these ancient stories as though they happened a couple years ago, in America, with Judeo-Christian values and Western, post-Enlightenment rationale. And while we might still glean tidbits of inspiration from these stories, we’ll be football fields away in terms of grasping how the original authors might’ve meant a thing, and how some of the original audiences might’ve understood that thing.
I say this often, but it’s worth repeating: it is not enough to simply open an English Bible, read something like the Gospels or the book of Acts, and conclude that we have all we need to understand the first Christians. If we earnestly seek to know, as best as we can, how the early church thought and what they believed, we must comprehend aspects of the Greek and Roman worlds in which they originated from and existed within.
This kind of approach to reading and understanding the Bible (one where you heavily consider historical and cultural contexts) is shockingly absent and even frowned upon in many conservative, fundamentalist circles. In part, I suspect, because there is fear in such communities of looking anywhere other than the pages of the Bible for, well, any truth. As a result, even information that might improve our understanding of the Bible is seen as suspicious.
WARNING: LEARNING ABOUT THE WORLD IN WHICH THE BIBLE WAS WRITTEN WILL IMPACT YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF THE BIBLE
I can understand their suspicion.
Learning this kind of information (such as the context and culture of Ancient Greece and Rome) will 100% impact how we understand the first Christians. Now, in which ways will it make an impact? How might it effect our understanding of Christianity? Might we be challenged to rethink some of our beliefs? Sure, that might (okay, almost certainly will) happen. Considering data from outside the Bible—as a means for better understanding the Bible—is a bit like taking the red pill in the Matrix: it opens your eyes in ways you cannot go back. And opening one’s mind, with the possibility of thinking or believing differently, is terrifyingly off limits for a religious fundamentalist.
For me, though, I take the potential for such an impact as a good thing. I want to understand the WORLD of the Bible better so that I can understand the WORDS of the Bible better. Not because I think there is some pure and perfect original meaning that if only we can dust off enough layers of time and adaptation we will be able to unearth and finally know the ultimate truth. That’s not really my take.
In fact, I happen to think capital T Truth can be discovered in myriad ways, including even a shallow and myopic understanding of something as old as the Bible. It’s not that I think religious fundamentalists don’t ever receive any value from their surfacey reading of the Scriptures, I’m sure they can and do. For example, I can imagine opening up to a Psalm and, without any historical or cultural context, be so moved at the ways in which the author pours out their heart with honesty and sincerity. And in their pleadings and desperation we could see a reflection of our own deep cries of the heart. In a moment like this I would say you touch, and are touched by, the Truth of the human condition. Such can be the gift of something like poetry, where we need not know “what the author meant,” for the truth is found in what it means to us.
My point is, I’m not saying that the only way to receive any benefit or value from the Bible is to do the thing where we intentionally and legitimately place the words in and among the historical and culture context in which they were written, thus increasing the odds of ascertaining what was originally intended and understood.
IF YOU WANT TO USE THE BIBLE TO BACK YOUR BELIEFS, YOU BETTER HAVE BETTER SCHOLARSHIP AND INTERPRETIVE TOOLS
However, and here’s where the stuff hits the fan, many Christians use the Bible in ways far beyond just that of reading it like poetry and receiving inspiration to better their life.
Most (fundamental, conservative, and evangelical) Christians:
Create theological doctrines out of the words on the page, and expect others to accept it as Truth;
Use the Bible to promote a set of beliefs that must be held in order to be part of the community; and
Attempt to control how others ought live because, “This verse says that,” and, “That verse says this,” therefore, “You must do such-and-such.”
When you start doing that? Well, now you’ve got my attention.
Now you’ve gone beyond using the Bible as a surface level source of inspiration, ala Chicken Soup for the Soul.
Now you’re entering the game of actually trying to understand what people 2000+ years ago believed, taught, and based their life on.
And not just the first Christians, by the way, but also how it is that some of the original ideas and beliefs of the Followers of the Way (what the first Christians were called) developed, evolved, and transformed over the first few centuries. Because, for example (and Bart eventually gets to this in the book), the belief statements enshrined in the Nicene Creed in 325 AD may not (and according to Ehrman, definitely do not) fully reflect the beliefs of the first couple generations of Christians. And yet I’d wager that most Christians today think that what they believe now, in 2022, is the same thing that Christians have always believed since the beginning.
Not so fast, my friends.
What I’m saying is, there’s a lot to explore and investigate if what you’re after is the most accurate representation of early Christian thought and belief. If you care about accurately assessing the beliefs and practices of the first Christians, then you must consider tools, resources, and disciplines beyond simply opening up to the Gospel of Matthew, reading a few sentences in English, and concluding that we now know what Jesus said, what he meant, and how people understood him.
It’s so much more complicated than that, and I routinely get exasperated by the Christians who refuse to acknowledge or accept this.
If you want to play the game of “Here’s what people believed 2000 years ago, therefore here’s what I think we should believe today,” then I’m going to insist you follow some basic rules of interpreting ancient literature. And one of those rules (as I understand it) is that the historical and cultural context in which any piece of ancient literature was written matters.
Okay, that’s a bit of preliminary mental stretching before diving in to Chapter One next week. Because in Chapter One Ehrman shows that in Ancient Greek and Roman culture there were multiple ways to imagine and talk about gods becoming human, and humans becoming divine. And since Christianity (according to Ehrman) eventually came to declare that Jesus was God, and then became man, it’s important to consider what such terms and ideas meant back then.
That’s where we’ll pick up next week.
TODAY WILL BE THE FINAL EPISODE OF THE ALTER
If you missed the end of last week’s episode with artist and author Scott Erickson, then you missed me announcing that I’m retiring The Alter.
Today will be my final episode (I’ll share more about it during the show), and I’d love to have you join me if you can!
I want to say a HUGE thank you to everyone who has joined me in this delightful experiment these past 18 months. Thank you for taking time out of your day to log on to the interwebs and tuning in to hear what I’m thinking about, meet some amazing guests, build a fun little Wednesday afternoon community, and manifest some genuine love and connection.
Y’all are the best, and I love you.
See you later today at 2pm PST.