As I traveled recently to Oklahoma for vacation, my attention focused on a few warning signs:
“Warning – Beware of Dog!”
“Warning – High Voltage!”
“Warning – Blasting area – turn of cell phones!”
“Warning – Truck entrance!”
“Warning – Bump Ahead!”
One of my favorite signs read, “Warning – Don’t hit one of our workers – $10,000 fine!”
What purpose do warning signs serve? Correct! To keep those who read them out of harm’s way.
With this week’s blog, I want to post warnings related to four gaps that threaten the responsible interpreter’s ability to accurately understand and explain the Bible: the gap of time or history, language, geography and culture. These gaps rest on our natural inclination to interpret Scripture under the faulty influences of our cultures, experiences, worldviews and locations to the exclusion of the study of time/history, language, geography and culture.
Below we survey the cause, clarification, catalyst, and counsel on how to overcome the first of these gaps: time/history.
THE CAUSE BEHIND THE WARNING:
The symptoms of the gap of time/history refuses to discriminate between male or female Christians. The gap controls single and married Christians as well as overpowering old and young Christians. The time/history gap dominates Christians regardless of race or culture. This gap overpowers all social stratums across Christianity. It has established its influence throughout the history of the church.
THE CLARIFICATION OF THE WARNING:
The Bible records events that occurred thousands of years before our time. The Apostle John wrote Revelation more than 2000 years ago. Books of the Old Testament found print even earlier. Thus, it behooves the interpreter to recognize the manner in which the world has changed during these gaps in time/history. The method of writing, recording and storing written materials has changed from stylus and clay or wax tablets, crude pens and papyrus or parchment writing materials to electronic storage systems like hard drives and the cloud. Imagine explaining those to a first century citizen.
Likewise, the interpreter quickly discovers a lack of specific familiarity to Old Testament subjects like various names for God: Jehovah-Jireh, Elohim, Jehovah-Roi. Few have sufficient background to grasp the use of temples in pagan worship as well as various artifacts, like wooden and clay idols. Which interpreter naturally knows how the Canaanites worshipped Dagon or Moloch in the Old Testament? Who can describe the ceremonies surrounding Baal’s worship?
When it comes to the New Testament period, the interpreter must grasp the time/history differences between the emperors of Rome and their relationship to the events in Israel’s history. Which emperor ruled at the time of Jesus’s birth? Who decreed that the Jews had to leave Rome? In relation, which of the Herod’s ordered the death of Jesus as a child? Which Herod executed John the Baptist? Which Herod crucified Jesus? Which Herod heard the Apostle Paul defend the gospel in Caesarea Maritima?
Another issue with time/history involves the period between when the biblical events occurred and when and where the biblical authors recorded them. It seems reasonable that the materials related to Abraham in Genesis 12-25 were penned after Abraham’s time. Obviously, since only God existed during creation, the account was recorded after that event.
It may interest the reader that when one compares the ancient manuscripts available to study the New Testament Greek text, the New Testament manuscript evidence dwarfs that of other ancient literature. Today, we have more than 5600 Greek manuscripts. The earliest of these Greek manuscripts date from early 2nd century (around AD 130). Plato wrote between 427-347 BC. The earliest copy of Plato’s work is around AD 900. Only seven copies are available for study. A Roman historian, Suetonius lived AD 75-160. His earliest copy dates around AD 950 and there are a mere eight copies. This should substantiate that our New Testament is quite reliable. Factor in the additional 19,000 documents in Syriac, Latin, and Copies as well as Aramaic languages, the overwhelming evidence is the New Testament is most reliable.
The time/history gap presents to the interpreter issues that seem as unimportant or irrelevant to understanding the Bible. Yet the assurance of accurate interpretation requires the exploration of these issues.
THE CATALYST OF THE WARNING
The motivating goal behind this blog hopes to explore possible methods or strategies to overcome this tenacious gap of time/history. Our goal is to equip ourselves so we can discover God’s message for ourselves and/or to share that message with others. Our desire revolves around the awareness that we may miss the intended message. This may result in false, erroneous, and at times, heretical explanations of the biblical text, Teachers propagate these errors without historical investigation. For example, I have heard preachers use the idea of a camel crawling through a small gate in the gates of Jerusalem. Yet, no archaeological evidence proves this idea. We hope to prevent this kind of situation. The central effort seeks to explore appropriate applications of God’s Word to our lives and to the lives that we present the truth. Possible ideas to assist avoiding the gap of time/history appear below:
THE COUNSEL OF THE WARNING
- Recognize overcoming the gap of time requires intentional effort.
Pray – recognize reading the Bible is not like a newspaper or magazine article or a novel. God’s Word that is spiritual and requires the help of the Holy Spirit to understand God’s Word. The Bible is God-breathed or inspired and thus, the interpreter humbles himself/herself for God’s guidance. Remember God provided the Bible to transform us, not merely inspire us.
Read – Read and re-read the passage understudy. A recent Barna study found that 62% of American wished they read the Bible more. G. Campbell Morgan said according to some that he never preached a biblical text that he had not read at least 50 times. Remember rich treasures wait to be mined from God’s Word.
Ask Questions – Ask about words, their meanings through history. How many different ways can it be used correctly? What does it mean in this sentence? Is it used in other verses nearby? If so, what is its meaning there? Is it used in other places in the same book? What does it mean in those uses? Ask about the use of phrases – a phrase consists of a group of words without a verb that describes a person or thing? Are there relationships between statements? Look for words like, ‘but, if, and, therefore, in order that, so that, because.’ How did the author use the word in the immediate context of verses before and after the verse understudy? How does the Bible use the word in other places? Dr. Jerry Vines, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, says the key to great observations is to keep asking questions of the text.
Reflect and make application. Here we desire to know what we need to do, see, understand, change, become, think, etc. God did not give us the Bible to make us trivial experts of its content. The Bible speaks to us so we can effectively evaluate how we conduct our lives.
- Develop an inquisitive mind to overcome the gap of time/history.
This does not mean your understanding is wrong, but it implies that you will not rest until you have researched the historical period under study. You refuse to stay limited to your current knowledge surrounding the history of the text. Ask questions about persons, events, and geographical settings. Reject thoughts to assume you know this historical information.
For example, when Jesus mentions the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, what is so important about Samaritan and Hebrew relationships? When did this relationship begin? How did most Hebrews in the first century view Samaritans?
- Employ strategies to check your understanding of the gap of time/history.
Do more than develop strategies to help overcome the gap of time/history, use them. Utilize them effectively. Here are two suggestions to get your started.
Investigate the names of the people, cities, and regions involved in the text.
What do their names mean in the original language? Does that hint at their character? Does it hint at a nationality? If so, learn about that nationality. For example, Jonah refused to go to the Ninevites. Could there be something that the Ninevites did that led Jonah to run the other way?
Explore related historical connections of the text.
Jesus entered the Decapolis in Matthew 4:25, Mark 5:20 and 7:31. Yet, these verses refer to the Decapolis without any description or hint as to this areas importance biblically. What historical background does the interpreter need to help grasp the context of these texts? Is there any Jewish influence? Greek influence? Roman influence? Would these cultures add important information for the interpreter?
So, I pray you are more prepared to avoid the gap of time or history. Feel free to send me an email with ideas and or thoughts related to this week’s blog.