Scholars call the Bible a “High Context Document.” This is a fancy way of saying that the Bible expects you to know a few things when reading it. After all, most of its authors were completely unaware that they were writing words that would be poured over and delved into thousands of years later, and assumed that their readers would share their language, culture, prejudices, and history. Even if they had known that they were writing for future ages, their words would have to be copied by hand in a day when both writing materials and the labor of the scribes were expensive. To Moses, David, John, Paul, etc., every single word had to count, so they had to assume that their audiences had some basic knowledge.
Our world could not be more different than theirs.
They spent most of their lives out of doors, tending sheep, sowing and harvesting crops, casting nets for fish, or just enjoying the cool breeze atop their houses. We live in air conditioned homes and offices that are far from the fragrances of nature, and most of us wouldn’t know how to help a sheep give birth if our lives depended on it. They lived in a world where wise men memorized the lore of their people, using writing as a backup rather than a primary source. We write everything we need to know down, and the success of our culture depends on our ability to index and disseminate our written records. They lived in a supernatural world, where angels, demons, and even gods walked among men, and a mortal could literally climb a mountain to reach heaven or travel to a particular geographic location to visit hell. We live in a sterile, materialistic world (or so we think), where visions are mocked or treated with medicine, and heaven and hell are mere literary concepts–or at least we treat them as such.
How do you bridge that kind of gap? Frankly, by reading a bit . . . or a lot.
Dr. Heiser has previously listed a number of resources, both free and expensive (in the way that only academic books can be expensive), on his Naked Bible Podcast website. Unfortunately, they seem to be presently missing, but the site is currently under re-construction as I write this, and I trust that they will be available again soon. In any case, his podcasts are a good place to start. Another good place is your local library, specifically in the history and religion/mythology sections. Even a few hours on Wikipedia will help.
“Wait just a minute!” you’re saying. “I want to study the Bible. Why are you telling me to read all this pagan stuff?”
I’m not suggesting that you spend a thousand hours reading mythology. I am suggesting that you read enough history and mythology to have a real sense of how the human authors of the Scriptures saw their world–and recognize that their ideas about the world, society, and even their own psychology was vastly different than our own.
To give just one example, I’ll quote one of my favourite Christian apologists, J.P. Holding, as he explains just one aspect of how the ancients saw the world differently than most modern Westerners:
As Malina and Neyrey say in their own book, Portraits of Paul , the “conscience” in Paul’s collectivist society was behavioral controls that laid outside the person. An ancient would regard as unintelligible the modern comment, “Let your conscience be your guide!” Modern translations, assuming modern values and perceptions, are putting the modern concepts of “guilt” and “conscience” into these passages. The KJV commits a similar error (or we gain a similar misunderstanding) from suneidesis being rendered “conscience” [in Rom. 2:15].
Holding quotes Richard Rohrbaugh, who says,
Both guilt and shame exist in most societies though one response or the other usually dominates. Collectivist societies (dyadic view of personality) are ALL shame societies. Thus All known agrarian societies have been honor-shame societies and it is only individualistic societies in which guilt comes to the fore. The issue is therefore not the modern versus the ancient, but the collectivist versus the individualistic. Since industrialized societies allow for economic, political, and especially psychological individualism, it is industrialized societies that are guilt cultures. It is because the ancient Mediterranean world was a highly collectivistic, agrarian society that guilt was virtually unknown. Reading it into ANY biblical text is a serious mistake.
In many respects, then, a Japanese Christian is far better equipped to understand the societies presented in the Bible, since his world (unlike ours in America) is likewise dominated by an honor-shame paradigm (see here for another discussion on the difference). We in the mostly democratic West have to partake in a lot of effort to get into a mindset that the Biblical authors considered so natural that they never even think to question or explain it.
This is not to say that you can’t understand the Bible at all without a course in cultural anthropology. The basics of the Scriptures–there is a single, holy God who created the whole world; mankind rebelled and all of us have fallen short of God’s glory; God has given us a way to be reconciled with him through the death and resurrection of the Messiah Yeshua; and the main gist of how God wants us to live as his children and members of the community of the redeemed–are truly cross-cultural, and given to us in a way that even children can understand. And learning about the Bible’s original culture will not change any of those fundamentals. If anything, it will give you a greater appreciation for how radical those concepts were when they were written. But learning to think the Biblical authors’ thoughts after them will give you a deeper understanding of the Word–and if you’ve read this far, I assume that’s what you want.
As I’m reading these kinds of books–or indeed, any kind of book–I always keep my Bible close at hand, because I never know when I’ll come across something that will go into my notes. I like to use the header and footer areas of the page to copy down extended quotes and/or notes about the things I learn. I then write the page number down at the passages that the quote connects with as the cross-reference so that I can easily find it later. Over time, this has transformed my Bible into my general-purpose notebook for pretty much any subject that connects to it: History, language, science, philosophy. While more rare, I also have personal notes tucked around it, reminding me of times when particular passages helped me in difficult situations or gave voice to a particular time of joy.
Over time, my Bible has become less a study tool and more an extension of myself. Yes, nerd that I am, that extension is much heavier on the intellectual discoveries that I enjoy and less on the emotional connections to the text that others might record. Which is why all of the above, and especially this last section, are offered only as a few suggestions, not as some kind of magical formula for Scriptural growth.