Lecture 1: The Importance of Context
Course: New Testament Introduction
Lecture: The Importance of Context
This course will help you to begin to weave yourself through the maze of NT studies. During the course we will be exploring several major subject areas:
- the history of the period in which the NT was written;
- the social and cultural milieu in which early Christians lived;
- the practice of the scholarly study of the NT (source, form, redaction, genre, rhetorical criticism et al.);
- questions of introduction about the books of the NT (authorship, date, audience, structure, purpose);
- the practice of exegesis and hermeneutics.
When reading the Bible, there is a danger of reading our own ideas into the text and assuming they are there. A text without a context is a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.
It has been said that the past is like a foreign country—they do things differently there. I love to take people to the lands of the Bible. I like to create in them a sort of a sense of cultural vertigo and what I mean by that is, one of the places I love to take them most is the Luxor in Egypt where they go to see the Temple of Thieves. They’re standing in the Temple of Thieves and they’re looking at all these statues and Hieroglyphics. On the right there is a Japanese tour group and on the left there is a German tour group and in the minaret in the background start calling to prayer in Arabic and at this point they kind of get cultural vertigo. They realize they are not at Wendy’s in Columbus anymore. They realize they are in a very different world, different culture, different languages and they get a little squeamish. Now the last time I did this my Egyptian tour guide said to the students when he could see they were glazing over and getting a little dizzy, he said, “Turn around” and they turned around at the entrance to the Temple of Thieves and he said, “Right across the street is the American cultural embassy”. They turned around and what they saw was a McDonald’s—the Golden Arches. The past really is like a foreign country they do things differently there and the Bible was entirely written in a different culture at a different time in different languages than we have. So the first thing that I really want to stress to you is that our big problem as 21st century Christians reading the Bible is the danger of an anachronism—that is the danger of reading into the text our own late western even Christian ideas into the text and assuming that they are there. Now what I would urge us to do is realize that the Bible is God’s word to us in all generations in all centuries in all millennium. However, it was given incarnation ally at specific points of time to specific people in specific cultures and therefore a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to be. Let me say that again because you are going to hear this mantra quite frequently, a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean. Let me illustrate what I mean. When I was pastoring one of my churches, one of the first churches that I pastored, I had a brand new Christian who was a carpenter in my church and one day he called me up, I kid you not, and he said, “Dr. Ben I have a dilemma”. I said, “Glen Ray what’s the problem?” He said, “Well, my fellow carpenter he knows the Bible better than I do and I was thinking about breeding some of my hunting dogs and he said that in the Bible it says you cannot do that, it’s against the Bible to breed dogs. I don’t know my Bible like I should be, is that what it says?” I said, “Glen Ray I’m pretty sure it doesn’t say that but I’ll look up every pea picking references to dogs in the Bible and I’ll get right back to you”. So I hung up and I knew his friend was a KJV kind only guy and so I went to my KJ lexicon and I started going through all the references to dog in the NT and there was nothing of any relevance whatsoever. Then I started going through the references to dog in the OT and I came across this verse which read, “Thou shalt not breed with the dogs”. I called up Glen Ray and said, “Glen Ray I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. Here’s the good news, those furry four-footed tail wagging critters, you can breed all those you want. But there is this verse in the OT that says, “That Israelites should not sexual fraternize with foreign women and the way that that is described is, Thou shalt not breed with the dogs as in a pejorative term for foreign women.” There was kind of a pregnant pause at the other end of the line while this was sort of soaking in to Glen Ray’s cerebral cortex and he said, “Dr. Ben I’m feeling ever so much better now and anyway, my wife, Betty Sue’s just from Chatham County”. A text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean. Therefore, the value of contextual study of the most important book every written is paramount. When I talk about context I’m not just talking about the literary context OK, study this verse in its paragraph, in its chapter, in its book, I’m not just talking about literary context I’m also talking about the historical context, the religious context, the archeological context and the rhetorical context and the social context, there are a lot of contexts that help us understand the content of the Bible. So what we’re going to do is first of all we’re going to talk about the NT as a first century text. What I’ve got here for you, sparing no expense, are examples of the very earliest manuscripts we have of the NT. One of which is P46, I Thess 2 is what you’ve got there. Let me read you a verse from I Thess 2 which helps us get at the nature of the setting in which the Bible was written. This is Paul talking to the Thessalonians, this is verse 13 of chapter 2 of I Thess, Paul says this, We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. Now this verse will preach in various ways but let me ask you a question, what did he mean by the phrase word of God, what was he referring to there? Was he referring to A) a text or a book? Was he referring to B) some kind of oral proclamation of a message about God? Or was he talking about C) Jesus, the incarnate word of God? It could be any of those 3 things, that phrase was used in all of those ways in that era, what here was he referring to? Well, the verse gives us the clue you heard from us the word of God. So which of these 3 is he referring to? He’s talking about the oral proclamation and here is something you are going to have a hard time getting hold of, I had a hard time getting hold of this, this was an oral culture, not a culture of texts, the world of Jesus, the world of Paul, the world of John the Baptist all of these folks the world of all the OT figures it’s an oral culture. There’s only about 10-15 percent literacy, it’s not a culture of texts, texts are rare and expensive. Let me tell you why. I brought this back from Egypt with me, this is the original paper, I’ll pass it around and let you look at it. This is a piece of papyrus, this is what that was written on, this is it right here. Look at this. It comes from a reed in the Nile Delta. It’s a triangular shaped reed shaped like a trinity, they take the reed, they slice it into thin strips and they lay them vertical and horizontal—you can see that in this piece of papyrus, look at that you see they run at 450 angels, you see that, horizontal and vertical. You just roll the rolling pin over the strips; you hang it out to dry in the dry Egyptian heat and voila you have the ancient equivalent to paper. It was written on this but this stuff was incredibly expensive. Paper was expensive, ink which was soot and water was expensive. Secretaries were enormously expensive, are you with me now. The cost of producing a document which you could not erase, no boo boos allowed, was enormous. This world was not a world that was a culture of texts. It’s an unoral culture and the texts in that culture are an oral text, no that’s not an oxymoron, I know sometimes when I use the words oral texts people think, well that’s about as much an oxymoron as Microsoft Works. It sounds like a contradiction in terms. It’s not. Look at this text for a minute, OK, look at this text here. What do you notice about it? There is no separation of words, there’s no punctuation, there’s no separation of sentences, paragraphs and yea verily there’s not chapters and verses. Are you with me now? This is an oral text. How can you make sense of this? You have to pronounce the syllables out loud. You have to read the text out loud to even figure out where the words stop and start. It’s an oral text. Libraries were noisy in antiquity; everybody read out loud. This is not a joke. One of my favorite lines from St Augustine is he says, “St Ambrose was the most amazing of all early Christians that he knew, he was the first man he had ever met who could read a text without opening his mouth because everybody else read everything out loud.” It’s an oral text. Look at this one; this is the earliest fragment of the Gospel of John that we have yet found. This is from 125AD not long after this document was written, here it is. The letters are all run together, they are all capital letters, and it’s like first grade writing out the alphabet. Here’s another one, this is done by a more elegant scribe, all capital letters, no punctuation, no hyphens, no commas, no periods and no chapters and verses which, by the way, were not put into the Bible until the late middle ages and they were put in the Bible by Archbishop Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury because he had way too much time on his hands. So he decided to divide it into chapters and verses and they are not inspired. Those numbers were put in by an Archbishop who figured we needed some divisions. This is what is called scriptum continuum; the words just keep on going and going and going and going. Look at this, this is an epitaph on a tomb, it’s a whole bunch of capital letters and this guy was not very good because look at the end of the line here, what happened? He got to the end of the line and he realized he was running out of room, can’t start over, no cut, delete and paste, end of the line, end of the line. He was not the best of stonemasons. Here this is an ancient text in scriptum continuum, it’s an oral text. Now here are some of the features of an oral culture that you need to understand. They preferred the living voice to the written text. It you were to ask them which has more authority the oral proclamation or the written text 99 out of a 100 are going to say which? The oral proclamation. It’s the living voice that they want that’s why I named the book that you’re reading, The Living Word of God. That was primary, they trusted the living voice over text, and they saw texts as simply surrogates or scripts for speeches or oral performances. Let’s go back and look at that again. Look at this, this is like a sermon manuscript, it’s something that has been prepared not to exist in itself but as a what? A prop for an oral proclamation, a verbatim for an oral proclamation. I once had a student at Ashland Seminary who was getting frustrated all this contextual stuff we were making and learning you know, he came to me after class one day and he said, “Dr. Ben I don’t know why I need to learn all this contextual and historical stuff, after all I can just get up in the pulpit and the Spirit will give me utterance.” I said, “Charlie, yes you can certainly do that but it’s a shame you’re not giving the Holy Spirit more to work with.” See the function of the text in an oral culture is to supplement the oral culture, not supplant the authority of the oral and living word but to serve it, to supply it with words, to supplement that’s the point and specifically for the literate people. Now here’s a question for you. If only 10 or so percent of the world of Jesus and Paul were literate, could read and write, what does it tell you about the earliest Christians? That we have a Canon full of 27 books from them. What do you learn about the leaders of early Christianity? Would they have been at the elite end of the educational spectrum or at the bottom of the barrel? They would have been in the elite. They were part of the ten percent, part of the ten percent who could read and write and not just write anything. Some of them were even eloquent. Some of them would be in the upper one percent of being able to read and write and be literate and well spoken. The leadership of early Christianity was not Joe the day laborer, it was people like Peter and Paul and James and others who could read and write. Now you may be saying, wait a minute, wasn’t there that meeting in the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem where Peter and John were called on the carpet for all this miracle working and preaching and they were objected to and somebody said these men are au gramatos you know that doesn’t mean illiterate it means not trained in our seminary. What it means is a person who did not get a Jerusalem education, in other words this is snobbery. It’s not a comment on these fishermen from Galilee being illiterate; it’s a comment about them not being, in the mind of the speaker, well educated. So it actually says more about the commentator than Peter and John to be honest with you. The leaders of the early Christian movement were literate and they produced remarkable documents that stand up against other first century documents in terms of grammar, style, skill, rhetoric, in so many different ways the living voice was the primary thing. Now let’s think again for a minute about this text that I read to you I Thess 2:13 We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a mere human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. Oh, now where else do we hear about that? Remember Heb the word of God is powerful like a two-edged sword piercing between bone and marrow. He’s not talking about somebody swallowing a text, he’s talking about the penetration of the oral proclamation of God’s word into the human heart, that’s what he’s talking about. The living word of God was the oral proclamation that was primary. The written word of God was the residue of the oral proclamation and then there was another word of God, not just the word of God written but this word of God. The word spoken, the word written, the word incarnated in a person. These are the 3 forms of the word of God. Think of it this way. We would tend to think that the text is primary and the speaking is secondary and after the text the most important, certainly before the text, would be Jesus himself as the word of God. The word of God incarnate, tangible, touchable like a text. The way the ancients viewed this would be the word living in a person is primary; the oral word is living and secondary and tertiary is the text. Now that’s so different from where we are. Ask people what is the word of God and the first answer you get 9 out of 10 times is what? This book. No, no. That’s not how ancients would look at it. The text is a surrogate for the oral proclamation or the living of the presence of the word. It’s third on the totem pole of words of God. Now I want to talk to you about how people viewed words from a deity. They believed that words form a deity had inherent power. We’re used to thinking of words as mere symbols or ciphers you know a combination of letters. This is not how ancients viewed words especially divinely inspired words. And in a largely oral cultural it’s not how they viewed a sacred text. A sacred text had an aura or inherent power to it that we would not attribute to a normal book. We’re a culture just full of books. We’ve kindled ourselves into electronic books. Ancient peoples could hardly afford to own pieces of papyrus never mind multiple pieces of papyrus. Only the wealthy could afford that. Therefore, for them sacred texts especially were inherently holy. Had an inherent power to them and if a word of a God was proclaimed and it was true, it had an effect. So we hear in Isa God saying my word that goes out of my mouth: it will not return to me void, see it’s not like our culture. Our culture says oh words full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Wrong. This is not how oral words; especially sacred words were viewed in the first century AD. So much did they believe in the power of the words of a God or sacred words that when somebody uttered a blessing and it went forth from the mouth of the blessor you couldn’t take it back. There’s no do over. Remember the story of Jacob and Esau? There are no do overs when the blessing is given. There are no do overs when the curse is spoken. It has an inherent power, it’s like a snowball going down a mountain, and you’re not going to stop it. That’s the way it was. True prophecy is true because it becomes true. False prophecy is false why? Because it wasn’t a word of God to begin with. But a real, sacred, living word from God had an inherent power and effect. And texts that were service for that had an inherent power. Now I want to show you some of the problems we have in dealing with oral texts. For example, here’s the beginning of a familiar letter from Paul, it reads, Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God—which letter is this? Can you remember? Where does he refer to the gospel of God. How about Romans, the beginning of Romans. But you see I already know this text so I know how to divide these words up don’t I. Suppose I were to write on this blackboard, let’s just do this now, this, what does this say? It could be Jesus is now here, you could divide it this way. What else could it be? It could be Jesus is nowhere, if you’re from eastern NC like I me it could be Jes, us is nowhere. This is what we’re up against with the Greek NT. Papyrus, secretaries and ink was enormously expensive so they are at a premium of space. This is the real problem. Of our 4 canonical gospels Luke is longest by word count. The Gospel of Luke is the maximum number of words, syllables, letters; you could get on one lengthy piece, normal lengthy piece of papyrus. So the author of the Gospel of Luke is boogying to the max here. He’s using every square inch of that papyrus he can use. Now I’ve passed the pieces of papyrus around and if you look at it again you’ll know that are they going to write on the front and the back? Not so much. Why not? It’s basically transparent; it will bleed through because you’re using black soot for ink. You hold it up to the light you’ll see what I mean. So most ancients when they had a document written they wanted it plain text on the front, no divisions because it was a lengthy text. Now the exception to that is when you’re giving a receipt for a bill of goods or you know when you have given a legal verdict in a written form or when you’ve written the name of a king on a seal—those are not texts in the primary sense they are uses of letters but they are not text in the primary sense. People used all kinds of things to write on because papyrus was so expensive, they’d write on a piece of pot shirt, a little piece of clay, because this would be like you going out and buying a piece of vellum, scraped lamb skin and then writing the first 2 chapters of the Gospel of John on it. As expensive as that would be for you, that’s how expensive it was for anybody in antiquity. Now that’s very important because one of the things it means when we’re thinking about the spreading of early Christianity is that you shouldn’t think of everybody having their own copy of the Gospel of John or the Gospel of Mark or any of this. You’re probably not even thinking of every church having a wide array of documents. They had a few and they shared them. Now here’s the other thing and this is downside to us being living in a computer age and an age of texts. Living in an age of texts and computer screens disables your oral memory. You become dependent on the text and on the screen. One of the changes I’ve noticed since I began teaching at the dawn of time, in the early 80’s and unto now is that one of the first questions students always ask me is do you have handouts or do you have the power points that I could have. Because why? Because their oral memory has shrunk down and their writing skills are minimal. See the more that happens the less you’re like first century Christians who lived in an age where oral memory was huge. It’s an oral culture. You needed to hear it and remember it.
Now since it was an oral culture that brings me to the second aspect of these texts. You know the old saying, something gets lost in translation, well it really does. And what gets lost in translation is the oral dimension of the text, rhythm, rhyme, assonance, alliteration. These texts are full of mnemonic devices. They were meant to be heard, Jesus did not say let those with two good eyes read. He said, “Let those with two good ears hear” and the way he proclaimed his parables or the beatitudes in Aramaic was not merely memorable it could be memorized. It had oral devices in it that helped you. But what’s even more remarkable is these long documents that people like Paul produced. You do know Paul was long winded. There’s an appalling amount of Paul in the NT. More than Jesus, right? Right. You remember the story of Eutychus and what happened to poor Eutychus because Paul kept going on ad nauseam. Remember that? The thing that you notice even about Paul’s letters is that they are crafted in a way that in the Greek you can remember large chunks of it because it rhymes and it has rhythm and it has assonance and for the oral memory those are the catch devices that help them remember. All of that is lost by translating it into English. I would also say to you that when you have a translation that is a paraphrase you’ve doubly lost it. You are even further removed from the original text because what you’ve done is add so much yeast to the dough that what in Greek might be 2 words becomes in Eugene Peterson’s The Message fifteen words. You are very far removed from the original affect of the word. That doesn’t make The Message a bad thing in world full of texts and many, many Bibles, it’s a useful tool but it doesn’t really help you get back at the sense of the original text. Let me see if I can give you a little sense of the sense. The beginning of the Bible begins as follows, be-re-SHIYT ba-RA eh-lo-HIYM, In the beginning God created. You can already begin to hear where this is going; you have a b b sound be-re-SHIYT ba-RA In the beginning God spoke and said etc. A little further down two lines later it says and after what he had created it was, in English, formless and void or I prefer the translation wild and wooly. In the Hebrew it reads tohu wa-bohu what God had made was tohu wa-bohu. Now you can remember that, it has a ring to it; it’s got assonance alliteration and rhyme to it. You go to the NT over and over again even in Paul’s lengthy letters you have a whole string of words that begin with the same consonant, have the same verbs, end with the same endings. It’s not like the English that you read. It’s much more memorable and it can be memorized and that was by intent because the only word of God most of them knew was what? The oral spoken word, it’s the only word they had. So make it memorable, make it memorizable. Now the application today would be to preachers who are able to preach in a way that makes it memorable for the audience and not just throw out words. There was a skill in this proclamation and there was a power inherent in the words, let those with 2 good ears hear. Ancient texts were the residue of speech. OK, we have thus far been stressing the orality of the world in which the Bible was given and in our case the NT was given. It cannot be stressed enough but I think we’ve had enough stress on that so let me pause for just a minute and ask what questions do you have about the oral character of our NT text or the oral culture in which they were given.
Question from student could not be heard. Dr. Witherington continues, what I would say for a person who, let’s say you are language challenged. Greek is going to be Greek to you now and forever, amen, right? What can you do? Then you need to rely on good translations and good commentaries to help you get an understanding of the original content of these texts. And that would be also relying on good teachers and preachers who rely on good texts and commentaries that help them in their teaching and preaching. So it’s a pedagogical process and that would be also relying on good teachers and preachers who rely on good texts and commentaries who help them in their teaching and preaching. So it’s a pedagogical process, you have a spectrum of translations. On the far left end would be periphrastic ones like The Message or The Living Bible that kind of thing. In the middle you would have what are called idiomatic translations which are sense translations, sometimes word for word for they basically sense unit for sense unit and over on the far right of the spectrum you have more literal translations. Now what would be the problem with a literal translation? The big problem with the literal translation is the idioms, for example, if I call up my friend Schultz in Dusseldorf and say, “Hi, Schultz. I have an axe to grind today” he’s going to say, “Auch du liber Ben have you become an axe man”? Why? Because he doesn’t know the English idiom, I have an axe to grind. I don’t mean I’m actually grinding an axe, I have an agenda right? The problem with a literal translation is that if you literally translate the idioms in the Bible into English they don’t mean the same thing that they meant in the original language. A really good example of this would be in the story of Paul’s conversion. There are 3 accounts of Paul’s conversion, Acts 9, Acts 22 and Acts 26. In one of them Jesus from Heaven says to Saul flattened on the road to Damascus, Saul it hurts you to kick against the pricks. That’s the KJ translation which is so not working modern English. It doesn’t work for 2 reasons, one reason is that prick means something different today than it meant in 1611 but the second reason it doesn’t work at all is because the basic original idiom was part of a preindustrial culture. Literally it reads, it hurts you to kick against the goads. How many of you know what a goad is? It is a cow prod. It’s a stick with a point on it. But the idiom meant it is futile to resist your destiny. Saul, it’s futile for you to resist my plan for your life is what Jesus is saying. Now would you rather have a translation that gives it to you literally and then you kind of say, “What, I don’t get that. In fact it might be offensive. I just read it in the KJ and I went whoa, oh dude, R rated passage. Not going there again.” Or would you rather have a sense translation. My preference is for a good idiomatic translation that translates the meaning from the sender language to the receiver language and of course that’s a moving target in both ways. English is a living language, it keeps changing. What prick mean in 1611 is not what prick means now. One of the reasons you have to keep having translations is a) English keep changing. The reason is we keep learning more about the Greek NT. We keep finding more and more manuscripts; we’re closer and closer to the original Greek text so on both ends we need more and more translations. For me, the bottom line is that as a pulpit Bible I would prefer to use the TNIV or the NRSV. They are not perfect translations but they are better than most of the other idiomatic translations. Those are the ones that I would normally use. Now the honest truth is that in a class like this I’m going to do my own translation. The Bible that I read from is this one, Novum Testamentum Graece this is what I translate from, I do my own translation. But when I’m using other translations I’m going to use this, the NRSV and the Wesley Study Bible with notes that it has. It’s very good. It’s not perfect. A word about translators, they are notoriously conservative. They try to be careful; they know the whole history of translation in English all the way back to William Tyndale. When they are in doubt about a translation of something they will tend to go with the dominate translation from previous major translations. That’s how they tend to go. There are places where that causes real problems, I’ll give you 2 examples. Here we go, this is Heb 12:2, Looking to Jesus the trailblazer and finisher of faith or another translation would be, Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of faith. Now how many of you have a translation in front of you that has the word our before the faith in English? Probably most of you. I’m glad you don’t because the word our is not in any single Greek manuscript. That’s an interpretation; it is assumed that what Jesus is the Alpha and Omega of our faith. That’s a translation began with the Reformation and continues to today but it’s interpreted. It’s reading into the Greek text a word that is not there in any manuscript. I actually think it’s wrong. The reason I do is because Heb12:1-2 is actually the conclusion of Heb 11. What’s in Heb 11? It’s the hall of faith, remember, Abraham by faith did…Isaac did…Jacob did…and so on and so on. I think that Jesus is being presented as the climatic example of the person from start to finish who trusted God. He’s the Alpha and Omega example of faith. It’s not about our faith, it’s about him trusting God and being obedient even unto death on the cross. That’s what it is about. Not about our faith. This is where a more literal translation at least leaves the door open for a various reading of the text but when you put the word our in there there’s no doubt it’s not about Jesus, it’s about us. I give you one more example; this is the superman verse that was on the face of Tim Tebow quite regularly from Phil. You notice I can do all things through him who strengthens me, you know that one. Well that’s not quite what it says so let’s look at Phil 4:13 is the verse in question but I’m going to back up and give you a more literal rendering of the whole paragraph—always a good thing to back up and get a running start on an important verse, 10 I rejoice[g] in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it.[h] 11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. Remember how Paul elsewhere says Godliness with contentment is great gain—same message here. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. (NRSV) And then here’s the translation, I am able to endure all things through him who strengthens me. Now how is that different from 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (ESV) There’s a big difference. He’s talking about being able to endure plenty or want, good times or bad, up or down, suffering or bliss, the context is perfectly clear. It’s not about him being able to do anything and everything in him who strengthens me, he’s not suggesting that if I jump off of a tall building I will not be feeling a heavy bit of gravity. He’s talking about being able to accept, endure, go through, get through any and all circumstances. That’s what he’s talking about through the one that strengthens me I can endure all things. That’s the point of that verse. It’s not a superman verse. When you get back to the original text a lot of this comes to light and that’s why the next thing I must say to you and just emphasize is, translators, bless their pea picking hearts, they are wonderful and they work hard they really do but thry are human beings and of course they make mistakes. There is not an inerrant translation; the inerrancy is in the original Bible, the infallibility is in the original inspired words that God inspired. The translations are hopefully faithful approximations of the original, that’s what they are. That’s what we want. Therefore, I have to stress to you that every translation is already an interpretation. Why? Well let’s take the English word love. English is a very Plebeian language compared to Greek. There are 5 or 6 good words in Greek for love. We just have love. There’s agape, philia, there’s storge for family love, there eros for erotic love and I could keep going. Here’s the problem, how do you render a Greek original into English when the sender language has all these words to use and we have only one or vise versa. Sometimes there’s just exactly one word in Greek for a particular thing and we’ve got like 5 different words in English to render it with. Every time you come across the fact that there’s not commensurability, a one-for-one thing, this means this and this means this and this means this, and the sender language has all the possibilities of the receiver language well then the translator has to make an interpretation. He has to make a decision and there are thousands of decisions made in any translation. Some of them are minor and inconsequential; some of them are major, like, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, a major decision. You’ve decided to put the word our in their to make clear that it’s our faith, not Jesus’ that we’re talking about here. Well that’s a decision you made without any textual support. Not a single manuscript says our in the Greek and they had words for our. That’s the kind of things that we face when we’re dealing with the Bible as the Word of God. So the first thing that I have been trying to emphasize to you is that we need to study the Bible in its original context and the first context we talked about is the oral context.
I want to move now to a second context and that is the social context, the social context. That world was really different from ours. I can hardly begin to tell you how different it was. Here’s 3 good examples. A) There was no free market economy, that’s one. B) It was basic a barter culture, money was not used a lot except for special purposes like paying taxes and not everybody had money. People didn’t go around with wallets all the time in antiquity and they certainly didn’t go around with purses. C) The main labor force in much of the Greco-Roman world was slaves. At the time that Paul was executed in Rome, in the 60’s AD, the estimate is that fifty percent of the population of Rome were slaves. You want to talk about slave labor, I’m not talking about working at Wendy’s, I’m talking about slave labor that built the pyramids, that built all these incredible temples, that built all of the statues and we could go on. The basis of that economy was slave, literal slave labor. You think what is going on in the factories in China is slave labor? Not so much compared to the first century world. Slaves were property, they were owned. They did not have unions; they did not have a minimum wage. So, let’s talk about the social world and the way we’re going to talk about it is we’re going to talk about concepts that were crucial to family values in that world that are different from ours. Here are some of the concepts we are going to talk about. Honor and shame, limited good, reciprocity, patriarchy, and there are others but these are enough to start with. Let’s talk about honor and shame first. Let’s think back for a minute to WWII, Pearl Harbor Day, Dec 7. What happened on Pearl Harbor Day? Young Japanese boys, not merely bombed our naval fleet in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, many of them crashed bonsai, their planes, into the decks of aircraft carriers setting them alight. Now, Americans were not merely horrified because it happened to them, they couldn’t understand this. Why would an eighteen year old boy with everything to live for, in perfectly good health, crash an airplane into the deck of an aircraft carrier? Let me go you one higher? Why would a young man from Nigeria get on an airplane heading for Detroit and try to blow himself up and 259 other people? Let’s think about this for a minute because these are major cultural differences. Every culture has a hierarchy of values. I’m going to give you 3 choices for America. At the top of the hierarchy of American values are one of the following three, truth vs. lies, life vs. death, honor vs. shame. What would you say is at the top of American hierarchy values on the basis of how they spend their money? Or even on the basis of their clichés? It’s life and death—there’s no question. Look at our clichés. Well it’s not a matter of uh huh, here’s the primary value of the cultural right there. This was not true for the Japanese at the beginning of WWII. This is an honor and shame cultural. Honor and shame, more important than life and death, willing to sacrifice life for honor. So what were those boys doing? What was the terrorist doing on the airplane? He believed that he was honoring his god and those whose opinion that matter the most to him in his religion by sacrificing his life so that the balance of honor and shame could be upheld. Life and death further down the value hierarchy. Right? Americans find this inexplicable because that is not what is at the top of our hierarchy. For sure, truth and lies are not at the top of our value hierarchy, just go to Washington and watch what happens for awhile. Clearly the truth is not believed to set us free in America. It has a lot more to do with money and politics and other things. Always good to know what the real values of your culture are. In Jesus’ world, in Paul’s world the primary value was honor and shame. For honor you would be prepared to lie. For honor you would be prepared to die. It’s closer to the Marines, simper fi baby. It’s much closer to a military set of highly regimented priorities but in that culture honor and shame were number one. People would rather die than live in shame. Why did Judas hang himself? The Gospel of Matthew tells us, what does it say? Judas was ashamed of himself and what he had done and he went out and hanged himself. Rather die than shame others and yourself. America’s not like that and let me just say to you that when you lose your sense of honor in a society you lose your sense of shame. No good preaching against sin unless the culture also believes in virtue. Sins are just arrows or booboos, these concepts are dyadic and they go together. The opposite of sin is something sacred. Doing something virtuous and good, right? The world that Jesus and Paul lived in was an honor and shame culture. You tried to establish your honor in public and you tried to avoid shame. One of that ways that that played out in that culture was that men in a patriarchal culture were responsible for maintaining the public honor of a family and women were responsible for protecting the family from shame. Now how would a woman protect the family from shame? What was her chief role in a patriarchal society? Being the faithful wife, the good wife, and raising the children and avoiding sexual immorality. You want to know why that story about the woman caught in adultery is such a voluble story? It’s because she is believed, that woman is believed to have done the one thing that above all a woman is supposed to avoid in that society, avoid sexual shame. By the way it’s still that way in the Middle East today. And yes, there was a double standard. Women were in charge of avoiding shame, men not so much. OK for the men to go visit the prostitutes, that wasn’t shameful it was just avoiding having another baby, OK, go, this is Greco-Roman world, it’s not the Jewish world but that’s the dominate world of the Roman Empire. It was a double standard, hold women to a higher standard of sexual ethics than men. And it had to do with this whole concept of honor and shame. Men established the honor of the family and the women protected the family from shame at the core identity of their family by protecting the bloodline by raising the children by keeping the heredity intact. All of that very different from our culture. Let’s talk about the other aspect of that. All marriages or almost all marriages in antiquity were arranged marriages. There were no romantic Harlequin romance novels, there were no romantic movies. Arranged marriages. Most people in early Judaism were engaged by the age of twelve or thirteen if they were women, fifteen or sixteen if they were boys. And who got them engaged? The two sets of parents, it’s arranged. No dating, going to the movies, parking, holding hands, yadi yadi yada. In many of these cultures you wouldn’t even see the wife until the day of the wedding period. This still happens today, this is who different this society was from ours. Marriage was a property contract. It was property exchange. It was viewed basically as a property exchange. So there would be a haggling over the bride and what was called the bride price, the ketubbah, the bride price. My daughter is fairer than 10,000 camels, well I should hope so you know, and therefore she is worth 10,000 camels says the first century Jew. Aw but your daughter is older now, who knows how fertile she still is. And the argument would go like this. They would haggle over the price of the bride. What was she worth in land and property and what little liquid resources they might have had. Not like marriage today, a very different proposition. In Jesus’ world when you got married you did not get married in a synagogue or a church. You did not get married with benefit of clergy and no there was not a piece of paper from the State of Ohio saying that you were married. The essence of ancient marriage was very different from what we take for granted as marriage today. It’s a different world. Ideally in a marriage contract the husband is hoping to do what? Improve his honor rating and avoid shame. So how does that affect the reading of the Christmas story, hello Joseph and Mary. We have a little problem; I mean picture Mary coming home to her parents. Mom and Dad you need to sit down. Ummm I have some good news and some not so good news. Here’s the good news, I’m going to be the mother of the Messiah. Well, honey every Jewish mother would like to be the mother of the Messiah and this is good, OK. And how do you know this? Well, an angel came to me and told me that I was already pregnant. Un huh, an angel told you this. Was it night time and was it dark? And how were you pregnant? I was pregnant by means of the Holy Spirit. Right, Mary I think you need to get out of town just now because what is the penalty for a betrothed woman who is pregnant out of wedlock?” Suddenly this is not a nice little squishy romantic Christmas story it is a dark and dangerous story. Her life is in danger and Joseph was so not going to be able to divorce her quietly in a one stoplight town like Nazareth. Nazareth was about as big a Lebanon, Ohio, less even. This is an honor and shame thing. Joseph is trying to avoid shame until he has a dream that says you should take Mary to be your wife, it’s OK. See all of that whole cultural convention is in play in their minds and Mary’s afraid of being stoned, Joseph’s afraid of marrying a shamed woman, not a good thing. Honor and shame. Now we need to talk about these two concepts together. Let’s talk about reciprocity first. If you want to see reciprocity in action in America watch the Sopranos or before that the Godfather, “I do you a favor in exchange for what you would do me a favor after which I would do you another favor, then you will do me a favor, or you will sleep with the fish.” Don Corleone, Godfather Part 1. Reciprocity, where does the mafia culture come from? The Mediterranean world, it’s a Sicilian culture which is simply a microcosm of ancient Greco-Roman culture. It was a I’ll scratch your back you scratch mine culture. It was a culture that believed you don’t get something for nothing. It has to be an exchange. Let me ask you this question; is America more like a reciprocity culture or a culture of grace? See grace means unmerited favor, grace means undeserved benefit, grace means unearned privilege/gift. I think our culture is very much like this culture in this respect, we’re an exchange or reciprocity culture. You’re not satisfied with that product madam why you can exchange it—our reciprocity cultural. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours and the world goes round and round and round. That’s how that world worked. Do I need to tell you that there were no democracies in Jesus’ world, no free market economy, there were patrons and clients. You know how you get ahead in a culture of patrons and clients? It’s kind of like teachers and students; you practice the art of sucking up. Patrons and clients. In a reciprocity culture that is not a democracy and isn’t a free market economy the way you get ahead in life is not what you know it’s what? Who you know and how well you’ve sucked up to them. That’s how you get ahead in that world. It’s the way it works. You gotta know how it works; you have to be able to work the system. Now here’s the thing. The reason you needed patrons, if you were not an über- wealthy person, the best we can tell in the world of Jesus and Paul there really isn’t a middle class. There’s the über-wealthy that are about two to five percent and then there’s everybody else on some gradient less than that. There’s not anything that you could call the middle class in antiquity. There are people that are less well off like day laborers and landless peasants. There are people that are more well off like artisans, carpenters, stonemasons but the disparity between wealth and poverty was huge in this culture. Two percent very well off everybody else not so much. In that world when you’re wanting to try and get ahead here’s the problem, limited good. You know we have commercials that perpetuate the myth that we have endless resources. Eat all you want and we’ll make more. When I talk to children in elementary school, you’ll love this one, I say, “Where does food come from?” You know what the number one answer is, survey says the grocery store. And how did it miraculously appear on the shelves at the grocery store? It was trucked in, and from where? You see what I’m getting at. In antiquity everybody knew there were limited resources, limited goods to be had, there’s not an infinity of potato chips, there’s not an infinity of dips, there’s not an infinity of potatoes. There’s a limited number and it runs out and more likely than not the über- wealthy have it and you don’t. So how do you get it? You can’t go to the grocery store and buy it, most of the time it’s not there. It’s like the famine lines in Russia under the Soviet Union. How do you get it? You suck up to somebody who’s got it. And if he’s got it you don’t because you’re assuming there is a limited number of them. Right? Limited number of cars, clothes, food, shelter, clothing, etc. Limited. Limited edition. Limited goods. Our culture believes we can always make more. Never mind that probably in another twenty-five years all the fossil fields will be drained from the earth, we can always make more. That’s OK we’ll go to the planet Pandora and find unobtainable and then we’ll be good again. Right? No. Because you see we’ve bought the myth of modernity that through progress and intelligence and technology we can solve all our problems and there really aren’t limited goods. It’s a myth. We’re going to run out. Absolutely we are. Well ancient people didn’t have any problem with that did they, they were constantly running out. They understood this, not a problem in their culture. If you spend time as I have even in a place like Appalachia working with the vista workers you understand the concept of limited goods. I was working with a family that had sixteen children and the husband and wife were in their mid thirties. There was not enough food to go around no matter how hard the husband worked in the strip mine, no matter how much extra work the mother did—I mean it was peanut butter for a lot of meals. You with me now? Limited goods. The more I study ancient culture compared to our culture where there are similarities is not a good thing and where there are differences we’re on the short end of the stick in terms of spiritual values. Why do you think it was that Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor.” I’ll tell you one reason they are not foolish enough to think that something other than God can be God in their life. They are not foolish enough to think that they can create their own security by owning things. They are not foolish enough to think that they can protect themselves from all harm just by spending money on security systems and homeland security and that sort of stuff. Here’s a real sad moral truth when your enemy is able to produce in you an enormous reaction of fear an overreaction to what they might do the enemy has already won because what you are going to do is spend your money and your time and all your interests on the basis of fear factor not faith factor. And that’s where our culture is right now, right now. The values that existed in Jesus’ world some of them he did not affirm. Some of the family values of his culture and Paul’s culture he did not simply affirm. Let me give you an example, in that world your family and kin group was primary. Any other associations you had in a city as a citizen of the city or in a gild or a military unit whatever it may be your primary sense of belonging was your family and your kin group. Just look at all of the genealogies in the Bible. Into that world comes somebody named Jesus who says, “Who are my mother, brothers and sisters? They are whoever does the will of God.” This is enormously threatening to a “my physical family is first in my life”, enormously threatening. The primary family for Jesus was the family of faith, the primary family for Paul was his brothers and sisters in Christ. The secondary family was the physical family and if there was a tug of war between the physical family and the family of faith what did Jesus say about that? “Do not think I came to bring peace but a sword for the members of your own family, if they are divided about me it will be mother against father and brother against sister, etc. Because how they view me is the primary thing in building the family of faith. One of the great problems I think we have in the church is that the church, today, thinks it’s job is to nurture nuclear families, not a bad thing, instead of being primarily a family. When people talk about a family church today they normally mean a church that is user friendly for families, physical families, and again, not a bad thing. But it is not the primary purpose of church. The primary purpose of church is to be an eternal family of faith, brothers and sisters in Christ forever. That’s the primary family that Jesus set up. He was deconstructing old school patriarchy. This is why he not only had male disciples, the apostles. One of my favorite answers on a NT quiz recently, first question, what were the Apostles? The answer’s pretty good. Second question, what were the Epistles? Answer, the wives of the Apostles. Jesus had both male and female disciples and what is unique about that is not that he had male disciples; lots of Jewish teachers in that age had male disciples. What is unique about that is he had Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and various other women who not only learned from him but traveled with him and not only traveled with him but were patrons of the Jesus movement. This would have made the Galilean Gazette headlines, Radical Rabbi on the Road Again with men and women he’s not related to—news at 11:00. This is radical. There are some aspects of this that he’s deconstructing, he’s not simply affirming first century family values. He’s deconstructing them because the Kingdom is coming, that eschatological saving activity of God is happening and new occasions teach new duties. It’s a whole new world. It’s a radically different world, it’s not the world we wake up to every morning over our cornflakes.