Every semester I introduce my students to a range of Jewish literature. In the first year module, Jesus and the Gospels, for example, I give a brief overview of the historical context and review the relevant collections of Jewish literature. We also spend several sessions looking at non-canonical gospels and comparing them with the canonical Gospels. But, despite trying to get my students to read the ancient material, many remain resistant. Some lack motivation. Others don’t see the value: they have their Bible so what else do they need? Some, however, do take up the challenge. I think the spectrum I see with my students is fairly typical of the response of most Christians, and it seems that the majority of my students and Christians I know don’t see any value in understanding the historical context.
Mike Bird draws attention to a helpful piece by Andy Naselli addressing the issue of whether or not ‘background’ (that is, historical) knowledge is necessary for understanding the Bible. Andy gives a ‘cautious yes’, and Mike adds some good points as well. Two additional points seem relevant to note:
1. It seems to me that the debate about whether historical awareness is necessary arises because we have translations. If I wanted to read a Russian novel, then I would need to learn Russian which would include reading about Russian history and culture, for the two (language and culture) cannot be separated. If all Bible students and Christians had to learn the original languages, then this question of historical knowledge wouldn’t exist.
To be clear, I’m not advocating that we do away with translations. It just seems to me that a key reason we even ask the question about the necessity or importance of historical awareness is because translations are available and the reader then assumes that he or she can properly and fully understand the Scriptures.
2. If we hold that no historical knowledge is necessary, then one must ask why God choose to reveal himself through Israel and for the Incarnation to occur during the Roman period rather than some other historical period. God could have simply dropped the Scriptures from heaven at any time and in any language. He could have used metaphors and concepts that fit better with our context. But he didn’t, and because he didn’t it is vital that we seek to understand the language, history and culture of the ancient world in order to understand better and more fully the meaning of the text.
I recently read a novel set in England at the beginning of the 11th century. After finishing the novel I read about some of the events described because there were parts of the story that didn’t make sense to me. This wasn’t the author’s fault. Rather it was my lack of knowledge about the period and I wanted to understand better the setting of the story. The same is true of Scripture. Any reader of Scripture, whether in the original languages or translation, can get the basic story line, but there will always be gaps in one’s understanding without some knowledge of the historical context. The more one knows about the historical and social contexts and the languages, then the better chance one has to understand the text in its fullest meaning. And for those who are able to study the historical context, the greater the responsiblity that is placed on them to teach and help those who are not given this privilege.