“You need to become a first century Jew.”
Oh, how many times I have heard this kind of thing from people discussing the New Testament. And it’s not, of course, entirely incorrect. The Bible was written for all of God’s people in every time and place, but it was not written to all of us. Each book was written to a particular ancient audience very different from us today. So, often enough, we can understand a book of the Bible better if we learn to put ourselves in the original audience’s place, to think and feel like they did.
My problem is with what people who say these kinds of things tend to mean. They don’t just mean we need to learn the perspective of the people the Bible was written to. They often mean we need to learn this perspective by studying a bunch of technical background stuff about history, anthropology, archeology, and everything else. And this is where I start feeling a bit uncomfortable.
Now, let me be clear. I’m not saying these studies are bad or useless. No, they are great and very useful. I think the work done in these fields is invaluable. And they work: the findings of historians and others actually do make tons of things in the Bible clearer. But do we really need them to get the majority of the Bible? Can we never know the real, original meaning of it all without the help of our scholarly magisterium? To put it another way, is the average Martin doomed to get everything wrong without top-notch commentaries to hold his hand? I can’t help but suspect the answer is “no.”
See, the key to understanding any text is to think the way that the author expected the reader to think. That’s the whole point of studying the historical and cultural context of the Bible. We can use what we learn to shift mental gears into the same configuration as that of ancient Israelites. But there’s more than one way to neutralize a Dalek, so to speak, and I think Martin Luther had the right idea.
Sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone,” is the Protestant belief that, ultimately, everything we really need to know about God can be found in the Bible. We don’t need a magisterium, Holy Tradition, or N. T. Wright’s marvelous book The New Testament and the People of God, however helpful they might sometimes be. Cue the ironically-named doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, or the clarity of the Bible. Not everything in the Bible is equally clear, but the good stuff we most need to know can be easily found and proved.
I think this extends further than some people give it credit for, and not as far as others do. I don’t think this means that any Martin can just crack open a Bible and get any particular thing, even the Gospel itself, right at first glance. But on the second, or the third, or even the fourth time… Scholars put a lot of historical work into finding the worldview of the Bible’s first readers, but we can’t forget that the Bible contains its own worldview, at least implicitly. And the Bible is big. There is enough stuff in there to actually build an entire way of thinking, feeling, and doing. This is stuff that we absorb without even realizing it as we read. So if we absorb more as we read more, then our hearts will be filled more and more with the real Bible.
My point, then, is that this rare and mythical process—you know, reading—can actually give us the perspective we need. The more we consume the Bible, the more it becomes a part of us. “You are what you eat,” it is said, and this applies mentally as much as physically. Just like we digest food and use its parts to build our bodies, so we digest books and use their parts to build our minds. So if you read enough Bible, you will, perhaps slowly, begin to understand it more accurately.
Still, consistency, willingness to learn, and comprehensiveness are vital. Many people read the Bible their whole lives without learning to read it well. There are plenty of reasons for this, of course. But, for many of these people, their reading has often been scattered, blocked by presuppositions they couldn’t give up, or neglectful of certain parts. This last one is a biggie. I would say without hesitation that many Christians get a lot of the Bible wrong because they don’t pay enough attention to most of what’s in Genesis 4 to Matthew 1, or don’t read/skim over books like Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes, Chronicles, Lamentations, or the Minor Prophets. Few Christians really get to know the Psalms, except for a few of their favorites, or the ins and outs of Jude. They’re scared of Revelation (except when they’re not and run over it like a toddler on a bulldozer) and Ezekiel. They’ve only read 3 chapters of Job, the first two and the last one. Yet we need all of these parts in order to learn to think like the Bible thinks, and so even get our favorite parts right.
So, in the end, my proposal is simple. If you read the Bible enough—and I mean seriously, not just like daily devotional material—you’ll learn it deeply. It will enter the crevices of your heart. Doing this over a long enough period of time can, when done well, truly make you a competent reader, up there with the scholars. You’ll be that first century Jew, just by a different route.
(P.S. I’m not claiming to have scaled these heights yet. I’ve cheated by reading excellent Bible-readers like N. T. Wright, Peter Leithart, James Jordan, and Alastair Roberts, among others.)