Aric Clark has a very useful post about approaching ancient literature – in particular the Bible.
Things we read there may tend to startle, surprise, or shock us, or disappoint us, or seem like nothing out of the ordinary.
It is important to look into the context, to really grasp it. What seems disappointingly conservative to a modern reader may have been daringly progressive then. What we take for an emphatic statement of principle may have simply been a widely-held assumption.
Without a knowledge of a piece of ancient literature’s ancient context of cultural and other assumptions, we won’t know what was surprising in the text. And it is that that was often the point – a point we will miss if we don’t have the historical knowledge necessary to get a sense of what the earliest readers would have felt the point to be.
Clark’s post is in response to a series by Rachel Held Evans, and her own recent post about Colossians touches on similar themes and is well worth reading.