“Difficulty” in Understanding the Bible: Hebrew Cultural Factors

“Difficulty” in Understanding the Bible: Hebrew Cultural Factors February 5, 2021

It’s a very common motif in anti-theist atheist polemics, to say that the Bible appears to be very complicated and inscrutable (and, they wrongly think, ubiquitously contradictory). This shouldn’t be the case — so they argue — if indeed it is a divinely inspired document from an omniscient God, meant to communicate to all human being at all times.

One atheist, Eric [see our closely related dialogue immediately prior to this], stated it this way in an atheist combox, in discussion with me on one particular passage:

This undermines the whole message and credibility of the text [Matthew 28:2-4] – a text which is supposedly inspired by God and intended for a broad audience. It should not take an expert delving into Koine Greek verb tenses to communicate the correct timing of an earthquake. If that’s required, something has gone wrong. Either the text is badly written, or the expert’s bias is causing them to reject a more straightforward reading. . . .

I agree insofar as you and I are not living in the first century Near Eastern / Semitic / Mesopotamian culture (specifically, Israel) with its Greek and Roman influences, and a strong local history of Judaism and ways and modes of thinking therein. Since we are not in those “shoes” and because of time and vast language and cultural differences, it’s necessary for us to enter into that mindset through study of the culture, including recourse to language tools that also bring out the nuances in the Greek. For the people back then, many such things would have been quite clear which are unknown or obscure to us.

I don’t see that this is even arguable. I assert that it’s self-evident. The Bible was specifically written for this target group. The rest of us are quite capable is using our heads to figure out “difficult”: texts and indeed, there are many available excellent tools to help us to do that (now with the Internet, more readily available than ever).

To note just three example of multiple hundreds: you think that a modern American or European is supposed to have knowledge at their fingertips about first-century Jewish burial customs, involving spices for anointing, linen cloths, and whether a Jew could purchase burial linen cloths on the Sabbath or Passover? Obviously we will not. I don’t know about you, but certainly didn’t know a thing about it till I read commentaries, historical accounts etc. (I cited someone who consulted the Talmud regarding the linen in my latest paper) explaining it. These three aspects were part of the case against the Resurrection accounts.

You seem to think that they should all be readily evident in their meaning and nature to the modern reader (otherwise we are entitled to question that the Bible is inspired revelation: it being so frustratingly “complicated”). I totally disagree. Many of these bogus proposed “contradictions” involve things precisely of this nature (and I know, having dealt with many hundreds of them myself): points of ancient Hebrew culture, nuances in the Greek texts of the New Testament, etc.

Because the usual atheist skeptic (the professional ones, at any rate) goes barging into the biblical text like a bull in a china shop, thinking they understand it better than Christians like myself who have devoted their lives to studying the Bible, they oftentimes miss these finer points, where commentaries and historians, even archaeology, can provide much helpful background cultural and linguistic information, that we require, being so far removed from the original literary and cultural context.

Eric continues:

[Your] argument is consistent with the Bible being written by mere humans, for the limited crowd in front of them. It may even be consistent with a divine message of imminent apocalypse. However it is not consistent with a message written or inspired by a perfect communicator, sending His message to all people throughout the ages.

Another point that hurts your position, in my opinion, is that we have many many bible translations, going from hundreds of years ago all the way up to modern ones. And as far as I know, none of them or very few of them locate the timing of the earthquake in the past like you do. If, as you say, proper ‘positioning’ of the reader in the mindset and language of the author leads naturally and rationally to your interpretation, then why isn’t your interpretation the norm for all translations? It’s one thing to say I, Eric, am reading it wrong. Fair enough. It’s quite another to say that practically the whole body of experts in biblical translation are reading it the same wrong way.

It’s not just the language (literal or figurative, etc.) but how Hebrews thought, which is often very different. This is an example, and my hypothesis (which is all it is) makes sense if a few things about Hebrew thinking are explained.

In the book, Hebrew for Theologians: A Textbook for the Study of Biblical Hebrew in Relation to Hebrew Thinking (Jacques Doukhan, University Press of America, 1993), the author notes that in the Hebrew mind, “the content of time prevails over chronology. Events which are distant in time can, if their content is similar, be regarded as simultaneous.” (p. 206)

Likewise, Thorleif Boman, in his book, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1960), devotes 61 pages to the topic of “Time and Space.” He noted that for the Hebrews, “time is determined by its content . . .” (p. 131). He observed also:

[W]e, too, characterize time by its content. We speak of wartime, peacetime, hard times, time of mourning, feast time, favourable time, office hours, bad year, etc. . . .

Thus, in part, the chronological times were named and characterized in accordance with their content in the Old Testament; day is the time of light and night is darkness (Gen. 1.5; Ps. 104.20). (p. 140)

This ties into another Hebrew (and sometimes Greek) literary device or form that is called “compression” or sometimes, “telescoping.” In his book, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (IVP: 2nd edition, 2007, p. 216), Craig Blomberg took note of this:

Perhaps the most perplexing differences between parallels occur when one Gospel writer has condensed the account of an event that took place in two or more stages into one concise paragraph that seems to describe the action taking place all at once. Yet this type of literary abridgment was quite common among ancient writers (cf. Lucian, How to Write History 56), so once again it is unfair to judge them by modern standards of precision that no-one in antiquity required.

F. Gerald Downing, in his volume, Doing Things with Words in the First Christian Century (Sheffield: 2000, pp. 121-122) observed that the Jewish historian Josephus (37-c. 100 AD) used the same technique:

Josephus is in fact noticeably concerned to ‘improve’ the flow of his narrative, either by removing all sorts of items that might seem to interrupt it, or else by reordering them. . . . Lucian, in the next century, would seem to indicate much the same attitude to avoidable interruptions, digressions, in a historical narrative, however vivid and interesting in themselves.

Michael R. Licona, Baptist New Testament scholar and professor of theology, specializes in the literary analysis of the Gospels as Greco-Roman biographies. He observed in his article, “Licona Responds to Ehrman on New Testament Reliability”:

Compression was a compositional device employed on a regular basis by historians in Jesus’s day. I provide several examples of compression and other compositional devices in my book scheduled for publication this fall, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? (Oxford University Press, 2016).

[Dave: In Licona’s book — mentioned above — on pages 71-72, he noted that Plutarch also utilized compression in his book, Antony and that his work, Pompey omits details on the same events that are included in his Antony and Caesar]

. . . a very large majority of the differences in the Gospels are best explained in view of the compositional devices employed in the writing of ancient historical/biographical literature; those prescribed in the extant compositional textbooks written by Theon, Hermogenes, Quintilian, Aphthonius, and others, and those we can infer from observing patterns in how the same author using the same sources reports the same story writing around the same time but does so with differences. . . .compression was a common compositional device and is easily identified . . .

Now, Eric and other atheists will probably respond at this point: “See?! That’s so blasted complicated! Who could figure all that out? And this supports our point that the Bible is often obscure; therefore not inspired by ‘God.’ ”

But that’s true for us today: 2000 years removed, and not familiar with these techniques common to historiography at that time. This precisely backs up my point of view expressed earlier in this dialogue:

I agree insofar as you and I are not living in the first century Near Eastern / Semitic / Mesopotamian culture (specifically, Israel) with its Greek and Roman influences, and a strong local history of Judaism and ways and modes of thinking therein. Since we are not in those “shoes” and because of time and vast language and cultural differences, it’s necessary for us to enter into that mindset through study of the culture, including recourse to language tools that also bring out the nuances in the Greek. For the people back then, many such things would have been quite clear which are unknown or obscure to us.

To reiterate: the Bible was originally written for people in a certain cultural, historical, and “literary” context. It was easily understood by them. For those of us removed from that context, it’s required to delve into scholarly aids such as the ones I cited, in order to comprehend various things that are unfamiliar to us in our time and culture.

Yes, we have to use our noggins and think and research a bit, but that’s normal. No one said that the Bible was as easy to interpret as Aesop’s Fables or The Iliad. But it’s able to be understood through the usual means of teaching and explanation that are true of anything whatever.

I should add, too, that even for the ancient Hebrews (who understood things such as what we’ve been discussing far better than modern American / European people), teaching aids were required to fully understand the Bible, as the Bible itself indicates:

1) Exodus 18:20 (RSV, as throughout): Moses was to teach the Jews the “statutes and the decisions” — not just read it to them. Since he was the Lawgiver and author of the Torah, it stands to reason that his interpretation and teaching would be of a highly authoritative nature.

2) Leviticus 10:11: Aaron, Moses’ brother, is also commanded by God to teach.

3) Deuteronomy 17:8-13: The Levitical priests had binding authority in legal matters (derived from the Torah itself). They interpreted the biblical injunctions (17:11). The penalty for disobedience was death (17:12), since the offender didn’t obey “the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God.” Cf. Deuteronomy 19:16-17; 2 Chronicles 19:8-10.

4) Deuteronomy 24:8: Levitical priests had the final say and authority (in this instance, in the case of leprosy). This was a matter of Jewish law.

5) Deuteronomy 33:10: Levite priests are to teach Israel the ordinances and law. (cf. 2 Chronicles 15:3; Malachi 2:6-8 — the latter calls them “messenger of the LORD of hosts”).

6) Ezra 7:6, 10: Ezra, a priest and scribe, studied the Jewish law and taught it to Israel, and his authority was binding, under pain of imprisonment, banishment, loss of goods, and even death (7:25-26).

7) Nehemiah 8:1-8: Ezra reads the law of Moses to the people in Jerusalem (8:3). In 8:7 we find thirteen Levites who assisted Ezra, and “who helped the people to understand the law.” Much earlier, in King Jehoshaphat’s reign, we find Levites exercising the same function (2 Chronicles 17:8-9). In Nehemiah 8:8: “. . . they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly [footnote, “or with interpretation”], and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”

So the people did indeed understand the law (8:12), but not without much assistance — not merely upon hearing. Likewise, the Bible is not altogether clear in and of itself, but requires the aid of teachers who are more familiar with biblical styles and Hebrew idiom, background, context, exegesis and cross-reference, hermeneutical principles, original languages, etc.

Felix Lopez, one of my Facebook friends, observed along these lines:

We rely on experts for just about every aspect of our lives even indirectly and unconsciously most of the time. Ever since infancy we relied on others to teach us English, math, and practical wisdom, etc. We trust scientists for various facts and theories. We rely on historians to do similar investigations of the past for secular texts and events. Why should the subject of theology and the Bible be any different? Should we abandon everything we’ve learned in other subjects and claim none of it existed?


Photo credit: geralt (5-8-19) [PixabayPixabay License]


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