Misreading the Bible because we are Western

Misreading the Bible because we are Western November 1, 2012

I speak, of course, only of Westerners. Ah-ha moments in Bible reading come to all of us, and perhaps you can remember one and tells us about it, but I can remember a few: when I realized the Bible’s writers and characters were ancient Jews and not modern American (Baptists), that they spoke Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek and Latin, that contemporary Jewish texts shed light constantly all over the Bible,  that Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels, that the Gospels grew over time, that Isaiah was not written by the same author all at once … and then there was the colossal realization that Western senses of self, freedom, and individualism just don’t compute with ancient Jewish, Greek or Roman perceptions. That our theological issues are not theirs. That those folks cared lots about purity — and purity doesn’t mean to us what it meant then. That capitalism was unknown to the Bible. That young adults didn’t fall in love, date, and then choose the one they wanted to marry. That marriage itself didn’t mean to them quite what it means to us. I could go on…

What many of us have come to realize that we get in the way at times when we are reading the Bible. That we impose, many times unintentionally and unconsciously, our world on the Bible and need to work at hearing the Bible in terms of the ancient world.

What are your best lessons in Bible reading? What were some of your ah-ha moments? When did you realize the gulf or gap between our culture and the Bible’s culture? When did you learn, or how did you learn, the Bible was not American, or European, or Australian, or whatever your culture is?

So I’ve got a book recommendation for you by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien called Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible [if IVP can split infinitives I guess it doesn’t matter anymore?]. As I read through this book I kept asking myself if this was a 9-poster book or a one-poster and I’ve decided to keep it at one and hope you will consider purchasing it and using it in your own Bible reading.

Back to the big idea: Westerners see things in the Bible not there and we miss things that are there. And this happens because we are Westerners. So they find nine areas where we need to become more sensitive:

1. Our mores — our social conventions shaping our behavior and beliefs about what is good and bad, right and wrong — are not the Bible’s.
2. Race and ethnicities: we may think all are the same, but we betray our realities; the ancient world was easier with ethnic identities. We impose our ethnic assumptions on the Bible’s lines. When Moses married a Cushite, probably a dark-skinned African woman, we might impose our racial stereotypes when those stereotypes are modern and not ancient.
3. Language: this one gets lots of attention in postmodernity. Use translations to experience some variation arising from various readings of the language.
4. Individualism and collectivism: the Bible’s cultures were not individualist as we are in modernity and postmodernity. Our preoccupation with “me” in Bible reading is modern. We need to learn to read in plural.
5. Honor/shame and right/wrong: honor has to do with status; shame with lowering one’s status. Our culture is more about right and wrong. What society expects shapes them far more.

6. Time: they discuss chronos vs. kairos senses of time.
7. Rules and relationships: the Bible’s relationships shaped rules while we tend to see rules shaping relationships. Take Paul and circumcision which seemed to be less a rule and more about relationships.
8. Virtue and vice:ours are not theirs — like tolerance and freedom and pax Americana and self-sufficiency. The Bible’s focus was love — is it ours?
9. Finding the center of God’s will: this is a variant on individualism. Ours is a world in which self is at the center.

The authors provide some suggestions:

1. Embrace complexity
2. Beware of overcorrection
3. Be teachable
4. Embrace error
5. Read the Bible together — with others.

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  • Jon

    On number eight there needs to be another question. Is our idea of love the same as what is found in the Bible?

  • Great Thoughts Scott and interesting book review…

    some of the greatest “aha” moments for me have come in Gen. 1-3.
    I grew up in a church where those chapters were read with zealous possesiveness and defense over one thing and one thing only: 7 Days.
    When I started reading from NT Wright, IVP Dictionary of the Pentateuch and Especially listening to Rikk Watts at Regent, my eyes were opened up to the many many layers in those chapters that I had never heard of before and the deep deep theological implications that are welled up in those chapters. My faith and worldview has seriously been enriched from reading those chapters in the light of ancient eastern religious temple narratives and other things. Now i don’t think of days as the supreme thing when I get to those chapters…but of TEMPLE!

    I also must say that you KJG had some “aha” moments for me in my idea of salvation! Thanks for that, and thanks for the continual blog ministry, always enjoy popping in here for some food for thought!

  • Rodney Reeves

    For me it happened in the seventies, when my preacher railed against long-haired hippies using 1 Cor. 11 (all the while we had hanging on the wall that infamous profile picture of Jesus with, of course, long hair). Then, we’d hear the story of Samson and how long hair was a good thing.

    So glad you’re reviewing this book, Scot. I think it’s going to prove to be very helpful–perhaps small groups could use it as a book study.

  • Clay Knick

    It came yesterday. Thanks for this, Scot.

  • There is a tenth I would add, maybe calling it the household vs macro structures. M. I. Finley writes at the beginning of his classic work, The Ancient Economy,” that the first truly modern economics textbook was Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics. Finley writes:

    “Marshall’s title cannot be translated into Greek or Latin. Neither can the basic terms, such as labour, production, capital, investment, income, circulation, demand, entrepreneur, utility, at least not in the abstract form required for required for economic analysis. In stressing this I am suggesting not that the ancients were like Moliere’s M. Jourdain, who spoke prose without knowing it, but that they in fact lacked the concept of ‘economy’, and a fortiori, they lacked the conceptual elements which together constitute what we call “the economy”. Of course they farmed, traded, manufactured, mined, taxed, coined, deposited and loaned money, made profits or failed in their enterprises. And they discussed these activities in their talk and their writing. What they did not do, however, was to combine these particular activities conceptually into a unit, in Parsonian terms into ‘a differentiated sub-system of society.’ Hence Aristotle, whose programme was to codify the branches of knowledge, wrote no Economics. Hence, too, the perennial complaints about the paucity and mediocrity of ancient “economic” writing rest on a fundamental misconception of what these writings are about.” (21)

    Many of the customs that directed economic activity had nothing to do with rational calculation. The were done a particular way because the gods had ordained they be done that way or because of the status concerns in the hierarchical pyramid of power structure of the patriarchal household. When ancient thinkers did reflect on macro issues, they took heuristic knowledge from the micro level of the household and projected it large to society.

    I become particularly sensitive to this during elections as I hear Christians on all sides, left and right, proof-texting positions on government and the economy from the Bible.

  • I’m following you right up until the “embrace error” suggestion. Scott, could you expand a little on what the authors mean by that?

  • scotmcknight

    Chuck, thanks… and I don’t have the book near me. If I recall accurately, it means we will have to admit we are wrong at times and that we learn from misreadings.

  • Jeff Y

    Wait, wasn’t this book written by Westerners?

    I am sure that’s addressed in there somewhere. Of course, I think such a book can have great value. Postmodernism has brought a very valuable service in exposing the fact that many of us thought for a long time that we have no context or that we need not peer into the Bible’s historical context. But when we do, it opens our eyes.

    I was opened also through reading and studying in Genesis 1 (through historical study; including some of Paul Seely’s work on the raqia, Henri Blocher, Gordon Wenham, and in a college class some 30 years ago that noted the polemical features – these didn’t really hit home until about a decade ago). But, also reading about historical eras such as the Galileo controversy or racist stances many Western Christians have taken over the past 200 years or so has helped to open my eyes to how much impact one’s culture can have on one’s reading.

  • Kenton

    A-ha moments: Paul’s use of “works” was not Luther’s. “Salvation” had a different meaning in ancient times. The tension in the upper room in John 13 was really thick (and how that shapes the rest of John’s gospel). That women should be given equal voice/status. That the Good Samaritan was connected to the phrase “eternal life” and had the wrong freakin’ religion. That we got hell wrong.

  • Ah Ha Moments: When I translated 1st Timothy 3, read it in context and looked at all the other passages relating to divorce and realized God did not desire I raise three children alone and isolated, that His grace covered even divorce and that my calling was bigger than my failed marriage. Grace – Ahhh I was free. The beginning of a life giving journey out of fundamentalism and into Christ.

  • Great post…(nice comment on the split infinitive!)…my memory is bit hazy, but this publication seems to be in continuity with Webb’s book from 2001. The summons to consider the many points listed is in contrast to a hermeneutics of suspicion; I’m looking forward to reading this book.

  • John I.

    “if IVP can split infinitives I guess it doesn’t matter anymore?”

    Rest easy and use split infinitives. Split infinitives are a natural part of the English language and have been for hundreds of years. The only people who railed against it are prescriptivists who worked in and admired Latin and so started a number or prescriptive rules based on Latin that are not applicable to English and never were. You can also end English sentences with a preposition. The prescription against that also being unnatural to English and based on Latin. For questions about grammar, and the final (I hope) bursting of such inane rules, one should now refer to Huddleston’s recent grammar of English, which should be in most university libraries.

  • Reading this on my kindle now, about 2/3 of the way through…

    Authors bend over backwards to be charitable and not declare definitives…

    But we’re all fish in a fish bowl and to assume we see scripture without taint of cultural conventions, mores and traditions is naive. Just immerse yourself in the writings of any past historical period (not just one text), and it is plainly obvious. And it confirms that we all pick and choose what we think is relevant or irrelevant, binding or not, etc.…

    It’s not just economics (which, as a science, really does not flower until 19th century, and in crude increments, and is still flawed, and mooring-less with any notion of morality) and science, but everything about the humankind.

  • Elizabeth

    I would buy a book in which Scot (and perhaps some frequent readers of this blog? some pastors? some theologians?) elaborated on their most significant ‘ah ha’ moments. I’m imagining a nice collection of 20 or 30 essays on ‘ah ha’ moments from Christian leaders.

  • Cal

    An A-Ha moment:

    When I finally understood (via. John 5:39) that all of the Scripture was about Jesus, that Jesus is Truth, Light and Life. That He walked with Adam before the Fall (Voice of the Lord walking), He spoke with Abraham and blessed Him in the guise of Melchizedek, wrestled with Jacob, was in the burning bush to Moses, was a cloud that covered the Israelites during the day and fiery at night, that He was the rock that gave water etc etc etc.

    Every layer that I’m led to, I find more of the Messiah Jesus. There is nothing better nor nothing more awesome.

  • “9. Finding the center of God’s will: this is a variant on individualism. Ours is a world in which self is at the center.”

    If Michael Allen Gillespie is correct in his “The Theological Foundations of Modernism,” then understanding God only in terms of will is a modern phenomenon. We need to remember that “western” civilization didn’t just begin with the Renaissance. There was an entire chapter called “premodernism,” before the nominalists began writing the story and telling us that what is preeminent in God is His will.

  • #13 Naum

    “It’s not just economics (which, as a science, really does not flower until 19th century, and in crude increments, and is still flawed, and mooring-less with any notion of morality) and science, but everything about the humankind.”

    Agreed. I think here is the rub. If we are to be responsible, then we must make decisions and take action. We must do so using our best discernment, trying to take into account our limitations, knowing we will never have perfect discernment. The twin challenges are either despair of ever being able to act meaningfully (sink into a pit paralyzing relativism) or overconfidence in our own discernment. That brings us back to the five suggestions at the end of the post.

  • Larry Barber

    Related to #3, “never, ever forget that the Bible was not written in English and that accurate translation is hard, sometimes impossible”. I would recommend learning a foreign language, one that is not too similar to English, to help one get a feel for how difficult good translation is to do. Of course for Bible study Greek and Hebrew suggest themselves, but other languages would help in the understanding of translation. On a related note, don’t forget that a lot of the NT is itself a translation even if in the “original” Greek.

  • Terry

    My first a-ha moment: when I discovered that “believing the Bible literally” didn’t, then, also mean that every text was a specific command for me without circumspection, discernment or wisdom. “Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19) was the stumbling stone for me as I was a poster-boy for Christian Smith’s biblicism. Following that literally, without the above caveats, was consequentially devastating for me and my family, but it has proven fruitful over the course of time. It was also the beginning of a major paradigm shift for me regarding my learned hermeneutical/literal/Fundamental/etc. perspective.

  • Bruce

    For me it has been discovering the context of the biblical world as it existed then and even now in some cultures. One of the authors that has helped me in this area is Kenneth E. Bailey. Our small group worked through his small book on the Prodigal Son, The Cross and the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants and now we are looking at the book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels.

    One simple observation is that our traditional view of the birth in the manager outside with the cattle is not quite right. The culture would not allow for Mary and Joseph to be alone and outside, away from family. The manager is most likely a reference to an area in the house where animals were kept and fed. Anyways it is interesting to look at scripture through the lens of the culture. He has another book looking at Pual.

  • sheila

    Aha – these city people have no idea that this was written in a rural culture! Thus when God compares us to sheep, it is not to cute little wooly lambs as found in so many Christian story books:( Yikes but as a country girl was I embarassed to be compared to a smelly, dirty, helpless sheep who are essentially the worst mothers in the world and incapable of suriving without a sheperd. Yes really! All you city folk need to know that being compared to sheep is not a “cute” thing. This was my aha moment, understanding how great the gap is world wide between city and rural cultures and that the Bible was written by a rural people.

  • Mick Porter

    Sheila, that is a very good point.

  • Ruth Anne shorter

    Thanks be to God for his holy spirit not man to interpret his word.

  • Dan Reid

    On splitting infinitives, thus saith the Chicago Manual of Style, 5.106:
    “Although from 1850 to 1925 many grammarians stated otherwise, it is now acknowledged that adverbs sometimes justifiably separate an infinitive’s to from its principal verb.”

    It’s now 2012, Scot. We’ve got to talk.

  • Mike M

    When I realized that the ancient Hebrews were actually Bedouins looking for a home; that many of their behaviors we find questionable (or gloss over) like keeping harems and slaves were normal Bedouin behaviors of the time; that women were considered “property;” and that the 10 commandments reflected a standard Middle Eastern legal contract.

  • Amanda B.

    Aha moment: Before understanding what Paul’s epistles mean to us, we need to understand what they meant to the original audience. Detaching a verse from its cultural context, and imagining that it was written directly to me today in my own context, actually makes it *less* relevant, not *more*. To miss this is to interpret the verse *less* literally, because I have changed the circumstances it speaks to.

  • scotmcknight

    Dan, got any OUP books with a split infinitive in the title?

  • When we use the tools (language, ideas, customs) of our society in order to grasp and organize and make sense of the goings-on around us, we can say that the plausibility structure in which we live is working. Not all of it is bad. What perhaps is the real danger, and in this sense I am still searching for understanding, is that we allow the secular plausibility structure to shape the plausibility structure of the church which stands WITH, in some instances, and AGAINST the secular. As Christians, we must stand in and learn the language of both worlds in order to be salt and light. Having said that, do we really believe that God has truly spoken through history and that reality/truth is objective? Is the truth of God’s Word such that, when I discover it, it is publishable to all? Certainly perception does not determine reality/truth – that would be a logical absurdity. Do we allow God’s word to shape and transform those parts of culture that are under the powers of darkness, or allow secular culture to shape and form God’s church?

    The AHA! moment for me was last week when it dawned on me just how much we have bought into the lie of the Enlightment that there is a sacred/secular split – We wear dresses and suits on Sunday and jeans on every other day! — Just some random thoughts!!! lol

  • Dan Reid

    Scot, shame on you for appealing to hoity toity Oxford. CMS is the standard in your *Chicago*–as in Cubs et al.!

  • Some of the ah-ha moments are devastating and life changing.

    My biggest one (and there have been plenty of other big ones) was with the book of Ruth, which contained a bunch of them: the plight of the son-less widow in the ancient world; that Naomi is not a whiner but a female Job; that Ruth is not passive and overly deferential but a gusty risk taker and the leader of the action who is living out her commitment first to Yahweh and then to Naomi; that this isn’t a Cinderella happily-ever-after romance but a powerful display of Gospel/Kingdom living; and that Boaz isn’t the hero of the story, God is. I grieved the message I’d bought into and the time and opportunities I’d wasted believing women are to take a passive role, to be followers and not leaders. It was a paradigm shift.

    (See The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules http://www.amazon.com/Gospel-Ruth-Loving-Enough-Break/dp/0310263913/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_b)

    Thank you Scot for recommending this book. This issue is huge and is costing us a lot.


  • Aaron

    Because we are Westerners we miss some things and invent others. Um, ok. Add in the quote below and you get closer.

    “Race and ethnicities: we may think all are the same, but we betray our realities; the ancient world was easier with ethnic identities. We impose our ethnic assumptions on the Bible’s lines. When Moses married a Cushite, probably a dark-skinned African woman, we might impose our racial stereotypes when those stereotypes are modern and not ancient.”

    Last I looked, Moses was a Hebrew. For that matter so were the patriarchs. And for that matter most of Scripture is written by Hebrews. Right?

    Etnic assumptions – okay. Nobody in this post or the comments didn’t adequately address a significant issue. We read the Scripture like Western Gentiles. We rarely take the time to understand Scripture from the Hebrew perspective. A better subtitle would be “Removing Gentile Blinders…”

    One more thing. “…capitalism was unknown to the Bible.” So what? Why does that matter? Private property ownership and wealth wasn’t ignored. The summary introduces Western political speech. What? If you want us to read a book like this and make it a companion to our Bible reading, maybe you want to alert us of the author’s Western agenda and yours too.

  • Aha moment: realizing that the command to “subdue” (kabash) and “have dominion over” (rada) creation in Genesis 1:28 is balanced by the command to “serve” (abad) and “protect by being with” (shamar) creation in Genesis 2:15. God as raised us from a lowly status (the youngest children in the family of creation) to be servant-kings, beginning a pattern that will continue through all of scripture.

    This “aha” moment was very recent for me, and I just wrote about it here: http://www.nativecampusministries.com/living-in-harmony-with-creation-part-2/

  • Tom F.

    The million dollar question, it seems to me, is not what does it take to read scripture without imposing our cultural assumptions, but what to do with the changing cultural assumptions from the beginning to the end of scripture. What sort of hermeneutic will help us to separate out OUR cultural assumptions AND scripture’s various cultural assumptions in order to get at God’s assumptions.

    Take, for example, marriage. There is unquestioningly a shift from polygamy to monogamy within scripture. When we read passages based on polygamous cultural assumptions, are we imposing our own modern ideas onto the passage if we are critical of these practices? Or are we imposing the NT’s Greek/late Hebraic assumptions back onto the early Hebrew? Or is it that God’s true heart is for monogamy?

    Perhaps it is more simple; perhaps I am unnecessarily complicating this. I do feel that this is a far, far trickier issue than most Christians seem to let on.

  • CGC

    Hi Tom and all,
    Some good questions . . . I actually look at Christ and his words in understanding and making applications today. For example, what did Christ say about marraige? It is interesting on what he says about divorce, God allowed it because of the hardness of our hearts. Hey, could that be true of polygamy as well?

    And what about Western Missionaries going to Africa and how they have handled polygamy? Divorce your wives? I thought God hates divorce? The results being the women turning to prostitution and their children to orphans. Hey, I thought the church was to take care of them, not turn them into these things!

    Unless we interpret the Bible Christologically, I shudder to think of all the un-Christ-like interpretations and mis-applications and bad fruit that has come from a religion that claims Christ’s name.

  • Tom F.

    CGC: yeah, Christological probably goes along way, so good thought.

    It’s just that if that’s why God allowed that (peoples hearts were hard), why does some hardness of heart get an exemption and other hardness of heart result in severe discipline from God? I know you can’t answer that question, but it’s the one that gnaws at me.

    Futhermore, there does seem to be a relativising move here at work. I mean, how exactly is it that God actually CAN grant an exemption? It’s not like something is or isn’t a sin (or right or ideal or whatever ethical language you want to use) just because God says so, right? And if God can simply grant an exemption for sin, then it seems to have big problems for the atonement. If God can grant an exemption for one sin, than why not for all? Why is the cross necessary to address moral guilt? Again, I don’t mean to address these questions just to you, but they are what I wrestle with. (Also, not all models of atonement may be equally affected by this problem.)

  • I read this book a few months ago to review for a magazine. While not particularly “academic,” they make some excellent points from which the average church-goer could gain some excellent insight.

  • One of my aha moments was reading Song of Solomon in the Hebrew. Yup didn’t quite fit with my little western evangelical world.

  • Mark H

    “that Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels”

    Scot, what were the implications of this “aha” moment for you?

  • Tim Hallman

    I get the 9 points and agree with them in my head, but they go against how I was raised. But I try to incorporate the 9 points in my preaching as much as possible. This list will help me to pay more careful attention and correction.

  • scotmcknight

    Mark H, that chronologically we begin with Galatians… that the Gospels reflect a later time period.

  • Randy Richards

    Scot, thanks for the kind remarks. The book arose from many “aha” moments I had as a young and foolish missionary who served with some godly (and patient) national colleagues.

  • “That Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels” and “that chronologically we begin with Galatians. That the Gospels reflect a later time period.”

    Scot: What kind of time period are you talking about? Where did you get this information and could you be more specific, please?

    I was under the impression that Mark was the earliest gospel written in the 70s, Matthew and Luke in the 80s, John in the 90s. But some think they were written earlier than that: since Paul is the central figure of Acts and at the end is under house arrest, it seems unfinished. Perhaps the book was written before he was put to death, meaning the book cannot be dated any later than AD 62. And, since Acts is the second of a two-part work–the Gospel of Luke being the first– Luke must earlier than that. And since Luke includes parts of the gospel of Mark, mustn’t Mark have been written earlier than that?

    I’m paraphrasing a quote from Craig L. Blomberg, PhD, professor of New Testament at Denver seminary and quoted in Lee Strobel’s book, the Case for Christ.

    So I would appreciate it if you would elaborate on your statement?

  • scotmcknight

    I date Paul’s letters from about 48AD through the Pastorals in mide 60sAD. It is possible Acts is written when Paul was in prison, but Luke is later than Mark and you’ve got Mark in 70AD. My own view is that Luke may have written up an early Gospel and then wrote Acts and then later edited Luke into the current shape after he incorporated Mark. This is the called the Proto-Luke theory… I put little stock in our ability to prove such things.

  • Stephen

    Does the book only offer a critique of how we’ve tended to do things? Or does it offer an alternative reading through ‘non-Western’ eyes?

    I don’t want to read a whole book about something I already accept and agree with. But I would read it if provides this alternative reading, or teaches me how to read the Bible in this way?

  • scotmcknight

    Yes, Stephen, the book is also constructive.