Reading Historically

Why read the Bible historically?

I am no great expert but became very aware that the Bible is an ancient document recorded in various historical contexts. I was brought up to pull any text straight from the page into my personal context without considering if the original context might have something to say about what I was doing! Of course there is a living element about the text and a text can just jump out at us and mean something to us that it never meant originally. But…

The danger is probably not when we do that devotionally, but when we do it theologically and so can bend the texts to support our views rather than challenge our preformed opinions.

If we take the well-worn phrase ‘born again’ we can note that Jesus used it on one occasion addressing one person. That person was Nicodemus, a teacher in Israel, one well acquainted with the Scriptures of his day. This learned gentleman comes to Jesus secretly in the dark (contrast the following chapter where a Samaritan woman in the middle of the day, a woman, a mixed-race person whose culture only acknowledged the five books of Moses, but Jesus reveals himself as the Saviour to her!). To Nicodemus he says he has to be born again (or ‘from above’) otherwise he would never ‘see’ the kingdom of God. A strong word to someone of his background. When we track with Nicodemus in the Gospels we see a change, but a change over time. By the end of the story he is aligned with Jesus and is one of two who take Jesus body to give him a dignified burial. Born again… but to one person and over a period of time. (We also have a reference to the ‘new birth’ in Peter so I am not saying it is an illegitimate term, simply that we can use it as the only window as a response to Jesus.)

It is not that it is wrong to use the term more widely, but we should be aware that when we are using it as a universal phrase we are in danger of making it something that it was not, and of missing out on other phrases and analogies.

The writings of N.T. (Tom) Wright are exemplary of this narrative-historical approach, and the insights he brings from the text are worth their weight in gold. Another writer is Andrew Perrimann, who arguably takes the approach even further: Andrew Perrimann.

Much of what we term the ‘Old Testament’ was collated and edited when Israel experienced an enormous exile at the hands of the Babylonians (597BC). The scrolls became what shaped the people and their distinct identity. They had lost the land and the Temple, so in that tension the scrolls became very important to them. If we allow for an editing process we can also see how some of the texts such as the creation narratives are not an attempt at a scientific report, but carry a polemic element. Their ‘god’, their calling, their uniqueness. Their ‘god’ is different to the Babylonian gods. (It is highly likely that Adam and Eve are as much about Israel and their garden (the land of Israel) and their expulsion as it is to do with a discussion on who the first humans were.)

[It is in the Exile, in Babylon, when the synagogue develops. The scrolls become vital and it was a means of survival. Arguably it was a step back (and maybe the model that the ‘church’ has adopted?). The people move from a rhythm of festivals that kept the big story refreshed in their memory, to that of a weekly meeting. They increasingly became a people of the book. Perhaps Jeremiah, who was very critical of the fatalistic trust the people placed in the Temple, should have been heeded. He encouraged them to buy lands, to dig in and embrace the foreign land. If they had done that maybe they would have been able to sing their songs in a foreign land, rather than hang up their harps on the willow tree? Maybe they could have broken out of a view that suggested that a piece of real estate was ‘theirs’ by promise and seen that the real promise was of carrying the presence of God to the whole of creation?]

Reading the narrative historically we avoid the thorny issues of God choosing some people (one race) and excluding others. God’s focus is always the world and the population as a whole. We can also reduce enormously the problems presented by the ethnic cleansings that were commanded by God. Given that there is not enough archaeological evidence to support (e.g.) the destruction of Jericho, we can read the reports as reports that put a theological slant on an exagerrated history.

I think the biggest advantage of reading the narrative historically though is when we come to the world of the New Testament. We enter a one-world dominating system; a chosen people who are in bondage; a people who therefore are unable to be God’s representative people, the people who were to be a redeeming people for the world. The whole world needs saving, but at the heart of the Gospels we have someone has to come to save the people (Israel) from their sins. This was indeed the promise made through Jesus; that he would save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21).

We owe it to the writers to allow them to work out what they had to, to establish how this fits in the historical narrative. God chose Israel; Jesus comes as their Messiah; he reforms Israel and the debate rages as to who then constituted Israel as a result of this re-formation work. [This was always a debate in Israel indicating that the majority view was that ‘not all Israel is Israel’. The various sects of course claimed they were the true Israel, the others were the ‘sinners’. Again we have to allow that term in the historical context to be an in-house definition, not a universal term. There were those in Israel who were ‘sinners’.] Once Israel was re-formed they had to go to the ‘world’, to ‘the nations’ (a term meaning the Gentiles). The issue for them was when this was to happen. The Council meeting in Acts 15 was not simply over whether Gentiles could be included but on what basis and if what was already happenning was genuine or something had been pre-empted. Given that the whole response of the Gentiles was viewed as genuine (without the imposition of the law) meant that even a conservative such as James acknowledged that in Gentiles finding repentance to life was the very rebuilding of the ancient tabernacle of David. (This makes it hard not to conclude that with the inclusion of the Gentiles the new body of people together make the restored Israel, for whether Jew or Gentile they have responded to the Jewish Messiah.)

Once we place the NT in the Roman world context, knowing that there were many and constant rumbles about uprisings, we can read so many of the instructions and predictions in that context. We no longer need look for a ‘man of sin’ to be future for us; future for the Thessalonians for sure but that letter was written in the very early 50s. The readers, no doubt, knew what Paul was predicting.

The Fall of Jerusalem at the end of the Jewish Wars (66-70AD) was immensely traumatic. In the closing days around 500 Jews were being crucified daily; yet false prophets were continuing to proclaim that God would intervene and save them; the Temple was present so they assured the people that God would indeed save them. Given that all the books (except, for me, a final edit on Revelation) were written prior to AD70 the future predicted traumas seem to be fulfilled in those years. The warnings of Jesus about ‘hell’ (Gehenna, a reference to the continual burning of the rubbish from Jerusalem in the valley outside the city, the fire of which did not go out) are not to a final ‘hell-fire’ but to a coming day of destruction for those who did not follow his path. Josephus, an aristocratic Jewish historian used language that helps us re-read parts of Jesus’ message. He wanted to find a way of co-existence with the Romans and was adamantly opposed to violent rebellion. He encountered those who were persuaded that a violent oppositional response was required and he relates how he spoke to one of them (ironically his name was ‘Jesus’) calling for him to ‘repent and believe in me’. His call was not suggesting that this Jesus needed a spiritual experience but that he had to change his political views. He had to lay down this idea of rebellion (repent = change your mind) and follow the path that Josephus was laying out.

None of that is to deny that there was, and continues to be, a spiritual appeal with the language of Jesus and the New Testament, but it is to put it solidly into the historical context of the ever-potential possibility of insurrection. So when we read John the Baptist’s taunts to the Pharisees and leaders as to who warned them to flee the coming destruction we do not think he is focused on ‘eternal destiny’ but on an imminent, and all-but certain clash with Rome. The coming destruction, Jesus said, was the broad path that many were on, and that only a few would find the narrow pathway that leads to life. We cannot over-spiritualise these statements as they address the context and use the language of the socio-political era.

It is genuinely difficult to know if the early believers in Jesus expected the world to continue beyond their generation. Certainly in 1 Thessalonians (an early letter of Paul) the question was about those who had died, seemingly implying that a) ‘salvation’ was not seen as providing a ticket to heaven(!), b) that something was going to take place here where believers would be rewarded, and c) the passage has nothing to do with a ‘secret rapture’. When the days of distress began to take place that culminated in the fall of Jerusalem it is highly likely that the majority of believers understood that this was indeed the start of the birth-pangs and that it would bring in the regeneration of all things. This would seem to be the context and focus of the New Testament… except for the book of Revelation that has the ‘Babylon’ of the ancient world in focus, the city and Imperium of Rome.

In reading the Bible as historic narrative it necessarily changes any eschatology from speculative future. Indeed I consider that there is very little in the Scriptures that we can read as predictive of what lies ahead of us. What lay ahead of the first generation now lies behind us.