How (not) to Read the Bible: Part 2
There was an amusing story about a photo shoot for Downton Abbey a year or so back. It seems that whoever was in charge of continuity that day wasn’t paying attention, because over Lord Grantham’s shoulder, sitting pretty on one of Downton’s grandiose fireplaces, was a plastic water bottle. In case you have lived in a weird bubble away from Downton Abbey for the last few years, it is set in 1920’s Yorkshire, so a plastic water bottle is an anachronism- it doesn’t fit in that era (for a list of Downton errors, see this blog). More recent costume/historical dramas are guilty of anachronism in their construals of dialogue, “I couldn’t care less” or “To me, Lady Mary is an uppity minx!” are phrases that didn’t appear in popular usage until decades after the setting of the drama.
So what has this got to do with reading the bible?
Anachronisms in our bible reading occur when we read categories or ideas into people or settings in the bible that would (probably) have been unrecognisable at the time. This, of course, is one of the regular criticisms that biblical scholars associated with the New Perspective on Paul level against those of a stodgier Reformed position. For example, the general characterisation of the Pharisees as petty legalists who hound people for believing that they can be saved by grace alone is dubious. Now, no doubt there were legalistic Pharisees, but for the most part the Pharisees were more interested in how you identify who is in God’s people, rather than how you get in.
Another common anachronism is our tendency to read the phrase ‘Son of God’ as it applies to Jesus in the New Testament, through the lens of 4th and 5th Century theological categories. If you are not sure what 4th or 5th Century theological categories for Son of God are, then the chances are you are probably doing this because of the almost universal assumption that Son of God is always and only equal to ‘Jesus is God.’ But Son of God in a first-century context primarily referred to kingship (compare the way the phrase in used in the Old Testament in 2 Samuel 7:14 with reference to David’s son). Son of God could also refer to Israel (check out Exodus 4:22) so immediately there are issues with simplistic assertions and assumptions about the meaning of words. That’s not to say, of course, that Son of God did not come to have a depth of theological meaning beyond its original usage, but to be wise readers and interpreters of scripture, we have to pay attention to things like this.
So beware anachronisms!
A good question to ask to avoid over-simplified or anachronistic readings of scripture is, ‘How would this have been heard by its first hearers or readers?’ because if it didn’t mean ‘that’ (whatever ‘that’ is) to them, then it’s pretty certain not to mean ‘that’ to you either- as plausible or as self-evidently helpful as it might be.
The last thing I want to do is put you off reading the bible. My aim in these few posts is to get you to think about the way you read the bible. It isn’t rocket science really, but even if it seems that way to you, why not ask someone for help? That often seems to be the most offensive suggestion in my experience. Hey-ho, I guess that’s a post for another day!
Happy reading 🙂