Reading the Bible as an Ancient Document

Sometimes in my discussions with Evangelicals I get resistance from them when I suggest that extra-biblical ancient semitic texts can be used as a window into the worldview of the Israelites, and therefore enhance our ability to understand the Bible. I’ve been reading John Walton’s book “The Lost World of Genesis One”. He is an evangelical scholar at Wheaton College, an Evangelical school. Here are some quotes from his introductory chapter that I think could be useful both for Latter-day Saints and for Evangelicals:

John Walton, “The Lost World of Genesis One”, IVP Academic, 2009.

“The Old Testament does communicate to us and it was written for us, and for all humankind. But it was not written to us. It was written to Israel. It is God’s revelation of himself to Israel and secondarily through Israel to everyone else. As obvious as this is, we must be aware of the implications of that simple statement. Since it was written to Israel, it is in the language that most of us do not understand, and therefore requires translation. But the language is not the only aspect that needs to be translated. Language assumes a culture, operates in a culture, serves a culture, and is designed to communicate into the framework of a culture. Consequently, when we read a text written in another language and addressed to another culture, we must translate the culture as well as the language if we hope to understand the text fully.

As complicated as translating a foreign language can be, translating a foreign culture is infinitely more difficult. The problem lies in the act of translating. Translation involves lifting the ideas form their native context and relocating them in our own context. In some ways this is an imperialistic act and bound to create some distortions as we seek to organize information in the categories that are familiar to us. It is far too easy to let our own ideas creep in and subtly (or at times not so subtly) bend or twist the material to fit our own context.” (pp. 9-10)

“The very act of trying to translate the culture requires taking it out of its context and fitting it into ours. What does the text mean when it describes Sarah as “beautiful”? One not only has to know the meaning of the word, but also must have some idea of what defines beauty in the ancient world. When the Bible speaks of something as elemental as marriage, we are not wrong to think of it as the establishment of a socially and legally recognized relationship between a man and a woman. But marriage carries a lot more social nuances than that in our culture and not necessarily similar at all to the social nuances in the ancient culture.” (pp. 10-11)

“How do we do this? How can we recover the way than an ancient culture thought and what categories and ideas and concepts were important to them? We have already noted that language is keyed to culture, and we may then also recognize that literature is a window to the culture that produced it. We can begin to understand the culture by becoming familiar with its literature. Undoubtedly this sounds like a circular argument: We can’t interpret the literature without understanding the culture, and we can’t understand the culture without interpreting the literature. If we were dealing only with the Bible, it would indeed be circular, because we have already adjusted it to our own cultural ways of thinking in our long familiarity with it. The key then is to be found in the literature from the rest of the ancient world. Here we will discover many insights into ancient categories, concepts and perspectives. Not only do we expect to find linkages, we do in fact find many such linkages that enhance our understanding of the Bible.” (pp. 11-12)

“To compare the Old Testament to the literature of the ancient world is not to assume that we expect to find similarity at every point; but neither should we assume or expect differences at every point. We believe the nature of the Bible to be very different from anything else that was available in the ancient world. The very fact that we accept the Old Testament as God’s revelation of himself distinguishes it from the literature of Mesopotamia or Egypt….Despite all the distinctions that existed across the ancient world, any given ancient culture was more similar to other ancient cultures than any of the are to Western American or European culture. Comparing the ancient cultures to one another will help us to see those common threads even as we become aware of the distinctions that separated them from one another. As we identify those common threads, we will begin to comprehend how the ancient world differed from our modern (or postmodern) world.” (pp. 12-13)

“As a result, we are not looking at ancient literature to try to decide whether Israel borrowed from some of the literature that was known to them. It is to be expected that the Israelites held many concepts and perspectives in common with the rest of the ancient world. This is far different from suggesting literature was borrowed or copied. This is not even the case of Israel being influenced by the peoples around them. Rather we simply recognize the common conceptual worldview that existed in ancient times. We should therefore not speak of Israel being influenced by that world–they were part of that world.” (pp. 13-14)

“By recognizing the importance of the literatures of the ancient world for informing us about its cultures, we need not be concerned that the Bible must consequently be understood as just another piece of ancient mythology. We may well consider some of the literatures of Babylonia and Egypt as mythological, but that very mythology helps us to see the world as they saw it. They Canaanites or the Assyrians did not consider their myths to be made up works of the imagination. Mythology by its nature seeks to explain how the world works and how it came to work that way, and therefore includes a culture’s “theory of origins.” We sometimes label certain literature as “myth” because we do not believe that the world works that way. The label is a way of holding it at arm’s length so as to clarify that we do not share that belief–particularly as it refers to involvement and activities of the gods. But for the people to whom that mythology belonged, it was a real description of deep beliefs. Their “mythology” expressed their beliefs concerning what made the world what it was; it expressed their theories of origins and of how their world worked.

By the definition, our modern mythology is represented by science–our own theories of origins and operations….For the Israelites, Genesis 1 offered explanations of their view of origins and operations, in the same way that mythologies served in the rest of the ancient world and that science serves our Western culture. It represented what the Israelites truly believed about how the world got to be how it is and how it works, though it is not presented as their own ideas, but as revelation from God. The fact that many people today share that biblical belief makes the term mythology unpalatable, but it should nevertheless be recognized that Genesis 1 serves the similar function of offering an explanation of origins and how the world operated, not only for Israel, but for people today who put their faith in the Bible.” (pp. 14-15)

You can also read all of this for yourself here: http://books.google.com/books id=6qZLAz3TckgC&printsec=frontcover&dq=the+lost+world+of+genesis+one&hl=en&src=bmrr&ei=erH3TOSDO8qr8AbdqI3xBg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

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2 comments on “Reading the Bible as an Ancient Document

  1. Nice redesign, James. Good posts. While I think it is important that we “liken the scriptures” to ourselves, we need to be careful that as we relate the message to be more applicable to us in our modern context we do not impose our modern assumptions onto the text. And we certainly can, and should, try to understand the scriptures in the ancient context from which they came, because such a perspective can often enhance our understanding of the scriptures.

  2. nathan000000 says:

    When I took Greek Mythology in college, my teacher began by defining mythology. She said that in general use nowadays, we often contrast myth with fact, and we use mythology to mean “false,” “fictional,” or “untrue.” But originally, the term actually meant things that were deeply true, almost truer than true. A myth was something that explained the basic reality that lies behind our everyday experiences. She said it’s unfortunate that the word myth now connotes “untrue” because it prevents people from understanding what that mythology meant to people anciently.

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