Why I Search … The numbers prove I should.

I love the biblical text! Really I should say text[s] because, though the bible carries the authoritative voice of one God in our lives, that voice comes through a number of different languages, in a number of different places, at a number of different times, by a number of different individuals.

Photo courtesy of istockphoto.com

Photo courtesy of istockphoto.com

Nearly three quarters of a century ago Biblical scholars, Archaeologists, and Linguists believed they could command all the data necessary to make sweeping generalizations about biblical history. They wrote texts such as W.F. Albright’s The Archaeology of Palestine and the Bible or John Bright’s (Albright’s student) A History of Israel  (still an excellent text).

Today, you would be hard pressed to find a scholar who would title a work similarly without a qualifying subtitle. The amount of cultural backgrounds data now available is so great that no one person can claim to be an expert across the entire field. Scholars specialize in just one culture, or even just a hundred to two hundred year period of one culture.

This avalanche of data, combined with the depth and breadth of the biblical text, means that we must continually re-engage backgrounds materials in order to ensure that we properly understand God’s self-revelation.  Just take a look at the bare numbers:

4+ The minimum number of languages the bible was originally written in: Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and Latin. These are the primary languages but the biblical text also contains “echos” of older texts in other languages as well.

7+ The number of individual literary genres displayed in the biblical text – let’s not even discuss sub-genres

30+The number of people groups and cultures represented and discussed in the biblical text. You’ve got: Egyptians, Canaanites, Amorites, Isreallites, Judeans, Galileans, Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, Arameans, Amalekites, Hivites, Jebusites, Midianites, Perizzites, Philistines, Phoenicians, Samaritans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Nabateans, Nubians, Elamites, Hittites, Persians, and the Hyksos – Just to name the big ones.

40+At least forty individuals had their hands in putting revelation to page, all in their own unique place in God’s redemptive history and cultural milieu.

2000+ The minimum number of years over which the biblical text was passed down and written

4000+The biblical text gives primary setting to stories taking place in an area nearly four thousand miles across, all the way from Spain in the West to Modern day Iran in the East.

0The number of biblical languages, places, periods, or cultures of which we have first-hand knowledge

This is not a fatalistic position. It is simply a statement that, when we approach the biblical text, the math doesn’t add up in our favor. We are at a deficit to those who experienced God’s self-revelation first hand.

Ultimately, I search the Archaeological, Linguistic, Geographical and Cultural backgrounds of the Biblical text because the people, languages, places, and cultures it discusses are not my own. The bible was written and originally revealed to easterners not westerners. As much time has passed since scripture was written, as it took for it to appear as a single comprehensive text. And finally, none of the languages the text was written in are still spoken on a conversational level today.

For the first hearers of the word of God the place names, people groups, languages, objects and cultural references were immediately available to them. They didn’t have to be told where a place was, how a garment looked, or how temple rituals were carried out. They lived it … we have to learn it.

This Article is part of series on Why I search the cultural backgrounds of the bible. You can find more articles in the series here.

Join the discussion below: What are some of the strategies do you employ to overcome “the numbers” and better understand God’s word in its original setting?

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