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Greater Good than Before

Greater Good than Before

I will multiply on you people and animals, and they will increase and bear fruit. People will live on you as in the former times and I will do greater good to you than I did before. Then you will know that I am YHWH. (Ezekiel 36:11)

Ezekiel here address the message to the mountains of Israel, which paints a nice word picture. This is part of my preparation to teach the Sunday School lesson this coming Sunday.

I want to call attention to the phrase I have translated “do greater good to you than I did before.” I think that Israel is here learning the lesson that often to get greater good what we have now has to go away. We fear something new because we lose the old. But an earthquake, a fire, or even a hurricane can get us started on something new because we have to.

I don’t mean that the destruction itself is good. What I’m suggesting is that sometimes we, like nature itself, become renewed after the things we cling to have been destroyed.

Following the Path of Jesus

Following the Path of Jesus

On January 1 God called two texts to my attention as themes for the year. They are Philippians 1:27-30 and Ephesians 5:1-2. I haven’t said a great deal about this, though the theme of those texts has shown up in a number of posts. Then yesterday I saw Dave Black’s latest translation of Philippians 1:27-30, which I like a great deal, and I wanted to mention it. Reading a text in a modern, clear, might I say dynamic, rendering brings it home. Here’s the translation:

Now the only thing that really matters is that you make it your habit to live as good citizens of heaven in a manner required by the Good News about Christ, so that, whether or not I’m able to go and see you in person or remain absent, I will be hearing that all of you, like soldiers on a battlefield, are standing shoulder to shoulder and working as one team to help people put their trust in the Good News. Don’t allow your enemies to terrify you in any way. Your boldness in the midst of opposition will be a clear sign to them that they will be destroyed and that you will be saved, because it’s God who gives you salvation. For God has granted you the privilege on behalf of Christ of not only believing in Him but also suffering for Him. Now it’s your turn to take part with me in the life-or-death battle I’m fighting — the same battle you saw me fighting in Philippi and, as you hear, the one I’m fighting now. (emphasis mine)

This emphasized line led me to a quote from Bruce Epperly’s book Philippians: A Participatory Study Guide:

Even now in our time, we can take confidence in Paul’s assertion that God is with us and that, in life and death, and celebration and persecution, Christ sustains us. We are resurrection people. But, our lives are also cruciform or cross-shaped. The Risen Jesus is known initially by his wounds, and we too may experience suffering and loss as a result of our relationship with Christ. Still, at the end of the day, integrity, fidelity, and the promise of resurrection life far outweigh any trials of this lifetime. – p. 19

Bruce also quotes the song “I have decided to follow Jesus.” It’s a good song, but it’s one that should be very hard to sing. No, not musically, but due to meaning.

(I must note here in passing that I love to use materials that come from very different theological streams. It is especially important, I think, when people from opposite sides of the spectrum agree fully on the meaning of a text, even more so when that text says something people would often rather not hear.)

On the night when Jesus was betrayed, there were twelve people (at least) who had decided to follow Jesus. One betrayed him. One denied him publicly. The rest “advanced in the opposite direction.” We can take hope from the fact that so many found their way back!

Ephesians 5:2 similarly gives us a hard call “walk in love.” Now we like that, because we often call very unloving things “love.” But the verse goes on “just as Christ loved us and gave himself for us. We have a very clear pattern for what love actually means. I’m a love proclaimer. I believe in the power of love. The reason love so often seems wishy-washy, that it so often fails, is that what we call love is often partial. It is not commitment, but rather a sort of generic liking. That’s why the key to following Jesus is not the experience of miraculous physical acts, or wealth, or healing for everyone in sight, or healing of all our emotional ills. The key to following Jesus is the willingness to take up the “privilege” of suffering for him.

This, I must confess, is not the true story of my life. Nonetheless, just as I can travel northward by using the pole star as a guide even though I’ll never reach it, so I will keep facing this way, and trust in the grace of the One who gave himself first.

(Allow me to call attention to two previous posts: God Perfected through Suffering and Thankful for the Gift of Suffering for Jesus?)

Acts: God Moves in Unexpected Ways

Acts: God Moves in Unexpected Ways

I’m currently reading the book of Acts for my morning devotions and today I read chapter 6. That’s a nice, short chapter!

The disciples find that there are complaints about distribution of charitable works and they decide they shouldn’t be distracted from the Word in order to wait at tables (and other such things). The result is the choice of seven deacons. Again, they pray, and then lay hands on them and commission them to this work. Other than the continuing spread of the message, we’re not told how this organizational structure worked.

As Acts proceeds (since I’ve read it before, I know how the story ends!), we’ll hear quite a bit about Stephen and Philip. It’s interesting to note, however, that we don’t hear about them serving at tables, which, ostensibly, they were chosen to do. In fact, we hear them proclaiming the Word themselves. In chapter 6, it starts with Stephen, and it promptly leads to his arrest.

Let me note a couple of things here:

  1. They don’t record any time of prayer before going out to choose these seven men. It appears they jump straight to the strategy.
  2. They don’t record any time of prayer or deliberation before choosing the seven.
  3. They do pray before commissioning the men by laying hands on them.
  4. We see no record of results of this activity that match the intent. Yes, results. Stephen and Philip are significant players in the story and they are introduced to us here, but there is no record that the issue with distribution of service (apparently particularly food) was resolved.

Now it may be that I’m reading too much into the white spaces here, but this is the second time I’ve noticed this during this pass through Acts. I’d noticed before that Matthias (chapter 1) is appointed as a new apostle and then disappears from history. Considering how much of this portion of early Christian history is recorded just in Acts, one wonders if this is accidental. (My sister Betty Rae pointed this out to me some years ago.) In my reading this time I noticed how the choice to replace the missing apostle is made based on Peter’s interpretation of scripture. There’s no effort made to seek God’s will for this particular instance. Then two people are chose according to criteria they select.

Let’s parallel the numbers:

  1. There is no prayer time as they choose the basic strategy. Unlike Acts 6, this strategy is apparently based on Peter’s reading of scripture.
  2. They choose two people again without any time of prayer.
  3. They now pray and ask God to choose between the two. The situation differs from Acts 6 in that the seven were chosen and then the prayer is offered as they commission them. “Please bless the ones we have chosen,” is the petition. Here it’s “choose one of the two options we’ve given you, Lord.”
  4. No results are recorded.

Now comes the fifth step, which is what’s hitting me on this pass through Acts. God immediately takes action to advance the kingdom, and it doesn’t fit with the human plans, even the plans by the apostles. In Acts 6, Stephen heads right out to proclaim the gospel and defend it. In the case of Acts 1 we have to wait until chapter 9 before we see God choosing someone as an apostle, one who doesn’t fit the list of criteria, but who certainly carries out the mission.

I wonder if Luke is telling us something here? I’m really not that acquainted with scholarship on Acts, so this may have been thoroughly ground to dust somewhere in the commentaries. Still, it’s something to think about.

When God Ordains a Change

When God Ordains a Change

We’ve had some discussion of Romans 13 over on the Energion Discussion Network, with contributions from David Alan Black, Elgin Hushbeck, Jr., and Steve Kindle (via comments). The question is just what it means to be subject to the “higher powers,” and when or whether a Christian can ever be involved in a revolutionary movement. I commented on some of my own view on this in a post some time ago, but today I want to look at another passage. I think it’s an excellent illustration of why we should refrain from the phrase “the Bible clearly teaches” as much as possible.

So what about when God ordains a change? A fun example of this occurs in 2 Kings 9. Actually, this starts with 1 Kings 19:26 when Elijah is told to anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi as king of Israel. This doesn’t happen until 2 Kings 9:

Elisha the prophet called one of the sons of the prophet and told him, “Get yourself ready and take this vial of oil in your hand and go to Ramoth Gilead. You’ll go there and you’ll see Jehu, son of Jehoshaphat, son of Nimshi, and you’ll take him from among his brethren and take him to another room. You’ll take the vial of oil and pour it out on his head, and you’ll say, “This is what YHWH says, ‘I have anointed you king over Israel.’ Then you’ll open the door, flee, and you won’t hesitate.”

You can read the rest of the story that follows in 2 Kings 9. It makes for some very interesting reading. It was probably a rather good idea for the prophet to flee!

There are a number of very obvious differences between the situation faced by Elijah, Elisha, and the sons of the prophets and that faced by Paul when writing the letter to the Romans. Israel was being treated as at least a sort of theocracy. In this case, God’s people were a nation, not people living within a nation. Further, in this case we have a direct order recorded from God via a prophet to be the catalyst for this change of government. The situation is complicated by the fact that God’s people are divided into two nations, Israel and Judah (the result of another case of God ordaining a change, 1 Kings 11:26-40), and that all of the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel are rated as evil.

It points to the complexity that arises when one views all government as ordained by God. Almost definition, all government is permitted by God. The difference between “permitted” and “ordained” when one speaks in consideration of divine power are fairly close in meaning.

Many modern readers would assume that the key difference is that God was able to order this via the prophets. That is not an explanation that I find useful. God directs in many ways. In fact, I believe God can direct through simple moral choice, i.e., if the government forces one to do something that is immoral, one ought to obey God rather than human authority. In the case of Elisha, God was willing, according to the story, to order revolution against a government that had become intolerable. Interestingly enough, Jehu’s dynasty was not that much better, though it does get a slightly better report than the dynasty of Omri.

It strikes me that it’s dangerous to make too much theology out of one passage.

How Was Jesus Portrayed as Crucified to the Galatians?

How Was Jesus Portrayed as Crucified to the Galatians?

 You foolish Galatians! Who put you under a spell? Was not Jesus the Messiah clearly portrayed before your very eyes as having been crucified? I want to learn only one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the actions of the Law or by believing what you heard? (Galatians 3:1-2, ISV, from BibleGateway)

I only managed to discuss about the first five verses of Galatians during my Thursday night Bible study. Next week I’ll look some at the Spirit and the Law in Romans as well as in the rest of this chapter.

There are two key points I see in the two verses I quoted.

  1. Paul tells the Galatians that Jesus was “clearly portrayed” to them as crucified. How is that? They obviously didn’t all witness the actual crucifixion. The answer, I think, is that Paul, both in words and in life, portrayed a crucified savior. It’s worthwhile to think about how this might work and how we might each portray Christ crucified to others.
  2. The Galatians should know, according to Paul, by the fact that they received the Spirit. Now how do they know that they have received the Spirit? There are many ways in which people claim to be able to know. Pentecostals might pick speaking in tongues. Holiness Christians might look to the presence of holiness in the life. But I would suggest that this is primarily an internal experience. Yes, a genuine internal experience will bear fruit, but the question here is not whether someone else can tell, but what you know yourself. Paul had likely heard the testimonies of those impacted by his portrayal of Christ crucified, and having heard those, he was shocked that one could abandon such an experience for someone else.

I suspect, in fact, that for many of the readers/hearers of this letter, the reminder of that experience did, in fact, have a serious impact on their thinking. Why indeed am I looking for another way to receive something I already have? What do I think will be better about my life in the Spirit following circumcision.

Teachers and preachers might take a lesson here about trusting the experience of their hearers. Refresh their memory; remind them of their experience. Trust the Spirit.

Here’s my video.

Bloody Sacrifices and Salvation

Bloody Sacrifices and Salvation

One of the problems with understanding biblical talk about salvation is that we do not live with a sacrificial system. For many Christians, the whole idea of sacrifices is that someone sinned and a bloody sacrifice was required for atonement. Christians believe that because of one bloody sacrifice, that of Jesus on the cross, no other bloody sacrifices need be offered, and we’re very relieved. In Judaism, the sacrifices have been replaced by Torah observance, without sacrifices due to the absence of the temple. Despite the desire of some Jews to rebuild the temple, I suspect the majority are quite happy with its absence.

This was emphasized to me recently as I prepare for (never ending) episodes of my study on Paul, especially as I read Galatians, and even more as I read Hebrews. The problem is that every word needs to be defined, and we are, to a large extent, convinced that we already know what the words mean. In fact, we are so convinced that we can define ourselves right past the message of the scripture we’re reading. As Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” (Read more at BrainyQuote).

My purpose here is not to provide a new and perfect (I have been reading Hebrews, after all!) answer to the question of what sacrifice really means. The word means different things in different places. I has a range or ranges of meaning. In cultic terms, as opposed to the more personal,, it seems to grow out of the idea that one needs to communicate with the divine. That can be as simple as the need to present your petitions effectively or as complex as wanting to hear from God, or from the gods, what is the ultimate plan for the physical universe, always assuming there is one.

That’s why you have a complex array of sacrifices and rituals in any religious system. The actual sacrifices and rituals evolve as worship takes place, and as people believe they receive communications, or more specifically directions, from the divine. The actual rituals are a mix of what people expect such things to be (tradition), from what people perceive to have worked (accurately or not), what people have heard, and available options and resources. These rituals will also combine the perceived needs of people, secular authorities, and religious authorities in various measures.

It may seem somewhat irreverent to some to apply this kind of process to biblical rituals, but as I argue in my book When People Speak for God, communication involves at least two termini, and one of those, in this case, is human. The lesser (slower, narrower, less precise) terminus determines the quality of the received message. In addition, a culture does not turn on a dime. Even revolutions are actually evolutionary to some extent.

The result is that the cultic system serves a range of needs. In modern Christianity we’ve come to think of salvation in rather simple terms: Avoid hell, and go to heaven. The intervening problem is that we’re sinners (though that term can get complex too), and the solution is the sacrifice of Jesus. All of which can be quite helpful except that it leaves us living in this world with all the many and varied issues in our lives.

The biblical concept of sacrifice was not quite so narrow. Or, rather, I should say that the biblical concepts of sacrifice were not quite so narrow. There is no particular reason to assume that every author in scripture is going to use the word “sacrifice” (or rather, various words sometimes so translated) in precisely the same way. If you read the texts carefully, you’ll find they are quite varied and nuanced.

In Leviticus, the world is made up of sacrifices. That’s because, for the most part, Leviticus is a book giving instructions about the cult to priests who were to carry it out. In that book sacrifices speak to the continuous presence of God, to atonement for specific sins, to atonement for guilt perceived for unknown reasons, to thanksgiving for blessing, to rituals for healing and purification, and ever so much more. The sacrifices were an integral part of the way the community of Israel was to live in community with its God.

The sacrificial system was not universally loved. For the prophets, it was often a dead routine carried out in Jerusalem by a nation in rebellion. Even earlier we have Samuel’s comment to Saul:

22 And Samuel said,
“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obedience to the voice of the LORD?
Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed than the fat of rams.

(The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (1 Samuel 15:22). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.)

Or as Hebrews Hebrews 10:5-7 quotes Psalm 40:6-8:

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body you have prepared for me;
6 in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
7 Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’
(in the scroll of the book it is written of me).”

The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Hebrews 10:5–7). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Now the author of Hebrews puts Psalm 40:6-8 into the mouth of Jesus, and here emphasizes something that is often missed in Christian discussions of atonement. One of the claims made by various New Testament writers was that Jesus accomplished God’s will in a way that humans had failed to do. It’s not that we don’t have in mind the idea that Jesus accomplished God’s will. Rather, it is because that is not part of our view of atonement.

I think this is why we so often have trouble understanding something like John 3, in which yet another different view of atonement is presented, one in which we immediately “have” eternal life. The typical response to this is that I’m going to die. How is it that I can have eternal life? But that’s because we get off the track of a desire to create community here and to be in communion with God (and both of these concepts invite further discussion and definition), and have limited our idea to one thing. Where do I spend eternity?

That is a question that doesn’t work well in isolation. It makes faith, salvation, and atonement a narrow and selfish thing. It’s not that we shouldn’t want to care for our eternal reward. Rather, it’s because we shouldn’t try to plan our eternity independently and as a solely future event.

I’m mostly raising questions here, and providing way too little in pointing the way. The key thing I’d like to suggest is that we need to quit reading scripture in the elementary or high school sense of “look the word you don’t know up in the dictionary.” That’s a good starting point. But then you need to allow the context of one author’s work build a nuanced definition for you.

I recall reading Ludwig von Mises’s book Human Action back when I was in college. It’s more than 800 pages of rather intense prose. In that book von Mises creates his own vocabulary. He’ll say that a particular word (psychology, for example, which he replaces with thymology [but not precisely]) has problems of definition. Then he defines the word himself and proceeds to use it in further discussion. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll wind up completely baffled a few pages further. You can’t use the dictionary, because the word is not there. What you can do is develop your own understanding of the term as von Mises uses it.

Try that with your Bible. It can be rewarding!


(Featured image is from Adobe Stock [#126750439] and is licensed. It is not public domain.)
God Perfected through Suffering

God Perfected through Suffering

For it was appropriate for
    him,
        for whom everything exists
            and
        through whom everything exists,
    in bringing many children to glory,
        the pioneer of their salvation
    to perfect
        through suffering

(Hebrews 2:10, very literal)

I wouldn’t suggest that any Greek students translate the way I just did, or your Greek teacher may suggest you learn English. I’m trying to bring the focus onto certain things and it’s sometimes hard to gauge what this is going to do for readers of the English text that results.

I think this text is one of those that we tend to discount, because what it’s actually saying is a bit startling. In his commentary, Luke Timothy Johnson points out that this text forms a sort of envelope with 2:18, and that the verses between are a carefully structured argument. I quite agree, but I want to just bring your attention to the stark initial statement. Johnson emphasizes how outrageous this concept would be in the Greek world. I would suggest it would sound outrageous just about anywhere. When a Bible writer says something that sounds outrageous we have our defensive mechanisms: Discounting (take 20% or 30% off the rough edges), find a balancing text so we can believe that one instead, or just move on to something more edifying.

In this case I think we tend to focus on the suffering, since we have heard the story of the cross so many times. That was something shocking to those who first heard it, but it has become routine now, not that when we’re called to suffer as Christ did, we take that very seriously. We  tend to think we’re suffering for Jesus every time we have a bad day. No, we’re just living in the world. Some days just aren’t as nice as others!

But the idea that the Son, described in such majestic terms in Hebrews 1:1-4 is to be made perfect, or perhaps complete, through suffering is a little bit more difficult. Luke 2:52 notwithstanding, we tend to think of Jesus in majesty all the way through. Just look at all the halos around the baby Jesus in art. I suspect not so much halo spotting by Mary. In Hebrews, we’ll hear this theme many times, one of the key ones is 5:9, where “having been made complete he became the means of eternal salvation.

I’d suggest two points here that we avoid, and we need to affirm and absorb instead:

  1. God is much more involve in and impacted by our lives and situation. The incarnation may have been an event in history, but it’s also an eternal reality. God is much more involved. We sometimes wobble between transcendence and immanence. God has no problem with both.
  2. The suffering and death of Jesus was a necessary part of atonement, in different ways. I do not affirm penal substitutionary atonement as the singular theory expressing the truth of the atonement. It is, in my view, just one metaphor that helps us think about our salvation. But if we think incarnation, to be complete it must be real, and, well, complete. Becoming human and then not facing death would be to become something other than human; rather, it would be a contradiction. So Jesus became complete as the means of our salvation by living and dying as we do.

As difficult as it is sometimes to keep this in focus, salvation requires both the glory and the suffering. And when we are called to suffer, or even given the gift both of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him (Philippians 1:29).

I don’t know about you, but I suspect that could involve more than some mild annoyances.

Introduction to Perspectives on Paul

Introduction to Perspectives on Paul

Apocalyptic background - flash and lightning in dramatic dark sky
Paul was impacted by his mystical experiences and the intervention of God by a vision of light. (Source: Adobe Stock [licensed]).
Tonight I begin my new series of Thursday night studies on the apostle Paul. My approach will be a bit different than usual. I’m more interested in developing the background, particularly in Israelite religion and Judaism and looking at the way Paul draws from his theological sources.

I’ll also introduce my approach to the subject. I’ll be working first with material from Energion Publications authors. I publish these materials and I’m acquainted with them. More importantly, I wouldn’t have published them if I didn’t consider them valuable.

You can find all of the materials in our The Apostle Paul category on Energion Direct. Most of these books are available in both print and ebook formats.

9781631991691I’m going to use Galatians as my basic guide. That wasn’t my first choice. I’ve often felt that Pauline scholars spend excessive time in Romans and Galatians and neglect books like 1 Corinthians or Philippians in developing their view of Paul’s theology. But I have come to believe instead that what I saw as deficiencies in building a picture of Paul from these letters is more a result of misreading Paul than of choosing the wrong letters. Of course, I will still maintain that in order to understand Paul and his theology, one needs to consult everything he wrote, but I doubt anyone actually disagrees with me on that point. It’s rather a matter of emphasis.

In studying Galatians, I’m going to start from a foundation of reading the book with Bruce Epperly’s study guide in the Participatory Study Series, titled creatively Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide. (The title is not Bruce’s fault. It’s standard for the series, and therefore my fault.) Besides the fact that I publish the book, my reason for choosing this is that it is written by a progressive theologian, also a process theologian, who is nonetheless very favorable to Paul’s writings. I would like to create a conversation here between evangelical and progressive approaches to interpretation and also to take a look at the way our existing theology impacts our reading.

As part of the resources for this study, I’m going to be interviewing scholars from our Energion Publications author list with a variety of perspectives. Because I’m using Bruce Epperly’s study guide, I’m starting by interviewing him. I completed it this morning, and I’m excited by the results and what he had to say. Bruce is always entertaining. He’s the first of several. I hope you will listen to (or watch) all of them. Here’s the video:

Meditations on the Letters of PaulIt’s not necessarily a bad thing for our theology to impact our reading. In  fact, I think it would be quite shocking if it didn’t. I am only reading the Bible because I grew up in a Christian home and have a theology that suggests that this book is useful. My existing theology is also going to have an impact on the way I place the content of the book. In turn, Paul is himself impacted by his own background and theology. This doesn’t suggest that interaction with the book doesn’t have the potential to change or even totally revolutionize our existing thinking. Paul  encountered God in a new and different way on the road to Damascus and his theology was revolutionized. Yet one can still see his background in his destination.

It’s easy to separate Paul from his own background. In fact, it’s easier to do so than not. So I’m going to emphasize the background. Now I’m not in search of some undiscovered country where I hear Paul 100% as he was. My theology will be in tension with his as I learn, and I hope yours will be there as well.

It’s my hope to provide additional video notes and some blog posts each week. Just as we have with the Energion Publications Tuesday Night Hangouts I’ve changed these to a half hour each. I also hope that you will pick up a copy of Bruce Epperly’s book and do a study of Galatians at the same time as I do.

I will be consulting the other books listed, and also providing a resource page with a list of available books. But another  book will be with me for the entire study is Herold Weiss’s book Meditations on the Letters of Paul. Herold brings some impressive scholarship to his reading of Paul, and I will be making full use of his material. As a suggestion, pick up copies of both of these books and follow along. And yes, I will be interviewing Herold as part of my series asking “Who was Paul?”

Here’s the viewer for tonight’s presentation:

Note that if you want to participate in live chat you will need to go to my YouTube channel and watch there. I will be watching the live chat for questions and comments. Note that I have put the books involved on sale on Energion Direct. You will be able to see them on the home page.

 

Review: NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible – Hebrews

Review: NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible – Hebrews

Introduction

#contextchangeseverything – yes, it does. But how?

With the vast array of Bible study materials that are available in the English language comes a problem. How does one choose what materials are worth my time, shelf space (or HD space!), or money? If you search my blog for posts about study Bibles, you’ll find that I have a love-hate relationship with them, and it tends to be mostly hate. Nonetheless, I own—and use—a variety of study Bibles, and you’ll even see some positive reviews.

The reason for the hate side of the equation is that far too many people purchase a study Bible that’s recommended by someone they trust, or even written by someone they trust, not to mention randomly selected from a bookstore shelf and then accept what the notes say because they are written by biblical scholars after all. I recall being accosted by a church member some years ago who asked me about the notes on a particular text. I can’t even recall which text it was. Her problem was that she couldn’t figure out how the meaning presented in the note could be extracted from the text itself. I strongly recommend asking just such a question! I asked her if she’d considered the possibility that the note could be wrong. That was a revelation for her.

What I recommend is that a reader make sure to get study Bibles that are written from different perspectives and use them as an aid, not as a source of the answers. To some extent one should study the Bible text first, and then the notes, but sometimes one can read background material first. A study Bible that provides notes that tell you directly what the passage means can be quite convenient, but also quite misleading.

But one of the key problems for Bible students in the 21st century western world is the extent to which our culture is different from that of the world of the Bible. Very frequently what seems quite plain to us is not at all what the Bible writer is trying to say because we simply don’t share enough of those norms. I have come to believe that I have benefitted more by coming to understand human culture and language over the last 30 or so years than I have by learning the biblical languages. I do not mean to underestimate the value of learning Greek and Hebrew, but if my language learning had not been enhanced by the study of linguistics, history, sociology, and anthropology, it would have been of little value.

Pastors frequently proclaim that “the Greek word ____ means” or “the Hebrew word ____ means” and then build their exegesis on what is essentially simply another gloss. This makes people believe they have been enlightened by the ancient languages, when they have actually simply transferred their 21st century attitudes and presuppositions to a set of sounds they are told is Greek or Hebrew. Understanding a language means to some extent understanding a culture. Similarly understanding a text means understanding something about the person or persons who wrote it and the audience for which it was intended.

This is the key element that I believe a study Bible can provide. Certainly cross-references and historical connections are important, but letting the reader know how people in that time and place lived and thought is much more important.

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible

Olive Tree with NIV Cultural Bible
NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible on my Android Tablet

(Note: I am basing my notes on the Olive Tree Bible software edition provided to me free of charge as I did not receive my print edition. I will not make comments on the layout or usability of the print edition.)

Thus I come to the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. They use the provocative (and obviously true) URL contextchangeseverything.com. I should note here that there are many types of context. There is a literary context, historical context, linguistic context, and (among others) cultural context. We usually think of context in a fairly narrow linguistic sense. A word study might be done by finding a variety of sentences that use a particular word. We know that when Jesus says, “Go and do likewise” we need to look at the context of what has been commanded. We can’t grab some other activity and make that the command of Jesus instead.

Study Bibles generally examine a range of these ideas as well as proposing interpretations for difficult passages, often without providing enough information so that the reader can follow the logic. The final reader is left with the simple logic that the skilled scholar who wrote the study notes concluded X, so X must be correct, an assumption that will be severely shaken in many cases if one compares other Bibles written by skilled scholars.

The Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible aims to help you understand the Bible writers, their audience, and their times. In the notes you will find direct connections between ancient culture(s) and the text itself. Rather than just being told that a certain phrase means a certain thing, you will be given the reason why one might come to that conclusion. This is no guarantee that every interpretation is correct; that would be expecting the impossible. (Which perfect one of us would make the determination in any case?) What it does mean is that for most explanations in the notes in this Bible you can follow the logic path. If you want to, you can do deeper research, and the notes are specific enough that you’ll be able to do your search, Bible dictionary reference, or deeper study in a commentary or at a good library.

Since I’m not reviewing the Bible overall, but rather looking in particular at one book, I won’t spend more time on an overview. Let me simply say that I’m delighted with the intent, and quite impressed with the implementation. There are obviously limitations. This is a study Bible, not a multi-volume commentary or an encyclopedia. It would be easy to complain about what’s not there. In my review of the book of Hebrews, I believe that the editorial choices made were quite good. I would doubtless have chosen differently in some cases, as would just about anyone, but that’s only to be expected.

On to Hebrews

To study Hebrews most effectively using this Bible, start first with the introduction to the Old Testament. Why? Because Hebrews displays an interesting interplay between the text of Hebrew Scripture, seen generally through the LXX translation, and then interpreted in a particularly New Testament light. The details of how these elements interact require some discussion, and that’s why you study and compare, but you need to understand the sources. The introduction discusses 12 issues in which we will see the world differently, and I think all of these issues will impact your reading of Hebrews.

While reading the text of Hebrews you can use the links (if you’re using Bible software) or follow the references to Old Testament passages. You cannot impose your own exegesis of passages of Hebrew Scripture on Hebrews, but it is important to know not just the text that is quoted, but also its literary context that might be brought to the audience’s mind by the reference, and also by ways in which that text might have been understood. It is not sufficient to treat the Old Testament quotations in Hebrews as words used in the context of Hebrews. Of course, the context of their use in Hebrews is the most definitive when we determine how the author of Hebrews intended them, but we need to do everything possible to get into his (or her) world in order to understand that context.

This is the value of a volume like this. I’m currently reading a commentary on Hebrews that is more than 600 pages. I have another on the shelf in front of me that is of similar length. It’s hard to back off and get an overview of the forest using those commentaries, though both are extremely valuable. What I enjoyed with the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, even as someone who has read the book of Hebrews many times, and studied the works of many commentators on it, was this broader view. Having dealt busily with the trees, putting each leaf under a microscope, it was nice to get so much material easily available. (This is a general advantage with study Bibles over detailed commentaries, at least the better ones, but the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible excels).

Content Comparison

study bible stackI’m going to compare the content of several study Bibles I have on my shelf. Where I give word counts, they are loose estimates based on line counts and my eyeball count of average words per line. The Bibles I’m using to compare are: The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), The Orthodox Study Bible, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, The NLT Study Bible, and of course the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible.

First, let’s compare sheer quantity of text. First, the introduction. (I’ll add a note on approach.)

NOAB: About 450 words, no outline, though an outline can be extracted easily from the notes. The approach of the notes is often technical. Users complain that they don’t get enough theological help.

OSB: About 220 words, short outline provided, stronger suggestion of possible Pauline authorship than others. Theology is consistent with that of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

NISB: A bit more than 1000 words and a mid-length outline. The NISB is kind of the pastor’s answer to the NOAB for mainline teachers/preachers. It provides more theological reflection, a fact I receive with definitely mixed emotions, though the material is generally helpful in its place. Theology is mainline with a bit of a liberal lean.

NLT Study Bible: About 1500 words and a brief outline. Theology is strongly evangelical

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: About 800 words, no outline, features “Quick Glance” section. Theology is evangelical.

Now let’s consider a specific passage, in this case Hebrews 4:12-13, and look at the quantity of notes, along with a count of insets or excurses in the whole text of Hebrews:

NOAB: 21 words. No excurses.

OSB: 54 words. One excursus.

NISB:  75 words. No excurses.

NLT Study Bible: 74 words. 9 excurses.

NIV Cultural Background Study Bible: 136 words. Two excurses.

The critical value of these notes is that they are aimed at the background and at helping you draw a line from the background to the meaning. I would say that the NOAB is great at pointing to technical details, but not so much at theology, while the NISB spends less time on technical details while using much of its space to reflect on theology. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible uses its space in drawing a picture and pointing that to possible theological conclusions without trying to be a theology text.

Conclusion

Over the next few days I will post something on a couple of my favorite passages and the specific comments provided by this study Bible. I would consider this an excellent Bible to have at hand for a study of any biblical book. In my To the Hebrews: A Participatory Study Guide (currently under revision), I recommend that a study group have more than one study Bible available. I think it would be good for a group studying Hebrews to have this one at hand. One of the reasons my own guide is being revised is that it is largely a collection of thought questions. I’m going to provide more of a basis for those questions in the second edition. But the book will still be intended for use by a study group that has available multiple resources to compare. This will be one of the few that I recommend.


Note: All of these introductions to the book of Hebrews tend to dismiss Pauline authorship, with the Orthodox Study Bible being the most favorable. My own position is that it is not possible to determine the author. I used to exclude Paul as a possibility, but have been persuaded by the writing of David Alan Black that Paul should be kept as a possibility. I publish his little book The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul.