The Text in Context; Wednesday Wisdom

“It cannot be overemphasized, that the key to an understanding of the New Testament is a fluent knowledge of Hebrew and an intimate acquaintance with Jewish history, culture, and Rabbinic Literature.”  –David Bivin, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus

One of my teachers once told me that “text without context is pretext.”  This statement stressed the importance of understanding the cultural and historical context within which a statement or teaching is made.

Learning the historical and cultural context of the Bible changed my life and radically improved my understanding of it.  This is a gift I wish I could give to everyone.  Today I want to share some quotes with you from Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin that relate his journey studying the text.

“I began my Bible reading as a teenager.  My greatest difficulty was trying to understand the words of Jesus.  I would note the sayings of Jesus, such as, “For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in a dry?” (Luke 23:31); or “…From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12).

Picture a teenager trying to make sense out of such good King James English as, “I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?  But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!” (Luke 12:49-50).  I would question my pastor or teachers or visiting seminary professors as to the meaning of such passages and would invariably receive the common response: “Just keep reading son, the Bible will interpret itself.”

“The truth is that one can keep reading the Bible forever, and the Bible will not tell him the meaning of these difficult passages.  They can only be understood when translated back into Hebrew.  What my pastor and teachers should have admonished was, “Son, learn Hebrew!  These are all expressions or idioms that can be understood only if you know Hebrew.

By the time I went to Israel at the age of 24 to study at the Hebrew University, I had almost stopped reading the Gospels.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t reading the Bible.  I was reading the Bible more than ever before, but I was unconsciously neglecting the Gospels; yet, here were the real words and teachings of Jesus.”

“Most Christians are aware that the Old Testament was originally communicated in Hebrew, and that it is important to know Hebrew to understand the Old Testament.  What they do not recognize, however, is the importance of Hebrew in understanding the New Testament.

It should be emphasized that the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) is in its entirety, highly Hebraic.  In spite of the fact that portions of the New Testament were communicated in Greek, the background is thoroughly Hebrew.  The writers are Hebrew, the culture is Hebrew, the religion is Hebrew, the traditions are Hebrew, and the concepts are Hebrew.”

…”If additional advances are to be made, especially in better understanding the words of Jesus, the concentration must shift to the study of Hebrew history and culture, and above all, the Hebrew language.

–David Bivin, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus 

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