The Grace Commentary will focus heavily on providing historical and cultural background studies for each book of the Bible. It is my conviction that these studies not only help bring the Bible to life, but are more important than word studies, grammatical analysis, or other types of research that can be performed on any particular text.
Some may wonder why cultural and background studies are important or necessary for understanding the Bible. They want to know why they can’t just “read the Bible for what it says.” The answer is that you can “read the Bible for what it says,” but only if you understand what it says. And cultural and background studies help us understand what the text says. If you don’t know the culture, then you won’t know the way people thought back then, and if you don’t know the way they thought, you won’t know the meanings of the words they used, and if you don’t know the meaning of the words, you can’t just “read the Bible for what it says.”
I recently found an illustration in Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh’s Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels which helped me explain this in a way that makes more sense (p. 9). They write that when we in the United States read about a “Big Mac” we don’t need someone to tell us that it is “Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun” (remember the old Big Mac commercial?). We know what a Big Mac is and we don’t need someone to unpack it for us.
But suppose I wrote a letter to you, and in it, I mentioned how much I love Big Macs.
Now suppose that my letter gets miraculously preserved for 2000 years until a future archeologist discovers it. Upon translating the letter, the archeologist decides he wants to research what these “Big Macs” were that I loved so much. So he does some investigation, and immediately discovers that some people in 21st Century America are called “Mac.” So he decides that “Big Macs” are guys named Mac who are really large, and in my letter, I express my special affinity for them. He publishes his findings in a leading archaeological journal of his day.
Another scholar comes along, who has a degree in computer science, and he remembers reading something somewhere about “Mac” computers during the 20th and 21st centuries. He goes back and finds his notes and discovers that there were little Macs, called MacBooks which could be carried around, and other, bigger Macs which sat on a desk. He decides the bigger macs must be “Big Macs” and publishes his findings. He is invited to speak at the TED Conference in the year 4014.
A third scholar, who happens to be an expert on the Jeremy Myers who wrote the original letter, remembers that Jeremy grew up in a town called Missoula, and during his growing up years, attended MAC (Missoula Alliance Church) and was a member of MAC (Missoula Athletic Club.). So he theorizes that Big Macs were either bigger versions of this church or this athletic club. He writes a paper about it…which does not get published, because the premise is too fanciful, and nobody knows or cares too much about Jeremy Myers anyway.
Finally, someone comes along who studies ancient customs, cultures, and diets, and knows that there were several food items containing the term “Mac.” He writes a paper about “Mac and Cheese” but how there is no known use of “Big Mac and cheese” and so probably, when Jeremy Myers wrote about loving “Big Macs” he meant the sandwich from a fast food restaurant (which requires further cultural explanation) called McDonalds. The worldwide recognized symbol was something called “the golden arches” and their signature sandwich was the “Big Mac.” It contained two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun. The scholar explains that in the past 2000 years, the ingredients to the special sauce have been lost, but most scholars believe it contained some sort of mixture of mayonnaise, ketchup, and relish, all of which require further explanation in this paper. This scholar goes on to write a book called The Gastronomical Background of Ground Beef in the Letters of Jeremy Myers. The book becomes a best seller.
OK, all of this is a little silly, but you get the point. Our modern era is separated from the Bible culturally, economically, politically, geographically, chronologically, religiously, scientifically, and every other -ly you can think of. We need historical and cultural background studies to help us understand the Bible, so we can truly “read it for what it says.”
The World of the Bible
Some might object, “Oh, we are not that culturally different from the world of the Bible. Words and worldviews are still about the same.” But just consider the following random list (also from Malina and Rohrbaugh, 2003:7) showing just how different our cultures are:
1. In agrarian societies more than 90 percent of the population was rural. In industrial societies, more than 90 percent is urban.
2. In agrarian societies, 90-93 percent of the population was engaged in what sociologists call the “primary” industries (farming and extracting raw material). In the United States today it is 4.9 percent.
3. In agrarian societies 2-4 percent of the population was literate. In industrial societies 2-4 percent are not.
4. The birthrate in most agrarian societies was about forty per thousand per year. In the United States, as in most industrial societies, it is less than half that. Yet death rates have dropped even more dramatically than birthrates. We thus have the curious phenomenon of far fewer births and rapidly rising population.
5. Life expectancy in the city of Rome in the first century B.C.E. was about twenty years at birth. If the perilous years of infancy were survived, it rose to about forty, one-half our present expectations.
6. In contrast to the huge cities we know today, the largest city in Europe in the fourteenth century, Venice, had a population of 78,000. London had 35,000. Vienna had 3,800. Though population figures for antiquity are notoriously difficult to come by, recent estimates for Jerusalem are about 35,000. For Capernaum, 1,500. For Nazareth about 200.
7. The Department of Labor currently lists in excess of 20,000 occupations in the United States and hundreds more are added to the list annually. By contrast, the tax rolls for Paris (pop. 59,000) in the year 1313 list only 157.
8. Unlike the modern world, in agrarian societies 1-3 percent of the population usually owns one- to two-thirds of the arable land. Since 90 percent or more were peasants, the vast majority owned subsistence plots at best.
9. The size of the federal bureaucracy in the United States in 1816 was 5,000 employees. In 1971 it was 2,852,000 and growing rapidly. (The Washington Post reported in 2006 that the number was over 14 million.) While there was a political administration, and military apparatus in antiquity, nothing remotely comparable to the modern governmental bureaucracy ever existed. Instead, goods and services were mediated by patrons who operated largely outside governmental control.
10. More than one-half of all families in agrarian societies were broken during the childbearing and child-rearing years by the death of one or both parents. …Thus widows and orphans were everywhere.
11. In agrarian societies the family was the unit of both production and consumption. Since the industrial revolution, family production or enterprise has nearly disappeared and the unit of production has become the individual worker. Nowadays the family is only a unit of consumption.
12. The largest “factories” in Roman antiquity did not exceed fifty workers. In the records of the medieval craft guilds from London, the largest employed eighteen. The industrial corporation, a modern invention, did not exist.
13. In 1850, the “prime movers” in the United States (i.e., steam engines in factories, sailing vessels, work animals, etc.) had a combined capacity of 8.5 million horsepower. By 1970 this had risen to 20 billion.
14. The cost of moving one ton of goods one mile (measured in U.S. dollars in China at the beginning of the industrial revolution) was:
Animal-drawn cart: 13.0
Pack Mule: 17.0
Pack Donkey: 24.0
Carrying by pole: 48.0
It is little wonder that overland trade at any distance was insubstantial in antiquity.
15. Productive capacity in industrial societies exceeds that in the most advanced agrarian societies known by more than one hundredfold.
16. Given the shock and consternation caused by the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the forced resignation of Richard M. Nixon, we sometimes forget that this sort of internal political upheaval is nothing like it was in the agrarian world. Of the 79 Roman emperors, 31 were murdered, 6 driven to suicide, and 4 were deposed by force. Moreover, such upheavals in antiquity were frequently accompanied by civil war and the enslavement of thousands.
With such a list, any who suggest that the biblical world is not that much different from ours, and we can understand the thoughts and ideas of the Bible without knowledge of their world, is doomed to have serious misunderstandings of Scripture. Certainly, some things can be understood without background studies, but even in these areas, background studies can enhance our understanding.
Of course, such study of background material requires more than a lifetime – more even than a thousand lifetimes! But this should not dissuade us. Just as “a penny saved is a penny earned” so also, a biblical setting gained is a biblical passage learned (OK, it’s not quite as catchy. But it’s still true.)