In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared discuss the inevitability of reading our own context into the Bible and how reading the Bible creatively can help connect it to our own universe. Together they explore the following questions:
- Is reading the Bible creatively really inevitable?
- Is it problematic to try to get our viewpoint out of the way and only hear what the Bible says?
- What does it mean for the Bible to be encultured?
- Where can we see examples of enculturation in the Bible?
- Why are some examples of enculturation in the Bible readily accepted while others are contentious?
- What can we take away from the realization that creative interpretation exists in the Bible?
- What does 10 Things I Hate About You have to do with 1 & 2 Chronicles?
- What does it mean to draw a biblical text out of its historical particularity?
- When looking for meaning in the Bible, why do we tend to privilege singularity over multiplicity?
- What could be gained if we learned to value multiplicity in our theological approach?
- How does the inclusion of multivalent text demonstrate a need for personal investment in scripture?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete & Jared you can share.
- “You can’t ignore the fact that the people reading the Bible are not omniscient beings who can simply transport themselves back into time, but we are all encultured people and that makes a difference in how we read the Bible.” @peteenns
- “If we look at the Bible, there are some examples of enculturation. There’s some that would be not controversial, for instance, units of measurement. The problem for me is the Bible is enculturated, and it doesn’t tell us when it’s being enculturated.” @jbyas
- “We live in a time that the biblical writers themselves were not writing to or about. So how do you bring that into your own existence? You have to engage in some rather creative interpretation of either the portions of the Bible that were written, or if they weren’t written, at least the traditions behind them.” @peteenns
- “You need to sort of bring the Bible into your present, because you’re trying to actually engage real people. Because this is of spiritual value, which is the great irony with some of the more conservative approaches, which say ‘just stick to the texts’ and don’t really add much to it. That’s almost leaving the text in the past.” @peteenns
- “We have a modern bias that assumes historical accuracy is most important. I think that is something the ancient world would not have shared.” @jbyas
Mentioned in This Episode
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- Book: How the Bible Actually Works
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Pete: Hey, everybody, welcome to this episode of The Bible for Normal People and I’m here with Jared, as always, except for the solo episodes.
Jared: Right. No, we’re there. We actually stand over each other’s shoulder in the room, you just don’t hear…
Pete: Yeah, and judge.
Jared: I have cards of 1-10, and every time Pete makes a point, I hold up one. 4! 4.5! Come on!
Pete: And then I throw food at him.
Pete: So, I don’t care. So yeah, so this is a joint episode, as you—maybe you’re new to the podcast, but we have guests on most of the time. But we have other times where it’s just Jared or me. And other times when it’s both of us doing a joint episode and this is one of those episodes.
Jared: Not only that, but it is also the last episode of Season 5.
[Audio clip of group saying, “Awwwww”]
Pete: Is it really?
Jared: Yeah, it is. I just –
Jared: Pete’s mind is blown. And now he’s going to go into depression.
Pete: We’ve had five seasons already?
Jared: Just so everyone knows, we take a break.
Jared: So, there will be no new episodes in January. But you know what? We do that on purpose because I know you have not listened to every episode of this podcast.
Pete: Right. Or understood it, so just keep listening to it again and again and again.
Jared: You can go back. This is rerun season.
Jared: And then we’ll be back in February for Season 6.
Pete: Yes, and a lot of fun guests.
Jared: But until we get there-
Pete: Till we get there-
Jared: We have a modern bias that assumes historical accuracy is most important.
Pete: It’s almost inevitable that you will read your own context into the Bible.
Jared: That is something the ancient world would not have shared. They would have looked at historical accuracy and said, “Okay, that’s great, but you’re sacrificing relevancy.”
Pete: What is God saying to us now, not just back then?
Jared: We have a perfectionistic religion where it’s all or nothing. If we can’t have absolutes, it’s worth nothing, which I think is just not how the world works.
Pete: So okay, here, the topic for today is something that, again, if you’ve listened for a long time, this is sort of a theme that is in a good number of our episodes, not all of them, but we keep sort of coming back to this and there’s a reason for it. And I guess we’d put it this way, right, it’s the inevitability of reading the Bible creatively.
Pete: Which sounds, if you’re not familiar with us that’s gonna be like, what are you talking about? But it’s the inevitability that the Bible, when somebody picks it up and reads it, you have to be creative to certain extent to connect it to your universe.
Jared: So, let’s contrast that to start out with the opposite understanding, which is what I would have grown up with, and probably you as well to some extent later on, which is to be faithful to the Bible is to empty ourselves and only hear what the Bible says.
Jared: What the Bible says, in its original context, is what we’re always after. So, when you go to church on Sunday, you’re trying to get your own viewpoint out of the way and hear only what the Bible is trying to say. So maybe, let’s talk about why that’s problematic.
Pete: Well, I mean, let’s two sides of that. First of all, it’s not entirely bad, right? It’s really, really good to try to understand it.
Jared: Right, which is what makes it complicated.
Pete: That’s just it, right? It’s not either/or, it’s the fact that we want to respect what biblical authors are saying in their moment in time as best as we can. The problem is, we’re so separated by time and language, so we can’t really get there completely. But we want to do the best we can to respect what authors are trying to say.
Pete: I mean, I want to be respected that way when I write something. I don’t want people reviewing books of mine and making stuff up. I didn’t say that, I didn’t mean that. Right? So, we want to do the best that we can. However, you can’t ignore the fact that the people reading the Bible are not omniscient beings who can simply transport themselves back into time, but we are all encultured people and that makes a difference in how we read the Bible. Which is to say, that’s when this idea of creativity comes in, we’re always trying to bridge the gap between the text, which was written at times that the authors of those texts could not possibly have envisioned people like us or people like in the medieval period or even the early centuries of the Christian faith. That’s a different time and place.
Jared: Well, sometimes people, though, will—the argument would be, “well, not humanly possible, but if God is superintending this writing, then God could have.” However, my argument to that is, but that’s not what happened. When we look at the Bible –
Pete: That could have. But it didn’t.
Jared: When we look at the Bible, it is in culture.
Jared: So, what do we mean? Maybe we can talk about what it means to be encultured, because I think that it’s kind of an abstract.
Pete: Yeah, I guess so. I mean the way I, you jump in here too, but the way I think about it is that to be encultured means humans can’t escape their human location or time and place and that there are so many factors involved in that. It’s simply- I mean, a big one is just when you were born, where you were born, your nationality, your background, maybe an education, but that’s not even that important. It’s just the air that you breathe by being a person. Like myself born in 1961 and not in 1861 and born, you know, in a let’s say, lower middle-class family in New Jersey, rather than in affluent aristocratic family in you know, southern Canada or something. You know? It just, it makes it truly does make a difference.
Jared: And there are some examples, if we look at the Bible, of examples of enculturation. There’s some that would be not controversial, not heated at all, for instance, units of measurement.
Jared: So, when it says a cubit, okay, but that’s a cultural thing, we’re not up in arms that it doesn’t say, miles or meters.
Jared: It says cubit. Okay, well, that’s fine. It’s an encultured, we know translation, we can know how to sort of translate that. But then when, you know, we may be a little more controversial of something like the assumption that women are property in the Old Testament laws.
Pete: In parts of it, yeah. It’s there.
Jared: That’s a culture, and that’s an assumption that’s sort of in the background because of the social location in which the text was written. And, you know, then we get to maybe much more controversial when we get to some of the New Testament things I’m thinking of, for instance, language around God being the Father. Is that somehow less cultural, right? So, sometimes people would say, “Okay, cubits, that’s cultural, and we have to sort of let go of that cultural baggage,” and we translate it to our modern times. So, even modern translations might not say cubit anymore, it might translate into meters or feet or something like that. But then when we get into things like God the Father, is that a product of culture? Or women should be silent in the church.
Jared: Is that a product of culture? Or is that something that is still— and the problem for me is, the Bible is enculturated, and it doesn’t tell us when it’s being enculturated.
Jared: And that becomes a big problem.
Pete: And in a way it is thoroughly enculturated, but what does that mean? So, just to be clear, this podcast is not about solving that issue. Like what’s enculturated? What isn’t? And how do you know? What do you do? It’s only about the recognition that you can expect to see in reading the Bible, a highly-enculturated text. And in fact, it’s not just things like, again, maybe to get a little controversial, Genesis 1 reflects creation stories and many would say myths or maybe legends or something of creation. It seems pretty clear from a couple hundred years of unearthing ancient stories from Mesopotamia and from Egypt and from Canaan even, that you know, these stories are all breathing a similar kind of air. So, there’s an encultured nature to that. And I think most people I know at least have come to some peace with it. But it’s even, you know, within the Bible itself, that to me, is the fascinating thing. And that’s really where this story begins, of how within the Bible itself you see later writers looking back at earlier stories and giving them a different spin because of who they are and what the needs and concerns are of the people of their time.
Jared: What would be a few examples of that to help anchor this conversation? I think it is really important to see what the Bible itself does.
Pete: Right. I mean, a rather straightforward example, and I use this a lot, has to do with slavery laws in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. In Exodus chapter- what is it 20? Or 21, I forget. It’s one of those law chapters once you get to the 10 Commandments and you’re reading laws for about the next several weeks, pretty much.
Jared: Slow reader.
Pete: But yeah, it’s, you know, there are laws about Hebrew slaves and it allows for Hebrew slaves, but the males can go free after seven years if they choose to, but they can choose to stay and commit themselves to the slave owner. But these are Hebrew slaves, right? But the women can’t- they don’t have the right to do that. But you jump to Deuteronomy and all of a sudden it’s, the law is very emphatic that the male Hebrew slaves and the female Hebrew slaves have the right to go free should they choose after seven years.
There’s a huge difference there and people talk about, “well, it’s a different socio-religious political context and it is just happening at a different time.” And people have called Deuteronomy a little bit more humane, for example, than Exodus and Exodus is older than Deuteronomy. That’s the general argument.
And then in Leviticus, you also have a slave law where it says, “Yeah, we don’t have Hebrew slaves. We were slaves in Egypt, we don’t do that. You can enslave people from other places, that’s fine. But you can’t have Hebrew slaves at all.” So, the question is, you know, what does God think about Hebrew slaves? Well, you have three different answers and they represent different generations engaging this tradition in ways that are, they make more sense to them about what God is like, I would put it that way. And the Hebrew Bible is certainly full of examples of that. I mean, we can go on – and I mean, if you want to I wrote this book, How the Bible Actually Works. I give a lot of examples there of how the Bible seems to act this way.
Jared: And with those examples, let’s bring it back around to what’s your main takeaway from that in this context of creative interpretation?
Pete: That we see biblical writers engaging their tradition, which is oftentimes a written, it’s an inscripturated tradition, so to speak, engaging it in ways that say, “Listen, that doesn’t make sense to us, but this makes sense to us here today. And we’re going to connect with God this way, which is different.” You know?
I mean, another way is how, you know, in the Book of Ezekiel, for example, this is another example I love to talk about, how the people who are in exile are basically complaining to Ezekiel saying, “It’s not fair that we’re in exile, because we didn’t do anything personally. It was our parents who did it, why are we suffering for our parents’ sins?” And Ezekiel says, “You know,” if I can paraphrase, “I was talking to God about this, you’re right.” You know? The person who sins is the person should get punished, not the person who happens to have parents who did something wrong. And if your parents were awesome, that doesn’t mean you get a free ride, because you’re, everyone’s responsible for their own fate, so to speak.
Well, that’s in tension very much with what you find, for example, in the Book of Exodus, which says, you know, the commandment to not create idols. But if you do that thing, you will be punished for multi generations if you sin, but you’ll be blessed for multi generations if you don’t sin. So, there are multi-generational blessings and punishments in Exodus that are then sort of looked at in Ezekiel as saying that that’s that doesn’t seem right. So, there’s, you’re engaging the text, not just sort of doing what it says, but you’re trying to envelop that into your own moment in space and time, where, what is God saying to us now, not just back of that?
Jared: Yeah. And maybe, you can maybe correct this, But I think one of the clearest, maybe the most, one of the more stark examples of this, when we take it out of sort of this ethical realm, and just how does the Bible itself treat other scriptural passages, a classic example, as we head into Christmas here is how Matthew uses the Old Testament.
Pete: That’s a good one.
Jared: So, we have in Matthew 2, this phrase which he says, “So was fulfilled, what the Lord said to the Prophet out of Egypt, I’ve called my son.” Right? So, from when Matthew is writing that, it’s in the context of the birth story of Jesus, Jesus goes down to Egypt, and then goes back out. And Matthew says the reason Jesus, you know, the reason the Prophet said this, and Jesus does this, these go hand in hand. The Prophet said it, Jesus fulfills it – “Out of Egypt, I’ve called my son.”
Well, if we go back to what prophet he’s talking about –
Jared: Hosea 11:1, it starts with, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” It says it right there. It’s about Israel.
Jared: It’s not about Jesus.
Pete: It’s not even predictive. It’s retrospective. It’s looking back at something. It’s like, this is where we got started, what a mess that was. You know?
Jared: Yeah, it’s looking at the history, and it’s looking at the history of Israel. It’s not looking forward and it’s not talking about Jesus.
Pete: And Israel’s disobedience, right? “After all I’ve done for you,” right? I brought you out of Egypt to here you go.
So, but again, Matthew treats this as a fulfillment. Right?
Pete: And the, we could talk for hours about what fulfillment means in Matthew, we don’t need to do that. But the point is that he engaged a text in a way that was, let’s call it creative.
Jared: Mm hmm.
Pete: You know, the Jewish word is midrashic. It’s Midrash. And that’s there’s precedent for this sort of thing in antiquity.
See, there comes a point, we talked about the inevitability of creative interpretation. When you have texts that were written for a point in time in history, let’s say during the time of David, or even a little bit before or during the later years of the monarchy or during the exile. And that text comes to be very important to a community of people. And they see it as a way of communing with God and understanding what God is about. Guess what? As generations come and go, they want to know, well, what’s in it for us now? Like, where does this fail? We don’t live back in the days of Isaiah, we don’t live back in the days of David or, you know, Solomon, Proverbs and all that. We don’t live back then, we live at a different time. We live in a time that the biblical writers themselves were not writing to or about. So how do you bring that into your own existence? You have to engage in some rather creative interpretation of either the portions of the Bible that were written, or if they weren’t written, at least the traditions behind them.
And one of those things is simply even the language that’s used because all languages evolve, right? The language, the way Hebrew was, let’s say, in the 10th century BCE, is not the way Hebrew was in, say, the 2nd century BCE. All languages evolve, words take on different meanings. And you need to engage this in a way that brings it into your moment. Reading about a battle from the Old Testament, Christians call the Old Testament, but reading about a battle about what happened back then it’s like, well, so what? What does this have to do with us here today? That is always a creative act, because you’re bridging horizons, you’re bridging over a length of time. And what happened back then is not important, at least it’s not of sole importance. It’s actually, in many respects, of minor importance to what is God still doing now? The trick is you’re using a text that wasn’t written to you.
Pete: Right? You’re not using a text that’s written to you, you’re using a text that’s written to other people. So how do you, imagine doing that with Shakespeare or something, how do you apply that to your life?
Jared: It’s funny you just said that, because I just thought of, we’re in sync here. I was immediately thinking of The Taming of the Shrew and then the 90’s version 10 Things I Hate About You.
Pete: Oh, that’s right.
Jared: Which is like an update of Shakespeare, which is different than say, Leonardo DiCaprio version of Romeo and Juliet.
Jared: They’re both taking Shakespeare and bringing them into the modern framework.
Pete: Okay, so we have these two sort of like stories—one is The Taming of the Shrew, one is 10 things I what about you?
Jared: 10 Things I Hate About You.
Pete: Who’s in it? Is that Kate Hudson?
Jared: No, it was…
Jared: Now you asked me that. But it was Heath Ledger.
Pete: Okay. Yeah, I think I saw it.
Pete: I don’t remember. Anyway. But, so what you’re saying is that the shaping is different, but also, it affects the message on some level doesn’t it?
Jared: Right. So again, Romeo and Juliet, we have the same plot, the same language, really all that changes is the clothes and the aesthetic. But for The Taming of the Shrew, I mean, it’s there in the title—shrew. Like, that is not a very woman empowerment kind of thing.
Pete: No. Right.
Jared: And it’s really about Petruchio, I don’t know how you say his name. Petruchio? I never say Shakespearean stuff.
Jared: No, totally different story.
Pete: We’re so cultured around here.
Jared: It’s this couple, and basically, he’s using all of these torture devices to be honest, to subdue the female protagonist into being obedient.
Pete: Mm hmm. Okay.
Jared: If you watched 10 Things I Hate About You, it’s about this headstrong woman who’s not gonna be tamed –
Pete: Yes, right.
Jared: And she becomes the protagonist.
Jared: It’s a woman empowerment thing. So, the message completely flips, but it’s using the same structure of the story. It’s playing off of this plot.
Pete: And that’s, that’s analogous to, for example, the different slave laws, right? Or, you know, another example we’ve talked about on this podcast, because it’s so huge and so obvious is how 1 and 2 Chronicles significantly retells the history of David, of Solomon, and of all the kings afterwards. It’s, that in of itself is just a beautiful thing to study to see this. And, you know, in the New Testament, the Gospels, they do this too, it’s a little bit different, but not too different, because you’ve got these four gospels, and you have Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And they’re very similar, but they’re different. But why are they different? They’re different because they have different audiences they’re speaking to, but what’s fascinating is that it seems really, really clear to New Testament scholars that Matthew and Luke have Mark as a, “Yeah, he says this, I’m going to say it differently. I’m going to change it,” and the message is altered as a result of that.
And of course, John is sort of doing his own thing that is a very cosmic Christ-ish kind of telling. And you know, that’s the high Christology Gospel as people put it. I mean, the most divine –
Jared: A little more abstract.
Pete: Yeah, a little abstract and the most divine Jesus is there and not –
Jared: As opposed to maybe Mark’s.
Pete: Yeah, definitely Mark’s.
Jared: A pretty human Jesus.
Pete: Yeah, exactly. So, and it’s more complicated than that. But the gist is that you do have different portraits of Jesus even though they’re working from a similar base source, but they’re telling the story differently. Why? Not just, well, you know, I don’t want to get into copyright infringement. So, I’m going to tell us a little bit differently and call it a day. You know, my own story. It’s because of the settings that they’re writing to. That’s the key thing. Matthew and Luke would be irresponsible not to do what they do with the base Jesus story, which seems to be largely in Mark. They would be irresponsible, you need to—update is not the right word, but it’s not a wrong word either. You need to sort of bring this into your present, because you’re trying to actually engage real people. Because this is of spiritual value, which is the great irony with some of the more conservative approaches, which say “just stick to the texts” and don’t really add much to it. That’s almost leaving the text in the past.
Jared: But they say that, but they don’t actually do that.
Jared: Which for me is the dangerous part of that because they’re conflating… Because they place such a high value on just sticking to the text, they can’t admit that what you’re doing on a Sunday morning in almost any Evangelical Church is getting an updated version. But you’re pretending that that’s what the Bible was actually written for.
Jared: It really was written for you today this morning, which I think is a little dangerous, not to have that distance of saying –
Pete: Respect the distance.
Jared: We have to respect what God was doing in the past with these people as they tried to engage God and now we have to use that as a template as a model for, now how do we do that on our own? If we don’t have that distance, I just think it gets dangerous.
Pete: It gets dangerous in the sense that we, it’s almost inevitable, another thing that is inevitable, that you will read your own context into the Bible –
Jared: And call it the context of the Bible.
Pete: Exactly, that’s right. Instead of saying we have different contexts, what can we do with this text or tradition to have it make more sense to us? Right?
Jared: Yeah, yeah.
Pete: I mean, I think a classic example in the last several hundred years of interpretation, at least in the West, this concerns the enslavement of African Americans reading the Exodus story as a story of liberation from slavery, essentially. And you can go back and read the Exodus story and say, it’s not, not really. It sort of is there, I mean, clearly, they’re liberated. But God clearly doesn’t have much of a problem with people being enslaved, because it happens in the laws of Exodus itself. It’s not just purely liberation. But from the point of view of later generations needing to see how does God connect with us here and now, you will read that story, without any embarrassment in terms of your own immediate context. I mean, I think we all do that. That’s sort of the point of this, you know, and the inevitability of reading texts creatively, which is, that’s what we mean, reading texts in ways that draw it out of its, let’s use a fancy term, draw it out of its historical particularity—its meaning and essence back then, and brings it forward into your own reality. This is you know, what Gadamer talked about (the philosopher/ linguist), the two horizons, that is the essence of Bible reading, it’s the essence of hermeneutics, it’s the essence of theology, really.
Jared: It’s the essence of meaning making.
Pete: It’s the essence of meaning making.
Jared: Because you have to take what’s out there, take what’s in me, and we have to merge these horizons. And that’s how you make things meaningful.
Pete: Right, and have a little conversation between the two, but it’s hard to do.
Jared: Right. Well, I want to go back not to get too abstract here. But there’s, maybe I’ll only talk about a few, but I have this, you know, I’m doing this solo series on “The Making of the Modern Mindset.”
Jared: And I think there’s a few assumptions that I’m going to get into in part three, which is we’ll be in Season 6. But there’s a few assumptions here that I think play into this. One, which we’ve talked about before. And you mentioned it, so I’m just going to highlight it here. We have a modern bias that assumes historical accuracy is most important. I think that is something the ancient world would not have shared. They would have looked at historical accuracy and said, “Okay, that’s great, but you’re sacrificing relevancy to us.” Okay, great, there’s a dead fact back there. Now, you know what actually happened, but what does that have to do with us?
Jared: So, you may gain one thing, but you’re actually taking a loss on this other thing, and I think the ancient world would have seen the, again, when I’m putting, even saying that I’m putting modern categories on it.
Pete: Which we can’t help.
Jared: Yeah. But I think there’s an assumption we’re privileging historical accuracy, by even asking these questions or having this be a dilemma, and I think it’s important to recognize. So, when we’re saying, when we’re uneasy about creative “interpretations,” one assumption is, is because that’s less than, it’s not as valuable as what really happened.
Jared: Which is itself an assumption. You’ve already entered into a paradigm, you’re already putting your context into it. By having that uneasy feeling of this, we need to get at what it actually was about.
Pete: I agree. In a way, though, one could say, and I think there’s some value to this is that, yeah, but that historicistic mindset is part of our context.
Pete: So, the way in which we talk about this topic, the inevitability of creative interpretation, in light of this strong pull we all feel in the modern world, at least in the West towards historicity, and what was said and what wasn’t said. That’s the conversation to be had. Right? It’s not choosing one or the other. It’s the fact that, okay, it’s inevitable that we have to engage texts creatively because we’re living in a time that the writers couldn’t possibly have envisioned. So, how do we do that? And one way of doing it as a boil down the message real quick to like, God doesn’t want you to go to hell. So, everything wraps around that.
But if you get into the Bible more, it’s like other sorts of questions start being raised in our minds, and how do we have that conversation that honors the real historical impulse, which we also value? Right, we mentioned this before, it’s nice to know what Pharisees were about when you read the Gospels. It sort of helps you understand that. It’s nice knowing the context, maybe, of Genesis 1, and how that helps us understand it, but that almost highlights the distance between that and us. So, what do we now do today with those texts? To what extent does the history of it guide us or direct us? And to what extent doesn’t it? And that’s the question we’re not going to answer today. That’s called theology.
Jared: Right. That’s the whole thing is itself, again, I, okay. So that leads me into my second point. So let me just –
Pete: Okay, you have other points.
Jared: Let me just wrap the first one up, which is—I think you’re right, we have to accept it. It’s not an either/or, but I think it’s a matter of deprivileging it as though it is the right way to do it. It may be our way. It may be we have no choice, really, to be honest, as modern thinkers to privilege this historicity, but we can kind of work on seeing it for what it is, and maybe putting it in a different context.
Pete: Which is the postmodern turn, in a sense.
Pete: Should we talk about?
Jared: Well, no. That’s, that’s why I’m saying, I’m setting up part three of my –
Pete: I’m so… We’re on the same wavelength.
Pete: That’s twice in one day, I don’t even understand it.
Jared: So, the second would, again, this, these are kind of, these modern assumptions are going to be what lead to the postmodern turn, which I think a lot of us are starting to creep our way into, which is, we also privilege the singularity, the one right way over the multiplicity. Instead of saying, can, it’s great whenever we have liberationist theologians show us how we can read the Bible from a liberationist perspective. We still think that’s great and that’s good, but there still is the monolith, the right way to do it. And these are all subsidiary.
Jared: It’s “all theology has an adjective.” So, it’s great that we have liberationist theology, but we always have to have this anchor point called theology,
Pete: Yeah, the constraint or something.
Jared: Yeah, we call that theology. But we don’t realize that when we say without an adjective, what we mean is white, European, male dominated theology. But if we put those adjectives there, now we get really scared because there’s just this multiplicity of which one’s the right one. It’s like asking which Gospel though, is the right Gospel?
Jared: Well, we have the multiplicity in there, how about we learn how to value multiplicity, instead of always trying to subsume it into this one right thing.
Pete: Well, that’s a whole mind trip right there. I mean, because it’s so different from what we’re used to doing. And I agree with that. It’s learning from the Bible what it means to engage this tradition in this text and the privileging of the historical way of reading. There has, value has come from that, you know, and I would never say there isn’t a lot of value.
Jared: For sure.
Pete: But again, is—this is why people get scared. Yeah, I mean, and understandably so because you don’t have the constraints, right? We want some sort of constraint. And I think it’s a matter of maybe learning a different set of constraints or something. And again, our purpose here is not to say here’s what the constraints are, you know, everything’s going on. It’s more like this discussion that we’re having here is an inevitable, hermeneutical, and theological discussion –
Jared: That, and I’m gonna riff on Tripp Fuller here a little bit. We’re, in discussing it, we’re doing theology.
Jared: That’s right.
Pete: It isn’t like, we have to solve it and then we can do theology, we’re doing it by talking like this. Now, not everybody has to talk like this, but we do. You know, and a lot of you listening have to talk like this too, because you’re living in the middle of it. So I find that fascinating, and how the biblical tradition is, we see that happening within the pages of the Bible. And it’s like, once you see it, it’s like, why wasn’t I taught this? It’s like, it’s all over the place. And then you throw Judaism sort of Second Temple Judaism in the middle of that, where Jews had to find ways to connect with an ancient tradition, which assumes you’re in the land, and you had a temple, right? Kings, you basically have a monarchy and a land that’s your own and here’s how you act, and here’s what you do. So, what do you do when you’re in exile and you don’t have a temple to sacrifice to? What do you do?
Well, there’s a whole way of interpreting sacrificial texts that were not engaging in sacrifice, but it was a different kind of sacrifice, like more of a personal sacrifice, you know, and, and you have different things like almsgiving and prayer which become, not that it wasn’t there before,
Jared: A spiritual sacrifice.
Pete: Exactly. Right. It becomes a way of communing with God taking the place of the temple. And that’s why the devastation of the temple was a devastation.
Jared: I think a lot of Christians would do that now.
Jared: It’s a spiritualization of what in the Old Testament was very concrete practices.
Jared: Like, actually sacrificing animals at the temple.
Pete: Yeah. And James Kugel has, I mean, he was on our podcast a couple times, just to give due credit, but he talks about the three omnis: God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. Did I get them all right?
Pete: Yeah, the three omnis he calls them. And those are terms that come to Judaism as a result of gauging the different context of Greco-Romanism.
Jared: Right, right.
Pete: So, the Bible doesn’t really, even omnipotent. It doesn’t talk the same way as you’d find later in Judaism, but these are adjustments and changes in the theology because the God of old has to have a connection to the people of the present. Maybe that’s sort of a way of summarizing this whole discussion. It is absolutely inevitable.
Jared: Yeah, and there’s developments within culture that then get read. Scripture passages get read in light of, for instance, I’m thinking of when you’re talking about Second Temple Judaism, in that time period, thoughts of the afterlife begin to develop more fully. This idea of a hell and a heaven that’s separated by your behavior—good people go here, bad people go there—that we don’t find in the Hebrew Bible really.
Jared: Now, we find it now, because we read back into it after these developments.
Jared: But again, this idea that we can just not be influenced by the culture. And that’s often the weapon that gets lobbed against people who don’t read the Bible in particular: you’re just compromising with the culture. No, we just are encultured beings and there’s really no way around it. It’s a little scary that you don’t see that you’re doing the same thing.
Pete: Right. And it’s also scary that you don’t see how the biblical writers are doing the same thing.
Pete: You know, culture is not the enemy, culture is a fact.
Pete: Right? And the question is, what do we do? Well, aren’t there places where the Bible challenges culture? Yeah, of course there are.
Pete: See, that’s the conversation. It’s not either/or.
Jared: And every culture is not a monolith.
Jared: So, when you say doesn’t culture critique culture? Yeah, you’re not saying anything that important. That’s just what we mean by culture.
Pete: Yeah. [Laughter]
Jared: There are subcultures within that and you have these different voices all within a certain culture.
Pete: Like Second Temple Judaism is a diverse set of concerns.
Jared: Well, we’ve talked about the core testimony and the counter testimony of this theology that says, if you do good things, good things happen to you.
Jared: If you do bad things, bad things happen to you. That’s not like saying everybody in the culture believe that. It’s saying that was a dominant theme, and sure there was minority voices that were critiquing it, and challenging it. Just like every culture.
Pete: Yeah. And that’s, again, part of the biblical witness, so to speak. So…
Pete: Yeah, I just, you know, I mean, part of me is like, why are we even doing this podcast? It seems pretty…
No, because it is, the thing is it is… if you want the Bible to have the say, that’s part of the characteristic of the Bible and we can, you know, put things, “Well, it’s inerrant.”
Okay, whatever that means, you got to account for the stuff that the diversity and the changes and how the context of the writers effect how they thought about before and after.
You know, you’re doing a series on Jonah, Jonah is one of those things. What does God think of the Assyrians? Well, not what he had thought before! Because you read Nahum and God doesn’t like Assyrians, but now he wants some safe, you know, or redeemed or whatever the word is, you know. So, I just find that interesting and fascinating. And the thing is that, I mean, Jared, you brought up before preaching today, sermons today or any Bible reader today. And it can, you know, there is a precedent for that in the church, it’s not just the New Testament, which gets really creative with things like the centrality of land in the Hebrew Bible, which is still there in Second Temple Judaism. But New Testaments like, “Yeah, whatever. It’s not that big of a deal.” You know, the temple is always important, but seeing Jesus as encapsulating what God’s presence means, and then Paul taking that to be it’s the church, actually, that’s the temple of God. These are, I’m gonna tell you, these are shifts in thinking, right, that are dependent on the context of these writers, which is, namely, their faith in Christ. It comes from that, right? And you can’t say, “Well, it was always there in the Bible.” It wasn’t there in the Bible! It’s a change. It’s a shift.
Jared: Well, I think the two, and correct me. But I think the two biggest shifts that we see in the New Testament that causes them to interpret the Bible creatively, meaning the whole Old Testament and Hebrew Bible, is this internal work of faith in Christ. And then this external fact that they are now amongst their sort of cosmopolitan –
Jared: They are amongst Gentiles regularly now. And so, we have to, these two things are coming together to really challenge the New Testament writers on what the heck do we do with both of these realities?
Jared: We are now confronted all the time with Gentile, we’re in a Gentile world, we don’t get to sort of separate ourselves out. And we have this Christ event that happened.
Jared: And we have faith in that. And now, we have to make sense of all this other stuff.
Pete: And the Christ event is about becoming undead and that sort of is a universal theme. Right, so, it’s things like that, and how you can’t be parochial anymore.
Jared: What does that mean?
Jared: Yeah, I don’t think a lot of people are going to know that.
Pete: Catholic kids go to parochial school.
Jared: [Laughter] Exactly, that’s what people think.
Pete: You can’t be, you can’t live in a bubble.
Jared: Right, there ya go.
Pete: That’s what that means. And that is a different kind of concern, for example, than the ancient Israelites might have had that looked at the relationship with the nations that are out there someplace. But now they’re all mixed together and they have been for since before the time of Jesus 200-300 years before at least. They’ve been around and living and sort of happy and it actually started with the exile because not all Jews came back from the Babylonian exile in the 6th century, a lot of them stayed. That became sort of the nerve center of Judaism for 1000 years. That’s where the Talmud came from. So, it’s like, you have the slow internationalizing, so to speak, of this Israelite faith which is very much landlocked, and it starts exploding.
But again, it’s the different contexts that get people. It’s not just reading the Bible differently. It’s thinking about God differently, and within the Bible that’s already happening. And for the church, you know, we go back to, you know, the ancient creeds, for example, of the church in the 5th and 4th centuries, basically. And they’re more than that, but how they were not just giving the Bible straight. They weren’t just summarizing the Bible. It was in the context of somewhat political and also theological debates about basically, trinity and Christology, and what do we do with them.
Jared: Yeah. Mm hmm.
Pete: And to iron that stuff out… although… I’m not sure how much any of it was actually ironed out, but they use philosophical language of the time.
Jared: Yeah, God, a very god. Yeah, God, and not me.
Pete: Being one substance with the Father, which is, that word substance is a philosophically loaded term.
Jared: Right. Because, and just to be clear, the language that they were using the Greek had a whole history philosophically.
Pete: Yes, exactly. So, it was a very encultured, these are encultured statements. But aren’t they, like, the thing that sets the church going? I wouldn’t say it sets the church going, I think it summarizes debates at the time. And they have abiding value, but a lot of stuff also has abiding value. I’m not against creeds is what I’m saying, it’s just, they’re limited in scope and they may need to be brought into a different time and place as well.
Jared: Well, they tend to be crystallized and promoted at times of great shifts, or crisis. Like we think about how the Old Testament is written. It’s not like it’s this ongoing thing, it’s that these, I think in science, you call it punctuated equilibrium.
Jared: It’s like these moments of crisis. Then we write everything down and we try to, what are the debates and we have arguments.
Then we move 500 years, and we have another one and we see this where, you know, within Christendom, Constantine is making, we’re spreading, it’s this explosion of Christianity, all these different perspectives. So, of course, we’re going to have this climactic moment of trying to like figure out what we’re talking about. And the reason I mentioned that is because we have the same thing happened in the Protestant Reformation.
Jared: There’s a reason why when we look at church history, we’re like ancient creeds, a lot happens, the hundreds of years, blah blah blah, Protestant reformation. It’s like, this is where the plethora of all this stuff is coming out, because there’s these big shifts happening. And if you look at the debates, and the arguments that the Reformation the reformers have, look at Calvin, Luther, these guys, what they’re talking about, what seems to be super important to them is not the same thing that was super important in the 4th century. And when we read it today, we’re like, why are they like literally wanting to kill each other over what happens in the Lord’s Supper or what happens in baptism?
Jared: These were really important back then.
Pete: Long standing religious disagreements and wars and things like that. So, there’s a context for that.
Jared: But yeah, there’s a context. And I think the key too is sometimes those are, I want to say, like emergency contexts.
Pete: Well, they’re crisis moments.
Jared: Crisis moments.
Pete: They’re perceived crisis moments.
Jared: That itself is a context, we have to be aware that that’s when these things are happening.
Pete: Well, I mean, and to bring this to today, for example, I mean, my experience, and I’m sure yours as well is, I’ve known a lot of Christians in my life, who, for example, have been, let’s say, vanilla sort of evangelical, but then gravitated to the reformed tradition, right? Because it’s like, it gives an anchor and it becomes an absolute, but it’s, it’s highly contextual. Doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it and value it, but it’s, this is not the crowning achievement of the history of the church. Or some, I mean, how many people have we known sort of disaffected evangelicals and Calvinists who become Roman Catholic.
Pete: And Orthodox.
Jared: Eastern Orthodox. Yep. Right.
Pete: Because that’s going back even further. And I hear a lot of rhetoric. I mean that in a neutral sense, not a negative sense. But a lot of rhetoric about just going back to the creeds.
Pete: As if that solves the problem. They’re also contextual. Yeah.
Pete/Jared in unplanned unison: Well, can’t we just go back to the Bible?
Pete: We did not rehearse that, folks.
Jared: Oh my gosh! [Laughter]
Pete: We did not rehearse that. Beautiful, we harmonized there very nicely.
Jared: We harmonized. [Continued laughter]
Pete: Right? So, go back to the Bible, and it’s like, okay. This doesn’t set the intellectual stage for us. It’s still, it’s not like there’s no work to be done because we have to navigate the Bible’s own inner dynamic, which at times is a fierce debate, and at times just different perspectives. And it’s like this, it might sound discouraging to people. For me, it’s like really helpful to know that I can’t just lock in on a proof text, I can’t lock in on a book of the Bible, I have to pay attention to –
Jared: Or a time period.
Pete: Or time period. Right, right. I have to respect the text enough to allow the inner dynamic which the people who canonized this stuff, or they collected these writings, Jews, you know, collected the Hebrew Bible, and early Christians collected the, what we call the New Testament. They understood the fact that Paul and James don’t seem to be getting along very well.
Pete: Just read Romans and then read James right afterward. If you’ve ever done it, it’s like, “Okay…I think they sort of know each other.” And then Paul alludes to that in Galatians, right? So, and they have different Gospels, different takes on Jesus, and you have a very violent book like the book of Revelation, and then you have, you know, the Sermon on the Mount and the gods, you know, the sun and the rain on the just and the unjust. That kind of thing. So, you’ve got a multivalent, as they call it, text, different voices, and we can never get back to that sort of Archimedean point there. That, okay, now we have at all. Right?
So, the Bible itself, the tradition itself, is demonstrating to us, our own, the need for personal investment, in that tradition, (another way of saying creative, I think), the need for the personal investment, to contemporize it, you know. The technical term is to actualize the text, you’re making it actual for yourself. That’s theology and that’s the entire history of the Christian and Jewish traditions, including the inscripturated tradition. Now, maybe it’d be nice if we had a pamphlet and here are the ten things you do. We don’t have that.
Jared: But I think you’ve made this point before, in some ways, I’m really glad that we don’t because even with the uncertainty of what we have, we have oppressed and created power structures with it.
Jared: Imagine if we had the definitive thing. I just don’t think we would handle it well.
Pete: Right. Although, you know, with the fact that things can be interpreted in different ways. People in power do that, right?
Jared: Mm hmm.
Pete: So, that that raises the question, which we can’t get into here. We’re really toward the end of our time, right?
Jared: Mm hmm.
Pete: But like, how do you judge… This is a legitimate question, how do you judge what’s a good use and a bad use? And my answer is, that’s a very, very good question. People usually figure that out pretty quickly, right? We don’t champion interpretations that advocate killing other human beings. At least, I think we shouldn’t. Most Christians would probably agree. But what TV preachers do? Right? The way they interpret Psalms or Proverbs or certain things Jesus says, and it’s about making themselves very rich people, right? So, I think we have an instinct that says that’s wrong, but it’s hard to make up rules for how you –
Jared: Well, that’s what we, again, we as Christianity have come to realize we have a perfectionistic religion where it’s all or nothing. If we can’t have absolutes, it’s worth nothing. Which I think is just not how the world works.
Pete: I raised my kids that way.
Jared: We live in a way, we live in a world of probabilities and statistics, which is a world of wisdom.
Jared: So, I think we could say, we could list what really bad interpretations are that probably most of us would agree on. And we could list what really good interpretations are that most people would agree on. The challenge is there’s about 80% in there that we got to figure out.
Pete: Yeah, right.
Jared: And we have to figure that out for ourselves, we have to figure that out in our communities, in the broader church, and we are doing that. We’re wrestling through that every day. That is podcasts and blogs and conversation around the coffee table and the dinner table, and that is the theologizing for our time. And what we’re trying to figure out when we’re having those conversations is, is my interpretation a good one or a bad one? Is yours a good one or a bad one? And not just good and bad. But this whole spectrum of in between.
Pete: Right, right. And that’s a hard lesson, I think, for a lot of us who were raised differently, including ourselves, to think through but that, see, what you just described to me, that’s the life of faith.
Pete: It’s not what you have to do in order to have faith. That is the life of faith.
Pete: And, you know, maybe we should let the Bible and the tradition teach us that and listen and pay careful attention.
Jared: Excellent. All right, we are at the end of our time, so have a Merry Christmas. We’ll see you in February.
Pete: See ya!
[Usual music begins, sleigh bells added for festive flair]
Stephanie: You just made it through another entire episode of The Bible for Normal People. Well done to you, and well done to everyone who supports us by rating the podcast, leaving us a review, or telling others about our show. We are especially grateful for our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where for as little as $3 a month you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.
Dave: Our show was produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gearhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team—thanks for listening.
Pete: Whatever. We’ll just yak for 45, more than 32 minutes.
Jared: Yeah. [Laughter]
Pete: I’m gonna eat lunch too. Take a nap.
Jared: Nice. Good for you.
Jared: Yeah, and just so you guys know. Uh, I shouldn’t say that. Let me back up. Dave…
Pete: You cannot, also, you can’t. Let me start over again, Dave.
[End of recorded material]