13 Sep 2008

Cultural Literacy: Improving Our Bible Reading

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Books, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Ministry, Preaching, Spiritual Disciplines

Cultural Literacy: Improving Our Bible Reading

Greetings from the land of Saguaros & Scorpions. I share this brief discussion of the importance of context. Context can signify several different things and all are necessary for a proper interpretation of not only Scripture but most any piece of literature. Because of the “sloppiness” of the term context some linguists distinguish between cotext and context. The word cotext would refer to the sentences, paragraphs and chapter surrounding the “text” under consideration. These linguists then use the term context to refer specifically to the sociological and historical setting of the text. It is traditional to talk of “literary” context and “historical” context but I like the more precise language of cotext and context and shall be using that in this mini-essay. Thus context refers to the sociological and historical situation of the writer and text produced.
It should be evident that context is a matter of paramount importance. Unfortunately this not the case for we often come to the biblical text and simply read our contemporary ideas back into the text. This is actually unfair to two people: the author and the reader. It is not “common” sense to read a text that is at minimum two thousand years old as if it was written yesterday.
The “Givens”(assumptions) of Context
Every author, when he or she, writes a text makes assumptions. She will assume a common framework in reference to accepted usages of words, cultural allusions, and the like. The author takes these common assumptions about the world as GIVENS. If the author had to explain every metaphor, historical allusion or figure of speech, her piece would be clumsy, wordy and obtuse . . . and no one would read it. It is these GIVENS of context that a contemporary author ASSUMES on the part of his readers but are the very things that are LOST on non-contemporary readers … especially the further we are from the author.
GIVENS in a text is natural and it is something we experience everyday. E.D. Hirsch, writing not about ancient books but contemporary newspapers and discourse, calls this simply cultural literacy. Cultural literacy is the common “background information” that the “comprehending reader must bring to the text” in order for understanding to take place (Cultural Literacy, pp. 13-14).
Hirsch illustrates his point beautifully with a series of excerpts from the Washington Post.
A federal appeals panel today upheld an order barring foreclosure on a Missouri farm, saying the U.S. Agriculture Secretary John R. Block has reneged on his responsibilities to some debt ridden farmers. The appeals panel directed the USDA to create a system of processing loan deferments and of publicizing them as it said Congress had intended. The panel said that it is the responsibility of the agricultural secretary to carry out this intent ‘not as a private banker, but as a public broker.”
This passage, in a common newspaper, is loaded with “givens” on the part of the author. What is a foreclosure? What is a federal appeals panel? Where is Missouri and what about Missouri is relevant to this article? Why are farmers debt ridden? What is the USDA? What is a public broker.
There is simply a “ton” of information that authors take for granted . . . givens on the part of the readership. That information “fills in the blanks.” (And I have just used two idioms (i.e. “ton” and “fill in the blanks”) that I assume the reader will readily grasp).
This information is not specialized information. It is not information that only select individuals from certain fields would recognize. Rather this information is part of the common knowledge base of the readership. One can have a “common” knowledge of the USDA without having to write an encyclopedia article about it. The common knowledge is that folks recognize it, know what it means, and know why it is important.
I want to stress, once again, that assumed knowledge is (at the time) the common knowledge of most any commonly educated Joe Cool walking down the street. The problem for readers of the Bible is that those GIVENS of the text are lost . . . without work on our part.
I heard Gordon Fee say “today’s scholar could literally spend the rest of his life doing nothing but reading the classics, the Apocrypha, learning Greco-Roman legends, social customs and still not know what the average Joe Blow did walking the streets of Corinth in A.D. 54!!” He said it is sort of ironic that we supposed to be scholars and yet still would not have a high school education in if we actually LIVED in the Roman world. These things are simply “given.”
I am convinced that if we take the Bible seriously then we will in fact take its context seriously. The Apostle Paul, like the writer of the newspaper article quoted above, simply assumes a great deal . . . quite legitimately . . . on the part of his contemporary readers. Those givens are simply lost to us and can only be recovered through immersion in Paul’s world.
A thorough knowledge of the Hebrew Bible is essential filling in the blanks of Paul’s givens. When I say “thorough” I mean just that too. But most Jews did not read Hebrew but Greek thus encountered the Bible in the Septuagint. If a person knows Greek it is a wise thing to spend a great deal of time in the Septuagint (which can also be read in English translation btw). The Dead Sea Scrolls show us that the Jews read, wrote and studied all manner of books beside the Bible. Traditions about the Maccabees, Greek theater and many other things simply “fill the air.” This information becomes part of the givens . . . that is “things that are in the air.” The Jews and Greeks had a certain “Cultural Literacy” as much as Hirsch thinks Americans should too. Our task as modern readers is to simply be as “culturally literate” as the average Joe Blow going down the street of Corinth in A.D. 54 . . . you would be amazed at how often this fills in the blanks of the biblical text.
Any serious reader of the NT then should have a thorough knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. They should know the legends of the Maccabean martyrs. They should have a working knowledge of the Apocrypha (especially Sirach, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, the additional legends regarding Daniel and I mentioned the Maccabees independently) . Josephus is a valuable tool for understanding some of the political givens in the Gospels. First Enoch is an important text too. All of these writings, save Josephus, are in one way or another assumed on the part of NT authors and do in fact allude to them and (at times) quote them. This hopefully does not seem like a lot of work, it does have its rewards. Our aim is simply to be able to read the NT like any average first century disciple would have.
BTW, Hirsch’s book Cultural Literacy is worth reading. Everett Ferguson’s book “Backgrounds to Early Christianity” is a beginning point. Oskar Skarsaune’s In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity and Paul Barnett’s Behind the Scenes of the New Testament are excellent intros to help us. And the Apocrypha is available in an excellent translation through the NRSV.
Seeking Shalom,
Bobby V

18 Responses to “Cultural Literacy: Improving Our Bible Reading”

  1. muriel b Says:

    This article made a lot of sense to me especially with the example of the exert from the Washington Post.

    I hope you are doing well. We are waist deep in school, football and homecoming festivities, but doing well. Keep writing and I’ll keep reading.


  2. kingdomseeking Says:

    There was a time when I thought every piece of knowledge I was learning in my M.Div degree had to be passed on to everyone in the pew. Then one day I realized that if everyone in the pew wanted to know every piece of information I learned in my M.Div they would go after an M.Div at some seminary themselvs. Yet I am left with a dilema. I see many people who read their own context into the Bible and need som basic learning about the original context, the mindset of the biblical writers themselves. How do we educate Christians in the pew with this knowledge?

    While anyone who read the Bible is capable of reading the Apocrypha and making sense of it, I am not sure too many people in the pew would want to tackle Ferguson’s “Backgrounds to Early Christianity.” However, I do know that Albert A Bell’s “Exploring The New Testament World An Illustrated Guide To The World Of Jesus And The First Christians” is probably a little more accesible than Ferguson’s book.

    Basically my dilema is how do we educate the Christians we have influence over to contextual literacy without turning out Sunday School classes into a Seminary class. This is a great post and I believe it is the start to solving the dilema, for in a simple way it raises the problem at hand.

    Grace and peace,


  3. David Says:

    ‘kingdomseeking’ makes a really good point about not swamping the people in the pew with too much information. Even if most within churches of Christ are biblically literate (which I’m not so sure is true, if it ever was), very few average Christians really want to know the backgrounds of head coverings in Corinth.

    But I do think that we who teach and preach can do a better job making it where our folks are more contextually literate than they have been. Instead of bland ‘read thru the Bible each year’ encouragements we could try to get them to focus on a small subset of books and devote time in at least one Bible class each year to those books on a deeper level (not the general Bible classes, but one for those who have the time and desire to be serious students). And while preaching on Sunday mornings about the interrelationship between Israel and their pagan neighbors maybe isn’t a great idea all the time, once in awhile maybe in giving examples we dig a little bit deeper than the most recent Max Lucado story.

    Sometimes I believe in the quest to be relevant to 21st century audiences we give up on being contextual, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We are all busy as preachers and teachers, but we can always do better than the milk we too often present as being the core of the Christians’ foundation.

  4. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to have an M.Div or that they need to be scholars per se. I am calling for simply being a student. There was a time when many an “average” Christian would own a copy of Josephus and have read it … my dad was one. I am simply suggesting that there are many folks out there who long for a reading of the text that is not cotton candy. They want light shed on the text … and there are some resources that are not to intimidating that can help. And anyone can read the Apocrypha and even get lots of enjoyment out of it.

    Bobby V

  5. rich constant Says:

    I’m sure most everyone knows Ephesians the first chapter 1 through 17 or so is the longest sentence and a King James Bible.

    The way I was taught in school that is just one complete statement.
    Or like in Romans three I think it’s 20, Paul says but now the righteousness of God is manifested being witnessed by the law prophets.
    Who in the church knows where the first “therefore” is.
    I think the way that we study bob has a lot to do with our lack of understanding of content and what is being said.
    And then you look at the Wednesday night class which is an hour long.
    one verse might take up the whole hour.
    I mean everyone likes to quote it but there was a conclusion reached when Paul said in Romans 8:1 there is therefore now no condemnation.

    Just stuff like that .
    rich in California

  6. Jeanne Says:

    You lost me, Rich– what are you saying?

  7. rich Says:

    we compartmentaliz Scripture study by breaking subjects down into versus. And wind up studying versus instead of the subjects that the verses comprise.
    At least that’s the way it’s been done since I was a kid I know I’m sure it is as there are lots in the me a look at any commentary. Quite honestly I’ve never read a letter the way that I was taught to study the Bible. Once I started reading it as a letter.
    Over and over again I finally realized the point.

    Blessings rich in California

  8. justinworley.com Says:


    Thanks for this article. I appreciate the difference between cotext and context. I have never had words to help explain the difference.


  9. Johnny D. Hinton Says:

    I constantly remind our members and my students that the smallest complete unit of thought in literature is the paragraph. We also note that a complete sections of Scripture may include several paragraphs (co-text). We always do an introduction with background information as we start a new book. We also refer to such context as we hit bumps on the way.

    Bobby, what about the idea that since Scripture is to be universal and timeless we should be able to draw sufficient information to develop a Christian culture of sorts regardless of the culture in which a text was written?

  10. Patricia Says:

    Great article and appreciate the insight as to the “Givens” and how we miss them. One, if not the greatest problem we have, is that everyone reads the Scriptures from their own perspective as to what they mean with no solid base to draw from. I grew up in the church of Christ and we never learned or spent much time on studying biblical history. The Old Testament was looked at as something that did not apply to us; therefore, we never learned much about it or that the knowledge was needed to better or properly understand the New Testament. I believe this is true in other groups as well….Maybe that is why we have over 40,000 sects and denominations today. This has been a subject that I have been pondering and having a dilemma with for some time. If you read the New Testament without any foundation, you can almost make it say whatever you want…..there again the multiplicity of sects/denominations. I keep telling myself that the Scriptures should not be so confusing, but without the proper background study, seems me can easily misread the New Testament. There are many, if not most, however who will never “deep study” the Scriptures.
    Thank you, Bobby for your great work for the Lord. I always appreciate your writings.

  11. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Johnny I appreciate you reading and commenting. I know that we agree that cotext and context are simply non-negotiable items if one seriously respects the authority of Scripture. Without them all you have is the authority of personal whim – even as it dresses up in respect for Scripture!

    The mere fact that the bible speaks in the Hebrew and Greek tongues more than proves the contextual nature of God’s revelation. I do believe God’s Gospel is “universal” but I do not think that very much of the biblical record was written as “timeless” truth. It is true – I am not denying that. But it is addressed to specific cases and circumstances and 1 Corinthians demonstrates just how accurate that statement is.

    Unless we believe in some kind of continuing revelation then the Bible is never God’s word “directly” to us. We hear God’s word and it IS God’s word but it is first and foremost to “them.” Hermeneutics and the hard work of PRAYER is the task for applying what was said to saints in Asia Minor, Rome, etc to ourselves.

    I simply cannot stress the value of a book like Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart’s HOW TO READ THE BIBLE FOR ALL IT’S WORTH enough for incredible insight and wisdom here. If you do not have it get it. If you have not read it – read it. If you have not pondered it – spend a month with it. I got my first copy in 1989 and have literally worn out 3 copies and am on my fourth. Blessings.

  12. Patricia Says:

    Amazon gave a preview of the book, “How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth” and I found it very informative and easy to read and understand….for the lay person. Therefore, I ordered the deluxe edition. Thank you so much for recommending it. I feel that it is going to be a great help in my learning how to better understand the Scriptures.

  13. Warren Baldwin Says:

    Very good Bobby. I will have my Bib Interp students read this article. Did you draw on Cotterel & Turner for the cotext/context ideas?

  14. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Warren thank you for the kind words and I hope your students enjoy the article. Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation is an excellent book but not for the light at heart. I have profited from it greatly. That is where I draw from for cotext and context. Blessings.

  15. awordfromthelord Says:

    hey I love your articles and I plan on reblogging them on my blog amessagefromthelord.com I only wish you had social media buttons so i could easily share this info as well as a subscribe button so i can get your articles sent to my email

  16. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Thank you Dewayne. I am humbled.


  17. Melvin McCauley Says:

    You’re swimming upstream against several currents. Sola Scriptura combines with our society’s emphasis on individualism to spawn the idea that the average Joe of any place and time will be able to read or hear the Bible in isolation and get everything he needs to know from it. This notion is buttressed by the oft-repeated statement that God is not the author of confusion. The underlying argument is as follows: God cannot be the author of confusion; God is the author of the Bible; therefore the Bible cannot be confusing.

    It has never been the case that the average Joe of any time and place got everything he needed to know from revelatory scriptures. The Bible itself is full of counterexamples. Ezra reading the law to the people and giving the sense of it. All the prophets applying the principles contained in inspired scriptures to their own and future cultural milieus (and that usually required God’s direct intervention for them to be able to do so). Letters being read to whole churches. Phillip explaining Isaiah to the Ethiopian. Besides all the counterexamples, I can’t think of a single example in the Bible where a person came to learn all he needed to know solely from reading sacred scriptures in isolation. Besides the lack of examples, if that were true, why would even need teachers? It is amazing that many of those who make the argument I laid out consider themselves to be teachers, blissfully unaware of the glaring inconsistency.

    It’s also true that the vast majority of people who have ever lived would not have been able to read the sacred scriptures of the ancient Hebrews and the early Church. One, they were simply illiterate, unable to read anything. Two, they could not read Hebrew or Greek. This is true of the vast majority of Christians living today, even in the US and other developed nations. So those who claim the Bible is all you need and yet themselves must rely on a translation are also living with a glaring inconsistency.

    On top of the confluence of Sola Scriptura and individualism, there is a strong anti-intellectual strain in basically all fundamentalist denominations, charismatic and non-charismatic alike. There are many plausible theories as to why that is the case, but I’ve seldom encountered anyone of a scholarly or intellectual bent in such a church who would disagree that it is the case. To be able to read the Bible in context as you described it, we need scholars. For those who don’t want no egghead telling them what to think or even worse, telling them that what they thought some passage meant (based on reading a 21st century American context into it) isn’t at all what it means, that dependence is anathema. The Sola Scriptura/no-author-of-confusion argument provides a ready-made, simple-to-understand way of justifying that gut-level resistance.

  18. Anonymous Says:

    Good points Bobby, The early christian elders and apologies and letters by the disciples of the Apostles teaches a mountain of how they defined words, terms, meanings and also how the Apostles taught them and showed them what exactly they meant. These letters are all well have as the proof of performance of the Apostles and are from the brothers who were from the culture and the language was their’s. A great resource site for all these historical documents is. http://scroll publishing.com. Thanks for the post Bobby 😉

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