Cheaper Than A Seminary Education! Faster Than A Masters’ Degree!

Trisha, a high school teacher who had been honored, recognized, and praised for her prowess as a teacher of American history, agreed to lead a small group of adults who wanted to read the entire Bible over the course of three years.  Trisha had grown up in the church.  She had heard and read the Bible since she was very young.  She knew where to find particular stories and could recite by heart several psalms and a large portion of the sermon on the mount and other sayings of Jesus.

“What I cannot do,” she told me, “is figure out the context of much of the Bible, especially the Old Testament.  When I assign a document for my students to read in American history, such as the Declaration of Independence, I can describe to them the events and conflicts that led up to the writing of that document.  I can describe to them the colonial culture and the literary style Jefferson adopted.”  She held up her well-worn Bible and said.  “I know what this says, but I often have no idea why it says what it does.”

I led Trisha down the hall to the church library where we have shelves and shelves of commentaries on each book of the Bible.  “Almost everything you want to know about the Bible, you can find here in one of these commentaries.”

IMG_2912Trisha frowned.  “If I start reading now, given the pace that biblical commentaries are being published, I’ll only be three years behind after my first week.”

I allowed as to how she was right.

“What I need,” Trisha said, “Is a concise book on context.  I want a list and a brief description of the major historical events, the major cultural differences, and the literary genres of the Bible.  That would give me something to grab hold of when I stumble across some obscure passage of Scripture we have never understood before.”

While I could find excellent commentaries on particular books of the Bible, several books on history, a few on culture, and books on particular genres of the Bible (the parables of Jesus, the Psalms, and the epistles of Paul, for instance) I could find no concise guide to biblical context for small group Bible study leaders.

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So, here it is.

Over the next nine or ten weeks, I will post 18 (give or take a few) blog entries on the basic historical, cultural, and literary elements of biblical context.  Many of you know more about it than I do, so feel free to chime in and correct my errors, add missing essential information, or tell a story that is apropos to the subject.

I’m a pastor, not an academic, so I’m not likely to use academic jargon; if I do, call me on it.  I am writing for small group Bible study leaders, both lay and clergy, who need an easy-to-understand handbook.  I value your thoughtful comments and they will shape the content of the final product.  At the end of our 18 weeks, I will post an e-book, (free to you, dear readers) with a clear and simple description of the basic contextual elements that seminary-trained clergy use in preparing to teach or preach the Bible.  And, it is much cheaper than a seminary education.  Like I said, it will be free to you.

There are, of course, many more than six elements in each category; but, with my purpose being to create a concise handbook, I have somewhat arbitrarily grouped historical events, cultural differences, and literary genres into broader categories and left out some that would be added in a more detailed study.

Whether you are a leader of a small group Bible study, or you want to read the Bible on your own with deeper understanding, I hope this blog will provide you with contextual landmarks to help you find your way.

Next post: Six essential historical events behind the Bible’s formation–the Most Important One–What would you pick?  My choice is Babylonian Exile; the floor is open for your nominations!

The Crazy Uncle Declares War on Christmas Pageants

I had this dream in which a grumpy prophet crashed our Christmas pageant rehearsal, raving like a lunatic.  “I’m the ghost of Advent past!” he screamed.  Dressed in camel’s hair, leather belt, and munching on locusts dipped in honey, he gave off the smell of John the Baptist, but his beard had more of a Carl Jung metrosexual trim to it.

002-john-baptist He stormed into the sanctuary, scaring all the shepherd children in their bathrobes and fake beards.  Toddlers in their sheep costumes bleated and ran to their parents.  An athletic girl from the church rugby team, (our church has a rugby team?  Where in my subconscious did that come from?) recruited for the part of the innkeeper, stood in the lunatic’s path and recited her line:  “There’s no room for your kind here, Mister.”

“Then who will set you straight?” he boomed.  “I’ve seen enough of these Christmas pageant travesties! It’s time to set the record straight.”

We three adults who thought we were in charge just looked at each other and shrugged, as if to say, “Record?  What record?”

The shape-shifting prophet peeled off his beard, revealing the face of Antonin Scalia.  He grabbed a Bible from a pew rack, whacked it with his fist and yelled, “STICK TO THE *#@%ING SCRIPT!”

Our Director of Christian Education, with director’s clipboard in hand, wouldn’t take any guff from anyone, not even a Supreme Court justice.  “A strict constructionist, are you?” she spat out the words as an epithet, eyes narrowed.

“What other kind is there?” he said, taking the form of Woody Allen.  “Places, everybody,” he said.  “You, children, yes you.  Take off those beards.  Shepherding was a child’s job, not an old man’s.  Remember King David before that business with Goliath?  He was a child, he was a shepherd.  It’s what children did.  Be yourself, be children.”

He turned to the beautiful rugby captain, looked her up and down and said, “I have bad news and good news.”

She arched an eyebrow.

“The bad news is you don’t have a part in this pageant.  There is no innkeeper.  There is no inn.”

She stood taller, towering over Woody.  She jabbed at the text in his hand, “It says right there in Luke 2:7, Mary ‘laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.’”

“Yes, well, that’s an unfortunate translation influenced more by the English culture of King James in 1608 than the actual Greek word.  Look at it.”  He pulled from his pocket a little blue New Testament in Greek.  “Kataloumai, it says,” and he slammed the book shut as if to say, “That settles it.”

He looked around at the quizzical expressions on each face and looked up to the rafters and whined, “God!  Doesn’t anybody know Greek anymore?  What happened to teaching classics in school?”  The prophet shape-shifted again; no longer Woody Allen, but my grandmother, who just happened to have been a high school classics teacher, back when there were lots of them in Texas.

Kataloumai,” she explained, now with the patience of my classics-teaching librarian grandmother, “means literally ‘upper room.’  In chapter 22 of Luke, your English translation renders the same word ‘guest room,’ to describe the large room upstairs where Jesus and his disciples ate the last supper.

“So who sent them to the stable since there wasn’t a place for them in the guest room?”

“It was Joseph’s family.  Think about it.  Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem to pay the tax because it was Joseph’s home town.  They wouldn’t have stayed in somebody’s Bed and Breakfast.  They would have stayed with family.  But, here’s Luke’s point in telling the story this way:  Joseph’s family took him in, prematurely pregnant wife and all, but told them, ‘There’s no place for you in the room reserved for honored guests.’  He started out life disrespected by his own family.  It will take another twenty chapters before he makes it to the upper room, and it will be his very last meal before the Roman government puts him to death; the same government that made Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem for the census.”

“So, what’s the good news?” Ms. Rugby captain asked, “You said there was good news.”

Morphing back into the raving prophet, our visitor said, “You only need one stage set! There was no stable either!”  He shook the posts that held up the cardboard rafters.  “That’s a medieval convention imposed on the story long after Luke wrote it.  Animals were kept in the house on the ground floor.  There would have been a raised platform made of stone where Joseph and Mary slept, and an indentation near the edge where the animals could get hay was the only manger.  That wooden contraption–no need for it.  Cut it to pieces and throw it in the fire!”

With a sweep of his arm, he burned down the set.  Everything vanished except the people.  “This is all you need,” she said, again taking the form of my grandmother.

“Tell a story,” she said.  “Tell a story of a newlywed couple who come home to the groom’s family to celebrate a glorious event, the birth of their first child.  Tell a story of their struggle to stay connected to parents, aunts, and uncles and cousins and friends who do not understand them; who reject them for stepping outside the laws and conventions of sexual behavior.  After all, do you think anybody believed Mary’s claim of Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit?  Of course they didn’t.  They whispered among themselves, ‘Back in my day, we stoned adulterers to death.  Hmmf.’  Tell us the story of God’s love for them, God’s plan for them, when their own people refused them the guest room even when it was time for her to give birth.”  The teacher gazed out over the empty pews, soon to be filled with pilgrims who want to hear the story, though they have heard it many times before.  “You don’t need to tell them what it means,” she said.  “Those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, those who have ever felt rejected or discounted, will find themselves in this story.  And they will hear what they need to hear, in the words of the angels, good news, great joy for all the people.  All.