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The Access Bible New Revised Standard Bible, written and edited with first-time Bible readers in mind.

Primary Features of Bible Study

Language and Text

The ancient biblical manuscripts were written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. (Aramaic is, like Hebrew, a Semitic language, one that became particularly prominent during the Persian period.) As a result, all English Bibles are translations, scholarly attempts to convey the meaning of these texts into English.

Such a task is no easy enterprise since different theories of translation abound. Some focus on the meaning of individual words, whereas others think the sentence is of primary importance. The former perspective may be called “literal” or “word for word,” whereas the latter has often been characterized as a “dynamic-equivalence” approach. Though no translation of the Bible belongs to one or the other approach all the time, the NRSV tends toward the “word for word” style. Such a translation can be useful for Bible study since it will usually translate a Greek or Hebrew word with the same English word, thereby allowing the reader of the English to study individual terms like mishpat (a Hebrew word for justice) or agape (a Greek word for love) in translation. Still, there are instances in which the original language offers no easy “word for word” option. John 8.15 provides a good example. The NRSV reads: “You judge by human standards” whereas a more literal rendition of the Greek is cited in the translators' note, “You judge according to the flesh.”

Despite the best efforts of hundreds of scholars, certain biblical texts remain difficult to translate. As a result, those who created the NRSV have noted many instances in which they have encountered problems in moving from a Hebrew or Greek text to an English version. They also place notes where they have had to interpret the evidence attested in manuscripts written in other languages, such as Latin, Syriac or Coptic. For example, in Habakkuk 3.14 , the translators' note on the word “warriors” reads “Vg Compare Gk Syr: Meaning of Heb uncertain.” This shorthand statement conveys considerable information. Since the Hebrew term and the phrase in which it is embedded do not follow the normal rules of Hebrew grammar, the translators indicate that they have solved this problem by following the understanding conveyed in the Vulgate (Vg), an early Latin translation. In addition, ancient translations in two other languages—the Gk (Greek or Septuagint) and Syr (Syriac or Peshitta)—provide important information that has helped corroborate their judgments.

Most readers of this study Bible will not be able to consult the Hebrew or Greek texts, much less the Latin and Syriac versions. However, attention to notes of this sort, which are more common than one might suspect, helps the reader to be alert to places of uncertainty. In such a place, one needs to be careful about placing too much interpretive emphasis. In addition, these notes help us appreciate the remarkable complexity of the biblical manuscript traditions along with the various religious communities that produced and used them.

The work of translators is absolutely essential. Without their efforts, there would be no Bibles in modern languages. At the same time, we should recognize subjectivity at work in the creation of a translation, as well as the influence of newly available information for interpreting the ancient texts. Perhaps the best way to appreciate this issue is to compare the NRSV with its earlier counterpart, the Revised Standard Version (RSV).

We offer two such points of comparison. First, compare these two versions of the initial lines of Deut 33.27 :

The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms. (RSV) He subdues the ancient gods, shatters the forces of old; (NRSV)

“The everlasting arms” have become, as it were, “the forces of old.” These two readings represent differing assessments of the rich idioms in ancient Hebrew poetry. The NRSV reflects knowledge about ancient Semitic languages that was unavailable to the translators of the RSV.

Those readers of the biblical text who do not know Hebrew or Greek may well feel at a disadvantage when confronted with such disparities. But there is a way to deal with this issue: It is always appropriate to compare several translations in order to see if there are major differences. At such points of difference, the reader should be careful of placing too much emphasis on a disputed element in the translation. So, in the just mentioned case, the reader of the RSV would do well to avoid offering broad statements concerning the arms of God until after having consulted other good translations, for example, the Revised English Bible, Tanakh or the New American Bible.

As another example, it is useful to compare the RSV and NRSV renditions of Ezek 7 . In the RSV, the chapter is printed as prose whereas in the NRSV, most of the chapter is printed as poetry. The scholars responsible for the NRSV had benefitted from recent studies of Hebrew poetry, which enabled them to discern more texts as poetry than had earlier been the case. As we shall see later in this essay, approaching poetry requires different interpretive strategies than reading prose does. And the decision about whether or not a text is poetry can rest in the hands of the translator.

The issues we have just been addressing involve, primarily, questions of language (philology) and translation. However, there is another range of issues related to the texts preserving these ancient readings. None of the original compositions, called “autographs,” has been preserved. Moreover, though there is remarkable fixity in the ancient manuscript traditions, they do, on occasion, diverge. The study of the significance of these differences among ancient biblical manuscripts is called textual criticism. Indeed, there are several kinds of text critical issues.

One type of text critical issue is that some manuscripts clearly have a faulty text, one in which a copyist's error or some other accident has occurred. The Cain and Abel story (Gen 4 ) offers a compelling example. In this well-known tale, God accepts the offering of Abel but not the offering of Cain, whereupon Cain is challenged to “do well.” Then, according to the NRSV, “Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field’” (Gen 4.8 ). As the translators' note makes clear, the words “Let us go out to the field” are not present in the Hebrew manuscripts, though they are present in the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Septuagint and the Peshitta (the Syriac Old Testament). The phrase has almost certainly fallen out of the Hebrew tradition by mistake, since the text certainly seems to suggest that Cain had engaged in premeditated murder. Scholars who are able to assess the various ancient manuscript evidence have in this case supplied what they deemed to be the more original reading, which has been preserved in manuscripts written in languages other than Hebrew.

Another text critical issue is that ancient texts may offer contrary readings, alternate forms of a story or saying. One of the most interesting examples occurs at the end of Mark's Gospel. Here the question is not one of a mistake but of varying texts. In the ancient manuscripts, the Gospel of Mark can end in three ways: with Mk 16.8 , with Mk 16.8 plus what is referred to as “The Shorter Ending of Mark,” and with Mk 16.9–20 , “The Longer Ending of Mark.” The layout of the NRSV, along with the translators' note at the first ending, makes these options very clear.

Option 1 concludes the Gospel on a note of fear. Three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had come to tend to the body of Jesus in the tomb. When they arrived, they were informed by “a young man” that Jesus “has been raised.” Whereupon they fled; “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” ( 16.8 ). The note of fear is accompanied by an ironic tone, because they must have told someone, or the scene could not have been recounted in Mark's Gospel. Option 2 removes that ironic tone by reporting explicitly that the women did indeed recount what they had seen and heard “to those around Peter,” moving the story beyond the empty tomb into the realm of the disciples. The final portion of the verse introduces the motif of a commission, similar to that found in Mt 28.19 . Option 3 removes the note of incompleteness with which Mk 16.8 ends by adding a series of post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. With these verses, the ending of Mark more closely resembles the endings of the other Gospels, which all contain stories of post-resurrection appearances.

The NRSV prints all three options because it is impossible to know how the Gospel of Mark originally ended. The ending at Mk 16.8 , while well attested by some very ancient manuscripts, nonetheless seems an abrupt way to end, and the alternatives proposed in many manuscript traditions show how the earliest Christians tried to work with and around this unexpected abruptness. Holy writ there is, but it is on occasion written in more than one way.

Careful study of the Bible, then, particularly for those who do not have access to the ancient languages, will involve comparison of several translations as well as attention to the notes provided by the translators. This form of active reading will alert readers to problem areas in the text as well as to differences among the early biblical witnesses.

Literary Form and Style

If a story begins with “Once upon a time,” the reader expects that it will be a traditional tale. The focus will almost certainly be on people and places, not on economic or social history. Similarly, when hearing the phrase “This is the last will and testament of …,” the listener knows that the text is a legal document that will outline the disposition of someone's estate. Our initial perception of these texts depends in considerable measure on the sort of literature we think we are hearing.

Just as there are identifiable forms of literature in our own time, so too, both in the ancient Near East and in the Greco-Roman era, readers and listeners (there were far more listeners than readers) were accustomed to encountering discrete forms of literature, many of which are preserved in the Bible. Contemporary readers of the Bible, however, are not always attuned to those ancient forms of literature. Hence, part of Bible study involves becoming aware of and understanding some of these ancient styles of writing.

We have already referred to a primary distinction that occurs in Old Testament literature—prose versus poetry—and we have noted that translators of the Bible differ in their judgments about whether a text is prose or poetry. Some cases are ambiguous. Others are less so, particularly as we learn more about the nature of the Hebrew language and literature. In any case, the reader should discern which style is being used and whether it has significance to the message of the text.

The first two chapters of Genesis in the NRSV present a particularly interesting illustration. The reader can note immediately that Gen 1.27 and Gen 2.23 are written as poetry, surrounded by prose. Is this an accident, or is it important for the interpretation of this literature? Surely, the latter. Both chapters concern God's acts of creation. In the first chapter the entire universe is in view, whereas in the second only the earth and life on it are of concern to the writer. In both cases, these brief poetic pieces occur near the end of the text. In Gen 1 the poem relates to what is happening on the sixth day (vv. 24–31 ), and in Gen 2 the poem occurs in the final scene (vv. 18–23 ) of creative activity. These final elements of creation appear as the high point of the texts—creation of humanity in Gen 1 and of woman in Gen 2 —and the poetic elements in the text underscore these important moments.

Poetry requires the reader to slow down and focus on the taut relationship between the lines. In Gen 1.27 , one confronts the pregnant phrase “the image of God.” Though the primary connotation offered by the phrase is something visual—an image, the poem itself offers another angle of vision, by comparing “the image of God” in the second line with “male and female” in the third line. Those relationships make the reader wonder what indeed is conveyed by the notion of God's image. Perhaps it has more to do with community as represented by the relation of the genders and less to do with something visible.

As for Gen 2.23 , the writer for the first time gives explicit voice to a human being, and what that individual speaks is a poem. The man testifies to the inextricable connection between male and female, as attested by a wordplay in the Hebrew words for Man (ish) and Woman (ishshah). (See translators' notes.)

Gaining a better understanding of the categories of prose and poetry is important for readers of biblical literature. Within each of these two basic categories, one may discern a number of sub-types. For example, the following sorts of literature are composed in prose: list (Lev 11.29–30 ), genealogy (Gen 10 ), letter (Jer 29.24–28 ), report (Gen 6.1–2 ), and story (the book of Ruth). Similarly, another set of literature is written in poetry: e.g., song (Ex 15 ), prophetic oracle (Mic 1.2–7 ), and wisdom speech (Prov 6.20–35 ). To understand a prose text as a story or a poetic text as a song offers the reader special insight into the workings of such literature. Some basic questions can be asked of any story or poem to gain a deeper understanding of the type of literature in question.

Much of the Bible is written in prose. And much, though not all, of the prose conveys stories. Though not all readers are literary critics, everyone knows how to read a story—whether in the historical books of the Old Testament or the parables of the New Testament. We suggest that those engaged in Bible study ask at least three questions of each story that they read. First, what is the basic movement in the plot? Second, what sort of important characters act in the story? Third, what is the main idea or theme of the story?

Let us comment briefly on each of these categories. First, the plot of the story will often begin with a basic situation, from which a complication arises; for example, a husband and wife are unable to bear children. By the end of the story, some change has occurred so that the tension created by the complication has been resolved. Attention to this movement helps readers identify the plot of a story. Second, most stories in the Bible have only a few important characters, and it is always interesting to see if the characters change or develop. Daniel does not seem to change, Paul does. Moreover, some characters are complex: We observe people who struggle, who make mistakes and yet also sometimes do the right thing; they are round, full of depth. Other characters are depicted as totally perfect or sinful; they are flat, without depth. Finally, the reader should try to identify the primary idea with which an author is wrestling in a story. To create that statement of theme requires an active engagement with the art of the author. Individual readers will often write quite different statements of theme, in part because the story may be read in several ways, and in part because the readers understand the story differently. Discussing our statements of theme with others helps us understand the various ways readers respond to prose in biblical literature.

Another type of prose, as mentioned earlier, is the letter. Although there are some letters preserved in the Old Testament, twenty-one of the New Testament books are themselves letters. Hence, it helps to know something about letters in antiquity before encountering this remarkable corpus in the New Testament. Letters in the Greco-Roman world characteristically began by identifying the sender and the receiver or addressee, followed by a thanksgiving to the gods. They concluded with an exchange of greetings. When reading NT letters, it is interesting to look for these opening and closing sections, addressees, and thanksgivings; see, for example, the opening in 1 Cor 1.1–9 and the conclusion in Rom 16 .

What special characteristics does poetry have? As we have had occasion to see, poetry challenges readers in a way that prose often does not. Readers of the New Testament will face those challenges less frequently than will readers of the Old Testament because poetry simply does not appear as often in the New Testament. Moreover, much of the poetry that does appear in the New Testament is a quotation of Old Testament texts (for example, Mt 13.14–15 ). Hence, in most cases, attending to poetry in the Bible involves the reading of Hebrew poetry.

We possess no guidebook in which the rules of ancient Hebrew poetry have been preserved. Rather, the workings of that poetry have been inferred, based on an assessment of poetic texts. For many years, it has been clear that the dominant element in Hebrew poetry is parallelism, typically the juxtaposition of two lines of comparable length. The relationship between the meaning of each line can vary significantly. Often, the lines bear similar meaning, though rarely are they absolutely identical. For example,

For the bed is too short to stretch oneself on it, and the covering too narrow to wrap oneself in it. (Isa 28.20 )

These lines offer two related examples of something that is too small, but the absence of a good fit is expressed in different ways: a cramped bed and a skimpy blanket.

So-called antithetic proverbs operate in a different way:

A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Prov 15.1 )

The two lines comment on differing forms of behavior, one positive, one negative. Together they work to admonish the reader or hearer toward one form of behavior, the positive one.

Finally, some lines that stand in parallel fashion operate more as a narrative: the thought simply flows from one line to the next.

My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; (Isa 5.1–2 )

The person who reads Hebrew poetry will need to be alert to the various ways in which such parallel lines work.

If parallelism is a hallmark of Hebrew poetry, there are other elements that make it similar to that written in other languages: It is filled with rich images, similes (comparisons using “like” or “as”) and metaphors (direct comparisons). For example, many psalms give voice to an individual who is suffering (these psalms are often called “individual laments”). These psalms, such as the one that follows, include remarkable descriptions of an individual's plight.

… my bones burn like a furnace. My heart is stricken and withered like grass; I am too wasted to eat my bread. Because of my loud groaning my bones cling to my skin. I am like an owl of the wilderness, like a little owl of the waste places. (Ps 102.3–6 )

Four similes depict this person's distress, and because this figure of speech is so prominent, it would be unwise to try to guess precisely what the physical or psychological plight is. Rather than giving a clinical description, the psalm presents images, which could be applied by this person, another Israelite, or even a reader today to reflect on a current situation. To read this psalm as poetry helps us gain access to it as a resource and prevents it from remaining simply a historical artifact of an ancient Israelite's experience.

Formation of Biblical Literature

Many books of the Bible grew or developed over time. To be sure, some, like Ruth and I Corinthians, were written by a single author. However, many books possess a core of prose or poetry that has been arranged, rearranged and supplemented over time by an editor or reviser (known as a “redactor”). Scholars who study this process engage in “redaction criticism.” There are numerous examples of this growth process in the Bible.

In the New Testament, the Synoptic Gospels include many of the same sayings of Jesus. However, their order and configuration is not uniform. For example, the parable of the sower occurs much earlier in Mark's Gospel ( 4.1–9 ) than it does in the Gospel of Matthew ( 13.1–9 ). Each of the Gospels narrates the account of Jesus and the moneychangers in the Jerusalem temple (“the cleansing of the temple”), but whereas in Matthew, Mark, and Luke that story is positioned in the last week of Jesus' life, in John it is one of the first acts of Jesus' ministry. What we see in such comparisons is the freedom with which ancient collectors and authors could assemble and cast their material.

The Old Testament is full of comparable examples. The book of Psalms is a collection of various songs. The process whereby that collection was made is far from clear. However, even the casual reader soon learns that one element in that organization involves the notion of “books.” Just before Psalms 1, 42, 73, 90 and 107 , the NRSV includes rubrics, “Book I, II, III, IV and V.” Moreover, Ps 41.13; 72.18–19; 89.52; 106.48 and all of Psalm 150 comprise doxologies that conclude each of these “books.” In each case, these doxologies stand outside the poetic flow of the psalms to which they have been attached. As a result, one has good reason to think that the psalms have been configured to make them appear in five books. Such a pattern of organization would, of course, make them appear similar to the five book collection—the Pentateuch or Torah—with which the Hebrew Bible begins.

These two examples, taken from the Gospels and Psalms, involve primarily the organization of existing traditions or texts. However, the formation of biblical literature can result from far more aggressive activity than simply the ordering of poems or sayings. The book of Isaiah offers a classic example. Isaiah ben Amoz was active as a prophet in the mid-late eighth and early seventh centuries BCE. During this period, he addressed the people of Judah as they lived through several crises. The sayings of this Isaiah are concentrated in early portions of the book, especially chs. 2–10 and 28–33 . Elsewhere in the book, particularly chs. 40–66 , the style of the literature changes and the historical context is different. For example, Isa 45.1–8 refers to Cyrus, emperor of the Persian empire (he ruled in the mid sixth century). Moreover, the poetry is more rhetorical and occurs in longer units than does that in the earlier chapters. As a result of such observations, scholars have argued that chs. 40–66 along with many others, for example, chs. 1, 34–35 , reflect authors other than Isaiah ben Amoz. Hence, one may surmise that the book of Isaiah reflects a long process of growth, from c. 700 BCE to at least 500 BCE, during which the words of Isaiah were collected and supplemented. Later poets/prophets, particularly in the Persian period, contributed new sayings, which grew out of the theological and literary resources provided by the seminal figure, Isaiah ben Amoz. Understood in this way, the book of Isaiah is very much the product of organic growth. To understand this prophetic book is to understand the generative power of the core sayings along with the literatures that were stimulated by them.

The book of Jeremiah includes a story about how an early form of that book was created. God commands Jeremiah to “Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you…” (Jer 36.2 ). Soon after the scroll is written, it is destroyed, whereupon a new one is created. At the end of Jer 36 , which describes this process, the narrator writes, “Then Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to the secretary Baruch son of Neriah, who wrote on it at Jeremiah's dictation all the words of the scroll that King Jehoiakim of Judah had burned in the fire; and many similar words were added to them” (Jer 36.32 ). There can be no more graphic statement about one way in which a biblical book developed. Such formative processes hint at the appropriateness, even need, for biblical literature to readdress each new age of readers.

Historical and Cultural Context

One question that readers regularly pose to a biblical text is: When was it written? Knowing something about the people, places or political forces at the time the book was written will help readers gain a deeper understanding of that text. For example, the book of Hosea stems from the early part of the second half of the eighth century BCE (roughly 750–720 BCE). However, as one reads that book, few specific historical references to that period appear. Instead, Hosea uses many ornate figures of speech to depict the fate that awaits Israel: e.g., “they shall reap the whirlwind” ( 8.7 ) or “they shall be like the morning mist or like the dew that goes away early” ( 13.3 ). In addition, God speaks as if the deity would be an enemy arrayed against Israel: “I will destroy you, O Israel” ( 13.9 ) or “I will become like a lion to them” ( 13.7 ). This way of speaking does not enable the reader to speak about what, concretely, will happen to Israel.

When one places such language of destruction within the context of what we know about the ancient Near Eastern history of that period, we discover what it is that the prophet is probably anticipating. Other biblical texts are also helpful, in this regard, since the time that Hosea was active is also treated by the biblical historian whose work is preserved in the book of Kings. In addition, archaeologists have discovered texts from the royal archives of the Neo-Assyrian empire, the dominant political force of this era. These varied sources help us understand that the Neo-Assyrian empire was exerting considerable influence on Syria-Palestine during the last half of the eighth century. Their armies were campaigning in the Levant. Hence, when Hosea speaks about sounding an alarm ( 5.8 ) or “the tumult of war shall rise against your people” ( 10.14 ), we know that there is a very specific reference in Hosea's mind. He perceives that the Neo-Assyrians will destroy Israel. Moreover, he understands military activity from a theological perspective, namely, that such destruction is consistent with Israel's God's intent for Israel—that it be punished.

This is only one of many instances in which understanding the historical context helps the reader. Hence it is always appropriate to raise questions involving a text's historical background when one is studying the Bible. Still, there is a remarkable number of chapters, narratives, and poems about which we can say very little concerning a precise historical context. Such is the case for many psalms. For example, it would be interesting to know when Ps 113 was written or in what specific context it was used in ancient Israel. However, no word or idea in this psalm is specific to a particular moment in ancient Israelite history. The God who dwells above the heavens is a prominent motif in many periods, as is the deity's concern for the poor and the barren woman. Hence, the reader will be wise to avoid struggling to identify a historical setting for this psalm. Instead, a different range of questions—perhaps literary or theological analysis—would be more likely to yield results.

To attend to the context of biblical literature can involve more than simply asking about the historical point of origin. Both the Old and New Testaments are literatures that emerged within cultural contexts that influenced them in important ways. Jewish and Greco-Roman religious impulses fed into early Christian discourse at the very outset of its existence. Likewise, ancient Israelite society and culture was informed by the cultural heritage of the ancient Near East.

Let us take the example of two types of legal material in the Old Testament to demonstrate the importance of paying attention to cultural context. Many of the laws in the Israelite collections follow a standard form: If something happens, then such and such will be the penalty, often termed “case law.” Exodus 21.33–34 offers a biblical example, and similar case laws were also prominent in collections from ancient Mesopotamian cultures. These laws surely grew out of actual cases adjudicated by Israelite or Mesopotamian courts. However, elsewhere in the Israelite collections, we find laws of a different sort: “you shall not do something.” Exodus 22.18 is characteristic of this form, as are several of the ten commandments. When consulting the ancient Near Eastern collections, one learns that this form of law is much less frequent than it is in the Israelite material. This comparison suggests that these laws of prohibition directed to an individual, a “you,” do not seem to derive from the ancient court system and may reflect some other tradition, which was particularly prominent in ancient Israel.

When undertaking Bible study, it is often useful to consult a commentary or the notes in a study Bible to discover if there is an important issue of cultural context that might be pursued. Many of the ancient texts with which biblical literature may be compared are now available in translations and are more readily available than they have been in the past: for example, texts from ancient Egypt or those written by Flavius Josephus. Attention to such literatures can help us understand the ways in which ancient Israelites, Jews, and early Christians shared important beliefs and values with those with whom they interacted. Moreover, such study can make clear instances in which those who wrote the Bible stood apart from others in their culture.

Finally, we should note the important resource that the work of archaeologists provides for biblical study. Though few would now speak of something called “biblical archaeology,” the work of archaeologists has informed significantly the way in which we understand ancient Israel and early Christianity, not so much by attesting or verifying events or places mentioned in the Bible as by helping us understand how these ancient societies worked. Of course, the discovery of texts has a special significance, whether ancient flood stories from Babylon or the Dead Sea Scrolls from the Wadi Qumran, but even when excavations or surveys do not yield texts, we learn a great deal about the context out of which biblical literature emerged.

For example, there are numerous references to city gates in the Old Testament. North American readers of the Bible are probably more familiar with city gates in a European context than those of the ancient Near East. The typical city gate in ancient Israel was like a major corridor into which a number of open rooms were built. When one entered the city, one passed through several chambers, often lined with benches. The ancient city gate had several functions. It afforded the opportunity for assembly as well as entry and, of course, defense. Such knowledge about city gates helps us understand a text such as Ruth 4.1–2 , which in this case refers to the city gate as a place of legal assembly. As did Boaz, one could go to the gate and collect a group of individuals—here they were elders of the city—who were those enfranchised to constitute the legal assembly. Were we to have only the European picture, we might imagine this group of elders clogging a small door to the village of Bethlehem.

Recently, archaeologists have been doing more than excavating monuments (for example, city walls) and finding texts—they have attempted to reconstruct the ways in which people lived. Hence, the nature of family life, for example, has become part of their scope. How many people lived in a household? What sort of food did they produce and eat? What relation did a family outside of a city have to the city? Such studies are having a major impact on the ways we understand the forms of social life depicted in biblical literature.

Social World Issues

Attention to the world of family life is also consistent with another way of studying the Bible: namely, asking broader questions about social structure, economics, culture, and political order. These four labels are related directly to what some would call the social sciences. Earlier in this chapter, we were addressing literary, historical, and philological questions, topics that would normally be addressed in humanities courses. Now we move to another range of discourse, that represented especially by sociology, economics, anthropology, and political science.

Since ancient Israel was a society that existed in a particular period, it is amenable to all these forms of analysis, just as are early Christian communities. In both settings, it is useful to know something about the economies in which people lived. Such knowledge helps us either when we have questions about the economic “sins” that the prophets attack or when we want to ask what early Christians thought about the relation of their faith to possession of property. Similarly, Israel existed in quite different political modes over time—clans, monarchy, religious communities. Other nations and communities have existed in these forms as well. And it is useful to compare the various communities that have been ruled by priests (hierocracies) in order to understand the internal dynamics that were at work in those societies. In this regard, it is no accident that the role of the “high priest” apparently did not exist until after Israel and Judah ceased to exist as nations.

When addressing social world issues, it is very important to distinguish, at least initially, the social world in the text versus the social world behind the text. We may use the book of Genesis as a case in point. In order to study the social world that produced the text, one would need to determine the time it was produced. If, for example, one thought that Genesis had been written during the time of Solomon (tenth century BCE), one would attempt to discern the ways in which issues important to that time are addressed by the Genesis narratives. Similarly, if one thought that Genesis had been written during the time of Ezra (fifth century BCE), then one would seek ways in which Israel's existence as a district in the Persian empire is reflected in it. One would read the book of Genesis in quite different ways, based upon differing judgments about its point of origin.

Scholars currently disagree about when Genesis was written. Hence it would be risky indeed to postulate a social world that produced this important biblical book. It would be very difficult to speak about the social structure or economic system in which its author or authors were embedded. So, unlike the situation with Amos or Romans, it would be unwise to attempt to speak with precision about the social world behind or outside this particular text.

On the other hand, there is a social world conveyed in the book of Genesis. We read about the people planting crops, engaging in animal husbandry, buying and selling land. Hence, we can attempt to determine whether these reports make up an intelligible economic system. The same may be said of family life. People are born, undergo puberty rites, marry, have children, grow old and die. Some of the patterns of family behavior may seem strange to us—for example, Abraham marrying Sarah and then having a child with Sarah's servant Hagar, or Jacob's marrying two sisters, Rachel and Leah. However, scholars familiar with family life in many cultures recognize these practices as part of a well-attested family structure in which property is passed through a particular type of kinship structure. Similar things can be said about patterns of religious behavior. People build altars, engage in blood rituals, whether circumcision or animal sacrifice. Here too, these patterns of religious activity can be understood, based on cross-cultural analysis—without appeal to a specific historical context. This world in the text—whether that of social structure or religious behavior—can be studied and found to be intelligible, even though we may not know when the text was written.

Many readers of the Bible will be familiar with their own social worlds, but not with those of other cultures, including those that might be more similar to those in the Bible. In such situations, it will be important, at a minimum, to allow the biblical text to speak for itself. In the previous paragraph, we mentioned marriage patterns in Genesis that are quite different from those practiced in North America today. Whether or not readers know about other cultures in which such marriages are practiced, they should attempt to discern what cultural values are being addressed by such practices and whether or not these marriage patterns elicit censure by the biblical authors. We need to be careful not to impose our own culture's practices and values on texts that derive from a radically different context. Attention to the social world in the text will help us understand how different that world might be from that of our own.

The Worlds of Readers

All texts are the products of human authors, and readers have often assumed that their task is to figure out what the authors intended them to find in the text. The act of reading itself, however, is very important for the “creation of meaning.” Reading involves far more than discovering “the meaning” of a text. Readers come from varied social, economic, and geographical contexts. Some are women, some are men. And, most important, each reader brings his or her own unique history to the text. All these factors regularly manifest themselves in diverse questions or sensitivities that readers bring to texts.

We offer two examples of the ways in which Bible study can be affected by different readers' worlds. First, women will often bring a different set of experiences and questions to biblical texts than will men. Such modes of interpretation, as exemplified by The Women's Bible Commentary, have significantly enriched our ability to study the Bible. One scholar has written an interpretation of the book of Judges based on a study of the female characters in it. Seen from this vantage point, Judges, particularly after the time of Deborah, is truly a violent world, one in which “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judg 21.25 ). And not much was right. In the New Testament, scholars have noted the remarkable prominence of women among Jesus' early followers. Even more, the first resurrection reports are attributed to women: “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them…” (Lk 24.10 ).

Second, people's own individual experiences affect their interpretations of biblical materials. Genesis 22 offers a useful example. This narrative, often called “the sacrifice of Isaac,” has both perplexed and stimulated readers for centuries. It perplexed the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard, and it stimulated the Dutch artist Rembrandt. Reading and seeing the results of their work enriches our perception of this text. However, the reader who has suffered as a child at the hands of an abusive parent reads this text from a very different perspective. And that reader's perception, too, can enrich our study of this problematic tale.

There is, of course, a danger in emphasizing the role of the reader. Readers can import their own meanings into the text (often called “eisegesis” or “reading into”) as opposed to drawing meaning out of the text (often called “exegesis” or “reading out of”). Each reader should be aware of critical elements in his or her identity. They are obviously important and will, inevitably, affect the way that an individual constructs meaning during the reading process. Such awareness will enable that individual to learn from other readers who might share certain elements of that identity, but that same awareness will make it possible for the individual to seek out others whose experience is different, creating the possibility for true dialogue in Bible study.

The text should, in principle, be able to challenge any reader's preconceptions about what it is saying. Hence, it is always appropriate for readers to be conscious of the questions and the perspectives with which they are approaching a text. Readers might well ask whether their question is literary, sociological, theological or historical.

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