Bible nasties 4- that word ‘context’…

I was reading about a recent archaeological discovery at Fin Cop iron age hill fort, in the English Peak District, near where I grew up.

A mass grave has been discovered- full of the bones of women and children. The bodies appear to have been thrown into the surrounding ditch and the smashed remains of the fort thrown down on top of them.

To make sense of this story, we have to understand something of the context in which the events happened- the culture, the dynastic background, the history.

I read about the Fin Cop massacre at the same time as I was thinking about all that Old Testament bloodshed. The parallels are rather obvious.

In 500BC, most of the killing that the ancient Israelites indulged in with such apparent approval from God was over. They were then a defeated people, living under Babylonian rule. But what hit me again is the approach that many Christians make to the Bible, and the stories that it contains.

The stories tend to be imported into our context with a lot of fixed assumptions.

Firstly the assumption that they are ‘true’- in the sense of being 100% accurate factual historical records of real events.

Secondly, the assumption that God is speaking to us directly through these words, which then require no testing, no wrestling- rather our role is to be passive acceptors of heavenly revelation.

Thirdly the assumption that God himself wrote the words- each individual one, and therefore any challenge to either of the two assumptions above is a direct challenge of God himself, and is therefore heresy.

Perhaps you might think that these assumptions are just fine. I have struggled with them over the years- and coped by not allowing myself to ask questions.

Because once you start, it is impossible to stop.

One of the first questions that start to challenge the above assumptions is this one- context. The writings in the Old Testament concern events that happened around 2000 years before the birth of Jesus. The oldest evidence for Hebrew writing is around the 10th C BC, but most scholars believe that the books of the OT were first written down around the 6th C BC. What this means is that the stories were passed down by oral tradition for countless generations.

Many of these generations, like the people who lived at Fin Cop, were short and bloody.

So stories were told of Abraham, who started it all, and of Jacob who sustained the wandering tribe during slavery. Then there were the stories of the birth of a nation out of the years in the desert, and the rise of great kings and great kingdoms. Stories justified, sustained and unified- particularly during the hard times of exile and captivity.

And in the middle of it all- woven through the whole- is God. Hopes for God, encounters with God, fears cast on to God, prayers to God. A people whose stories are covered by the fingerprints of God.

What might we expect then of these stories, when we allow ourselves to consider something of the context?

Might we expect them to be historically 100% accurate- and ‘true’? Well, frankly no. That is not their point. They were living stories to bring breath to an exiled proud people- they were not eyewitness accounts of a traffic accident (which, come to think of it, are not necessarily ‘true’ either.)

Might we believe that God is speaking to us through the words, and that our role is just to accept them with no challenge, no test, no questioning?  To which I reply Yes, and no. Wrestling and questioning with textual meaning are spiritual practices, when done with honesty and integrity- and the certainty that whatever meaning we find will be partial, and certainly not the final version of truth that will emerge from the text.

Do we need to believe that God wrote/inspired every word, completed and whole, and that to question this is heresy? My answer to this is- no, we do not. But then perhaps I am a heretic. Because I have come to believe that this view of the text has more to do with the need that a modern context had for quantifiable, objective, rationalised evidence for God.

Context is important. As are at least 11 other ways of reading these ancient writings.

But there are many ways to approach this wonderful collection of writing- all of them flawed. Because the words are always filtered through the reader.

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