Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
2 Timothy 2:15 KJV
This is a continuation from another post. You can read the first part here.
A Foundation of Biblical Knowledge
Most trained pastors know who Josephus is. Many know who Tacitus is. I’ve met almost none who have ever read a word of them, though. They may reference them when necessary because they had a textbook that referenced a Josephus story. Even fewer still have I heard who have read a word of the Talmud. Most don’t even know what a Midrash is.
So, would it be more important for you and me to learn the details about an ancient language that translators spend a lifetime wrestling with, or to read and become familiar with the literature those who wrote the Bible were familiar with? Should we speculate on what is figurative and literal, or should we read what those around the time of its writing would have believed.
That foundation must be based on having a working knowledge of Jewish texts. They are extra-biblical, which means they are not inspired, authoritative scripture, but they are very helpful. Knowing just a little of them gives us a window into the world of those who wrote scripture. What was it like during their time? What was the prevailing thought at the time? What was their culture like?
I will grant that it is very difficult to come by English translations of any Jewish and Rabbinical texts, but that is not the reason most people are unfamiliar with them. The reason goes back to human nature.
We are prejudiced against the Jews because we don’t want to learn anything from the ones who “got it wrong” when Jesus walked the earth. We view their extra-biblical texts with disdain, so most people are completely unfamiliar with them.
But Jesus was very familiar with them. He was called “Rabbi” in His day, which meant that people knew He had studied them. He condemned the Jewish leaders for some of their beliefs found in the Talmud and Midrash and upheld others.
New Testament authors quoted from the oral traditions regularly.
But those facts are lost on most people, because they have never read them. They do not fit the narrative that Christians today want to believe. They would cause us to question some of our understandings, and that is uncomfortable. I’m not suggesting at all that a study of the Talmud or Midrash or Josephus or anything else should hold equal footing with scripture. The Jews themselves thought that an anathema as well, but it was important for them to understand the world their Holy Scriptures were written in.
What ends up happening in our Christian culture is that because we are unfamiliar with the backstory behind certain Biblical stories (which are found in Jewish literature), we invent stories to suit our needs. Then they propagate. They spread through writing like rumor weeds and soon become established facts. Then they influence our understanding of scripture, often backing up what we already wanted to believe.
But all of that speculation and invention is easily put to rest with a small understanding of history and ancient Jewish literature. It is out there. It is available. Consider the debates over our Constitution here in America that are often waged over the idealogical thoughts of our founders. Many people infer what our patriarchs meant by only reading the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and our Bill or Rights.
From them we can clearly see how our government is constructed, but we know nothing of what our founders were thinking. Fortunate for us our forefathers wrote extensively on what they were thinking behind many of the topics in our founding documents. Things like the Federalist Papers and Thomas Jefferson’s writings are substantive to understanding America as it was founded. But both sides of the political debate often ignore those parts of their writings that don’t uphold their preconceived idea.
Back to the Bible
It is time for Christians to begin studying the things necessary for them to come to clear understandings of scripture rather than inventing interpretations themselves. That requires knowing what is out there. I encourage you to start learning.
Start with knowing the Bible very well. Read it every day. If you never have before, I encourage the One-Year Bible. Read it multiple times. Then study smaller chunks. Study a book every six months. Read extra-biblical texts and a variety of commentaries.
And most of all, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you. But don’t expect Him to guide you without a minimal dedication to knowing what has already been said.
If I could sum it all up, I would say this: don’t just make stuff up. Don’t think you understand something; know you understand it. And then when you do, walk with that understanding in careful humility, because
…But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3But whoever loves God is known by God.
1 Corinthians 8:1-3
Study to know God more, not to know more about Him. Because those of us who love God are known by God.
If you’d like to study more of this backstory I spoke of, this is an easy and free place to start. But be warned: this is “extra-biblical.” It cannot stand on an equal footing as scripture. And you have to read with a discerning mind. It is not all right (or even believable), it is just a window into the minds of those at the time of scripture writing.