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The Strange New World of the Bible

9th August 2006

I believe that one of the greatest hindrances to the proper interpretation of the Bible is a false sense of familiarity. There are a number of things that contribute to this false sense of familiarity, including Bible translations that mistakenly modernize idioms and contexts (A translation should not make its readers think that they understand the Bible better than they actually do). While this may sound counter-productive, one of the first steps to properly interpreting the Bible is to create some historical distance between our world and (to echo Barth) the “strange new world within the Bible.” If we don’t take care to create this historical distance, then we will read our modern presuppositions into the biblical text. Gadamer notes: “If we fail to transpose ourselves into the historical horizon from which the traditionary text speaks, we will misunderstand the significance of what it has to say to us” (Truth and Method, 303). Similarly, “it is constantly necessary to guard against overhasily assimilating the past to our own expectations of meaning. Only then can we listen to tradition in a way that permits it to make its own meaning heard” (Truth and Method, 305).

One example will suffice for now (I have some ideas about further posts): the impact of the industrial revolution on our understanding of the world around us. This was brought home to me recently as I was reading Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh‘s excellent Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (2nd ed; Fortress Press, 2002; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com). Malina highlights some of the vast differences between our industrial world and the agrarian world of the Bible in order to remind us how great the transformation really was — here is a list of examples from Malina (pp. 6-8):

  • In agrarian societies more than 90 percent of the population was rural. In industrial societies more than 90 percent is urban.
  • In agrarian societies 90-95 percent of the population was engaged in what sociologists call the “primary” industries (farming and extracting raw materi­als). In the United States today it is 4.9 percent.
  • In agrarian societies 2-4 percent of the population was literate. In industrial societies 2-4 percent are not.
  • The birthrate in most agrarian societies was about forty per thousand per year. In the Unites States, as in most industrial societies, it is less than half that. Yet death rates have dropped even more dramatically than birthrates. We thus have the curious phenomenon of far fewer births and rapidly rising population.
  • Life expectancy in the city of Rome in the first century BCE was about twenty years at birth. If the perilous years of infancy were survived, it rose to about forty, one-half our present expectations.
  • In contrast to the huge cities we know today, the largest city in Europe in the fourteenth century, Venice, had a population of 78,000. London had 35,000. Vienna had 3,800. Though population figures for antiquity are notoriously dif­ficult to come by, recent estimates for Jerusalem are about 35,000. For Capernaum, 1,500. For Nazareth about 200.
  • The Department of Labor currently lists in excess of 20,000 occupations in the United States and hundreds more are added to the list annually. By contrast, the tax rolls for Paris (pop. 59,000) in the year 1313 list only 157.
  • Unlike the modern world, in agrarian societies 1-3 percent of the population usually owns one- to two-thirds of the arable land. Since 90 percent or more were peasants, the vast majority owned subsistence plots at best.
  • The size of the federal bureaucracy in the Unites States in 1816 was 5,000 employees. In 1971 it was 2,852,000 and growing rapidly. While there was a political, administrative, and military apparatus in antiquity, nothing remotely comparable to the modern governmental bureaucracy ever existed. Instead, goods and services were mediated by patrons who operated largely outside governmental control.
  • More than one-half of all families in agrarian societies were broken during the childbearing and child-rearing years by the death of one or both parents. In India at the turn of the twentieth century the figure was 71 percent. Thus widows and orphans were everywhere.
  • In agrarian societies the family was the unit of both production and consump­tion. Since the industrial revolution, family production or enterprise has nearly disappeared and the unit of production has become the individual worker. Nowadays the family is only a unit of consumption.
  • The largest “factories” in Roman antiquity did not exceed fifty workers. In the records of the medieval craft guilds from London, the largest employed eight­een. The industrial corporation, a modern invention, did not exist.
  • In 1850, the “prime movers” in the United States (i.e., steam engines in factories, sailing vessels, work animals, etc.) had a combined capacity of 8.5 million horsepower. By 1970 this had risen to 20 billion.
  • The cost of moving one ton of goods one mile (measured in U.S.:dollars in China at the beginning of the industrial revolution) was: Steamboat 2.4; Wheelbarrow 20.0; Rail 2.7; Pack donkey 24.0; Junk 12.0; Packhorse 30.0; Animal-drawn cart 13.0; Carrying by pole 48.0; Pack mule 17.0. It is little wonder that overland trade at any distance was insubstantial in antiquity.
  • Productive capacity in industrial societies exceeds that in the most advanced agrarian societies known by more than one hundredfold.
  • Given the shock and consternation caused by the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the forced resignation of Richard M. Nixon, we sometimes forget that this sort of internal political upheaval is nothing like it was in the agrarian world. Of the 79 Roman emperors, 31 were murdered, 6 driven to suicide, and 4 were deposed by force. Moreover, such upheavals in antiquity were frequently accompanied by civil war and the enslavement of thousands.

This somewhat random list should remind us of the massive changes that occured as the result of the industrial revolution. To quote Malina: “It [the industrial revolution] has been a watershed unlike any the world has ever seen. Should we be surprised if major changes in our perception of the world have occurred as well? And should we be surprised if that in turn has had a fundamental impact on our ability to read and understand the Bible?”

We need to do as much as we can as readers and interpreters to recognize the gulf between our world and the “strange new world within the Bible” so as to ensure we properly read and interpret and understand the biblical text.


3 Responses to “The Strange New World of the Bible”

  1. Person Says:

    Ummmm… shouldn’t it read “The Strange OLD World of the Bible”?

    I recently read Malina’s “Windows on the World of Jesus”. I agree with you 100%, adding that there is much, much, MUCH more to be said on this topic.

  2. Iris Godfrey Says:

    Said very well.

    I would like to copy this on my blog. Would that be possible? I can, of course, leave just a link to this post, but it would be more readily read if I put the entire post there. I would, of course, put all the proper credits.

    You have hit the nail on the head. Much of our thinking pulls the text into our own scene and trys to make it fit. This leads to many false understandings.

    I will check back here for a reply, or you can email me. Thank you for considering my request.

    Thank you for saying it so well. I enjoy your site.
    Iris

  3. Wayne Leman Says:

    There are a number of things that contribute to this false sense of familiarity, including Bible translations that mistakenly modernize idioms and contexts (A translation should not make its readers think that they understand the Bible better than they actually do).

    I agree with the overall point you are making in this post. Bible translation is a balancing act that calls us to retain the historical and cultural contexts of the original biblical passages while linguistically communicating those passages in another language so that speakers in that language can understand what they could not understand in the biblical languages.

    This seems so obvious one might consider it a truism, yet there are significant debates over translation of biblical idioms, to use one of your translation examples. I suggest that if we are committed to accurately communicating the meaning of those biblical idioms to our translation audiences we need to test our translations to determine if the biblical meaning is understood through the translation. If it is not, we need to adjust somewhere. One place to adjust so that the audience will understand what the idiom means is in a footnote. Obviously, another way to adjust is to have a Bible teacher tell people the meaning of biblical idioms that do not make sense translated literally.