The alien world of the Bible

In a good quality book manuscript recently submitted to us at Matthias Media, I came across the following sentence: “The world of the Bible is not our world—its context, language, customs, knowledge, beliefs and social systems are far from those we experience in the twenty-first century. It is in many respects an alien world, where it is easy to become lost or confused.”

This is a common sentiment today, and I understand the truth it seeks to convey—that there are very noticeable cultural differences between 21st urban, pagan Australians and (say) nomadic Israelites, wandering the deserts of Sinai in the 14th century BC. This recognition of cultural difference leads many people to suffer a level of anxiety about whether and how to apply the teaching of the Bible to our world today. After all, if the Bible’s teaching is addressed to a world alien from our own, how are we to be sure exactly when and how that teaching is relevant to our own (very different) world?

It’s funny, though, that the apostles didn’t suffer from this anxiety. In his discussion of ministerial salaries in 1 Cor 9:9, Paul settles the matter by quoting the law about not muzzling the ox (from Deut 25)—and in so doing takes a word that was addressed to the aforesaid nomadic Israelites and applies it directly to a bunch of urban, pagan, Corinthians living 1500 years later. Paul undergoes no hermeneutical crisis as he does so because (like the rest of the apostolic authors) he operates on the assumption that the world of Deuteronomy is profoundly the same as his world. It was created with enduring coherence and moral order by the one true and living God, who reveals that moral order through his Word. And it is shaped and directed by God’s worldwide and history-wide purposes in Christ—so that Paul and his readers stand at the fulfillment of the ages, in which the word of Deuteronomy finds its ultimate purpose and meaning.

All of which leaves us with an intriguing proposition: If the ancient Bible in its distant alien world is true, then our view of the biblical world as a distant and alien is false.

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