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ISSUE 117 VOL 8 PUBLISHED 11/14/2003

Scripture in context: Biblical scholar emphasizes historical perspective

By Carolyn Brostrom
Staff Writer

Friday, November 14, 2003

Scholar Bruce Malina, one of the nation’s most renowned New Testament Biblical experts and professor of Biblical Studies at Creighton University, spoke at St. Olaf Nov. 6. Malina’s lecture was entitled, "Was Jesus a Jew, Was Aristotle a Greek, Was Paul a Christian? Reading the Past with Cross-Cultural Lenses."

The lecture, which brought into question the precise meanings of terms such as "Jew," "Greek" and "Christian" in the New Testament, emphasized the importance of thinking in a historical context and removing oneself from the twenty-first century when studying scripture.

Malina’s interest and expertise in first-century Mediterranean cultural anthropology offers an important perspective to New Testament interpretation. "If you want to understand what the author said and meant, you have to somehow go into the first-century world," he said.

It is a mistake, according to Malina, to try to understand scripture in 21st century terms. "Reading the New Testament is like traveling to a foreign land…" Malina said. He explained that just as people experience culture shock when they travel, they should be affected similarly when reading scripture.

In his lecture, Malina examined both the nuances in language and historical context that can lead to slight misinterpretations of scripture. Language, he says, which is closely related to a social system and is comprised of sounds and meanings assigned to words.

Malina’s point is that meanings differ greatly from the first to the twenty-first century. The modern definition of a "Christian" is a prime example. Most modern Christianity is based on the Nicene Creed, and Malina pointed out that the Council of Nicea occurred long after Paul’s time. "Was Paul at Nicea? Would he believe half that stuff?" he asked.

After a thorough investigation on the ramifications of language issues such as translation, Malina moved on to analyze culture comparison. First, he evaluated the ways people and cultures are thought to be similar and different. Since the 1050s, Malina observed that people are considered to be completely the same objectively (naturally and scientifically), somewhat the same socially and culturally, and completely different subjectively (individual personalities).

He pinpointed two common problematic patterns in culture comparison that occur when the social aspects are identified with the objective -- a categorical error. The first problem is anachronism: judging cultures and social forms of the past in terms of contemporary cultures and social forms. The second problem is ethnocentrism, judging other cultures in terms of our own.

One of the most fascinating differences between modern and first-century culture is the difference in social institutions. Malina said that in modern U.S. culture, the predominant institutions are kinship, politics, economics and religion. Before 1776, Malina argued, only the institutions of kinship and politics existed. Religion and politics were minor aspects of these two. Therefore, many modern religious words did not hold religious connotations in the first century.

Malina went on to give examples of the implications of misunderstanding terms used in Scripture. Emphasizing the importance of historical context, Malina examined the differences between modern Rabbinic Judaism and the ancient branches of Judaism. He also examined the intended meaning of words such as "Gentile," "Galilean," "Israelite," and "Judean" in Scripture. Malina explained that different terms are used to describe the same Biblical character depending on his location.

Malina concluded his lecture by giving the audience a good laugh: Calling Jesus a Jew is just as silly as saying that "Jesus drove around in a Jeep." The comic relief, however, drove home the central theme of Malina’s lecture; that careful consideration of terms used in Scripture and their intended meanings, along with a sophisticated method of cross-cultural study makes for a more accurate and fulfilling study of New Testament scripture.

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