An encyclopedia approach is to recognize words are the vehicle of somebody’s unique encyclopedia. And to understand what they mean, we can’t just assume we already know what they mean or that we can just look up their meaning in a dictionary. We need to study how that person uses that word. A classic example is when Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Kingdom of the skies. Somebody might come to the Bible and assume the Bible is telling a story about … the place we go after we die. And that has been what many people have thought the Kingdom of Heaven means. But when you study how Jesus actually uses the phrase, it’s clear that he’s talking about something that is arriving through him on Earth––not something you go to but something that’s coming here. So you have to study his encyclopedia of what that phrase means.
What does it mean when we say, “The Bible is a unified story that leads to Jesus”? That statement is more than just our tagline at BibleProject––it’s the paradigm we believe the Bible presents about itself. In this series, we’ve been breaking that paradigm down into its component parts.
In part one (00:00-15:00), Tim, Jon, and Carissa discuss the next pillar of this paradigm: the Bible is contextually-rooted literature. Because the Bible was written in another time and culture, we need to honor that ancient historical context as we come to understand it better. This is all-inclusive, meaning it’s not just the Bible’s subject matter that is ancient—the very words that communicate the message are ancient as well.
Whether we’re entering a culture entirely different from our own, or even just someone else’s house, if we expect them to embrace the same rules and lifestyle as we do, we will never fully understand or appreciate what we may find. Reading the Bible is no different. We have to approach the Bible expecting to be surprised by the cultural differences we’ll encounter, and we have to be ready and willing to navigate those differences with humility and respect.
In part two (15:00-20:30), Tim, Jon, and Carissa discuss the importance of recognizing the culture of the biblical authors, as well as our own culture, when we read the Bible. Often, if we find something in the Bible that feels offensive or strange to us, it’s because it’s rubbing against our own cultural norms.
The first step in acknowledging the context and culture in which the Bible was written is to recognize that the Bible was written in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
In part three (20:30-33:15), the team talks about context as an essential element of communicating.
In any language, we can figure out the meaning of words we don’t know based on their context. Similarly, the meaning of words can change based on their context. In fact, words don’t have meaning unless we give them meaning. Within a given language, words carry meanings that have been agreed upon by the speakers of that language. So a masterful communicator can carefully craft what they want to say.
However, each of us brings our own “encyclopedias” of word meanings with us when we communicate with other parties––including the biblical text––so we might assume the wrong meaning from time to time. For example, Jesus often spoke of the “Kingdom of Heaven,” and many western readers look at that and think of a post-death destination. But when you examine Jesus’ words in context, it’s clear he’s talking about a reality arriving through him, presently on Earth (not just a place you go after you die). To understand his meaning, we have to study the culture and language Jesus was familiar with—his personal encyclopedia.
For more on this topic, check out our free online course, Art of Biblical Words, on BibleProject Classroom.
In part four (33:15-44:45), Tim, Jon, and Carissa look at a practical example of this concept by examining the word “heart.”
In typical English dictionaries, the word heart has both an anatomical definition and a metaphorical one (the “center of personality or emotion,” or the “central point of a given subject,” e.g., the heart of the matter).
The Hebrew word for heart (lev or levav) is also connected to human emotion (e.g., Exodus 4:14; 1 Samuel 1:8), but it is more multifaceted than the English conception of heart. Lev can also signify the entirety of a person (Genesis 17:17) and the unique gifts bestowed upon a person by God (Exodus 31:6).
As we seek to understand the Bible according to its original cultural context, we must acknowledge this extends to every component of the biblical message, including its words. If we import our own linguistic understanding into the Bible, we will miss out on a richer, more nuanced meaning intended by the biblical authors.
In part five (44:45-58:37), the team discusses how having an awareness of the Bible’s original languages can deepen our understanding of even the most famous verses, like Jesus’ command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Luke 10:27). When we realize that “heart” signifies much more than just human emotion or feeling, this statement takes on a weightier meaning.
For this reason, it’s often helpful to read the Bible in multiple translations throughout our lives. The more we familiarize ourselves with the meanings of the Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic words used by the Bible’s authors, the more we will expand our own encyclopedias to understand their meaning accurately.
Show produced by Cooper Peltz. Edited by Dan Gummel and Zach McKinley. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder.
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