by Matthew Raley To my frustration, the default mode of pastors when teaching the New Testament is, "We have to cross a huge gap of time and culture to understand the 1st century."
The Bible is indeed a foreign book, and studying it does require effort. Its foreign nature derives from a national Jewish narrative stretching back to Abraham, which imposes Hebrew patterns of thought on us even in translation. So, fine: there's a gap.
But to imagine that the cultural environment in which Christ walked, at the end of that narrative, is on the far side of a chasm, that the New Testament world is culturally alien to our own, is to misunderstand both then and now. It is to remain in a Victorian point of view.
Consider this characterization of Roman religious life from Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Volume I, Philadelphia: Henry T. Coates & Co., n.d., p 74):
The superstition of the people was not embittered by any mixture of theological rancor; not was it confined by the chains of any speculative system. The devout polytheist, though fondly attached to his national rites, admitted with implicit faith the different religions of the earth.
Pick apart those ideas, and you find a description of spirituality today. Spirituality is story not doctrine. I shun speculative systems as so many "chains" that bind people in "rancor." There are many gods, and the ones I follow may not belong to you. But there is a reality to them all.
Or this (p 75): "Such was the mild spirit of antiquity, that the nations were less attentive to the difference, than to the resemblance, of their religious worship." There was, Gibbon says, a tolerance of all traditions. That is certainly the ethic today.
To be sure, Gibbon was grinding an ax with regard to Christianity, and his care to present the Roman world as civilized and ironic -- rather like himself -- was motivated by that agenda. In my 19th century edition of the Decline and Fall, the editor scores Gibbon for exaggerating polytheistic tolerance in a lengthy footnote in minuscule print (pp 509-510).
Still, Gibbon's description of 1st century society as spiritually open agrees with the book of Acts. Luke famously says that the Athenians "would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new." So they heard from Paul and, after due amusement at the idea of resurrection, said they would hear him again (17.16-34).
Here is the town clerk calming an anti-Christian riot in Ephesus (19.35-37):
Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious not blasphemers of our goddess.
My new book, The Diversity Culture, is based on the fact that our American culture is very like the 1st century. In particular it is like the Samaritan culture with which Jesus interacted in John 4.
Sychar was at the junction of trade routes, and had been for centuries. By the time Jesus sat at its well, the ethnicity of its inhabitants was profoundly mixed, even untraceable. The Samaritans had gone back and forth between polytheism and Judaism several times. And the woman Jesus met at that well was evidence that the family as an institution had broken down.
The similarities between Samaria and America are important.
I do not believe that American evangelicals have seen the height of Christianity's glory. The Victorian culture that did not survive the industrial age was historically Christianity's dusk. The story of the 19th century was one of Christendom sinking into unbelief while retaining the cultural habits of faith. That was truly a time far removed from the 1st century.
We are now entering an age of renewed opportunity.
Our contemporary culture of openness and the ancient culture in which Christ's message first thrived are strikingly similar. We are in a time of absolute spiritual darkness. The claim that there is one God will be as countercultural now as it was to ancient polytheism.
But if we can recover the ways Christ spoke his exclusive claims into cultural diversity, we will see him speak afresh. And we can recover them, because we are closer to the New Testament environment than we've been for centuries.