I read a sermon review the other day, one that made me think of a familiar passage of Scripture in a light I had not before. The passage of Scripture was John 4, where Jesus met the woman at the well. In the past, I have taught or been taught this passage with the following dynamic: woman sinful, Jesus good. I mean that fits rights? A woman who has had a bunch of husbands, and is living with a man who isn’t her husband now, pretty clear to see she is a vile sinner! However, The reviewer pointed out some things I had not really considered before. The first being that only men could ask for divorce in that time period, so the woman (even if she was particularly difficult to live with) was not automatically the cause of the many marriages. In addition, in that time period, women and children depended on their husband for their support. She was likely not able to go snag a job on the internet when her husbands left her, so living with a man who wasn’t her husband may have been the only way for her to survive. I had never thought about this story with these contextual insights before. Now clearly this woman was in the wrong living with a man who was not her husband; however, what we see here is that maybe she isn’t a willful whore, but one who has an entire system of oppression on her back. Maybe Jesus’ compassion for her was because He understood all that she had to go through and He came to offer her salvation from her sin, and to speak against cultural oppression. At the very least, it helped me empathize with her, instead of just condemning her with my “righteous judgement.” This incident caused me to smack myself around for falling into the exegetical fallacy of anachronism (and who says nothing good happens on twitter).
The Anachronism Fallacy is where the customs, beliefs, or action from one time period are read into to a different time period. As people who study the Bible and seek to derive its meaning in context, this can be a huge blindspot. In my opinion, anachronism is one of the easiest exegetical fallacies for us to commit because it is so easy to do! Most of us who read our bibles are ignorant to the cultural norms and practices of 1st Century Palestine, let alone ancient Israel. We don’t easily understand all that a contemporary reader/hearer of the Bible would. In addition, because we miss the context, it is easy for us to fill the unknowns of the culture in with what we are familiar with, and draw conclusions that the Bible would not support. One of my favorite theologians is Martin Luther, and he held to a doctrine called the Perspicuity of Scripture, which meant that all things necessary for salvation were so clear in the Bible that a person of average intelligence would be able to discern them simply by reading the text. While I agree with that, I believe a necessary corollary be added: not all things we need to understand from Scripture are plain to the unstudied; and no place is this more clear to me than with this idea of anachronism.
Think about the word church. When you read the opening of the letters in the New Testament addressed to “the church,” what do you picture? If you are like me, I always pictured a building similar to what we have today. As I studied a bit more, I began to think of a building more akin to a medieval church building. Neither of those are correct. The churches that these letters were written to were house churches, meeting in cities where this nascent Jesus movement spread. That churches were in homes and not buildings like ours may give us a different understanding of the instructions given to the church. Maybe we understand Paul a little better in I Corinthians 14:34 if we realize the women he is charging to be silent are likely in a small room, seated with other women, possibly not understanding the language that the teacher is using to teach, or why there may have been a great difference in how the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in a far more intimate gathering than the modern day mega church provides. Think about the impact for church style, leadership and so many other things if we understand just this one aspect of early church culture. We know that we cannot properly interpret the Bible without understanding the literary context of a passage, but equally important is understanding the cultural context of what we are ready. Failure to do so is why we can call things that good gifts from God wrong (alcohol), and things that are absolutely wrong, good (homosexuality).
The way we fight against anachronism is only through study of the time periods and locations that the Bible addresses, and because the Bible spans thousands of years, and many different geographic areas, this study can be very time consuming; however, it is the only way we can draw accurate conclusions as to what the meaning of a text is. Only after understanding the meaning can we derive the principles that are in action, and then apply them to the modern day. This is one of the reasons I believe the Apostle Paul charged Timothy to “make every effort..to preach the Word of God accurately,” (2 Timothy 2:15) and why I support the idea that we do not allow those who are not studied well into our pulpits. It is also one of the reasons we need to be wary of internet theologians who read something and apply it without considering the context it was written in. Too often people will tell us they researched something thoroughly, but never studied properly. We then take those conclusions, run with them, and end up holding beliefs that are absolutely contrary to the faith.
It’s easy to forget the command of Christ to the disciples to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” as He sent them out as sheep surrounded by wolves, but in this day and age I don’t know that there is a more important charge to us. (Matthew 10:16) Many of those we think are sheep are actually wolves, and we have to know enough to be able to spot them. In a day where we want everything now, there is no replacement for the hard work of studying and understanding the Scripture in context.