In order for the Bible to be coherent, we really do need to have some insight into their world. It’s not that someone needs to understand their ancient setting in order to understand what the Bible is teaching, but many pieces of the full Biblical puzzle will remain missing until you start to dive into their world and thought. Which makes things much more messy and complicated than many conservatives are comfortable with.
The more I’ve thought about this simple statement—The Bible is a historical document—the more I’ve come to realize how simultaneously helpful and frustrating this reality is. On the one hand, it has tremendous explanatory power when thinking through how to read the Bible, but it is that exact same explanatory power that makes the Bible’s placement in history frustrating to both sides of the ideological spectrum.
In the conservative environment I was raised in, I was taught a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible. What you see is what you get. The “plain” reading is the most faithful reading and is all you really need. It may or may not be helpful to have some understanding of the culture at the time it was written, but it doesn’t do any good to try and get at the world behind the text because frankly, it doesn’t matter. Exactly what you read is exactly what happened, take it or leave it.
The issue here is that this isn’t how the Bible is written. The biblical authors wrote the Bible from their unique, individual perspectives, employing common and complex literary styles, and responding to the cultures around them. Before you think this is me falling off the liberal slope, this is exactly what the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy says.
We affirm that God in His work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared.
We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities.
This isn’t a liberal view. This is within the view of biblical inerrancy. The Bible was written using various genres of writing, literary devices, and was aware of the world around it.