Coming within Understanding Distance

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Alexander Campbell is one of the primary movers in the American Restoration Movement. This movement was primarily an effort to find ways of unifying the fragmented church. But Campbell believed the best way of accomplishing this goal was to facilitate better, not just more, reading of the Bible. To that end, Campbell devoted considerable energy toward putting an accurate Bible in the vernacular in the hands of believers. But people did not need to merely read the Bible, disciples need to understand what is being said.

Campbell recognized there was 1800 years separating, distance, American believers and the last sentence in the Bible. That is,

there is chronological distance,
there is geographic distance,
there is linguistic distance,
there is cultural distance between Scripture and ourselves.

It is not enough to be able to recognize the words on the printed page. Words often have different meanings in different times and places, sometimes just the opposite of what we think today. So Campbell frequently wrote to help people in his day to “come within understanding distance” of the biblical text. It is a great phrase. We who love God’s word must come within understanding distance of it. That is we need to pay attention to context. This reduces the distance between them and us.

In this article, I want to demonstrate that context is something we live with every day of our lives. By recognizing how we engage in assumed knowledge on a daily basis, we can see the necessity of coming within understanding distance of the most important book in the world, the Bible.

Context refers to the social and historical situation of the writer and the text produced. Context includes the sentence in which a word is found, the paragraph in which the sentence is found, and the paragraph within the structure of the writing. A word, a sentence, a paragraph even takes its meaning from the larger writing and in conjunction with the historical setting it is in.

It is actually unfair to two people, the author and the reader, when we ignore the fundamentals of contextual communication. It is not “common” sense to read a text that is at minimum two thousand years old in dead languages, from an alien culture as if it was written yesterday from Nashville, Tennessee.

Assumptions of Communication (Givens)

Every author, when he or she, writes a text makes lots of assumptions. She will assume a common framework in reference to accepted usages of words, cultural allusions, and the like. The author takes these common assumptions about the world as givens. These are simply part of the world the author and readers inhabit. If the author had to explain every metaphor, historical allusion or figure of speech, her piece would be clumsy, wordy and obtuse . . . and no one would read it.

It is these givens of context, that a contemporary author assumes on the part of his or her readers, that are lost on non-contemporary readers.

Givens, assumptions, of a text is natural and it is something we experience everyday. E.D. Hirsch, writing not about ancient books but contemporary media, calls this simply cultural literacy. Cultural literacy is the common “background information” that the “comprehending reader must bring to the text” in order for understanding to take place (Cultural Literacy, pp. 13-14). Hirsch illustrates his point beautifully with a series of excerpts from the Washington Post.

A federal appeals panel today upheld an order barring foreclosure on a Missouri farm, saying the U.S. Agriculture Secretary John R. Block has reneged on his responsibilities to some debt ridden farmers. The appeals panel directed the USDA to create a system of processing loan deferments and of publicizing them as it said Congress had intended. The panel said that it is the responsibility of the agricultural secretary to carry out this intent ‘not as a private banker, but as a public broker.”

This passage, in a common newspaper, is loaded with givens, assumed knowledge, on the part of the author.

What is a foreclosure?
What is an agricultural secretary?
What is a federal appeals panel?
Where is Missouri and what about Missouri is relevant to this article?
Why are farmers debt ridden?
What is the USDA?
What is a public broker?

None of these “givens” would make any sense to even a chronologically contemporary person living in China.  For the citizen of that culture to grasp even this simple paragraph he or she would be required to investigate the social setting of Missouri and the Federal government. 

If we would expect this of a contemporary situation how can we think that less effort may be required of a text that is two thousand years old? There is simply a “ton” of information that authors take for granted, givens on the part of the readership. That shared information about the world “fills in the blanks.” (And I have just used two idioms (i.e. “ton” and “fill in the blanks” that I assume the reader will readily grasp).

Givens, this assumed information, is not specialized information. It is not information that only select individuals from certain fields would recognize, that is this information is not elitist. Rather this information is part of the common knowledge base of the readership. One can have a “common” knowledge of the USDA without having to write an encyclopedia article about it. The common knowledge is that folks recognize it, know what it means, and know why it is important. But it is that “common knowledge” that a person living in Hong Kong would simply miss.

I want to stress, once again, that assumed knowledge is the common knowledge of most any commonly educated Joe Cool walking down the street (and there is another common image that I assume most will get).

The problem for readers of the Bible is that those givens of the text are lost to us without coming within understanding distance. I once heard New Testament scholar Gordon Fee say,

today’s scholar could literally spend the rest of his life doing nothing but reading the classics, the Apocrypha, learning Greco-Roman legends, social customs and still not know what the average Joe Blow did walking the streets of Corinth in A.D. 54!!

He said it is sort of ironic that “we supposed to be scholars and yet still would not have a high school education in if we actually lived in the Roman world.”

The givens are simply the shared knowledge that is part of the fabric of the world that the author and readers inhabit. I am convinced that if we take the Bible seriously then we will in fact take its context seriously.

The Apostle Paul, Moses, Peter, Isaiah, John, like the writer of the newspaper article quoted above, simply assumes a great deal, quite legitimately, on the part of his contemporary readers. Those givens are simply lost to us and can only be recovered through immersion in Paul’s world. That is we must come within understanding distance of the text or we can misunderstand that newspaper article as much as a person from Tibet.

Closing the Gap

A thorough knowledge of the Hebrew Bible is essential filling in the blanks of Paul’s givens. When I say “thorough” I mean just that too. But most Jews did not read Hebrew but Greek thus encountered the Bible in the Septuagint. If a person knows Greek it is a wise thing to spend some time in the Septuagint (which can also be read in English translation btw). The Dead Sea Scrolls show us that the Jews read, wrote and studied all manner of books beside the Bible. Traditions about the Maccabees, Greek theater/festivals and many other things simply “fill the air” like Star Wars does today.

This information becomes part of the givens, they are the context in which the word of God was given. The Jews and Greeks had a certain “Cultural Literacy” as much as Hirsch thinks Americans should.

Alexander Campbell believed we would move much closer to the spirit of New Testament Christianity not if we merely read the biblical text but that we come within understanding distance. Where we can hear the text now like Joe Cool did in AD 55 when Romans showed up and Phoebe read it to the gathered disciples in Rome.

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