This title jumped out at me on Audible because I was already aware of some of the cultural biases that affect our reading of the Bible. However, most of what I have studied is in relation to the Tanakh or Old Testament. This book addresses the same topic, but more through the eyes of the New Testament. I already did one article on this site that stems directly out of this book. Today I’m going to do a review of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes.
This book is an attempt to give readers of the Bible some cultural context to better clarify the meaning of different passages in the Bible. To this end, there is some valuable information in this book. One of the things I found to be the most helpful was their instruction to read a plural “you” into New Testament writings whenever possible. They argue that frequently this is the intended meaning, and that when it isn’t the context should guide you back to a singular reading.
This was good insight, but it lead me to an idea that isn’t expressed in the book, but that I think probably should be. What about tenses? They address this loosely, to point out that not everything that was prophetic is necessarily still prophetic to us today. However, they avoid the glaringly obvious conclusion of this statement. Since the Bible wasn’t written to us today, how much of it do we read in the present tense that should be read in the past tense? Moreover, how much in the future tense should we also read in the past tense? Let me give you an example of what I was thinking of, but what was not covered in the book.
In what tense should Isaiah 53 be read, then and now?
As we know, the New Testament treats Isaiah 53 as prophetic of Jesus. However, there is some tense play in there that is problematic. In Isaiah 52 13 we read that the servant “shall be” prosperous, exalted, and lifted up. However, his appearance “was” marred, but he “shall” startle many nations. He was oppressed and afflicted in the past, and out of this oppression he shall see light in the future. He made his grave with the wicked in the past, but he will bear their iniquities in the future.
So the question becomes, would anyone hearing this prophecy in the time of Isaiah view the suffering servant to be someone coming in the future? Or would they view this servant as having already lived and suffered, opening the door to their prospering in the future?
Unfortunately, this is a shortcoming of this book. It is necessarily written from a Christian perspective, so this topic I just presented would be a bit taboo to explore. Thus, even though it is a legitimate question, it isn’t explored. That’s not a criticism, just an observation to help you understand what you will be getting.
Interesting stories that run on a little too long.
This book is written by a couple of missionaries. As such, they have interesting culture insights that they share from their own personal experiences on the mission field. These are valuable lessons to give you some insight as to how other cultures read the Bible today. However, sometimes these stories run on a little longer than necessary and the point gets a little lost in the minutiae of the story. While the book is better for these stories, it could be improved more by streamlining some of them.
Ultimately I found this to be a valuable work. I’ve already seen improvement in my Bible reading based on some of their suggestions. Furthermore, the idea I expressed above grew out of this book, even though it wasn’t expressly raised in the book. Hence I would recommend the book, even though I feel like it should be shortened up a bit by being a little more direct.
What I would be very interested in finding would be a book on the same topic by a historian without a religious dog in the fight. This way the suggestions on how to better read the Bible wouldn’t be tempered by any individual perspective. A simple instruction manual on how to read the Bible from the perspective of the cultures to whom it was written. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for a book like this in the future.