Most Christians are well aware that although the Bible is divinely inspired, this hasn’t stopped its human authors from expressing their own writing styles.
What Christians often fail to recognize, however, is that the inspiration of Scripture has also allowed the authors, and Jesus, to express the particular ways of thinking and speaking that were present in ancient Jewish culture.
Often, modern Western Christians approach the Bible assuming that the authors thought and spoke like we do, when in some key respects they actually didn’t. This frequently leads to puzzlement and mistakes in interpretation. Many of the problems that modern readers of Scripture experience when reading it can be solved by taking account of the authors’ cultural ways of talking about things.
ATTITUDES TO PRECISION
One important difference between the authors of the Bible and us concerns attitudes to precision. The biblical writers (and Jesus Himself) often spoke much less precisely about things than we do. They also tended to be less concerned about precisely sticking to traditions that they held in high esteem.
To be sure, when it was important, the authors of the Bible could be very precise. But often they were imprecise in ways that we find strange, at times even amazing.
In what follows, I will highlight some areas in which this difference in attitude to precision reveals itself in Scripture. I will concentrate on the New Testament, since that is the part of the Bible that I know the most about.
GENERAL EXAMPLES OF IMPRECISION
To begin with, here are two general examples of how first century Jews could use astonishingly imprecise language by our standards.
First, there is Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 12:40:
‘For just as Jonah was in the sea monster’s stomach for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.’
Being in the heart of the earth here refers to the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection. And three days and three nights, at least on the face of it, is approximately 72 hours. Yet Matthew himself, who records the words in this verse, portrays the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection as roughly 36 hours (Matthew 27:46-28:7)!
In Matthew 12:40 the three days and three nights must be referring to three consecutive Jewish calendar days. Jewish days began and ended at sunset. So the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection fell on the last part of the day before the Sabbath, all of the Sabbath day, and probably a bit less than half of the day after the Sabbath. Therefore the time between His death and resurrection fell on part or all of three consecutive calendar days.
Matthew clearly regarded it as true to say that this period of about 36 hours was three days and three nights! But in modern Western culture we couldn’t possibly truthfully describe a period of about 36 hours as three days and three nights!
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