Reading Scripture in the Context of the Ancients

Just around the turn of the new year (2021-2022), my mentor and I started diving into scholarly work about the Bible. One of the questions I have always asked myself was, “How would a person in the Old Testament period have understood this message when they heard it read aloud in the Temple in Jerusalem?”

Since then, I’ve been constantly reminding myself that the people at the time had a specific worldview and understanding of reality, and that although the Bible is certainly God’s revelation for us today, it was specifically written to those people at the time, not to us 21st-century North Americans. Knowing that, how did it change the way I read the Bible? Well, long story short, I can’t read the Bible the same way anymore.

Now, I’m not going to claim that people need the entire background story in order to grasp what God is trying to tell us through the Bible. Of course, the Bible is self-sufficient when it comes to transmitting its core messages like the depravity of man, the need for salvation, or the culmination of God’s love for us by sending Christ to die on the cross. Basically, it’s very easy to find the Gospel when you read through the Bible. But what do you do with astrological imagery, references to Babylonian mythology, giants in the conquest of Canaan, or even Greco-Roman culture in Paul’s letters? Certainly, there must be theological messaging in there, too. Needless to say, my mentor and I went so far down that rabbit trail that we even started a new Sunday School class at my church to talk about these things with the rest of the congregation.

Approaching the Bible this way has drastically opened my eyes to things I’d never noticed before. Reading the Bible this way has made the story so much richer, and I’ve found that the overarching metanarrative has informed a much more powerful salvation story than I could have ever imagined. Since then, I’ve been asking myself, “For someone who’s been going to church pretty much since the day I was born, why have I never heard about these things in church before?”

I keep reminding myself that the Bible is what it is, and we don’t need to be afraid of what it’s trying to tell us. The Biblical authors wrote what they did for a reason, and we shouldn’t ignore the difficult parts of the Bible. Perhaps we regularly underestimate the thirst for content of the average person in the pew. That’s what we found out at our church. I would like to invite you to try reading the Bible through the lens of an Old Testament Jew as well. You’ll never be able to read the Bible the same again. And that’s probably for the better.


— Jesse Lam is a Fellowship International missionary appointed to serve in Japan.