Over at Michael Bird’s blog “Euangelion” he blogged about the importance of background studies to Christians’ understanding of the Bible. A key piece of advice he gave, which I hope will be taken up by not a few laypeople (and seminarians and scholars!) is this:
“…while many confessional Christians urge us to read Owen, Edwards, Spurgeon, Warfield, and Machen and the like (and no reason why not), it wouldn’t be such a bad idea for them to also urge Christians to also read Josephus, Virgil, Horace, the DSS, Eusebius, and Philo too.”
Personally, I’ve had enough of Spurgeon. And Owen? Yeah, he’s off my list, too. Not that these guys are bad. But I spent a considerable amount of time obsessing over these giants of the faith, that I kinda lost my appetite for them. Sure, now and again I’ll dip into a “Morning and Evening” devotional and be edified considerably.
But to read the ancient giants is like sitting down at an ethnic restaurant whose delicacies you’ve never tasted before. Even the look of the dishes as they’re plated is strange, yet inviting. You’re not even sure how to order off the menu, the names of things are so different. That first taste, never to be repeated in its intensity, is full of aromas and titillating sensations never before experienced. Congratulations, you’ve just expanded your cultural appreciation.
Same thing with exploring the writings of men (and women?) older than 500 years ago. It’s good to remember that even the favorites such as Spurgeon and Calvin were 1500 years removed from the time of Jesus, and many thousands more from Moses and other OT writers.
Here’s a short excerpt from Philo, a Jewish philosopher contemporaneous with Jesus and Paul:
“What, then, can [the house of God] be except the Word, which is more ancient than all the things which were the objects of creation, and by means of which it is the Ruler of the universe, taking hold of it as a rudder, governs all things. And when he was fashioning the world, he used this as his instrument for the blameless argument of all the things which he was completing.”
This short passage from Philo sheds light on one of the Jewish viewpoints on the Word of God at the time of Christ and Paul. We can compare this statement in its context with similar ones in Paul and the Gospels to demonstrate what similarities and differences there are. By identifying these, we then have a better understanding of just how aligned, or radical, were the teachings of Jesus and Paul with at least one viewpoint in the first century, that of a Hellenized Jewish philosopher.
Here’s another sample from the Didache, one of the so-called Apostolic Fathers. This is a piece of writing likely composed around the time that Paul was penning his epistles, possibly as a short instruction booklet for new initiates into the Christian faith:
“Be patient and merciful and innocent and quiet and good, and revere always the words that you have heard. Do not exalt yourself or permit your soul to become arrogant. Your soul shall not associate with the lofty, but live with the righteous and the humble. Accept as good the things that happen to you, knowing that nothing transpires apart from God.” (Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 349)
See, wasn’t that like taking a bite of a mysterious dish for the first time? Sure, nothing beats Gospel or Paul, but these early sources are critical to rounding out any Christian’s understanding of their faith. Make it a daily or weekly practice to ingest even a paragraph or two of these ancient, and brilliant, sources, and see your contemplation and understanding of Scripture blossom.
Here are some links to find the ancient sources easily online: