You can add more dimensions, colours and textures to the New Testament’s message by diving into its history and formation.
Put another way, you can expand your own faith through deeper engagement with the Bible, according to NT scholar Michael Bird whose new podcast Delving into the New Testament in its World is part of the Eternity Podcast Network.
“When you are looking at the gospels, it helps if you know something about 1st Century Galilee and Judea where they are set,” says Bird, who worked with renowned biblical scholar N.T Wright on The New Testament In Its World, a thorough book detailing the history, literature, and theology of the New Testament with an emphasis on its relevance for Christians today.
“Knowing a little bit about things like that simply adds new dimensions in your understanding of the Bible.”
Eternity asked Bird what difference each episode of the Delving into the New Testament in its World podcast can make, as well as his own “a-ha moments” from investigating the life and times of Jesus …
How can delving into the New Testament context help to enliven someone’s faith?
Knowing about the historical context of the New Testament is like the difference of experience between watching a movie on a small screen in black and white, compared with watching it in IMAX in 3D in surround sound.
You see the same story in front of you, but there’s new dimensions, colours, and texture that people otherwise don’t see. So, for example, when Jesus argues with the Pharisees it helps if you know that the Pharisees were a Judean religious renewal movement, rather than just a local stand-in for ‘Lloyd Legalist’. That’s why so many Pharisees joined the early church!
It helps if you know that only married women were expected to wear veils when you read something like 1 Corinthians 11.
It helps if you know something about the local sites concerning the letters to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation.
Do you have favourite moments from writing the book and making the podcast, when it comes to the sort of discoveries you can make while exploring New Testament times?
I learned so many things working with Tom Wright, recording videos with him, and making podcasts together.
Wright’s ability to describe the world behind the New Testament, to talk about Jesus or [the apostle] Paul, and then jump forward into our own time with something to think about, be challenged by, and to take away was a constant delight.
Otherwise, I constantly had my own set of “a-ha” moments, like reading about sexual ethics in 1 Thessalonians 4 where Paul warns the churches not to create an environment where people could exploit one another. Or seeing how the Epistle of James meshes nicely with a lot of other Jewish literature of the first century. I also got to thinking about how the Book of Revelation shows you what the Roman Empire looks like, from the perspective of those with its boot on their throats. One never stops learning!
On a scale of 1-10, how much are you over being asked about NT Wright and what he is like to work with?
I honestly don’t mind talking about Tom and what it’s like to work with him. The eye-rolling moments are the constant requests people give me to see if Tom will visit their church, read their manuscript, endorse their book, appear on their podcast, or speak at their conference.
I know they all mean well and they are genuine admirers of Tom and benefit from his work. But I feel like my emails should have an automated response: “I am not N.T. Wright’s literary agent, personal secretary, publicist, or personal assistant. I cannot ‘book’ him for anything.”