Scholars are increasingly emphasising the
considerable differences between modern perceptions of the world and those
of Palestine in the first century. They point out that we might not
be aware of important presuppositions held by Jesus and those who listened
As important are the presuppositions we have about the world in our own
time. Whether or not we like it, we all absorb an entire cultural system
as we grow up. That system includes meanings, customs, values, attitudes,
beliefs and the like. Many are common to everyone worldwide. Others are
shared in various superficially differing forms. A few are unique to
One group of biblical scholars emphasises that we don't understand the
cross-cultural differences of our own time. How then, they ask, can we
possibly understand a dead culture separated from us by some two thousand
years of history?
As a result of such questions, research is today shifting substantially
away from microscopic analysis of biblical texts to [a] archeology and [b]
the broader social context in which Jesus lived. That is, the gospels are
now understood to derive meaning from that context. If we are compile a
satisfactory profile of Jesus, we must place him in his context.
Let me give a simple example. The gospels contain many references to
leaven (see Luke 13.20-21; Matthew 13.33). We know it as yeast, the
substance which makes dough rise and gives us bread. So when we read of
yeast in the gospels we unquestioningly think of something good. It turns
unpleasant, virtually inedible dough into a food which at its best is
This is not how either Jesus or other Hebrews thought about
yeast. We don't realise why the Hebrews celebrated a feast of unleavened
bread. At that feast every trace of yeast was eliminated from a Jewish
home each year.
Yeast was a metaphor for uncleanness, for corrupting sin. In some
rabbinic literature it refers to something which prevents people from
obeying God. This for Hebrews was the worst sort of sin. The Jewish
scholar Philo (20BCE -50) used leaven as a metaphor
for arrogance and pretension. Paul uses leaven to warn that even a little
evil can corrupt the whole (Galatians 5.9; 1 Corinthians 5.7).
Without this understanding it is impossible to correctly interpret what
Jesus meant when he referred to leaven. Take the parable of the woman who
took yeast and mixed it with three measures of flour until it rose.
Jesus likens the kingdom of God to this action. In doing so he would
have surprised many and shocked a few. The metaphorical use of leaven was
in this instance being completely reversed.
We can now suspect that Jesus is putting across something like this
How can God's way of running things (his kingdom) be like evil
corrupting everything? The hearer is brought up short. Perhaps God's
kingdom is able to include even those elements of humanity which we
normally think of as unacceptable. Is God unclean?
Perhaps God doesn't work in showy, extravagant ways, but in
secret - like yeast in dough. Jesus seems to be encouraging those around
him to re-think their suppositions about how God rules the world.
"Three measures" is about 100 kilograms (50 pounds) of flour.
This is enough to feed a large number of people. So God's kingdom is
perhaps much more bountiful than we think. There is a far greater
surplus than we with our insecure fears would like to acknowledge.
There is a large number of such examples in the gospels. Here are just
Jesus and most of his contemporaries believed that God created the
earth and all living creatures in a single act. Not many of his circle would
have been familiar with Greek ideas about the solar system and the nature of
matter. It our time, we are governed in this respect by the knowledge of
evolution - which rules out a one-off creative act of the sort presupposed in
Similarly, most people of the first century thought that God (or the
gods) ruled the course of history. Humanity might cause this or that to happen
- but only because God allowed them temporary space to do so. Today's
understanding of history is very different. It is important to identify
beliefs in the Bible about the past which cut across or contradict what we
know about cause and effect in human affairs and nature at large.
Early Christians and many before them thought that humanity (and
indeed the whole of nature) has willfully and rebelliously diverged from what
God intended for them. This puts everyone in a state of sin regardless of what
they may or may not have done in their lives. In effect, sin is inevitably
transmitted from generation to generation rather like a genetic defect. It is
difficult for anyone with knowledge of psychology and social dynamics to think
in such terms today. At the very least, we should be alert to the influence
this pre-modern conception had on those who formulated early Christian
doctrines. This includes the authors of the gospels.
That God will intervene in his creation one day was a relatively new
theory in the time of Jesus. It was thought that God will bring normal history
to an end to overthrow and destroy all who oppose his purposes. In doing so,
he will bring about the state of affairs he originally intended when he
created the world. Since the first century this idea has become firmly
established in the corporate Christian mind. However, it is a presupposition
which is not persuasive to the modern mind. We recognise, for example, that
the world is likely to outlast the human race by a good few billion years.
Many Jewish people thought that not everyone will enjoy the benefits of
this restored order. Only certain chosen people will enjoy the bliss of God's
presence - often thought of as being something like a glorious banquet or
party hosted by God. This presupposition fuels much of the New Testament
teaching about the nature of the Church. Most Christians today still think of
themselves as to some degree special amongst the world's religions. But it is
now increasingly being recognised that our world is a unified system. It is
impossible to elevate any one part of it over another in what is an
interdependent web of mutual interest.
- The gospel authors and early Christians thought that the Old Testament
confirms who Jesus was because it foretells what is to come. It could
therefore be referred to for truths about Jesus - even though the Old
testament was written long before Jesus lived. In our terms today, this
presupposition allowed the gospel authors and later Christians to create a
number of myths about Jesus which we today recognise are not "what really
happened". A good example might be the ascension of Jesus from earth to join
God in heaven.
These are but a few of the presuppositions held by Jesus and his
contemporaries. There are many others - about marriage, birth and death,
family relationships and so on.
The frequent failure of Christian teachers to bring out these
difficulties is, in my opinion, a primary reason for what seems to be a
decline of Christianity in those nations which have the highest levels of
 Following B B Scott in Profiles of Jesus,
Polebridge Press, 2002