Have you ever met someone who was a walking-talking Bible encyclopedia, yet unlike Christ in very pronounced ways, lacking the aroma of Christ? Many erroneously believe (based on 2 Tim 2:15) that by studying the Bible we are somehow, “approved unto God.”
A basic premise of studying the Bible is context. That is, we try to understand the scripture in its context, before we try to apply anything to ourselves. This is basic, conservative, hermeneutics. Projecting our reality onto the scriptures, thinking “this is what it means” or “this is the way it should be,” based on our view of the world, our culture, and its values, is a good way to believe and teach nonsense.
The way 2 Tim. 2:15 is usually presented conjures up images like this: First century believers with Bibles (scrolls) under their arms, doing their daily devotions from scripture, reading, and studying the Bible (Jewish scripture), “rightly dividing it,” like good Christians should. Entire denominations have this perspective as their foundational belief system. One of the largest fundamentalist children’s ministries in the world uses this passage as their slogan!
Although this perspective is passionately believed, it is sadly an anachronistic myth: We should not import our reality into Paul’s world. That’s called eisegesis: reading something into the text rather than letting the text speak for itself. The scriptures are mishandled by those who do this.
What are the Background Facts?
- Paul attended the “Harvard” of his day. Paul’s education put him in the top 1% of his society: aristocratic by status and honor if not money. He counted it all excrement for the excellency of knowing Messiah in resurrection. That is something to think about!
- Paul’s letters were read aloud in public for a reason! The literacy rate in Roman Judea and Asia Minor (Ephesus, Corinth, Greece, Rome, etc.) at the time of Jesus and Paul was minuscule–between 1.5-10% of the population! That includes among Jews! It would be lower among women. Some post-captivity rabbis taught that teaching a woman to read the Torah was a waste of time and a dishonor to the community, it being better to burn the Torah than let a woman read it! Early converts to Christianity were mostly women, children, and slaves from the lower classes! The literacy rates were likely higher among the aristocracy, but still nothing near our rates today in the West. In a village or early faith community, it would not have been unusual if there was only one elder who could read. That is why Paul’s (and others) addressed many of his letters “to the elder”–they were likely the only literate ones there!
- At the time Second Timothy was written, there was no “Bible,” as we know it. If a faith community had one Torah scroll or a few codices and copies of apostolic letters, that would have been quite exceptional. Scrolls and codices were costly luxuries for the wealthy. When Paul speaks of committing the message of Messiah in resurrection to faithful men, there is good reason for it. There was no mass literacy. Apostolic transmission, “succession” if you will, was a practical necessity.
- It is offensive to our modern sensibilities, but the democratization (equal availability to all) of the scriptures is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. Jews believed that God sanctioned only holy/anointed people to read scripture: prophets, priests, kings, and later, rabbis. The idea that everyone would, or should have, access to the scripture would have been foreign to them and seemed inappropriate to them. Our normal would have been their inappropriate. Our spiritual egalitarianism would morally and spiritually offend them.
- The Bible, though in print for centuries after Gutenburg, was not affordable to the middle and the lower classes until the mid-nineteenth century! The emergence of the various Bible Societies in Great Britain, Europe, and eventually North America was due to the passion to affordably get the scriptures into the hands of everyone. This is a wonderful, but modern phenomenon.
So–we are supposed to believe that Paul is exhorting illiterate believers to study something that didn’t exist at the time and they could not read if it had existed? I don’t think so. Well then to what did Paul (I’m not engaging in authorship debates here.) have in mind when referring to “study?” The familiar KJV doesn’t help here.
The word translated as “study” does not mean hit the books or go to the library! There were no public libraries! There were no study guide resources! The library in Alexandria was so unique that it was considered a wonder of the ancient world. Besides, as I have said, the population was illiterate! No, “study” does not mean what that word has come to mean in our day. The idea is one of diligence, earnestness, eagerness, to make every best effort, not intellectual mastery of material.
Ok, Be Diligent for What?
The KJV “show yourself approved” is unfortunate. The word “show” means to “stand” or to present one’s self as for inspection. The word for approved means to come through fire like a metal. The image is a metallurgical one. The heat treating and tempering of metal through fire makes it fit for use. Successfully passing through the fires, having changed its characteristics, approves the metal.
The image is for a believer to stand up under the fires of adversity–to come through fire like refined metal. The passage is exhorting believers to be diligent, to not fold under pressure. It has nothing to do with studying the Bible! We are to be diligent to stand in adversity as if proven through fire as the “real deal.”
Well, how are we to stand? By cutting straight (KJV: rightly divide) the “word of truth.”
The cutting straight image is like holding a steady line when cutting through leather–don’t waver all over. The image emphasis is not the cutting, it is the steadiness, straightness–hold the line. It does not mean cook up interpretation schemes of a book that didn’t exist at the time! That would have been incomprehensible to Paul and his hearers. Fruitless metaphysical and spiritual debates are an epidemic condition in social media these days!
Since there was no Bible, and the masses could not read the Torah and the letters that might have been available, what does the writer mean when he talks about cutting straight through? “Hold the line” to what? He is talking about the basics of the apostle’s proclamation of Jesus as Messiah, resurrected from the dead. That is the “word of truth” as compared to all the other nonsensical doctrines and philosophies that abounded in the day.
How Do We Know This?
The verse before and the verse after verse 15 (Context! Always context!) are dealing with what Paul calls, in very uncomplimentary terms, “useless babblings” (likely referring to either Jewish mystic fables or Gnosticism, or both). Verse 18 ties it all together by specifically referring to erroneous teachings about the resurrection that Paul had to deal with in the churches to which he related.
“Cutting straight” the word of truth means to hold fast to the apostolic proclamation regarding Christ in resurrection, and to not wilt under the associated adversity. This passage is about endurance, not study as we know it. I have written elsewhere that having the scriptures as we do is a blessing with responsibility that leaves us without excuse. Being diligent in them is honorable! However, the mere internalization of Bible knowledge without a corresponding output of behavior tested in fire is like paddling a canoe on only one side–you are moving, but just going in circles. It is just the internalization of Bible trivia without a corresponding activation by the Spirit in behavior.
Imagine a pilot is an A student. She passes all her tests at the top of her class. She understands the laws of aviation, the regulations of the FAA, plane construction and how to fly it. But she has never actually flown a plane. Would you get on a flight with her at the helm? Why not? She has knowledge.
Of course you would not get on her plane. But this is exactly what Christians with loads of Bible knowledge do all the time. They think their Bible knowledge qualifies them to guide others, and in the worst case, think that studying the Bible approves them unto God. It doesn’t, because it is not real knowledge. It is just theory, until they pass through the fires of the Cross where knowledge becomes reality. Only then do you have experiential knowledge (epignosis) to give to someone else. Studying the Bible is like coffee beans. Without them, you will not have coffee, but with them, you still don’t have coffee. You have potential coffee. Only after processing the raw material is there anything worth consuming. It is the same with scripture.
My approval as a workman does not depend on my library and how much “study and devotional time” I put in. It depends on my faithfulness in endurance (the application of the cross, the cruciform life). More specifically, it is my fidelity in relationship to the Faithful One who is in me. My “approval” is in my relational trust (faith) in the message of a despised and crucified Jewish prophet, who was raised from the dead and proclaimed . . . the Son of God.
Hold the line, saints. Hold the line.
 Some data suggests a 3% average literary rate. Other data suggest the most optimistic statistic for first century Roman Judea as 10-15% of the population as literate–still highly skewed toward the upper classes. There was a level a literacy enough to conduct basic interpersonal commerce–money, weights, measures, etc. However, sitting down and reading a publication of any sort, simply did not exist for the vast majority.
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