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April 26, 2014

Essential Guide to Biblical Life and Times

by Mary Harwell Sayler with Bible Reviewer

Over the years I’ve acquired a number of hefty books on Bible times, peoples, and places with lots of color photographs and all sorts of information to refer to as I study for my Bible discussion group or write about a Bible topic. When the slender review copy of the Essential Guide to Biblical Life and Times arrived from Saint Mary’s Press, however, I just started reading and enjoying it as I would almost any interesting book.

With short articles ranging from Afterlife, Agriculture, and Anointing to Torah, War, and Women, the author Martin C. Albl reminds us that the Bible not only came to us in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, but people “lived in societies and cultures…very different from our modern American experiences.” 

In “Approaching the Biblical Societies and Cultures,” the author defines society as “social structures of institutions...established by a particular people,” whereas “Culture refers to the basic values, beliefs, and practices...shared by a special group.”

With the subjects of society and cultures clearly in focus, the book covers these major areas:

  • social and political institutions, including study of the family or kinship system and political structures
  • social customs, including dance, music, and hair and dress styles
  • general cultural beliefs and values, including beliefs about human nature, sexuality, sickness and healing, and beliefs about the structure of the universe (cosmology)
  • religious beliefs and institutions, including beliefs about purity, sacrifices, sin, and spiritual powers, as well as the synagogue and Temple systems in which these beliefs functioned
  • economic structures, including professions in agriculture, fishing, and shepherding, as well as a consideration of the money, tax, and debt systems within the context of patron-client structures

Reading the book will give you a good idea of how the apostles went fishing or how the women did their hair and how everyone celebrated certain feast and festivals. 

On a more spiritual level, I read with interest the “Afterlife” section, which depicts heaven from a particular perspective that may be unfamiliar to some of us now. For example, the article “Heaven” explained: “Whereas modern Christians tend to think of heaven as a spiritual reality only, the biblical writers did not distinguish clearly between the physical reality of the sky and a spiritual heaven.” 

Later, a section on “Human Nature” shows the “New Testament View: Body, Soul, and Spirit,” saying, “We see the holistic nature of the New Testament view most clearly in Paul’s description of the resurrection body. It is not only a person’s spirit that is raised from the dead; the body will be raised as well...” so “a person’s body is renewed and perfected by being made alive through the spirit.”

Similarly, in the section on “Sickness and Health,” we read in “Healing and Salvation” that “Jesus’ healings in this world were a sign of the ultimate healing brought about by the Kingdom of God, inaugurated with the coming of Christ….”

Whether you’re just curious or ready to research a Bible-based saga, I highly recommend this book as a reader-friendly way to immerse yourself in the environment, envision Bible stories, and catch those little nuances that might be missed if we only “translate” what we read from our own lives and culture.