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Book Review: “Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes: Patronage, Honor, and Shame in the Biblical World” by E. Randolph Richards and Richard James

Sometimes, there are passages in Scripture that can be hard to understand. One holdup for those of us in the United States, for example, is our individualist lenses as we read the Bible. E. Randolph Richards and Richard James’s Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes shows readers how they might be misunderstanding the Bible–or even missing some core points–due to those lenses.

The authors split the discussion into three parts: social structures of the Biblical world; social tools: enforcing and reinforcing our values; and “Why does collectivisim really matter to me?” These sections each show different aspects of the ancient world and how those cultural norms could directly impact how certain verses and stories would have been understood. Additionally, the authors show how our modern readings could use some correction based upon understanding the cultural background of Scripture.

The social structures of the biblical world are the subject of the first chapter, and the authors make it clear fairly quickly why these social structures ought to matter to our reading of the Bible. The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife is used to show the various ways honor, shame, and other factors played into the way the human characters acted. While it seems possible to grasp some of this without a broader understanding of Ancient Near Eastern social structures, it is also clear that such an understanding adds much to the reading of these stories.

Patronage also looms large in the Bible, and a fascinating chapter on how these relationships played out explains not just how patronage culture works today but also how we can see that very same kind of relationship throughout the Bible. For example, patronage “created new households” with the patron-client relationship, and this was behind the understanding of many of Paul’s points in his letters (106ff, see esp 109, emphasis theirs).

After reading this book, readers will come away with an understanding of honor-shame, patronage-client, and other cultural norms found in the Bible which are often obscured by our individualist lenses. Books like this, which provide insight into understanding the Bible without trying to force readers into a particular theological perspective, are extremely valuable.

Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes demonstrates that we can very easily misunderstand God’s word if we approach it the wrong way. It is highly recommended for both individual readers seeking to learn more about how to understand Scripture as well as for small groups.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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SDG.

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