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In 1987 E.D. Hirsch published his bestseller Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know. The education system of the time seriously underestimated the importance of background knowledge needed to successfully function in literate American society. Drawing on two decades of experimental research, Hirsch showed that without the background information needed for a given text, readers are effectively illiterate with regard to that text. He argued that quantitatively, too, background knowledge plays a major role in comprehension: the information explicitly stated in any text is only “the tip of the iceberg” of the intended meaning, the bulk needs to be supplied by the reader. In the light of this, Hirsch argued that one of the central goals of the educational system must be to provide American children with an adequate body of knowledge that would enable them to understand all communications addressed to the general public. This body of knowledge he called “cultural literacy.”
Based on three decades of experience in Bible translation, the author of this paper sees some striking parallels with regard to the dominant philosophy in Bible translation. While the provision of biblical background knowledge has been given more attention in some quarters in recent years, it is still far from being acknowledged and treated as a key factor in the planning and execution of Bible translation projects, essential to ensure optimal efficiency of the work and to maximise the impact of the products.
Applying relevant insights gained by Hirsch, the author examines the extent and nature of biblical literacy, that is, the background knowledge, needed for the successful comprehension of a sample text (Lk 10:13–14). This is done with the help of conceptual tools provided by relevance theory, the currently most developed theory of inferential communication. It goes on to the task of systematically identifying mismatches in background knowledge between original and receptor audience. It draws attention to the importance of timing and processing effort in biblical literacy strategies designed to overcome such mismatches. One of the spin-offs of biblical literacy is the need for closer interdisciplinary cooperation between biblical studies, anthropology and translation.