What the Bible says to me and how it applies to my life, as important as this is, places the proverbial cart before the horse when it is the first (or exclusive) consideration. Before any biblical text says anything to me, it has already spoken to those to whom it was first written. The conscientious Bible student should therefore begin his/her investigation of any passage of scripture by considering what the inspired writer was seeking to convey to his original audience and how they would have understood the message in the context in which it was first communicated. When this is the preliminary focus, one is in a much better position to correctly interpret and apply the sacred writings as they were intended.
Everything in the Bible is written in a particular context. To be unaware of the context is to significantly increase one’s chances of missing or misunderstanding just about anything recorded in scripture. Context includes:
· Historical context: what has occurred.
· Chronological context: when it has occurred.
· Geographical context: where it has occurred.
· Sociocultural context: how it has occurred.
· Literary context: the manner in which it has been recorded.
Historical context involves both the history in the text and the history of the text, including social, cultural, political, religious, and economic conditions that inform us about people and events in particular time periods and places. “We study history to help account for the distances in time and historical experience” (K. C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus 2). The information provided by biblical writers includes individuals, communities, localities, time periods, and happenings that can be verified in the records of history. The Christian movement and its sacred text stand on historically verifiable data. The New Testament contains over 140 eyewitness details and references to more than thirty historical figures, confirmed by archaeological discoveries and ancient secular writings.1 The Christian movement began and flourished, not in a vacuum, but among real people in the first century who could readily test its claims (cf. Acts 26:26; 1 Cor. 15:6). G. Ernest Wright has well said, “the Bible cannot be understood unless the history it relates is taken seriously. Knowledge of biblical history is essential to the understanding of biblical faith” (Introduction to Biblical Archaeology ix).
Chronological context, involving dates and sequence of events, is just as much a part of biblical history as the events themselves. R. L. Cate reminds us, “No matter how much students may dislike the study of dates, history can neither be adequately nor accurately studied apart from dates. Dates are the cement which hold events together and relate them to one another” (History of the New Testament 115). By viewing the scriptures in light of related past or contemporary occurrences, the record is not only confirmed but illuminated. Although assigning exact dates is not always possible due to the imprecision of ancient time reckoning and record keeping, studying chronology is helpful in determining the order of events, how much time elapsed between them, and contributing factors that charted the course of history.
Geographical context concerns the places (lands, mountains, seas, cities, provinces, nations, etc.) where important events occurred. Biblical geography is the canvas upon which God’s scheme of redemption has been painted. C. G. Rasmussen observes, “once one has a basic understanding of the geography of the Middle East, one has a much better chance of coming to grips with the flow of historical events that occurred there…. Historical events were oftentimes greatly influenced by the geographical environment in which they occurred” (Zondervan Atlas of the Bible 13). W. Stiles adds: “Those of us who seek to understand the meaning of the Bible strongly believe in interpreting a passage in its context. But context is more than words…. The more one understands the land of the Bible, the more he or she will understand the Bible itself” (“Bible Lands,” <Link>).
Sociocultural context involves learned behaviors shared by members of a society that shed light on the cultural and linguistic distinctiveness of the biblical writings. Ancient documents “assume that their readers share their world and know what they mean… Our difficulty as modern Western readers is to relate meaningfully to documents that are the products of a radically different world in terms of institutions and values…. Because our social and cultural experiences do not match those of the biblical authors, we can be seriously misled about what they mean” (K. C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus 2). The goal of biblical interpretation is to discover what the writings originally communicated to the immediate audiences, so “any adequate understanding of the Bible requires some understanding of the social system embodied in the words that make up our sacred scriptures” (B. J. Malina, New Testament World 1-2; Social World of Jesus xi). If we are unfamiliar with the world of the early Christians, we will not understand early Christianity.2
Literary Context is the connection of thought a passage bears to the larger discussion of which it is part. Each statement in the Bible is surrounded by and connected to additional information that helps determine its meaning. Literary context includes:
· Genre: the type of literature that governs the purpose and meaning of a particular writing. The Bible consists of various literary genres (historical, prescriptive, poetic, proverbial, prophetic, apocalyptic, epistolary), a working knowledge of which
· Immediate context: the paragraph or general discussion in which a statement occurs.
· Remote context: the entire document or collection of writings of which a statement is part.
· Overall biblical context: how a statement or series of statements relate to the rest of the information in the Bible.
· Layers of context: a passage of scripture might incorporate multiple genres, communicants, settings, and even borrowed materials from other sources. For example, the Gospel of Matthew is generally viewed as biographical but is also kerygmatic in that readers are expected to learn spiritual truths as information is disclosed. Matthew’s record has incorporated genealogical data (chap. 1), narrative (chaps. 1–4), discourse (chaps. 5–7), scripture referencing (2:6, 18; 3:3), apocalyptic imagery (24:27-31), et al. When analyzing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in addition to the actual words (in Greek-English translation), consideration ought to be given to the unique perspectives of the speaker and his original listening audience, as well as the inspired author and his first reading audience, inclusive of their respective historical–cultural–religious environments.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 N. Geisler and F. Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist 270-71.
2 W. A. Meeks, First Urban Christians 2.
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