August 24, 2009

Understanding the Historical Context of Scripture

One of the key components in properly understanding a verse, section, or book of the Bible is to understand the historical context in which it was written. The Bible is God’s Word for all people and for all time, but much of the Bible is occasional in nature. That is, it was written at a particular point in history, by a particular inspired author, addressing a particular audience which faced a particular situation. With this in mind, proper interpretation involves finding out what the text says, understanding how it applied to the original audience and situation, determining the underlying principles which guided that application, and then applying those principles to parallel situations today. The historical context is the means by which we can gain clearer understanding of how the text would have been understood by the original audience.

What should we look for when trying to understand the historical context? Three types of contextual information are fundamental and will go a long way in bringing the original context to light.

1. Old Testament Background – The New Testament makes extensive quotations and allusions to the Old Testament, and in many passages it is assumed that the audience understands the Old Testament context. For example, the NT concept that Jesus is the Lamb of God is properly understood only in the context of the OT sacrificial system (in particular, the Passover of Exodus). This is not only true for the NT, but also much of the OT. The historical books, wisdom literature, and prophets all make reference to or assume understanding of the Pentateuch. When examining a passage, look for quotations and allusions to the OT, or for concepts that might be explained elsewhere in the Bible. When you see a quotation, it’s a good idea to read it in its original OT context because many times the author will assume understanding of the whole context though only quoting a small portion. A Bible with a good cross-reference system can be very helpful for identifying quotations and allusions. See the recommend resources below for additional useful tools.

2. Specific Historical Situation – Understanding the occasion or the specific historical situation in which the book was written will help to guide your interpretation. Often times it will not be possible to know the full situation with certainty, but a partial understanding and knowledge of the range of possibilities can go a long way. For example, understanding that 1 and 2 Chronicles was written after the Jews began to return from exile and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem will help you to understand why the author focuses on certain themes over others. Understanding that 1 Corinthians was written to address specific problems with the church in Corinth will help you to follow Paul’s flow of thought as he touches on the various issues and will help prevent some possible misunderstandings or misinterpretations. The best sources for information on the specific historical situation would be clues from the book itself and introductions to books such as can be found in Bible dictionaries or at the start of a book in many study Bibles. See the recommend resources below for additional useful tools.

3. General Background (e.g. Cultural, Political, Religious, Economic, and Geographic) - Understanding the general background and cultural aspects of life during the time in which the book was written will help clarify the meaning behind concepts that may be foreign to our culture or provide other insight that may be missed due to cultural distance. Additionally, it may help us more appropriately apply a passage that has a cultural aspect to it. For example, if we attempt to directly apply Paul’s command to “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” this could result in some awkward social engagements in certain cultures. However, when we understand that the kisses were a common way to give someone a warm, affectionate greeting, then we can take the principle and apply it all cultures (Christians should greet one another with an affectionate greeting). Bible dictionaries and commentaries are often helpful sources of background information. See the recommend resources below for some useful tools.

Example:
One of the earliest Christian creeds was the phrase “Jesus is Lord.” When a 21st century Christian reads those words today, the most common way that this is understood is in the sense of “Jesus is the boss” or “Jesus is in charge.” While this concept is certainly present in the phrase, an understanding of the historical context can provide additional insight into how significant this phrase was in the early church (and is for us today).

· Old Testament Context – The most common form of Scripture available to the Greek-speaking world was the Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint (often abbrev. LXX). This is significant when we learn that the LXX translates the Divine name ‘Yahweh’ as ‘Lord’ (the Greek word kyrios) and that this is the same Greek word used in the statement “Jesus is Lord”. For a Greek-speaking Jew who was well-versed in the OT, there would be an instinctive connection between “the Lord” and Israel’s God, Yahweh. This subtle connection is made explicit when we study the Old Testament context of the “Jesus is Lord” passages. Compare the following NT passages and their corresponding OT quotations/allusions (Note: Most English translations translate Yahweh as LORD in all caps):

  • Romans 10:9-13 with Joel 2:32
  • Philippians 2:10-11 with Isaiah 45:23-25
  • 1 Peter 3:14-15 with Isaiah 8:12-13

(For further examples – Jn. 12:40-41/Isa. 6:1-10; Heb.1:10-12/Psa. 102:25-27; 1 Cor. 2:8/Psa. 24)

· Political Context – In Roman society, it would not be uncommon for people to profess their allegiance to Caesar using the phrase “Caesar is Lord.” By this they would be declaring that Caesar is the supreme ruler and king over all. In fact, as the emperor cult grew in prominence towards the end of the 1st century and into the 2nd century, refusing to confess “Caesar is Lord” and offer incense to his image would be punishable by death. For Christians in this environment, the confession that “Jesus is Lord” rather than Caesar was no glib concession to Christ, but was a profession of allegiance on which they would often have to stake their lives.

Within the historical context above, the simple statement “Jesus is Lord” carries a lot of weight and could be understood in the sense of:”In the person of Jesus, Yahweh has visited His people and has taken His rightful place upon the throne as King over all creation, and to Him belongs all glory, all honor, and all praise.”

Recommended Resources for Historical Context:
The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament
The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament
Dictionary of Biblical Imagery
New Bible Dictionary
Dictionary of New Testament Background
Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament

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