Historical ContextUltimate Questions
Ever wonder why Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey and not a horse? Or why slavery in the Bible is different than we think of it? The right historical information gives context to the authors of Scripture so that we can understand what they wrote.
Hello, I’m Jon Topping, and welcome to the Ultimate Questions podcast.
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Last week we started our brief venture into how to read the Bible. In the last episode, I just gave some helpful tidbits of advice on how to get started. I also made an emphasis that actually studying Scripture can be helpful and satisfying, so now we’re going to dive into a little bit more about how to actually go about studying the Bible, even if you’re not a professional theologian. A quick comment here, I made a handout for you, it’s a PDF you can download, and will be available for free on our podcast page. If you go to the P2C webpage for this episode of the podcast, you’ll see a link to download the PDF. It’s just a single page to keep with you when studying the Bible, so you can go through the steps, and hopefully get a lot more out of your Scripture reading.
As we dig into how to study the Bible, one of the most important aspects of trying to understand an ancient book is to get a good feel for the context of what you’re reading. There is historical context, which is the culture, people, and places, and then there’s the literary context, which are things like where your passage is found in the book, what the genre is, and different language elements like repetition. Today, we’re going to focus in on the historical context. This can seem daunting, and like the sort of thing only pastors do, but honestly, it is well within the ability of anyone who is listening to this podcast, and hopefully I can help you dive into the exciting realm of Bible study.
First of all, I think there’s an important aspect of interpretation we need to deal with, before going further. I think some of us might have a bad methodology when it comes to interpretation in general, because of our English classes. In many cases, we have been encouraged to be as creative as possible, trying to come up with new ideas in terms of what a book can mean “to you”. This is actually the exact opposite of what we want to do with the Bible. We’re not trying to come up with some new idea, or unique interpretation that no one else has thought of, in fact, if we think of an interpretation of a passage that no one has ever thought of before, then you can be basically guaranteed that it’s a bad interpretation. Here’s a good quote from Fee and Stuart’s book, “How to read the Bible for all it’s worth”:
“Interpretation that aims at, or thrives on, uniqueness can usually be attributed to pride (an attempt to "outclever" the rest of the world), a false understanding of spirituality (wherein the Bible is full of deeply buried truths waiting to be mined by the spiritually sensitive person with special insight), or vested interests (the need to support a theological bias, especially in dealing with texts that seem to go against that bias)."
Another problem similar to this, is that, when we interpret Scripture, we bring our biases and presuppositions to the text. Without meaning to, we will naturally think that our understanding of a passage of Scripture must be what the author actually meant to say, or that the Holy Spirit is inspiring us to interpret this passage. The important thing to recognize here is that everyone brings their own unique perspective to the table. We all have different opinions, experiences, beliefs, and biases. Even our knowledge, or lack of knowledge, influences how we view things. So it’s important to first of all, recognize that this is happening to you, when you sit down to study the Bible. Our goal should be to approach the text as the original author and audience would have, so we need to limit how much our own biases and opinions affect how we interpret Scripture.
Some people will argue that there is no need for hermeneutics, or, trying to really study the Bible to get an accurate interpretation, because all you need to do is just sit down and read the Bible. In this attitude, there’s no need for experts or scholars, because all we need is the Bible. Now, in a sense that’s true, because the Bible is amazing, and just sitting down and reading it is obviously a good thing to do. However, if we don’t actually put in the effort of actually trying to do a good job studying the Bible, then we’re going to miss a lot of what the Bible has to offer, and in many cases, we won’t even get the point of what lots of passages are trying to say. The problem is that the Bible was not originally written to us. The authors had no knowledge of our culture, and if we have no knowledge of their culture, we will definitely misunderstand what they wrote at times. If we want to understand what they wrote, we first need to understand them.
A good example of what I’m talking about is when the Bible mentions slavery. When we read the passages on slavery, we naturally bring our understanding of what slavery is. Our biases play a huge part on how we view these verses. So first, we need to recognize our understanding of the issue, and be open to the idea that our understanding of slavery might be different than what the original author and audience would have understood slavery to be. So that leads into the second step; genuinely do your best to understand the author’s point of view on the issue at hand. For example, with slavery in mind, the Old Testament not only has a law against kidnapping, but says that kidnapping is punishable by death. Additionally, slaves had rights. To go even further, many slaves were permanently set free on a specific holiday that came every few years. I could go further, but even just from these three little pieces of information, we can already tell that their understanding of slavery is drastically different from our understanding of it. If we bring our presuppositions and biases to interpreting these passages, we will arrive at wildly wrong interpretations, because our previous understanding will affect our view.
This sort of thing is called an “anachronism”. For something to be anachronistic means that it doesn’t belong in that time period. It would be like someone from the past being shoved into our present day. They might be shocked that women are allowed so much freedom, and in conversation they might speak down to a woman. Someone from the present day and age might then accuse the person of having a very “anachronistic” way of looking at things, because their views don’t belong in the present time frame. Equally, when we try to understand the past, we can’t anachronistically drag our modern understandings into the task. Our views and biases don’t belong in the context of the ancient world, so we do our best to leave our presuppositions at the door, and try to understand the context of the people who wrote and read the books of the Bible.
In this sense, there are many things in the Bible that we will totally miss, simply because we’re not aware of things that would have been assumed by the original author and audience. These sorts of things would have “gone without saying”, because everyone would have known, so the author wouldn’t bother explaining it. As a silly little example, when you and your friends hang out, you likely have inside jokes. If someone were to listen in on you and your friends, they wouldn’t understand those bits of your conversation, but you would. If a new friend joins you that isn’t familiar with the inside joke, you would feel the need to fill them in on the relevant details, but otherwise, you wouldn’t bother. There are examples of this in the Bible, and we are so far removed from the context, that we miss it. In these cases, we need to study the history, culture, language, people, and places in order to try and catch everything that’s being said. As an example of this, John wrote to Laodecia, which was a city whose major commodities were eye ointments, and fine linens. When John writes to them, he insults them by calling them “blind and naked”. Now, because these were the sorts of things they were supposed to be famously good at, it would have been extra insulting to them. John’s comments would have shocked them, and made them think deeper about what he was saying. Basically, John was telling them, “hey, you think you’re the best dressed, and have the clearest vision? That might be true in the physical sense, but in reality, you’re the most blind and naked people around!” We wouldn’t catch this little nuance, unless we were more historically informed about their context.
Another quick example comes from Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey’s back, in what is referred to as His “triumphal entry”. During this time, the Jews had been waiting for the messiah, and especially during this time in particular they were really expecting the messiah to come soon. In fact, many false messiahs had tried to assert themselves. The Jews were expecting the messiah to be a conquering king, waging war against the evil Romans, to deliver the Jews from their oppression. Long story short, that’s not exactly what Jesus came to do. Jesus came to bring forgiveness, peace, and restoration in our relationship with God. So, when we understand that context of the expectation of a conquering king, and the reality of what Jesus came to do, it’s incredibly interesting to learn that, in their culture, the horse gave the imagery of war (think of war, they go into battles on horseback), while the donkey gave the imagery of peace, and nobility or royalty. So when Jesus entered into Jerusalem for His triumphal entry, it was quite fitting that He chose to ride in on a donkey, to symbolize what His purpose was. Just learning little tidbits of historical and cultural information like this can help us further appreciate what we find in the Bible.
So you might be thinking to yourself, yeah, these historical tidbits are interesting and helpful, but how could “I” ever find out these sorts of things? Well I’m glad you asked. This is the difficult part of study, but also one of the most interesting parts of the process. As I’ve mentioned before, this is where things like a study Bible, Bible dictionary, commentaries, and biblical encyclopedias can help a lot. In addition to these things, if you want to go even deeper, looking into other ancient texts can fill in your understanding, so that when you return to the Bible, you have even more context. So for example, Josephus was a Jewish historian during the first century who wrote about the history and culture during the time of Jesus and the New Testament, so he’s quite helpful in many ways. Reading ancient rabbinic literature, like the commentaries that the Jews did on the Old Testament can be helpful, thinks like the Mishnah. They were much closer to the context, so they can often aid us in understanding the original intent of the authors. The Royal Assyrian inscriptions can help us know more about the social situations in ancient Syria and Palestine, as well as Israel’s history. The Amarna Tablets can aid us in understanding the ancient Palestinian area right before the birth of Israel, which helps us know what sort of context Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were in. And the Ras Shamra texts can tell us more about Canaanite culture and religions, since they were quite big players in the world in parts of the Old Testament. As I’ve mentioned before, it can also be helpful to learn a bit of ancient Greek philosophy as well. For example, learning more about Gnosticism and Neoplatonism can illuminate different aspects of what is discussed in the New Testament. Studying Philo can be interesting, since he was basically trying to fuse Greek philosophy with Judaism, right around the time of Jesus.
As an example of this point about Greek philosophy, we can look to the first chapter of the Gospel of John. The book starts with, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. The Greek word for “Word” here is “Logos”. In Greek philosophy, different schools of thought had very deep philosophical ideas about what the “Logos” is. At times they thought of it as a force, or even a being. They likened it to fire, considered it eternal, the origin of the universe, and even divine. Another group during this time were the Gnostics. I won’t go into too much on them here, but one important thing for our purposes right now, is that they considered matter to be evil, and spirit to be good. They pitted the two against each other, at times even having a cosmic battle of the good god that created the spiritual world being at odds with the bad god that created the physical world. Some Greek philosophical thought held the view that humans should try to ascend past the physical world, at times even denying themselves physical pleasures, so that they can ascend into a further spiritual existence.
So when John’s introduction to his Gospel starts describing the Logos as being with God, and actually being God, the Greek and Roman audience would have been completely on board with what he was saying. Then, as John describes this Logos as becoming flesh, the divine stepping out of divinity to enter into being physical and human, in other words Jesus, the audience would have been disgusted. To them, this is the exact opposite of the way things should be. We fleshly physical things should be trying to ascend into the spiritual; the divine shouldn’t be stepping down into our existence! This is one of the reasons that the Gospel was considered “foolishness” to the Greeks. So by studying these ancient Greek philosophical traditions, we can further appreciate what John was trying to do, who he was writing to, and why exactly he wrote what he did.
Another great way to have the Bible become further illuminated to you by studying the historical context is to go through the apostolic fathers. We went through a little bit on them in a past episode of this podcast. Since they lived in the context that the New Testament was written, and in many cases they even knew the writers of the New Testament, reading them can give us very helpful insights into the context and interpretation of the New Testament books. That doesn’t mean they’re infallible, and always correct in their interpretations, but at the very least it’s incredibly helpful.
Now, hopefully I haven’t discouraged you by giving you too many things to look into. If this all sounds like too much, remember, having things like a study Bible, a good commentary on the book you’re reading, and a Bible dictionary like Holmon’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, can be immensely valuable. In many cases, the points brought up in these sorts of books come from the sources I just mentioned. Even just having a study Bible and reading the little comments can be illuminating, and, having that Bible dictionary on hand to look up words, ideas, people, and places you think are important, can make things even more interesting.
So in general, when you get a particular passage of Scripture you want to study, try to learn as much as you can about the context. What was the political climate of the area during the time it was written? When and where was it written? Who was it written by, and to whom was it written? Was it during the time that Israel was its own nation? Or was Israel in exile? Is Rome in control at this point? You will always get more out of the Bible every time you read it, and if you do the hard work of study, you can easily grasp a lot more in the Bible than you ever thought possible.
As we wrap up, here’s a quick reminder to download the PDF handout I made on how to study the Bible. It’s good to just keep with you, possibly as a bookmark in your Bible, to walk through the checklist to help keep you focused in your study.
Next time, we’ll be going into a similar aspect of reading the Bible, but instead of looking at the historical context, we’re going to be diving into the literary context. This is something a little more accessible for the average person, and can help us easily make sense of many difficult passages in the Bible. So I hope you’ll join me next time for literary context, on the Ultimate Questions Podcast, from Power to Change Students.