One of the most important aspects of trying to understand an ancient book is to get a good feel for the context in which it was written. There is the historical context, which is the culture, people, and places mentioned; and then there’s the literary context, which are things like where your passage is found in the book, what the literary genre is, and different language elements like repetition.
Today, we’re going to focus in on the historical context.
how not to read the bible
In many cases, we have been encouraged to be as creative as possible in English classes, trying to come up with new ideas in terms of what a book can mean “to me”. This is not a method we want to use when reading the Bible We’re not trying to come up with a unique interpretation that does violence to the meaning of the text. Here’s a good quote about this issue in 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)."
so how should i read the bible?
That raises another issue. We all tend to bring our biases and presuppositions to the biblical text. We all have different opinions, experiences, beliefs, and biases. Even our knowledge, or lack of knowledge, influences how we view things. Our goal is to approach the text as the original author and audience would have. To do this, we need to recognize that our own biases and opinions might affect how we want to interpret Scripture.
Some people will argue that there is no need for hermeneutics (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. Now, in a sense that’s true, because the Bible is amazing, and just sitting down and reading it is in itself a good thing to do. However, if we don’t actually put in the effort of trying to study the Bible to the best of our ability, 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. **
This is because the Bible was not originally written to us. The authors had no knowledge of our culture and were not speaking into it. They were speaking into theirs. If we want to understand what they wrote, we first need to understand them.
slavery in the bible
For instance, when we read the passages on slavery, our biases and our modern understanding of slavery play a huge part on how we understand these verses. We need to recognize that our understanding of the issue might not be that of the original audience.
When it comes to slavery, the Old Testament not only has a law against kidnapping, but says that kidnapping is punishable by death. It also describes the rights of slaves and stipulates that certain slaves were to be set free on a specific holiday that came every few years. I could go further, but even from these three little pieces of information, we can tell that their understanding of slavery is quite different from ours. If we bring our presuppositions and biases to these passages, we will arrive at wildly wrong interpretations.
The practice of importing our values into ancient texts is called “anachronism”. Something is anachronistic when it doesn’t belong in that time period. 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 it is best to leave our presuppositions at the door and try to understand the context of the people who wrote the books of the Bible.
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. We need to study the history, culture, language, people, and geography of Bible times in order to better understand what is being said. For instance, John wrote to Laodecia, 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”. 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.
how other historical texts help to understand the bible
This is the difficult part of study, but also one of the most interesting parts of the process. As I’ve mentioned before, a study Bible, a Bible dictionary, commentaries, and biblical encyclopedias can help a lot. As well, looking into other texts from that time period can improve your understanding of the culture so that when you turn to the Bible, you have even more contextual knowledge.
For example, Josephus was a Jewish historian of the first century who wrote about the history and culture during the time of Jesus and the New Testament. His writings are quite helpful in many ways. Reading ancient rabbinic literature can be helpful. The Royal Assyrian inscriptions can help us know more about the social situations in ancient Syria and Palestine during Israel’s history. The Amarna Tablets can aid us in understanding the ancient Palestinian area right before the birth of Israel. 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 also be interesting, since he was basically trying to fuse Greek philosophy with Judaism right around the time of Jesus.
By improving our knowledge of the culture and beliefs of the time, we can better understand how texts would have been first received. For instance, 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 understood what he was saying because he was using a philosophical term of the day. Then, as John describes this Logos becoming flesh, the divine stepping out of divinity to become human, the audience might have been disgusted or perplexed if they shared the gnostic belief that the material world is bad. 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.
how the apostolic fathers help to understand the bible
Another great way to better understand the historical context is to read the Apostolic Fathers, since they lived shortly after the New Testament was written, and in many cases even knew the writers of the New Testament. That doesn’t mean they’re infallible and always correct in their interpretations, but at the very least it’s incredibly helpful to gain an idea of how that generation understood and used the Scriptures.
If this all sounds like too much, remember, having resources like these can be immensley valuable for new students of the Word:
- a study Bible
- a good commentary
- a Bible dictionary like Holman’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary
In conclusion, when you want to study a particular passage, 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 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.