The Importance of Context
When I began this series, I really wasn’t intending to begin a series. However, I guess that is how matters occur in life.
This series began back in 2018 when I broad brushed certain interpretational issues such as literary genre. I came back later to discuss the interpretational issue of numbers in the biblical texts. In this episode, it seems beneficial to address the issue of context.
A popular T-shirt design that I have seen recently demonstrates just how important the issue of context is to the matter. Emblazoned on this shirt is a simple logo consisting of four words: Book, Chapter, Verse, Context. These four words should rule meaningful thought, especially Christian thought when it comes to the matter of Scripture.
In summarizing his introduction to his book, How Bible Stories Work: A Guided Study of Biblical Narrative (2015), Leland Ryken notes,
We can see from the Bible itself that it is a thoroughly literary book. God superintended its authors to write a very (though not wholly) literary book. (p.14)
Part of that literary element, or the genre of the text includes its context. But it’s not just the immediate context of the overall passage (ie contents), it’s the context of the overall book itself, as well as where it fits into the overall biblical narrative, as well as history in general, not to mention the social context of the writer.
I find myself repeating this often, but it is a good rule to remember: the Bible is not a singular text. Though we may often refer to the Bible as such by saying something along the lines of, “Well, the Bible says…,” those who—I believe—were charged by God through the process of inspiration to write, did not have in their minds any idea whatsoever that what they wrote would eventually be gathered up into a single volume along with 65 other works, translated into almost every known language and proliferated around the globe. The thought probably never even crossed their mind that anyone outside of their immediate context and following generation would even be interested in anything that they had to say. However, rarely a day goes by that I do not find myself perusing a passage, or considering the words written in texts that may go back some 3500 years, or even farther. It’s mind blowing, when you think about it.
But I digress…
So, when it comes to the matter at hand, the matter of context, what do we need to consider?
John D. Barry, in his introduction to the book The Bible in Its Ancient Context: 23 Fresh Insights(2014), notes,
“The Bible is … a historical … book. As a historical book, [it was] written for certain people in a certain time, the Bible is meant to be read in its context—discerned based on details of the period.
From those few sentences, we can discern that the books that comprise the Bible have, at least, two contexts aside from merely the issue of genre: the matter of historical context and social context. Some might argue that social context is a subset of historical context, and while that is true, for the purpose of this essay, we will treat it as a separate category.
Categories of Context
When dealing with context, we have to ask certain questions. As I set out in the first essay on this topic, we have to ask if a a text is being presented descriptively, that is is it being presented as a representation of mere facts, or is it being presented prescriptively, as something that people are supposed to do. Sometimes, even within texts that are clearly descriptive, there is present in the text a derivable prescription, because the text is presented to be an example. Similarly, texts that are presented as appearing to be prescriptive can often be merely descriptive. So, it requires paying specific attention, not only to what the text says, but also how other authors may refer to back to it later.
If we take the matter of context seriously, that is that we make understanding the context of the text itself first and foremost in our interpretational efforts, then the task of divining the meaning of the text—the true task of biblical interpretation as a scientific exercise—becomes easier. So what then are the distinctions between the historical context and the social context, if the latter is part of the former?
In order to distinguish between the two, we need to recognize that human history involves social interaction. And that within the context of social interaction is where human history occurs. Furthermore, human history records the facts of social interactions. So without understanding the social interactions, we cannot get a meaningful grasp on the overall picture of human history or how they connect. To that end we must recognize without the fact of one, we cannot understand the other.
Social context, therefore, should be understood as the relationship of people within their immediate cultural context related to the various institutions which comprise the structure of society. In the introduction of the book Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (2000), David de Silva points out,
“The potential for misunderstanding increases exponentially if [the] listener is communicating with someone from another culture, with different customs and even a different language.
He goes on to note,
“We need to recognize the cultural cues the authors have woven into their strategies and instructions. This enterprise prevents potential misreading of the texts.
In the book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien note,
“We can easily forget that Scripture is a foreign land and that reading the Bible is a crosscultural experience. To open the Word of God is to step into a strange world where things are very unlike our own. Most of us don’t speak the languages. We don’t know the geography or the customs or what behaviors are considered rude or polite.(p. 11)
All of these points taken together means that there is some suspension of specific cultural norms or particular moral judgements on various institutional features that exist within a particular society at a particular time given 2 very important factors: available light and application of principles. For example, there is often a rush on the part of some to condemn the issue of slavery as it is presented in the Bible because the immediate experience, or how the presentation and expectations placed upon women and men are presented, at least for Americans, because we have a particular..well…bent. However, as anyone who spends any time whatsoever carefully reading and thinking through the issue, one cannot meaningfully compare the two without ignoring certain facts (see my discussions here and here). Social context helps us to see what is important at the ground level of the writer. Another example of social context in regard to biblical texts would be the social interactions between specific groups and the reasoning for those interactions.
Historical context the should be understood as the general setting of events or facts prior to, during, and following an event. While historical context includes matters of social context it is more concerned with simple events in order. for example the social context detailing the hostilities between the Jews and Samaritans would necessarily include describing those instances wherein the Jews and Samaritans would attack and kill one another. However, simply knowing the facts of the matter—either historically or socially—doesn’t always resolve the problems.
Problems of Application
When we approach the issue of context, we run into several problems that need to be addressed. Again, these problems can arise because of false assumptions about the biblical text itself that goes back to other beliefs.
As I wrote before on the issue of inspiration,
“…I have come to the conclusion that many modern believers ask entirely too much of the Bible, and that they feel that for Scripture to be true that it has to be exhaustive in its applicability. (emphasis original)
When we look not just at the Bible as a whole, but also at the individual books, we cannot help but detect an editorial hand that is crafting the narrative. We have no reason to believe that the books as they are presented in the current (Protestant) canon were written in that orderRather we recognize that the order itself is a human construction. This is especially true when we get into books themselves—like the Pentateuch or the Gospels) and we see writers referring to previous events or expanding upon them, or contracting them, or even omitting them.
We take for granted—especially in this new, digital age—that I can potentially write a 3,000 page novel in virtual form or in print and this be incredibly cheap. We don’t consider the fact that paper wasn’t as abundant or cheap and that writers had to really think through their arguments or what they wanted to record. So, you may have a single writer refer to an event that was well known to the people of their time that left no other evidence of it’s occurance. Or a writer may tell us of a particular event in a glowing manner that we—being sophisticated moderns—would disdain as barbaric, but was completely socially acceptable given the social context that the writer doesn’t bother to explain but merely accepts as the normal and good.
Doing biblical interpretation right means using your head, as well as the wide variety of sources available to us in this day and age, and not relying upon your own understanding of facts.
What am I not saying here?
I am not saying that the Bible is incomprehensible. What I am saying is that rather than jumping to conclusions about what something means, believers have a responsibility to arm themselves with the best possible information and tools so that they understand what it is that they’re taking about. That’s what it means to do biblical interpretation right.