Reading The Bible Better - Lesson 6

Historical Context

In this lesson, you gain an understanding of the significance of historical context in interpreting the Bible. You learn about the importance of cultural, social, and geographical backgrounds when reading the Bible, and how these factors influence the meaning of the text. You explore ancient literary genres and conventions, as well as the role of archaeology in understanding the historical context of the Bible. Finally, you discover how to apply this knowledge to read the Bible as an ancient text, bridging the gap between then and now and avoiding misinterpretations.

George Guthrie
Reading The Bible Better
Lesson 6
Watching Now
Historical Context

TH102-06: Historical Context

I. Importance of Historical Context in Biblical Interpretation

A. Definition of Historical Context

B. Why Historical Context Matters

II. Cultural, Social, and Geographical Backgrounds

A. Cultural Background

B. Social Background

C. Geographical Background

III. Understanding Ancient Texts and Their Context

A. Literary Genres and Conventions

B. Historical-Cultural Analysis

C. The Role of Archaeology

IV. Applying Historical Context to Biblical Interpretation

A. Reading the Bible as an Ancient Text

B. Bridging the Gap between Then and Now

C. Avoiding Misinterpretations

  • Dive into this lesson to gain a deep understanding of how to read the Bible better, focusing on hearing scripture accurately, personal transformation, the grand story, and reading in community, while fostering a sense of joy and wonder in your journey.
  • Discover the power of words, their impact on our lives, and how God's words and communication in the Bible provide guidance, shaping us to live with purpose and spiritual growth.
  • Being receptive to what God is saying to you in the Bible is an important part of reading the Bible better. The parable of the sower gives you a word picture of obstacles you face in attempting to cultivate a receptive heart.
  • By embracing receptivity, you can overcome barriers and enhance your understanding of the Bible, ultimately leading to personal growth, stronger relationships, and deepened faith.
  • In this lesson, you learn about literary context's importance in interpreting the Bible, identifying literary genres and structures, and applying context for accurate exegesis and application.
  • By understanding historical context, you can better interpret the Bible, considering cultural, social, and geographical backgrounds, ancient literary genres, and archaeology to bridge the gap between the past and present.
  • This lesson provides you with knowledge on the importance of Bible translations, their types, and the criteria for selecting the most suitable one for your needs while also offering insights into their historical development.
  • You will learn to identify and interpret various biblical genres, enhancing your understanding of the Bible and applying its teachings more effectively in your life.
  • By entering the story when reading the Bible, you enrich your understanding, connect with biblical characters, and foster personal spiritual growth, Bible study, and teaching skills.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into biblical interpretation principles, like context and genre, and explore essential tools such as translations and commentaries, leading to better understanding and application of the Bible.
You and I need to embrace the powerful, beautiful, life-giving words of God on a regular basis. Various surveys in different cultures, over the past half century, have determined that the number one predictor of a person’s spiritual health is the regular practice of personal Bible reading. Nothing else comes close. If our purpose in life is to live for him and to his glory, and the Scriptures shape us for his mission, then God’s Word provides us with a means to that very desirable end. Everything else in our lives is shaped by whether or not we are living out of a life grounded in the Word of God, the Bible. We need to read it and read it better than we ever have before, so that we can live it well. As we thrive in the Word of God, knowing and living the Scriptures, we have the opportunity to walk with the God of the universe. So you are invited to walk with me as we figure out how to read better this amazing book we call “the Bible.” Perhaps you have tried reading the Bible before and the experience wasn’t that great. I am here to help. There is no more important task in life than hearing from God and trusting him on the basis of his Word.

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Historical Context

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] Now, as we continue our study of context, we want to look at the historical context and the cultural context. So let's begin with historical context. [00:00:09][8.5]

[00:00:10] Historical context has to do with the historical events in the biblical era, either events recorded in the pages of Scripture or events that form the backdrop for the biblical story. So Nick Perrin has actually commented on the importance of history for us as Christians, and he says this, We should be grateful because God made history and history matters. Apart from the conviction that our faith is a historical faith, we are left only to cast about. But when we are fully persuaded that sacred history meshes with the history in which we live and move and have our being, that is when biblical faith becomes a real possibility. Now, another way of saying that is that God has worked in real ways with real people in the real world. And when you start connecting that and you realize the stuff that's going on in the Bible has a connection to us in the real world, it begins to change you. This is not just about some pie in the sky religious stuff. This is what God has done in real history. [00:01:22][72.2]

[00:01:23] I remember a few years ago I went to Capernaum in Galilee and I went to the synagogue where Jesus taught. Now there's a synagogue from the third and fourth century A.D. that is on the site now. But you can look and you can see the basalt, the black foundation of the synagogue in which Jesus taught and actually go up and put your hand on the rocks that were there in the foundation in which Jesus taught. And boy, that connects you with the reality of what we're dealing with, that God has stepped into real history. [00:02:00][37.0]

[00:02:01] So one of the things that we want to do is we read the Bible is tune into historical dynamics that help us to read the Bible more effectively. So let's look at a couple of passages and just talk about historical context in two different ways. First, history within the Bible and then history kind of as a backdrop for the Bible. You look at a passage like Second Samuel Chapter six, and I have to admit, this passage bothered me for a while, and I have a feeling it might bother you too. Look at what this passage says. David again assembled all the fit young men in Israel 30,000, and he and all his troops set out to bring the Ark of God from Baal-Judah. And the Ark bears the name, speaking about the name of God, the name of the Lord of Armies, who is enthroned between the cherubim. And they set the Ark of God on a new cart and transported it from Abinadab's house, which was on the Hill and Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab were guiding the cart and brought it with the Ark of God from Abinadab's house on the hill. Ahio walked in front of the ark. Now you get the picture. So far, basically what David's doing is he's having a military parade that is celebrating bringing the ark to Jerusalem. It says David and the whole house of Israel, dancing before the Lord with all kinds of fur, wood, instruments, liars, harps, tambourines, castanets and cymbals. And they came to Nacon's threshing floor. Uzzah reached out to the Ark of God and took hold of it because the oxen had stumbled. And then the Lord's anger burned against Uzzah, and God struck him dead on the spot for his irreverence. And he died there next to the Ark of God. And David was angry because of the Lord's outburst against us. So he named the place outburst against us. Now, they weren't real creative, oftentimes in the Bible with names, but, you know, outburst against us. It was the name of the place after this. [00:04:15][133.9]

[00:04:15] Now, how do you respond? What is your reaction to that story? Well, we're kind of bothered by it a bit because we think, look, Uzzah was just trying to keep the ark from tumbling off of the cart. But if we read that story in the bigger picture of Israelite history, it makes a lot more sense. So let me point you to a couple of other passages from that history. If we read Numbers chapter four, which gives the guidelines for how the different articles of God were to be handled by the priest, it really puts the passage in Samuel in perspective. Notice this passage from Numbers chapter four verses 4-6. The service Kohath at the tent of meeting concerns the most holy objects. Whenever the camp is about to move on, Aaron and his sons are to go in, take down the screening curtain and cover the ark of the testimony with it. They are to place over this a covering made of fine leather, spread a solid blue cloth on top and insert its poles. Now, this is the tabernacle. This was kind of a worship center for the Israelites in the wilderness, and God had given very specific directions on how it was to be set up and how the different articles were to be handled and related to the Ark, which comes into our story in Samuel. The directions say that the Ark is to be covered with a curtain. It's to have a covering of leather over it. And then there were poles that were put through these little rings for the cover for the carrying of the ark by the priests. So they were to carry the ark, not put it on a cart. And then look at the rest of the passage. Aaron and his sons are finished covering the holy objects and all their equipment whenever the camp is to move on and the Kohathites will come and carry them. So the priests were to be carrying these items, but they are not to touch the holy objects or they will die. These are the transportation duties of the Kohathites regarding the tent of meeting. [00:06:30][134.6]

[00:06:31] So when you read the story in Samuel, in light of the bigger story of Israel, it tells you why Uzzah died in that place. Well, why does he die? Well, because David did not know the law. The problem was that he was not paying attention to the details of the law. In fact, if you continue reading the biblical story at this point, you find that David eventually does move the ark to Jerusalem. But he goes back and he has the law studied so that they move the the the Ark of the Covenant, appropriately. So a kind of tuning into that broader history really helps us with understanding what is going on. [00:07:17][46.3]

[00:07:18] Let me give you one other example here. In Matthew chapter 24, verses one and two, this is a time when Jesus and the disciples are going out of the temple complex, and there they're talking about the big, impressive buildings of the temple. It says, As Jesus left and was going out of the temple, his disciples came up and called his attention to its buildings and he replied to them, Do you see all of these things? Truly, I tell you, not one stone will be left here on another that will not be thrown down. Now, that was a prophecy from Jesus about a particular event that would happen in A.D. 70. So about 40 years after the time that Jesus said these words, Jerusalem would be destroyed by the Romans and they would destroy the temple. [00:08:07][49.7]

[00:08:08] Another passage in Luke 23:27-31 gives another perspective on this. Jesus is actually on his way to the cross. He is carrying the cross through the streets of Jerusalem and is on the way to being crucified right outside of the city. And as he's going, there are people who are weeping. The women are weeping for him. And he turns to these women and he says, Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and your children. Look, the days are coming when they will say, blessed are the women without children, the wombs that never bore and the breast that never have nursed. And then they will begin to say to the mountains, fall on us into the hills, cover us for if they do these things, when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry? Well, what did Jesus mean when he said, Don't weep for me, weep for yourselves and your children again, Prophesying about the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple by the Romans in A.D. 70? Well, we know from history that what happened in that event is it got so bad toward the end that there were Jewish freedom fighters trapped in a part of the city, and they would try to get out because a lot of people were starving to death, literally falling down, dead because of starvation. And every day, hundreds of people would try to escape from being trapped and would be captured by the Romans. [00:09:42][93.7]

[00:09:43] One of the historians of the period, a guy named Josephus, said if the person who was escaping was captured by the Romans and was a woman, the Romans would cut off her hands and send her back into the city if the person was a man. They. Crucified him. And by the end of the war, there were people crucified all over the broken walls around Jerusalem. And Josephus says that the hills around Jerusalem, were filled with crosses, with people being crucified on those crosses. Now, that doesn't change the meaning when we read the Matthew Passage or the Luke Passage. Jesus is making a prophecy there about something bad that's going to happen in the future. But understanding a little bit about the historical backdrop really kind of gives a punch to it because it tells us how that prophecy was fulfilled in this case. And Jesus, his words came true at that point. So understanding the historical context and the backdrop sometimes can refer to trying to do our best to understand what happened behind the text. Now, that's not the same as the Bible. The biblical text itself is our authority. But sometimes understanding the broader context can help. [00:11:01][78.3]

[00:11:02] Now let's turn to another type of context, and that is cultural context. When we think about the cultural context, that has to do with attitudes, patterns of behavior, or expressions of a particular society which affect our understanding of a passage. Now, I love thinking about culture and cultural context because cultures are so interesting and we have different patterns in our culture that are really interesting. My wife and I have spent a good bit of time in Great Britain and we really love all the little details that are different. For instance, the British, instead of calling something a cookie, which we will call a my wife will bake cookies, they'll talk about those as biscuits. Instead of fries, French fries, they are chips. And there are all these little cultural nuances that are different. One day my wife was out with a group of other women and their children. They had gone to a historical site and as they were all out having a wonderful time together, our friend Mariam had a child who got sick. And so Mariam had some medicine with her, but she didn't have one of those little plastic medicine spoons. And so she asked if anyone had one. Pat had one, so she loaned it to her. She kind of put the medicine in the spoon, gave it to her child, and then she turned to her other child. And Mariam said to that child, Dear, go swish this out in the toilet. Well, you might have noticed that earlier in our sessions together, I referred to the toilet as what we would call the restroom or the bathroom or something like that. That's actually a British way of using the term toilet in Great Britain. If somebody talks about needing to go to the toilet or asking where the toilet is, they're asking about the room where you go and you wash your hands and do all that stuff. But if you are an American, probably when I said, Dear, go swish that out in the toilet, what came to your mind was the image of the actual bowl itself or what we would call the toilet, because in American culture that word is normally used not to speak about the room, it's used to speak about the kind of fixture that is there in that room. Well, that is a cultural difference. And thinking about cultural differences is really a lot of fun. [00:13:32][150.0]

[00:13:33] When you talk about barbecue, for instance, it depends on where you are. If I'm in Tennessee, barbecue is pulled pork. If I go and have barbecue with my in-laws in South Texas, I'm probably eating beef brisket. And my father in law makes the best beef barbecue you ever put in your mouth. It just melts in your mouth. So different kinds of terminology are going to depend on the specific cultural context in which we find ourselves. And that's the same thing that happens as we look at the Bible. There are cultural dynamics in play a lot of times when we read a passage. [00:14:10][37.7]

[00:14:11] So you take a simple passage like Jesus words in Matthew chapter five, verse 41, And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Now, when we read that in our cultural context, we might just have something come to mind where a friend is saying, you know, come on, go for a walk with me, and you don't really want to go for a walk, but you're thinking, Well, Jesus said, don't just go for a mile, go for two miles with the person. But the cultural context of this passage really matters because it is it's referring to a specific, onerous, difficult situation that certain Jews found themselves in under Roman occupation. It was a practice called impressment, and impressment was a situation where a soldier could pull a civilian off the street and say, You you come here and you carry my gear for a mile. And legally, they the Roman soldier had the right to do that because Israel at that time was an occupied territory. So when Jesus said that, what he was saying to his audience is, look, I know it's difficult when the Romans forced you to do this, but a kingdom person shouldn't just go one mile, they ought to go an extra mile. [00:15:31][80.0]

[00:15:32] Now, as we think about application of that, then we might begin to think about what are very difficult situations that we find ourselves in. When someone is asking us to do something that is their legal right, but we just don't want to do it, well, a kingdom person at times says for the for the witness of the kingdom, maybe what I need to do is not only do what they're asking, but do even more than they're asking, because that will make them stop and ask, okay, why is this person responding this way? All right. So that's an example of cultural context. [00:16:03][30.8]

[00:16:03] Let me give you one other. Think about the story of the prodigal son. It's one of the most dynamic stories that we have in the Bible. This is found in Luke chapter 15. It's in a section where Jesus is giving different parables that talk about things that are lost. If you go back and you read the broader context of this passage, then what you find is it's in a whole section where Jesus is talking about lost things and he's talking to kind of religious elites who are saying, you've got to be following the law and that kind of thing. And Jesus is saying to them, Look, it's actually lost things and lost people that God is interested in. And so this story tells about a son who is coming to his father at the beginning of the story, and he's demanding his inheritance early and the father graciously goes ahead and gives the son his share of the inheritance. The son goes off to a foreign land, spends all his money wasted on riotous living, comes but then comes to a place where he's hungry and he says, Look, I could live as a servant in my father's house better than I'm living here. So I'll go back and I'll say this, Look at what the passage says. When he came to his senses, he said, How many of my father's hired workers have more than enough food and here I am dying of hunger. I'll get up. Go to my father and I'll say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven. And in your side, I'm no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired workers. So he got up and he went to his father. But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. And he ran and threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I'm no longer worthy to be called your son. And notice that he he doesn't even get to the part about I'll be one of your hard workers. The father cuts him off at this point and tells the servants, Go get a ring put on his finger. We're going to have a party. Because my son, who was lost, has been found. [00:18:24][140.7]

[00:18:25] Now, one of the striking things about this passage is a little cultural element you may not notice, and that is the father running to the son. Because in the culture at this time in which this story is being told, fathers of the family, the patriarch of the family did not run anywhere in public. They were distinguished. They were supposed to be people who were very reserved when people needed to sort out reconciliation with the patriarch of the family. They went and humbled themselves to the patriarch of the family, and the patriarch would sit and let them come to him, showing his authority. [00:19:05][39.7]

[00:19:06] But what is awesome in this passage is this father gets up and runs to his son. And what Jesus is illustrating at this point is the elaborate, extravagant compassion and grace of God. That God, when a person is lost, God doesn't just sit back and just kind of in a reserved fashion and say, Well, you'll come to me when you get ready. God runs to us in his mercy and embraces us in the Gospel. And if you understand just that little cultural element, it makes this story even more powerful because you see it as an image of God reaching out to us in grace and mercy, which is exactly what he's done in coming to Earth in the person of his son, Jesus Christ. [00:19:57][51.7]

[00:19:58] Well, there are many other types of cultural examples that we could give, but I think what I want to do is turn to resources and just talk for a minute about some of the things that can help you with both historical and cultural context. Now, we've already talked about study Bibles and Bible dictionaries. Those tools can help you with historical and cultural context. For instance, a study Bible will, in its notes, oftentimes give you historical information or give you information about a cultural dynamic. But interestingly, today, there are commentaries that are specific in dealing with history and culture. So Craig Keener's commentary, the IVP Bible background commentary is a good example of that. [00:20:51][53.2]

[00:20:52] Now, you may ask, what's the difference between a commentary and a study Bible? Well, a study Bible normally is going to cover the whole Bible and its notes, and its information are going to be at the bottom of the page in footnotes as you work your way through a Bible. A commentary is going to be much more detailed because there's a lot more space. And normally what a background commentary is going to do is it may also cover the whole Bible, but you don't have the text of the Scripture there. It's just going to give you the references where you can look up a passage in the commentary and it will comment on a particular historical or cultural dynamic. You also have a Zondervan Bible backgrounds commentary that Zondervan illustrated Bible backgrounds, commentary, and a lot of different scholars participated in this. I did the section on Hebrews in that commentary set, and then the Baker Illustrated Bible background commentary is another one that has been put out by Baker Publishers. I did Second Corinthians actually in that tool. But the point is that these tools are helpful because what they do is they don't deal with a lot of other kinds of dynamics. They focus on history and culture and help us have a much richer understanding of what is going on in the text. [00:22:18][86.2]

[00:22:19] Now, I want you to finish this section by thinking about your own context, because we all are influenced in our reading of the Bible by our own cultural situation. I remember years ago I was at a professional meeting and I was rooming with a friend of mine, and I was having to get up to go to a very early breakfast. He was still asleep. So I got up in the dark, fumbled around, put my glasses on, and as I got up to go to the to the bathroom, I suddenly was disoriented and I thought, what in the world is going on? But I went ahead and got dressed and I left the room, started down the hall, and again I was hit with disorientation and a bit of dizziness, and I thought, Wow, am I sick? Do I have a brain tumor?I didn't know what was going on. But as I came down to the elevator and rounded the corner and I looked, the elevator had a full mirror on the outside of the elevator and something didn't look quite right. As I was walking up to the elevator, my glasses were the same shape that they had been, but they had change color. And what I'd actually done is when I got up in the morning, I reached over and I picked up my friend's glasses rather than mine, and his prescription blurred what I was seeing. And once I went back and got my glasses, everything was fine. We all have a set of glasses that we wear from our own cultures that influence how we read the Bible. [00:23:52][93.1]

[00:23:53] Now, one of the reasons why we need to study the cultural context of the Bible and make sure that we're hearing it accurately is because then the message of the Bible can push against and even correct our cultural misunderstandings at times as we read the text. Let me give you one example of how this worked in a particular situation. Mark Allen Powell used that story with a group of students of the prodigal son, and there were Americans and Russians and there were Tanzanians in the class. And he polled them and said, From your reading of the text, what's the most important aspect of this text? In Among the Americans, 100% read that story and heard the part about the son squandering his money. Only 6% observed that there was a famine and that the famine was somehow important. The Russians, 34% of them mentioned the squandering of money, only 34% and 84% heard there was a famine because they had been raised in a culture that had experienced a lot of famine. The Tanzanians read the same passage, and those students saw the major issue as a lack of help for the stranger in a foreign land. Isn't that interesting that you had people from different cultural contexts who read that same passage and yet saw different things emphasized. Now, what this means is that we need to learn to recognize that we have kind of cultural predispositions as we read the Bible, and we need to learn to read the Bible better so that we're hearing it accurately. And then the truth of Scripture is able to address us in our cultural situation. [00:25:54][121.4]

[00:25:56] So that's a bit about reading the Bible in context. We saw a literary context in the last section. Historical context and cultural context in this session. And now we're going to move on and we're going to talk about another really interesting aspect of reading the Bible, and that's reading the Bible in translation. And we'll deal with that and our next session together. [00:26:19][23.8]

[00:26:21] When we read the Bible, there are different passages or events that are described that are disturbing to us because of our cultural context. So how do we respond to that? [00:26:34][13.1]

[00:26:35] Yeah, that is a great question. I mean, one example would be you take the warfare that you have in the Scriptures, even in the Psalms at times. One of the lament Psalms talks about the Babylonians and saying, you know, I wish their babies would have their heads bashed against the rocks or something like that. That's a really disturbing kind of idea. But we have to have to start with a couple of things there. [00:27:05][30.0]

[00:27:05] First of all, we tend to think that our modern culture is the epitome of the ages. You know, that that we we have clarity on things in ways that people never have. The fact is the 20th century was the bloodiest century in world history. More people were killed and murdered there. If you talk to people who were involved in the Vietnam War, for instance, the savagery and the brutality was multiplied because of the technology that was used to to destroy people's lives. And so we can sit back from an arrogant standpoint and comment on, well, this stuff all seems very brutal, but there are actually loads of examples of the same kind of thing because it's a part of human nature, Right? The fact is what God is doing is God is speaking into the real world where you have these real human problems and God is bringing truth to those human problems. What we need to tune into the fact is that revelation, this concept that God has revealed truth into the real world is vital, because if he has done that in particular places and times and ways, it's so important that we hear what God said in that context and to comment on things like war and stuff like that in order to then think, okay, what are the implications for my context today? It's not us from our brilliance as moderns judging the text. We need to hear what God has said in the text to bring a judgment on kind of how we're thinking. [00:28:46][100.2]

[00:28:47] The text cannot mean what it never meant. It's not our job to update the text to bring it in line with kind of modern sensitivities. We have got to get back to understand what the text meant in its original context so that it can, with authority, speak into our modern situations. And I think it's really, really important that we have that perspective. What you find is that the Bible is amazingly diverse and beautiful and nuanced in the way that it deals with all kinds of difficult issues. The kinds of readings that just kind of dismiss the Bible as being primitive or naive, they have not studied enough to read the Bible well, and we need to kind of move beyond that by learning to read it better. [00:28:47][0.0]