Anyone interested in Bible study, from the new believer to the biblical scholar, has heard (and probably said) that if you want to correctly interpret the Bible, you have to interpret it in context. I’m certainly not going to disagree. But I have a question: What does that mean? Put another way, just what context are we talking about?
There are many contexts to which an interpreter needs to pay attention. Historical context situates a passage in a specific time period against the backdrop of certain events. Cultural context concerns the way people lived and how they thought about their lives and their world. Literary context focuses on how a given piece of biblical literature conforms (or not) to how the same type of literature was written during biblical times. All of these are important—but they only flirt with the heart of the matter. There’s a pretty clear element to this “context talk” that we’re missing. It’s time to get a firm grasp on something obvious. Believe it or not, it took years of study before I had it fixed in my head and my heart.
The Bible’s true context
As Christians, whether consciously or otherwise, we’ve been trained to think that the history of Christianity is the true context for interpreting the Bible. It isn’t.
That might be hard to hear, but Christian history and Christian thought is not the context of the biblical writers, and so it cannot be the correct context for interpreting what they wrote. The proper context for interpreting the Bible is not the church fathers. They lived a thousand years or more after most of the Old Testament was written. Less than a half dozen of them could read Hebrew. The New Testament period was a century or more removed from important early theologians like Tertullian and Irenaeus. Augustine, arguably the most famous early church figure, lived three hundred years after the conversion of Paul. That’s more time than has elapsed since the founding of the United States. Many church fathers worked primarily with a translation (the Latin Vulgate), and so a good bit of their exegesis is translation-driven. They were also responding to the intellectual issues of their own world when they wrote about Scripture, not looking back to the biblical context.
The farther down the timeline of history one moves, the greater the contextual gap becomes. The context for interpreting the biblical text is not the Catholic Church. It is not the rabbinic movements of late antiquity and the Middle Ages. It is not the Reformation (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, or the Anabaptists). It’s not the Puritans. It is not evangelicalism in any of its flavors. It is not the modern world at all.
So what is the proper context for interpreting the Bible? Here’s the transparently obvious truth I was talking about: The proper context for interpreting the Bible is the context of the biblical writers—the context that produced the Bible. Every other context is alien or at least secondary.
The biblical writers living in our heads
The biblical text was produced by men who lived in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean between the second millennium BC and the first century AD. To understand how biblical writers thought, we need to tap into that context. We need the biblical writers living in our heads.
As certain as this observation is, there is a pervasive tendency in the believing Church to filter the Bible through creeds, confessions, and denominational preferences. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a human thing. Creeds are useful for distilling important points of theology. But they are far from the whole counsel of God, and even farther from the biblical world. This is something to be aware of at all times.
Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not arguing that we should ignore our Christian forefathers. I’m also not saying that we’re smarter. They were prodigious intellects. The problem isn’t their brain power—it’s that they are simply removed from the world of the biblical writers with little chance of bridging that gap.
Putting context first
It might sound odd, but we’re actually in a better position than any of our spiritual forefathers in that respect. We live at a time when the languages of the major civilizations that flourished during the lifetimes of the biblical writers have been deciphered. We can tap into the intellectual and cultural output of those civilizations. That output is enormous—millions of words. We can recover the worldview context (their “cognitive framework” in scholar-speak) of the biblical writers as never before. The same is true of the New Testament writers because they inherited what had gone before them and were in turn part of a first century world two thousand years removed from us.
Think about it. How would anyone living a thousand years from now understand something you wrote unless they had you inside their head? They’d need your frame of reference. They’d need to know what was going on in the wider world that potentially concerned, angered, encouraged, or depressed you. They’d need to understand the pop culture of your day to be able to parse why you’re using this word and not that one, or to properly process an expression. There’s no way to do that unless they recover your frame of reference.
That is what it means to interpret in context.
I know firsthand this is a hard lesson. It isn’t easy to put the biblical context ahead of our traditions. But if we don’t do that, we ought to stop talking about how important it is to interpret the Bible in context lest we be hypocrites. I can honestly say that the day I decided to commit myself to framing my study of Scripture in the context of the biblical world instead of any modern substitute was a day of liberation. It’s what put me on a path to reading the Bible again—for the first time. You can do that, too. Don’t believe me? Stay tuned.
Be sure to check back every Friday for another unfiltered insight from Dr. Michael Heiser.
Get a thorough introduction to interpreting the Bible in context with Dr. Heiser’s Mobile Ed course: BI 101 Introducing Biblical Interpretation: Contexts and Resources.