I recently had good friend move as far away as he could without leaving the country. I live in Spokane, Washington, the upper left corner of the United States. My friend moved to North Carolina, the lower(ish) right corner of the United States. Needless to say, I was bummed. Why? Because there is so much distance between us. It’s hard for me to understand his context, and I’m worried we will lose touch.As a matter of fact, I’ve never been to the south. The only bit of southern culture I’ve acquired is what I’ve picked up from movies, which is probably wildly inaccurate. My lack of immediate context further contributes to our distance. Nonetheless, we try to keep in touch. Our families FaceTimed the other week, which provided some context. We were able to see where they lived, how much the kids had grown, etc., and they too were able to see what was going on in our lives.
Although an imperfect comparison to be sure, something similar occurs when we are reading the scriptures, which were written somewhere from 2,000 to 3,400 hundred years ago (depending on what book of the Bible you are looking at). Traditional opinion supposes Moses created much of the content in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and he lived around 1,400 BC. Whew! That’s a while ago. The historically closest book is likely Revelation, written around 90 AD, or approximately two-thousand years ago. Either way, we are far removed from the context of the original audience, thus occasionally necessitating some digging in order to understand what the author intended to convey.
So what exactly is historical context? This phrase refers to the cultural setting in which the original recipients lived. Take Ephesians, for example. Paul penned this work during the first century when Rome was in power. The context of this letter is quite different than, say, Isaiah, which was written during the 8th and 7th centuries BC when rival empires (not the Romans) were threatening Israel. Each book exhibits historical particularity – it was written during a specific time, language and culture, and, in some cases, was shared orally prior to being recorded.
Exegesis is a fancy word for a pretty straightforward principle. This task is mainly historical, and requires a bit more background than literary context, which you can read about in a previous post. Exegesis is discovering how the original audience would have understood a text. Exegesis is acknowledging a text cannot mean something that would have been incomprehensible to the original audience. This sounds straightforward enough, but this is where people get caught up. We project our own context, presuppositions and experiences on the text rather than allowing the text to speak for itself. We tend to approach a text knowing what we want it to say. Historical context and exegesis prevent or at least reduce this from occurring.
A text cannot mean something that would have been incomprehensible to the original audience.
WHEN IT’S APPLICABLE
Must everyone be an Acient Near East history buff in order to read scripture? Certainly not. I would suggest in many ways God presented scripture in a straightforward, understandable manner that transcends cultural barriers. However, in other ways, it is necessary to have some background information. A good rule of thumb is to pursue additional information when there is a possible conflict between them and us.
Here’s what I mean. Timeless moral principles generally don’t require any additional information to understand. Love the Lord your God…Love your neighbor as yourself is easily understood by anyone. On the other hand, Deuteronomy 22:8 instructs the Iraelites to build parapets around the roof of their houses. What? And, why? This is more difficult for us to understand, and requires some historical context. Oh, and if you are wondering about Old Testmanet law in general, I have a post about that too. Check it out here.
When you understand visitors often stayed on the roof during this period of history (something foreign to us), this immediately lends clarity to the matter. God was enacting a common sense rule to protect his people. This small bit of historical context allows us to understand why this was said, and, more importantly, if it’s applicable to us. It isn’t directly, but the principle behind this law seems paradigmatic. Look out for the welfare of others. We apply a version of this law to modern building codes. It’s amazing to consider the details with which God cared for his people.
There is such a thing as a text that isn’t directly applicable to 21st century Christians. You can term these “culturally relative,” meaning, it was only applicable to the original audience. Many of the OT laws illustrate this principle well. The sacrificial system is a great example of a culturally relative set of laws that are not applicable to 21st century Christians. We are not ancient Israel, and therefore needn’t follow these precepts. These ceremonial laws were clearly fulfilled by Jesus Christ.
However, there is a huge caution with cultural relativity. This isn’t a license to discard scripture we don’t like or that contemporary culture doesn’t agree with. We must first understand what it meant to the original audience in order to understand what it means to us. If we understand sacrificial laws to foreshadow Christ, we can then clearly discern the temporary relevance of those laws. They still hold a great deal of value for study and reflection, but we are not bound by them. Exegesis grounds us and forces us to remove presuppositions prior to relativizing a text for our own time.
Exegesis grounds us and forces us to remove presuppositions prior to relativizing a text for our own time.
BRINGING IT TOGETHER
When we understand the oringal author’s intent to them, we can then understand what the passage means to us. While this task is certainly validated by consulting experts, we can learn a lot simply by asking the right questions of a text, remembering historical context varies from book to book. It’s also important to be aware of our presuppositions and pre-conceived notions. If you don’t think you have any, you are in a heap of trouble. Allowing the text to speak to us rather than projecting opinions is some of the best advice I have ever received. Remember, Jesus said, “blessed are the poor in spirit,” or, in other words, those who don’t pretentiously assume they know everything! Studying scripture is sometimes a humbling task. It’s a huge undertaking that can and should last a lifetime, but it’s a beautiful and worthwhile pursuit, full of joy and blessing.