What Is the Proper Context for Interpreting the Bible?

The Four Evangelists, Jacob Jordaens, 1626–1630, commons.wikimedia.org

Anyone interested in Bible study, from the new believer to the biblical scholar, has heard (and maybe even 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 Irenaeus and Tertullian; 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. Also, many Church Fathers worked primarily with the Old Testament translated into Greek, Latin, or Syriac versions, so a good bit of their exegesis is translation-driven. Further, they were often responding to the intellectual issues of their own day 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 or the Middle Ages. It is not the Reformation—the time of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, or the Anabaptists. It is not the time of 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.

Bridging the context gap

The biblical text was produced by people living in the ancient Near East and around the 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 to get the worldview of the ancient world, shared by the biblical writers, into 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 were simply too removed from the world of the biblical writers and had little chance of bridging that gap.

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 come before them and were 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 could get inside your head and see the world as you do? 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.

***

why is the bible hard to understandThis article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book The Bible Unfiltered.

Dr. Michael S. Heiser is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and Angels: What the Bible Really Says about God’s Heavenly Host.

His newest book, The World Turned Upside Down: Finding the Gospel in Stranger Things, is now on pre-order.

He’s taught many Mobile Ed courses for Faithlife, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

 

Comments

  1. Tom Hanson says:

    It would have been nice if the editor who shortened Doctor Heiser’s words had included the fact that at least most of the Gospel Writers themselves had used the Septuagint translation for quoting the Hebrew scriptures.

  2. Thanks, Michael, for this article. I enjoyed it very much. Understanding the original context is truly important for all ancient texts.

    • Sheldon Kopperl says:

      I found this an interesting approach as well. How significant to an intelligent Bible student is a knowledge of Biblical Hebrew in your view?

      • Gregorio Billikopf says:

        I believe the Hebrew is very important to me. I can tell when authors say things that simply are not true. For that is not what the Hebrew says. And that is with my beginning Hebrew skills. I suspect that as I continue to learn Hebrew, my confidence will grow even more.

      • If you are skilled and experienced (you need both) in Hebrew and the scriptures in general then you *might* discover something of note but if you only have a sophomoric knowledge you are more likely to be led further astray. People wind up disagreeing in two languages instead of just one!

  3. Randall Scott Boyte says:

    This is an excellent article. One of the things I was considering after reading this is how the culture has shifted in my own lifetime. I am fifty-four years old and have seen a dramatic culture shift during that time. I am sure there were culture shifts during biblical times as well that occurred in a short amount of time. For example, from the reign of Hezekiah to the reign of his son Manasseh, the culture certainly shifted.
    A second thought is that much of what many hold as true biblical teachings are more tradition than biblical. Not that the tradition is necessarily bad or evil, but that it is not necessarily required.

  4. Gary McCall says:

    I think you have drilled down to the heart of the problem and have high hopes that you will put out mine shafts that will explain how we go about gaining an understanding of the worldviews of each successive generation. This will show how Noah’s world was different from Abram’s which in turn was quite different from Moses’ and from Samuel’s, Saul’s, and David’s. The pre-exilic, exilic, and post-exilic worlds changed as did the world into which Jesus and the disciples were born.
    Looking forward to what is coming!

  5. Whatever you’re doing Dr. Heiser, keep it up. I like eating in a restaurant where I can smell fresh bread cooking. According to Luke 6:26 if you don’t disrupt the comfortable then you aren’t doing it right!

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