When we study the Bible, what do we need to understand it?
How important is it to know about Roman prisons or Corinthian customs in order to understand Paul’s letters? How important is it to know exactly what slavery was like in the first century to understand the book of Philemon? Should I take a course of Egyptian history in order to understand the Exodus?
This is the question that Don Carson and John Piper take up in this video. I think you will find it interesting and helpful.
Mastered By the Book from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.
1. To understand the Bible you have to read the Bible. – This may sound too obvious to even mention but it needs to be stated nonetheless. Even a seminary student, who is expected to be the expert on the Bible, could very easily spend so much time studying the historical background of the Bible, the grammatical rules of the Bible’s language, along with thousands of periphreal issues, that he or she never truly gains a mastery of the text they came to learn. The only way to gain a mastery of the Bible is to read it… a lot.
2. The Bible was written to be read and understood across many generations. – In the Old Testament the law was to be repeated to each generation. That is, they expected it to be read (or heard) and understood not only to the first readers but to all those who came after them. The same is true of the New Testament. Many of the letters were circular in nature, meaning that even though they dealt with some specific concerns, they were to be passed around from congregation to congregation so that everyone could benefit from them. The author’s desire to be understood is what makes it relatively easy for us to pick up the letters 2,000 years after they were written and still understand them.
3. Though it was written to be read and understood, it was still written in a historical setting to a historical audience. – The authors of the Bible make certain assumptions simply by writing it down. For instance, Paul assumed that the recipients could actually read, and that they could read Greek. If you can’t read Koine Greek (no one can read it natively anymore) then you are dependent on some historical study just to determine what the words mean. Historical study gives us the tools to read and think like the audience who read the Bible for the first time.
Ultimately, the key is to view Biblical interpretation and historical study in balance. We don’t want to overly emphasize the study of history to the degree that it becomes a distraction from actually reading the Bible. This is the fault of the historical-critical school of interpretation. By focusing on the historical context surrounding the Bible they miss the actual message and claims of the Bible. They miss the forest for the trees and become like the Pharisees to whom Jesus said
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39-40)
On the other hand we don’t ignore history either. Jesus truly lived and died in history. The Bible was actually written in history. It is because the Bible records actual history that it is so important. Paul explains exactly why the historical reality of the Bible is so important.
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:17-19)
We must take the historical nature of the Bible seriously because the validity of our faith depends on it. To fail to read the Bible as a historical text, considering the historical context in which it was written, can quickly lead to a trivialization of the historical reality in which it was written.