Biblical Context and Historical Context

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.

Here are just three points to remember when considering the relationship between history and interpretation.

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.

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An Organized Chalkboard – The Need for History in Bible Study

Do you ever stop to consider how other people influence the way you read the Bible? The truth is, the way you understand the Bible is highly influenced by the people who taught you to read it. You probably resemble your parents, pastors, and favorite authors more than you realize. And this chain of influence doesn’t start or end with you. For instance, your pastor was influenced by his parents, his pastors, and his favorite seminary professors. Your children will be influenced by you and all of the people who came before you on this expansive chain of influence, whether they are ever aware of it or not.

Its not hard to imagine the pitfalls of this system. One bad link in the chain could send everyone who follows off in the wrong direction. One point of view could become dominant even if it isn’t the best point of view. For this reason some people have borrowed John Locke’s term “tabula rosa” and suggest that we try to read the Bible with a blank slate.

They use the image of chalkboard filled with information. However, when it comes to interpreting new information the data already on the chalkboard skews our thinking. We can’t see the facts as they are, we can only see them in light of the facts we already know, or think we know. When it comes to Bible study, the only way to reach an objective conclusion is to wipe our chalkboards clean. That is, to objectively interpret the Bible we should come to it like it is the first time we have ever read it, completely immune to any preconceived ideas or outside influences.

The obvious problem is that this is impossible to really do. There is no way I can wipe my chalkboard clean. I can’t forget everything I know. Even if I could, it wouldn’t be helpful because then I wouldn’t have enough knowledge to understand something new. We learn things by comparison. If there was nothing to compare new data to I wouldn’t be able to begin processing it.

The solution is not to forget everything you know but to try to understand how you know what you know. As you trace the things on your chalkboard back to their sources, you may find that the information is true and helpful or you may find that it was built on shaky ground. So, rather than erasing your chalkboard you should try to organize your chalkboard. Try to learn where your thoughts came from and try to determine how valid and certain they are.

This is the task of history. People often discuss history using the motto “those who don’t remember the past are likely to repeat it.” While that is certainly true, perhaps a new mantra should be “those who don’t remember the past have no idea why they believe what they believe.” I know that isn’t as catchy as the first motto, but I think it is true.

Why do I bring this up? I am hoping to begin writing a few posts on the history of New Testament interpretation. We may be tempted to think, “who cares what these guys thought, especially if they were wrong.” The answer is, they are part of our chain of influence. These guys are the reason that we read the Bible the way we do. It is important to know their influence so we can train our minds to think about Scripture in the most accurate and beneficial way possible.

Pastors Need Personalities

I was happy to hear that my alma matter, VA Tech, is again leading the world in inovation. You probably have come to expect such from our engineering school and maybe even from our football program. What you may not realize is that we are now making waves in our medical school.

The New York Times has released an article about the interview process required to get into Virginia Tech’s medical school. Rather than simply getting by on good test scores, VA Tech is requiring their applicants to demonstrate that they have some people skills. To do this they have set up an interview that the New York Times compares to “speed dating.” Instead of one big interview the candidate has a series of mini-interviews which take 8 minutes a piece. The interviewer asks them to adjudicate some ethical issue in the field of medicine. The students are then judged on their ability to interact in a winsome manner and on their ability to handle someone challenging their ideas.

I came across this article through a tweet from Hershael York. He questions whether seminaries should enact similar tests to ensure that their students are not only smart, but nice. I happen to think this is an excellent idea. I hope that this type of thinking will continue to spread and that seminaries will be more interested in the quality of their graduates than the quantity of their graduates.

Doing Justice and Loving Mercy

I started blogging last September because I want to become a better writer. I didn’t expect many people would actually read the blog but I was fine with that because I knew the blog was primarily intended to benefit me. At the same time, I can’t deny that I have become addicted to Google Analytics. Almost every day I check to see how many people have logged onto the blog. On an average day I get between 10 and 20 views, depending on how recently I posted. Its the perfect number to keep me humble.

However, yesterday there was a major spike in my readership. According to Google Analytics 117 people tuned in to read my post responding to CJ Mahaney’s leave of absence. That’s about 10 times more than I typically expect. Its not hard to guess the reason for the increased interest, people love controversy. Few things draw us in so quickly as the troubles and failures of another person.

But how are Christians to respond to these failures? When another person fails, be it CJ Mahaney, Casey Anthony, or someone much less famous, how are we to react? I believe that Micah 6:8 may be one of the best guides for us in these situations. However, perhaps no passage is as simultaneously clear and unclear in its instructions as this one.

     He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God?   – Micah 6:8

The words themselves could not be more clear. Christians should seek justice and love mercy. These two words more than any other summarize everything that Christianity is about. In fact, Christianity is ultimately the story of how God is able to show us mercy without sacrificing justice. He demonstrates His justice by thoroughly punishing and condemning sin through the death of his Son, while simultaneously offering the sinner the merciful gift of eternal life in glory.

At the same time, these words strike me as impossibly unclear when applied to mortal men. How can we do justice and love mercy simultaneously? Certainly God can do that, but can we? How can we passionately desire the execution of justice and still be said to love mercy? The task seems to be impossibly difficult for man. I do not doubt that God realized this in expressing the command, which is why I believe he follows the command with another, “to walk humbly with your God.”

The reason I write this is I have struggled today with how to respond to comments in reference to yesterday’s post. One particular commenter appears to be upset with CJ Mahaney and intent on inviting others to share in his frustration. To accomplish this goal he has posted a link to an article on wikileaks that seeks to incriminate CJ Mahaney. I was tempted to remove those comments as I view them as inflammatory and destructive. However, I have decided to keep the links (though I am not recommending anyone waste the several hours that it would take to actually read the article). My reason is that I am attempting to honor Micah 6:8.

I understand that part of doing justice is a commitment not to cover up the truth, regardless of how embarrassing it may be. Therefore I feel that Christians are under no obligation to pretend that CJ Mahaney has not had any moral failures that he needs to deal with. On the other hand, I am not only required to do justice, but also to love mercy. How then, as a Christian am I to love mercy in this situation?

Perhaps one of the more helpful tools is to remember a story that Jesus told in Matthew 18.

     Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered,“I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.
As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.
When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

I love this story, and I am scared of this story. It teaches me that God’s mercy and my mercy are somewhat different. God is merciful because that is His character. God actually loves mercy. I am to be merciful, not because it is part of my character but because it is part of God’s. That is, I don’t forgive others because I am so magnanimous but because God has been magnanimous to me. If I find that I have trouble forgiving my neighbor then I must ask if I have known forgiveness.

In the case of CJ Mahaney, he needs forgiveness both from God and man. We know that God is one who loves to forgive. The question is not how God will respond. We know the answer to that. Instead, the question is how we, as Christians, will respond. I believe that if we have been forgiven, we will be excited to forgive.

I would like to close this post with one last thought. Wikileaks is in the business of incrimination. They gain popularity through sensationalizing the failures of popular people. The only reason that I am not a candidate for wikileaks is that I am not significant enough for them to waste their time on. The truth is that every person, including every Christian, stands guilty of sin. If we believe otherwise, or are for some reason convinced that our sin is not as bad as CJ Mahaney’s, we stand close to the man who was forgiven 10,000 bags of gold and continues to squabble over a handful of silver pieces. The question in our life is not whether we have sin, instead the question is how will we respond?

In the case of CJ Mahaney, it appears that justice is underway. It also appears that he is repenting of his sin and that mercy is simultaneously being offered to him from our gracious God. I hope that the church will be able to rejoice in God’s mercy and show some of their own in this situation.

Jonathan Edwards on Self Examination

Consider what others may say of you. Sometimes people live in ways that are not at all appropriate, yet they are blind to it themselves. They do not see their own shortcomings though the faults are perfectly plain and evident to others. They themselves cannot see their failings yet others cannot shut their eyes or avoid seeing where they fall short… There is no trusting our own hearts or our own eyes in such cases, so we must hear what others say of us, observe what they charge us with, heed what fault they find with us, and strictly examine whether there is some foundation for it… We should especially listen to what our friends say to us and about us. It is foolhardy as well as un-Christian to take offense and resent it when we are thus told of our faults. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” (Prov. 27:6). We should rejoice that we are shown our spots.

C.J. Mahaney and his Leave of Absence

I came across this article today: C.J. Mahaney: Why Im Taking a Leave of Absence. Apparently the founder and leader of the highly influential Sovereign Grace Ministries is taking a leave of absence to deal with some areas of sin in his life. I don’t know anything about this situation beyond what was written in this article. However, one thing I do know is that I greatly respect anyone who is willing to publicly admit their failures and accept responsibility for them, even if that means potentially damaging their career.

In my own life I have benefited from seeing two great examples of this from some of the people I most admire.

My first great example to follow was provided by my parents. I understand parenting isn’t easy and, when I was in high school, it was certainly much harder for my parents than it should have been. I don’t know why it was, and sometimes continues to be, so difficult for me not to act rudely to my parents. Regardless of why, my attitude merited my fair share of discipline growing up. However there were times that my parents felt they disciplined me unfairly or in a manner that they should not have. I distinctly remember several times where they apologized and asked for my forgiveness for their response to my bad behavior.

There is nothing so disarming as someone humbly asking for your forgiveness. And in my case, a humble apology from my parents always seemed to reinforce just how deserving of their ire I really was. I truly hope that when I become a parent that I will follow the model set for me and demonstrate to my children how to humbly take responsibility for their faults, regardless of how little the faults may seem to be.

The second example of repentance set for me was by a professor I had at seminary who also happened to be an elder at my church. Shortly before I began seminary in 2004 he fell to the temptation to look at pornography online. No one knew that he failed and if he he wanted to he could probably have taken that secret to his grave. However, he knew it was wrong. He first confessed his sin to his wife and then stepped down as elder from our church. Then he handed in his resignation to the seminary explaining his moral failure.

When I heard that story, I was was floored. Can you imagine how hard it was to confess that sin publicly? Even harder, I presume, was handing in the resignation realizing that his indiscretion could cost him his job, and livelihood. On the other hand, here was a man who took sin seriously. He obviously lived out John Owen’s famous line; “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” I cannot express how much I admire the fact that he was not willing to live with sin in his life and decided to cut it out no matter how painful the surgery may be.

Thankfully our seminary’s president was gracious enough and wise enough to ask the professor to stay and share his story. I hope that decision will bear much fruit. I hope that through the influence of this professor that many students, including myself, will realize that purity in our walk with God is far more important than any position we may hold in our churches or schools. Further, a pure walk with God is even more important that our reputation. In fact, there is nothing on this earth as important as our walks with God. Isn’t this Jesus point when he says, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul” (Matthew 16:26)?

Accuracy in the Search for Accuracy

I have a confession to make. In my last post I spoke as if the formal equivalence translations are more accurate and the dynamic equivalence translations are more readable. While that may be acceptable as far as sweeping generalizations go, I am not sure that it is completely accurate. But then again, what is accurate anyway?

For instance, if you asked me for the time and I said it was 2:30, is that accurate? Is it more accurate to say 2:30 and 15 seconds? Technically speaking, both answers are equally accurate (or inaccurate) however by including the seconds the answer is more precise. Precision is concerned with how much information is presented. Accuracy, on the other hand is less concerned with the amount of information than it is with the truthfulness of that information. With this in mind, it may be somewhat unfair to say that a formal equivalent translation is more accurate than its dynamic equivalence counterpart. Instead, we may simply want to say that the formal equivalent is more precise.

Formal equivalent translations are often called “word for word” translations while dynamic equivalent translations are “thought for thought.” That is because the formal equivalence translators tend to view words in Hebrew and Greek as having English counterparts. They assume that if they can find the English word that matches the Greek word, then we will understand what is being said. Dynamic equivalence translators think a little differently. They tend to think that words actually derive their meaning, to some extent, from the other words around them. That is, rather than a word meaning a certain thing every time it is used, words work together, taking and giving meaning to each other, all in order to form one basic unit of meaning: the thought. Someone with this view may even argue that a word for word translation could make it more difficult to discern what the original author was saying because the words, when not understood in context, obscure the actual thoughts of the author. If they are correct, while the formal equivalent translation is more precise, one could say that the dynamic equivalent translation is more accurate.

Clearly, the two translation philosophies measure accuracy in slightly different manners. The formal equivalence translators ask how closely they matched the Greek words to its English counterpart and if they, when possible, kept the word order the same. Dynamic equivalence translators ask a slightly different question. They want to know, if they captured the thought, passion, and effect that the author was seeking to communicate in the original language?

Perhaps all of this will be more clear if I give you an example. I chose Acts 25:16 because it seems to contain a lot of the problems that translators face in just one sentence. I will first list the example from several sources starting with the original text, moving to an interlinear translation which is as close to a word for word translation as you can get. The following three translations move from more formal to more dynamic.

Acts 25:16 – Greek Text
πρὸς οὓς ἀπεκρίθην ὅτι οὐκ ἔστιν ἔθος Ῥωμαίοις χαρίζεσθαί τινα ἄνθρωπον πρὶν ἢ ὁ κατηγορούμενος κατὰ πρόσωπον ἔχοι τοὺς κατηγόρους τόπον τε ἀπολογίας λάβοι περὶ τοῦ ἐγκλήματος.

Acts 25:16 – Interlinear
To whom I answered that not it is custom to Romans to favor some man before or the ones accusing by face may have the accusers place and defense may take about the charge.

Acts 25:16 – Young’s Literal Translation
…unto whom I answered, that it is not a custom of Romans to make a favour of any man to die, before that he who is accused may have the accusers face to face, and may receive place of defence in regard to the charge laid against him.

Acts 25:16 – New American Standard Version
“I answered them that it is not the custom of the Romans to hand over any man before the accused meets his accusers face to face and has an opportunity to make his defense against the charges.

Acts 25:16 – NIV 2011
“I told them that it is not the Roman custom to hand over anyone before they have faced their accusers and have had an opportunity to defend themselves against the charges.

Certain things should stand out right away. For instance, unless you can read Greek you probably skipped the first example altogether. Assuming you tried to read the interlinear, you likely found it rather difficult to understand as well. Certainly it is a very precise reading, but can we really say it is accurate? Does it accurately convey to you the author’s message? As we continue down the list of examples I believe that the sentence becomes increasingly easy to read. For instance, each of the bottom three examples notice that there is an idiom and change the text from “the ones accusing by face” to something like “have met their accusers face to face.” The problem is that it is becoming increasingly different than the author’s original words. However, I feel confident that each translation accurately reflects the original text so I feel comfortable believing that they are each accurate, though slightly different.

Just in case you are interested, there is a point of debate that is currently being discussed in the world of translations, which can be demonstrated in our example verse. The original Greek uses the phrase τινα ἄνθρωπον to signify that some man is being handed over to his accusers. The NIV assumes that man is being used in a generic sense and really means any person. Because of this, they have chosen to translate the phrase as “anyone” instead of “any man.” This type of decision is what is causing many to call the NIV a gender neutral translation. It is not actually a gender neutral Bible. They do no make every character in the Bible androgynous. God is not a he/she. They are simply trying to decide when the original author intended to specify a certain gender and when he used a masculine term to encompass humanity and not males specifically. While each individual decision may be open to debate, one should recognize that the NIV is simply being consistent with its attempt to provide accuracy over precision.

So what is the take away from all this? I think there are a couple of things to note. First, Almost every major Bible translation is very very accurate. That is, they go to great effort to translate the Bible into English in a way that we can understand while still reflecting the original message of the author. This should free you up to feel confident in your English Bible. When you hear disparaging remarks about your favorite translation, take them with a grain of salt. Chances are that your translation is the same as any other translation about 90% of the time anyway.

Second, because translating is not an exact science, the translators are having to make decisions for you that you may prefer to make yourself. If you don’t know Hebrew and Greek then this may seem like a problem. The way to work around this is to read multiple translations. There is no reason to say that one translation is the best and and then read it exclusively. Instead, compare it to other translations. If it agrees with most then it is probably accurate. If it seems different, then you may have a little research to do.

Ultimately, the most important take away is that people have gone to a lot of work to help us read the Bible. Who cares what the right translation is if you never read it. Find a Bible that you enjoy reading and read it. Having the Bible in our own language is too great of a gift to waste!