The Bible in Context

Every culture has a set of unique features that distinguish it. For instance, there are quite a few English speaking countries in the world but there are regional differences in the language. In British English pants refer to a certain type of underwear whilst in American English it is a pair of trousers. (It took me a long time to get used to trousers being called pants.) Sometimes you can have a lot fun because of these cultural differences when you interact with people from a different part of the world. Sometimes not knowing these things can make you out to be weird or offensive.

Quite recently we had a British team come down to train my class for a brief programme. During one of the breaks they couldn’t head back to the hostel they were lodging at so they decided to have lunch on campus. To our utter surprise they sat down on the lawns in front of a laboratory/class room block and had their meal. It’s quite normal to do this on Western campuses but in my country no one ever does that anywhere. It perplexes the Ghanaian mind why you would want to sit on the floor to eat much less in the view of the public. Similarly, the Bible is not just written in a different language, it was composed in an entirely different culture.

I have heard a few preachers say that we do not need theological or academic training to do ministerial work, all we need is the calling they say. The fact that Bibles are translated from ancient manuscripts of foreign languages tells us we need scholarly assistance. Without biblical scholarship the average individual would not have access to the Bible. How many of us read the New Testament in Greek? For the Bible to be accessible in our vernacular we need translation, textual exegesis, cultural exegesis, preachers and teachers of the Word of God, as well as personal study of the Bible. In considering the entire process of understanding the Bible we have to look at extra-biblical resources. We need to understand why this is so.

The maxim “context is king” is very true when it comes to the Bible. I remember hearing Ravi Zacharias recounting a story of how a young preacher combined every famous story in the Bible to form a bizarre parable. As humorous as this is it is a common error we find in the Church where biblical passages are taken out of context and are brutally misinterpreted. Sometimes very weird doctrines are predicated on isolated misunderstood proof texts. Textual exegesis is not the only place where contextual errors occur. As with the British team picnicking on a Ghanaian university campus cultural exegesis is also a problem.

The people of the Bible lived in a completely different time and place to us. We therefore need to understand how their society worked before we can understand properly what we read in our Bibles. A famous example is the parable of the Prodigal Son. I hear in the East it is called the ‘Parable of the Running Father’. In Jesus’ time it was undignified for a man to show his knees. Due to the clothing they wore when you ran you had to hike up your clothes and expose your knees. Not only was the cultural faux pas shocking to Jesus’ listeners, the fact that he did it to embrace a son who was a societal embarrassment was truly amazing. To think of God in that way was very provocative. In my culture I can appreciate how strange it would be for father to show such open displays of affection for his son and it is virtually unthinkable for that to happen when such a child brings him only disgrace.

The Bible is not only grammatically nuanced but culturally as well. The so-called familiar stories and passages take on a new meaning when we are aware of the cultural milieu of the time. The Bible is heavy with ancient cultural references and idiomatic expressions which we simply cannot grasp just by reading it. The Bible exists in a cultural context which makes sense of things with a different worldview.

The whole enterprise of understanding and applying the Word of God requires that we use extra-biblical material. We do not only need Greek and Hebrew lexicons. We need commentaries, maps, ancient history, ancient literature, theology etc. Since the Bible itself is found in context we need to look beyond it to identify what that context actually is. If we do not know what it meant then we cannot know what it means for us now. This means the effective student of the Bible does not only read the Bible. I remember one preacher I admired was described as only reading the Bible. It sounded impressive then but if that was a literal description he missed out on a lot.

We live at a wonderful time for Bible study. In a certain sense we are understanding the Bible better than before because of changes in modern biblical scholarship. When I decided to dig deeper into my faith I was surprised by the wealth of resources available many of which are free online. Of course there is bad material out there but there a lot of good stuff too which is very comprehensible to the layman. A thorough student of the Word of God does not stop at the biblical text. I have realised that most Christians are far less invested in Bible studies than other areas of study. Devotional study does not mean we do not study the Scriptures without academic diligence and discipline. On the contrary we learn with both the head and the heart.

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