Naked Bible Podcast Episode 017: Taking the Bible’s Own Context Seriously

Posted By on July 9, 2012

In this second episode of the series on Bible study, I discuss what interpreting the Bible “in context” really means — taking the Bible’s own primitive context seriously. Rather than filter the Bible through creeds dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, or even the period of early Christianity, the Bible’s actual context is the one that produced the biblical books — the era stretching from the 2nd millennium BC to the first century AD. All other contexts are foreign to the Bible, no matter how persuasive they are in denominational traditions. The student of the Bible must make all foreign contexts subservient to the Bible’s own context. That means replacing our own worldview with that of the biblical writer living during this ancient time span in the ancient Near East and eastern Mediterranean. The way to do that is to immerse ourselves in the intellectual output of those cultures in which the biblical Israelite and later Hellenistic Jews lived when God moved them to write Scripture. The episode ends with suggestions about resources for familiarizing oneself with the literature of all these cultures.

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10 Responses to “Naked Bible Podcast Episode 017: Taking the Bible’s Own Context Seriously”

  1. Richard Brown says:

    Maybe an idea to ponder: For 2 decades I’ve hoped for a single-volume “context setter” for scripture, ESPECIALLY for OT, and double-especially for the major & minor Prophets. One handbook that could travel with me wherever [can’t take a library with me except in e-form] that crisply gives the backdrop for geopolitical, anthropology, demographic, languages, historical. In lieu, what I use is the NIV study Bible mainly for the OT notes. Not perfect, but what’s the alternative? other ‘study’ volumes are bent… biased/filtered/polemical/etc … incomplete, hard to use, misguided [or… guided]

  2. Keith says:

    You mention in the podcast how today we have much more information about the worldviews of the ANE and therefore can come to a better understanding of the biblical texts. I agree with this … makes sense to me.
    What I am wondering is how you would respond to those who say that this extra-biblical information is not necessary to understand the bible. I’ve heard some people say, “Are you telling me that someone 500 years ago or even 50 years ago could not have fully understood the bible because they didn’t have access to this “modern scholarship”? What would you say to this?
    And two related questions: (1) Do you think that God always gave just what was needed (in extra-biblical background information) for each of the previous generations that were seeking Him through the written Word? and (2) How does 2 Timothy 3:16-17 fit into this? (I’ve also heard some quote this verse as proof that extra-biblical knowledge is not necessary).

    • MSH says:

      You wrote: “I am wondering is how you would respond to those who say that this extra-biblical information is not necessary to understand the bible.”

      Easy answer: Then stop talking about interpreting the Bible in context and be honest — you’re interpreting the Bible in light of your own life and tradition, so just be honest about it.

      Further: yes, I AM telling people that they cannot *fully* understand the Bible outside its own context. Apparently those people confuse *full* and *adequately*. You don’t need ANE contexts to get the basic messages and doctrinal ideas out of the Bible. You *do* need it to both understand those simple ideas in their fulness, and for interpreting obtuse passages, and for seeing more connections between passages, books and testaments. My point is that I’m not saying it’s an all-or-nothing notion, so I wouldn’t let a person say that to me without that correction. And it isn’t a complicated one.

      On number 1 – I think God prompted people to produce whatever was needed to ensure the transmission of ideas and doctrine that he wanted transmitted. I see no way to put a statistical number on that.

      On number 2 – Yes, the Bible it “profitable” for the things listed there. Does “profitable” mean “useful” or “comprehensive”? I’m voting for the former (I’d also use “adequate” – which is also not a synonym for “comprehensive”). Basically, the only groups I know of that insist on interpreting the Bible only in light of itself – filtered of course through their group’s own experience and leadership — are cults, or sects that bear similarities to cults. A refusal to take the Bible in its own context inevitably means that another context is substituted. Someone who thinks everything in the Bible is self evident really can’t be reading it with the care it deserves. And someone who thinks that the Spirit’s role is to make everything self evident is either pretending to be a mystic, or presumes that their view is right due to their own superior walk with God vs. the person they disagree with (and I have seen that one firsthand, so it’s not an exaggeration).

      • Keith says:

        Thanks. I appreciate your level-headedness about these issues.
        Have you ever read Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson? I just purchased it (on the recommendation of another) and was wondering if you had any input?

        • MSH says:

          yes; I’ve read parts of that; I really think it’s useful. Maybe a bit dated by now, but still quite useful.

  3. Janina says:

    What attracted me to this website was its motto: “Biblical theology, stripped bare of denominational confessions and theological systems”.
    There are very few that really are concerned about the truth. Most are doing everything possible to “prove” their dogmas.
    The only way to learn anything is to always be ready for correction of errors as the new information becomes available.
    I think that most people are afraid of exclusion, uncertainty, isolation, losing their “salvation”. They feel their “faith” is threatened when “established” doctrines are disproved or even modified.
    “Dogmas” as such are really bringing God to our human level. God is not some petty being that expects absolutes from us. He gave us enough information to know what is expected of us once we believe.
    The additional “stuff” is just pure blessing and a tremendous gift. We should be thankful for that and always keep an opened mind. It’s like collecting precious gems. They’re not given to puff us up, but to see how awesome our God is and to truly give us freedom and take away fear.
    I have come across an article that might be of interest here: “a new look at the seven churches of Revelation” –

    • MSH says:

      I skimmed some sections of the paper at the link. What do you think is new about it? The idea that believers today can be pigeonholed (“analogized”) to the seven churches isn’t new. If you read the whole thing what did I miss?

  4. Janina says:

    Did not mean to imply “new” – it was just a part of the title (mental shortcuts again on my part).
    Some groups take the 7 churches as consecutive eras describing the history of the church from 1 AD to now – the present being mostly Laodicean era. The article points to co-existence at all times and the differences in understanding do not mean God’s rejection.
    Just wanted to bring a point across – there is no need to be afraid of rejecting “established” doctrines, when they are clearly shown to be incorrect. Keeping an open mind is a wonderful thing.
    I grew up in a very strict catholic society, basically no access to OT, even NT was only for “spiritual” uplifting. No one was seriously studying scriptures and everyone outside of Catholic mother church was destined to “burn in hell”. This all changed when I have ended up in the West. Here many groups saw (and still do) the Catholic Church as “Babylon the Great” – false religion.
    Frankly I got really disappointed – most religious groups have their “exclusive” beliefs and you either conform or you’re out.
    I am so grateful for the amount of information available and thankful for people like yourself not afraid to really “expose” the truth. Thank you.

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