Recently I had an assignment at college in my Bible class which asked some questions concerning the importance of the historical-cultural context of the reading. Here is what I wrote:
- What can happen when people approach the Bible without any concern for the historical-cultural context? Do you care to share any examples from your own experience? To disregard the historical-cultural context of the Bible is tantamount to misunderstanding. The Bible was written to a specific people within a given cultural setting and like the Apostle Paul says in Romans 1:16 (New American Standard Bible), “…to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” It would be important to understand the life of the author, his ministry, and the people who are the intended audience. So the message first is for the Jews, yet it also applies to us and we can still learn from the word of God, and since we were not the original audience, we must understand what the author’s purpose was in writing, and who his intended audience were, is it an exhortation, a song, a poem, a historical book, or correction. A good example of approaching the Bible without any care or concern for its historical-cultural context could be those who believe in replacement theology. God cares deeply for Israel (the apple of His eyes) and He still does, yet when a person believes God was using them to get to us, they could easily overlook the importance of Israel as a nation and quickly think that Israel is no longer significant and the church has replaced her in God’s heart, which the Apostle Paul tells us is not so in Romans 11.
- Can you think of an example of the historical-cultural context shedding significant light on the meaning of a biblical text? 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (New American Standard Bible) says, “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.” This is one of the most misunderstood passages of scripture. To understand this text, one needs to know the condition of the Corinthian church at the time of the writing and why the book was written, but even before going that far, chapter 14 alone is enough to provide appropriate guidance as to why he wrote that. The book of Corinthians was written to bring correction to a troubled and immature church who instead of growing were quarreling about insignificant issues, and acting like unbelievers in other instances and it was important to steer them in the right direction (1 Corinthians 1:10-18). So with that view of a divided and quarrelsome church who are being corrected, we can understand that the whole book was written to correct these believer. The purpose of 1 Corinthians 14 can be found in verse 40 which in the NASB says, “But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.” In the previous verses, Paul is talking about the orderly way for prophesying and speaking in tongues in the church service and the interpretation and how that should correctly flow in order, in verse 33 of the same chapter 14 (NASB) he says, “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.”The very next verse he talks of the women being silent in the churches and why? Because in verse 35 he is telling the women to learn whatever they may want to know from their husbands at home. So the problem here is that the women were adding to the disorder in that church and probably asking questions out loud in the church which was in a disorderly state, hence the need for Paul to bring the correction to the prophets, the speaker of tongues and the women. People have used this verse to keep oppressing women and saying women cannot speak in church therefore women can’t lead also. While this is a fallacy, so many people have taken this verse out of context and are using it as a justification for denying women positions of leadership in churches. Contrary to this view it is demonstrated in different parts of the Bible that God uses women too as He chooses. For example, Judges 4 talks of Deborah the prophetess, John 4 speaks of Jesus and the Samaritan woman who became the first evangelist as she told a whole city, “Come and see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?” (John 4:29 NASB). Luke 8:3 shows women had an active part in supporting the ministry of Jesus and if it wasn’t clear enough, the first person Jesus revealed Himself to as the resurrected Lord was Mary Magdalene in John 20, in Joel 2:28 and Acts 2:17, the Bible says, “…Your sons and daughters will prophesy…” And in Acts 21:9 (NASB) it says, “Now this man had four virgins daughters who were prophetesses.” They actually prophesied to the Apostle Paul. So it never has been a part of God’s plan to have women secluded or oppressed and deprived from either speaking in or leading a church, rather it has been more about people who are more willing to be obedient to His voice and to quiet themselves at His feet, so that like Mary they would listen and eat the real food and it would be easier to give everything up for Him unlike busy Martha who represents both men and women who are too busy to quiet themselves before God’s presence. Women were not to ask their questions in church as part of an ongoing correction to a church that was not in peace and in line with the other churches. The instruction was for them to ask their questions at home (representing a praying family of noble character like the Bereans of Acts 17:10-11) and to learn what they needed at home, that way neither the loud women, nor the prophets and tongue speakers would be a source of confusion in the church, since God is not a God of confusion and where there is confusion there is no unity, peace or order.
- For people living in an “instant application” society such as ours, what can persuade them to put forth effort to study the historical-cultural context. While it is tempting to skim through the Bible rather than study it because we are always busy or we can’t wait for anything, learning to truly study the Bible and to quiet ourselves in meditation of His word in His Presence will enlighten our understanding and give us the insight that we need. Being hasty or being too busy to quiet ourselves before the Presence of God would make us like Martha, we won’t choose the right food. According to Jesus only one thing mattered and that was spending time in His Presence since man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the Fathers mouth (Matthew 4:4; Deuteronomy 8:3 & Luke 10:41-42). If you want to avoid fallacies and to actually know the truth, then invest in studying the Bible because knowing what the author’s intent was to His original audience, it will give you insight on how to better apply that word to your own life and an understanding of the love of God for all humans throughout all generations. It’s simple, you build a solid foundation by investing time studying the truth, and only the truth you know has the power to set you free (John 8:32). Skimming through the Bible, picking and choosing interpretations without considering the context leads to misunderstanding, misinterpretation and in some cases unnecessary oppression of others which can be avoided if we pay attention to the audience, the author and the cultural components which are of utmost importance in the scripture. Knowing the history also enables us to use the word to correct our own lives from error as we learn from the lives of the men and women using their failures and success and guides for our own lives.
Reference about historical-cultural context from: Journey into God’s Word: Your guide to understanding and applying the Bible by Duvall and Hays.