As I’m looking forward to a speaking opportunity on this topic at the end of the week, I thought I’d offer some reflections on the challenge of keeping texts in context when we study God’s Word. “Redemptive-historical” reading is an approach to biblical literacy that prompts us to consider each passage in its smaller and larger settings, both literary and historical. How does this selection fit and function in its chapter? this book? How does this book fit into the canon of Scripture, and how do these ideas and events that I’m encountering fit along the timeline of biblical history?
Admittedly, keeping things in their literary and historical context like this involves a bit of extra homework. It would certainly be easier just to react to the text, explore how it makes us feel and think about our own lives, and keep our Bible reading devotional. Without question, there’s a place for such dwelling and resonating in our Christian walk, as any frequent, faith-full reader of Scripture recognizes. Yet anyone who desires to think God’s thoughts after him should value an emphasis on context as well, since without an awareness of a passage’s original setting and purpose we may miss the point of what we’re reading and risk smuggling into the text our own uninformed interpretations.
So what does a reader need to keep in mind, in order to do justice to these God-breathed words? What skills should we develop, what background knowledge will help us navigate these passages from so long ago and far away? Here are a few suggestions for Bible students who are ready to go the extra mile to understand texts in context.
- Develop a grasp of the Big Picture.
Can you outline the general flow of events in biblical history from Genesis to Revelation? Do you know the high points (and the low!) of God’s relationship with his chosen people, first the nation of Israel and then the church of Christ Jesus? Can you keep biblical figures in chronological order in your mind? Do you know the various positions of leadership in Israel and how they correspond to the different stages of history that Israel journeys through in the Old Testament? Can you connect the dots from the Hebrew Scriptures to the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth, and understand how he is proved the “Christ” of Jewish expectation by his messengers in Acts? Are you aware that the Sovereign God interacts differently with his people under the Old Covenant as compared to his people under the New? Do you have a sense of the world history that surrounds (and sometimes intersects) the biblical story?
A confident reaction to these prompts indicates that you do, indeed, have a good grasp of the “Big Picture” – but unless you have read the whole Bible for many years running or sat under good redemptive-historical teaching already, you’re likely at this point to find yourself swimming in a sea of questions you didn’t even know you should ask. If the latter is the case, then patiently pace yourself to deepen your knowledge. Obviously, there’s no substitute for reading the biblical texts for yourself; but don’t hesitate to avail yourself of resources that offer a bird’s-eye view of the whole thing, giving you a framework that you can fill in with details as you read through the biblical books. (You’ll find many such supports at this website, including a couple of my previous talks that sketch the major lines of the Story in about a half an hour.)
- Spend time with maps and timelines.
You can find examples of both on this website! Timelines help us keep our chronology straight and teach us the major movements of the Story. Maps should prompt us to ask questions about the many cultures and people groups involved in biblical history. (Do you know, for example, much about the ancient Mesopotamians, Syrians, Samaritans, Egyptians, or Romans?) The answers to such questions can often be found in Study Bible notes, the editors’ introductions to the books in our Bibles, Bible dictionaries, and even Wikipedia (though when using online resources, always keep in mind that secular sources will have different goals and agendas than Christian ones).
- Understand how the books of our Bibles are arranged.
Realize that the books of the OT and the NT do not follow a neatly chronological order. Notice, for example, that genre will trump chronology in the arrangement – so some of the events described in historical books (like Ezra and Nehemiah) actually occur after the time of many of the prophets who follow them in the table of contents, and some of Paul’s letters were written after the epistles included past the tail of the Pauline collection. Use study guides and a timeline to keep track of where these ideas and events fall in biblical history, don’t just rely on book order.
- Chase down references.
If a psalmist mentions an event or figure from Israel’s past, or if a NT writer makes a passing comment about the Hebrew sacrificial system or Jewish holidays, stop and look it up if you don’t already recognize it. Check the footnotes, study notes, and cross-references in your Bible. Take time to look up OT quotations when you find them in the NT, and get a sense of the context of the snippets that the writer or speaker is highlighting. You may not understand all of the connections right away, and you may end up with more questions than you started with; but have faith that a frequent rehearsal of the details will gradually fill in blanks and connect dots in your mind. Your task at the start of this learning project is to collect the puzzle pieces. Stay stubborn about it, and eventually the jigsaw will start to snap together.
- Avoid Anachronisms.
An anachronism is a thing or an idea that is out of place in time. If you spot an extra in a movie about ancient Rome who forgot to take off his digital watch, you’ve noticed an anachronism. In Bible reading, pernicious anachronisms* occur when we think we see ideas that simply cannot be present in the text because certain events or explanations haven’t happened yet in biblical history. If we come away from a text with an interpretation that has no business being attached to those particular words, we’re in danger of crafting rules of conduct for ourselves or others that have no biblical justification. Avoid this pitfall by weighing any interpretation that suggests itself against the biblical timeline (one more reason to become familiar with it!). If you are teaching the Bible to others, double check any innovative readings with a good commentary before disseminating possible anachronisms. A big source of such errors is the assumption that OT words have the same prescriptive force for Christians as directives given in the Epistles . . . another is the assumption that narratives are implicitly prescriptive. And sometimes we just forget that the people we’re reading about (in OT & Gospels) were living prior to the cross and resurrection.
These thoughts are just a start. One of my main goals in creating the Grass Roots Theological Library is to assist other Bible students with the task of filling in the blanks, connecting the dots, and grasping the Big Picture. If you’re game to improve your knowledge of the historical and literary contexts of the things you are reading in God’s Word, then this site was made particularly for you. Enjoy exploring!
*Benign anachronisms, on the other hand, usually involve importing a true idea that later biblical passages confirm as relevant for Christians, though the idea actually has nothing to do with this particular text. The lesser danger here is that we’ll just miss the point and the purpose of the text we’re reading, and also maybe (if we habitually teach or preach such anachronisms) that we’ll inadvertently train other Bible students to play fast and loose with the chronology of concepts in Scripture.
Follow the Grass Roots Theological Library on Twitter! — @GrassRootsTheo