4 - Culture and Context


A. What is culture?

  • The word “culture” is a somewhat fluid term that is difficult to define precisely.
    • Specifically, it includes the elements that make up everyday life: food, clothing, housing, customs, habits, creative activities (art, music, literature), products, institutions, education, tools, etiquette - and anything else that is part of daily living.
  • We speak about these areas separately, but culture is the totality that arises out of the individual elements.
    • The cultural setting reveals how people lived, the values they stressed, and why they did or did not prosper.
    • We study the culture to discover why people thought and acted the way that they did.

1. Environmental Factors

  • When we enter the world of the Bible, we encounter a culture that is not familiar to us, particularly if we come from a western country.
  • In Mark 2:1-12, we read of four men who carried a paralysed man on a bed to where Jesus was.
    • When they could not come near to Jesus because of the crowd, the Bible tells us that “they uncovered the roof where He was” and “when they had broken through, they let down the bed on which the paralytic was lying.”
    • Homes in colder countries with pointed roofs so that the snow will not pile up on the roof would not be accessible to these men, although undoubtedly men of such persistence would find another way.
    • Still we might wonder how these men accomplished their task even with a flat-roofed house.
    • Edersheim in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah discusses Palestinian homes (pp.501, 502). He suggests that Jesus was standing in the covered gallery that would run around the courtyard of the house of a middle class family and would open into various apartments.
    • The men may have ascended to the roof by stairs, or they may have passed from roof to roof of the adjoining houses.
    • The roof of the house itself would be very hard to break through, but the roof of the covered gallery would be relatively easy to “unroof.” -Edersheim’s information gives us insight into this amazing event.
  • Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting, “The Last Supper,” shows Jesus and the disciples sitting upright along the table, an effective artistic arrangement, but not very realistic.
    • In the time of Jesus, the Jews usually ate in a reclining position.
    • The table was most likely u-shaped.
    • This explains how John could lean back on Jesus’ breast and ask him who it was that was going to betray Him (John 13:25).
    • It also explains how the woman could wash Jesus’ feet with her tears while he was at the meal.

2. Socio-Religious Situation

  • When we read about the birth of Jesus Christ in Luke 2, we are aware that Jesus was born into a Jewish culture that had its foundation in the laws given to Moses and the Israelites in the Pentateuch (the first 5 Books of the Bible).
    • Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21; Lev.12:3).
    • When the days of Mary’s purification were completed, they brought Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (Luke 2:22-24; Lev. 12:4-8).
    • Mary and Joseph were careful to perform everything according to the Law of the Lord (Luke 2:39).
  • The Scribes and Pharisees tried to keep standards of ritual cleanliness only required for the priets in the temple
    • For this reason they regarded people who worked with animals as unclean
    • In our culture, we have a romantic view of shepherds, but they regarded them as disgusting
    • This gives us a new insights into why God announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds
    • It shows the increased stigma of Jesus being born in an animal house

3. Economic Factors

  • Employment
    • Most people worked in “family businesses”, e.g. fishing or farming
    • Farming was extremely hard work and they would usually have to work 7 days a week in the summer months
      • so to take a Sabbath day of rest required real faith in God the provider
    • There was very little to stop wealthy men exploiting the poor
    • There was absolutely no welfare system, so if you were too sick to work then you starved
      • except of course for the extended family, which might be able to help
  • Retirement
    • The more children you had, the more care and honour you would receive in your old age
    • Generally the old were given respect by their children
    • But you would never actually stop working
    • This sheds light on the man who wanted to follow Jesus, but first “bury his father”
      • not literally—it means fulfill his obligation as a son and look after him till he died
  • Women and children
    • We would be shocked and horrified by societies valuation of women and children
    • The Pharisees would sometimes see them as almost worthless
    • Jesus and Christians were radically counter-cultural in their attitudes to women
    • e.g. Jesus and the woman of Sameria broke several taboos at once.

B. Purpose for Studying Cultural Elements

  • Sometimes a piece of information can significantly help us to understand a passage
  • e.g. Mat 22:18-22
    1. But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?
    2. Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.
    3. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”
    4. They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
    5. When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.
  • We can better understand the second half of v.21 if we know that the inscription would have suggested that Caesar was a god.

Credit: Much of this page makes use of material from Sheila Evans

Updated 2009-10-09 (build:9) by Andrew Fountain

Context & Structure

A. Context

1. How is the term “context” used?

  1. the entire historical and literary setting in which the author wrote
  2. the cultural context
  3. the text immediately surrounding the verse in question: what is with (con) the text

2. The Biblical Context

  1. The first context of any passage is the entire Scripture.
    • View the Bible as a whole unit with one overall theme: God’s great plan of salvation for sinful man through His Son, Jesus Christ. Each of the 66 books is there for a reason: we shouldn’t neglect any of them.
    • We need to know well the content of the whole Bible: we can understand a particular passage fully only if we know what the whole Scripture teaches, but we can know what the whole Scripture teaches only by knowing the meaning of its parts (the hermeneutical circle). This means that we need to be constantly reading and studying the Scriptures. This is a lifelong responsibility and delight.
    • A key hermeneutical principle is that “Scripture interprets Scripture” (the analogy of Scripture). This means that Scripture itself sets the limits of meaning. Scripture cannot contradict itself. We shall be talking more about this later in the course.
  2. The second context of any passage is the testament it is in: is it in the Old Testament or is it in the New Testament? Is it near the beginning of God’s revelation or near the end?
    • Because God’s revelation is progressive, we need to know what has gone before and what comes after. As Augustine said, “Truth shines brightest in the New Testament.” Doctrine is clearer in the pastoral epistles than in the prophecy of Ezekiel. In Genesis 3:15, we have God’s promise in a germinal form of a Saviour, a descendant of Eve, who would bring deliverance from Satan and his power; this promise was clearly fulfilled in the coming of the Saviour Jesus Christ to this earth.
  3. The third context is the book in which the passage occurs.
  4. The fourth context is the immediate context: what comes before or after the passage that you are studying?

3. Activities that may produce harmful effects because they don’t pay sufficient attention to the context.

  1. Memorizing individual verses or parts of verses.
    • Often we don’t realize (or we forget) that they form only part of a sentence or a thought.
    • You can prove almost anything from the Bible if you ignore the context, for example “There is no God” (Psalm 14:1).
  2. Using only a concordance for word study.
    • It is easy to look up a number of verses on “patience.” It is more difficult to study each verse in context. Beware of “coat hanger” studies, messages, or sermons where verses are disconnected from a passage without considering the context and attached to the subject you are examining.
  3. Using “proof texts”
    • We quote a verse to support our position, but we neglect other verses on a topic which do not appear to support our position. To be fair, we have to consider all the main verses on a subject as much as possible.

B. Studying a Book of the Bible

1. The Purpose of the Book

  1. To determine the purpose of a book, read through the entire book quickly, at one sitting if possible.
    • With longer books like Genesis, read large portions; stop at logical stopping places (For example: Gen.1:1-11, 12-23, 24-36, 37-50). Concentrate on following the flow of thought. Note key words and phrases that are repeated or that control the thought in certain passages. This procedure will help you to see the book as a whole before you look at individual units. As the saying goes, “They cannot see the forest for the trees.” They cannot see the big ideas because they are too wound up in the details. In like manner we can get so involved with the details of the book that we miss the main ideas. Looking at the book as a whole will help to prevent this.
    • After you have read the book quickly, read it again more slowly. What is the main theme (or themes) of the book? Note the main theme and the key words and phrases. What do you learn about the author? about the recipients?
  2. Look specifically at the beginning and the ending of the book.
    • Sometimes these give a clear indication of what is happening in the book. In the first two chapters of Judges, we note the gradual deterioration of Israel: they did not drive out completely the inhabitants of the land; they worshipped other gods, and insisted on doing things their own way. Judges ends with the verse, “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). After the tranquil interlude of Ruth which presents us with a community where God is honoured, we come to 1 Samuel and the choosing of a king for Israel.
  3. Sometimes the author indicates the occasion (reason) for writing.
    • We noticed this when we were looking at the Gospels of John and Luke (Luke 1:1-4; John 20:31). A book like 1 Corinthians seems to have several purposes.
  • You should read the book directly before consulting the opinions of others so that you can allow the Spirit to give you a fresh impact.
  • But it is also wise to consult others who can correct or expand your thinking.

2. The Plan of the Book

  1. There may be a great variety of relationships between the different passages in a book.
    1. a historic sequence of events ex. Genesis
    2. a historical sequence - not necessarily chronological ex. Matthew
    3. a poetic arrangement for beauty or emotional impact ex. the Psalms
    4. a closely reasoned theological discourse ex. Romans
    5. a collection of loosely related maxims ex. Proverbs
  2. The plan influences the interpretation.
    • The location of a passage in a book can have a strong influence on the interpretation.
  3. To discern the plan, you should make an outline of the book.
    1. Do not feel bound to use the existing chapter and verse divisions. They were not in the original: they came later. Often they are helpful, but they can be a hindrance in determining the units of thought. For example, 1 John 4:7 begins a passage on love that does not end until chapter 5, verse 3.
    2. Outline the flow of thought. Look for change: a change of event or a change of thought. Words like “if,” “for,” “but,” and “therefore” are significant indicators as to how a statement should be understood.
    3. Use main headings and subheadings.

3. The Immediate Context

  1. Observe what immediately precedes and follows the passage that you are examining.
  2. Observe parallel passages: in the same book, in other books.
    1. identical or similar language - Compare Eph. 5:22-6: 9 with Col. 3:18-4:1.
      • This is not always significant: the content or idea needs to be similar. Note that “leaven” is used in Matthew 13:33 in a different way than in Matthew 16:6.
    2. identical or similar ideas - not necesssarily use of common words
      • Ex. incarnation: Hebrews 2:9-18; Philippians 2:5-11
      • the last times: Matthew 24 & 25; 2 Thessalonians 2
    3. 2 or more books describing essentially the same events
      • Ex. Samuel, Kings, Chronicles
      • The Gospels
      • Paul in Acts and the Epistles
      • The Prophets - note where and when they were prophesying

Credit: Much of this page makes use of material from Sheila Evans

Updated 2009-10-07 (build:7) by Andrew Fountain

Assignment 2 - Larger Context

Due date: upload to loveintruth.com by the start of Thursday’s class

Please add this assignment onto the end of the first assignment, so they are both in one document. Then I can see all your work together.

Part 2: Larger Context (Background and Purpose of Book)

2.1 Outline of book

You can develop an outline yourself, or copy one from a source such as a study bible or the internet, such as at the Bible.org location mentioned below. If it is not yours then credit your source. The outline must fit on one page!

2.2 Occasion (circumstances) of writing

A paragraph that describes the situation surrounding the writing of the book, and the events that caused it to be written. (The external context.) You will probably want to consult a study bible, commentary or bible dictionary for this information, but put the paragraph in your own words. One of the best sources on the internet is Bible.org, and they have introductions to all the New Testament books here at: http://www.bible.org/series.php?series_id=220. A shorter introduction can be found in eSword in the ISBE dictionary.

Please footnote all sources used.

2.3 Purpose of the book

One or two paragraphs that explain what the author seems to be aiming to accomplish with the book. They may be seeking to prove or establish something, to influence the readers in some way, etc. Again, you may want to consult sources, but use your own words and footnote sources.

2.4 Purpose for this passage within the book

This is the most important part of this assignment. You should attempt to do this first without any help from sources such as commentaries (and even if you look at them you might not find them very helpful). Understanding how the passage functions as part of the overall purpose for the book is key to understanding what is going on within the passage. Ask yourself why the author has included this passage in the book?

Updated 2009-10-11 (build:10) by Andrew Fountain