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Living by the Book by Howard Hendricks explores how to interpret Bible passages and has much to tell about context. There is much literature about this beyond Hendricks, but I want to know what they community here has to say.

What contexts do we consider when interpreting a passage?

We need a specific verse, so I'm using one that should be rich with context. Some contexts to consider may not apply to this verse, but I would like to know why.

Rom 15:12 (NASB)

Again Isaiah says,

“There shall come the root of Jesse,

And He who arises to rule over the Gentiles,

In Him shall the Gentiles hope.”

When interpreting, here are my contextual considerations:

  1. The verse in Isaiah Paul refers to, needs research. (quoted context)
  2. The larger passage from Paul. (passage context)
  3. Paul's use of words and "Biblical theology" from Paul's other writings. (author context)
  4. Life of Jesse (character context, including Ruth, Samuel, the time of Judges, and Jesse's children)

We also have considerations of:

  • Historical context (events and circumstances of that time)
  • Language context (original words, parsing, ancient figures of speech, etc)
  • Cultural context (customs and practices, possible extension of historical)

Am I forgetting anything?

How would a Bible student take these contextual considerations and apply them to an expository interpretation of this passage?

What other matters of context could be considered, but aren't considered here? Why? When would they be considered elsewhere? Why?

I'm hoping for an Answer with an exhaustive list of "contexts" to consider so that it can be used as a kind of checklist when interpreting any Bible passage. Bible study sources for why these contexts would be good.

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2 Answers 2

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I will provide a very biased answer to this very broad question. It is biased because I believe that all theology is a branch of Christology. Therefore, in trying to understand a Biblical passage, I would ask myself the following questions:

  • What did the passage mean to the person that wrote it?
  • What did the passage mean to the person/people to whom it was addressed?
  • In what context and historical setting and circumstances was this message given? This should include a consideration of the milieu and common attitudes of the people at the time.
  • What similar passages exist elsewhere in Scripture that are either, linguistically similar/parallel or semantically similar?
  • If the passage is in the OT, what does the NT say about it (if anything)?
  • What does this passage teach us about the work, life, ministry, nature and atonement of the Savior, Jesus Christ?
  • What can I learn (either positively or negatively, ie, traps to avoid) from what other people have said and think about the passage.

The sample passage is an excellent example to illustrate the above process.

The prophecy of Isa 11 is given in the context of the promise of a remnant returning from the (then still future) Babylonian captivity. The thrust of the prophecy is that the remnant's return is assured because it is from the progeny of Jesse, King David, that the future Messiah and king will come.

Paul uses this prophecy and expands its meaning to show that Jesus Christ was not a mere Jew - He was Messiah to the entire world and Savior of the whole human race.

Interestingly, the original audience of Isaiah possibly did not fully grasp the significance of Isaiah's prophecy which illustrates the value of the NT inspired commentary on some of these OT passages.

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  • Are there any specific contextual factors you would rule out? I'm curious also about when not to apply contextual research and what all we should be considering regardless. Mar 17 at 6:09
  • @JesseSteele - perhaps you have something in mind - context is a very slippery idea - some appear to move independently of context and always swim against the current.
    – Dottard
    Mar 17 at 6:12
  • Not anything in mind. I just wonder: historical, textual, linguistic, cultural... What else is there? Why don't I dive more into this one? What goes through your mind with that. I'm hoping visitors can see how many of us think through understanding a passage. Mar 17 at 6:22
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    @JesseSteele - it raises an important point that sometimes, some contexts must be shown to be either relevant or not relevant (depending on the circumstances) and thus it incumbent on the exegete to show why some contexts matter or otherwise.
    – Dottard
    Mar 17 at 6:42
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I think you've stated most of the types of contexts in the question. I would think of them as consisting of three big categories of context for interpretation, and one for application.

Literature context

The Bible is a collection of individual texts, and so the first category of context is to consider that text as a self-contained piece of literature. What has the author said before this part of the text, and what do they go on to say afterwards? How does this small part of the text contribute to the message of the whole text?

Most of the books of the Bible are long enough to have internal structure too. Sometimes that structure is very clear, other times it's harder to spot. To study a Psalm you should consider not just a verse says in the context of that Psalm, not just what that Psalm says in the whole book of Psalms, but also the place it has within the five 'books' of the Psalms. Each of those five books have distinct characteristics, even though it does sometimes seem like the Psalms have been grouped and ordered arbitrarily.

Some books of the Bible also have a very close connection with each other. Books like 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings were apparently originally one text which have been divided later on. The twelve Minor Prophets have always been grouped together and so have a closer relationship with each other than they do with Daniel, which in Hebrew Bibles is placed far away from the Book of the Twelve.

External context

In this category we have the historical, cultural, audience, etc contexts. I'm grouping them together here because they're all closely related and intertwined.

Each human author of the Bible was raised in a particular culture at a particular time. They wrote to or for an audience, who may or may not share that culture and time. Many books of the Bible appear to have been edited after their original composition, and so we have potentially another historical context laid over the top of the original.

The later books of the Bible, both the latter parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, and the New Testament, were both written by and for people who had some knowledge of the earlier parts of the Bible. But what they thought about it isn't always clear. Some of the prophets were writing to people who had seen the curses from Deuteronomy be enacted on their nation, but before any relief from God was felt. By the time of the New Testament, we have a complex relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the early Church: their knowledge of the scriptures was largely mediated through a Greek translation, which some substantial semantic differences too. Centuries of theological development had led to more discussion of angels, demons, and the afterlife. And they used religious texts which later Christians have debated and sometimes rejected the inspiration of.

Canonical context

Those who study the Bible who have personal religious convictions usually believe that the scriptures are inspired by God, and so in addition to the human agency that led to their authorship, they are also authored by God. So here we can talk about not just authors who wrote multiple texts (like Solomon or Paul), but how texts from thousands of years apart could have been divinely inspired and purposed. Canonical context will consider how God is progressively revealing himself through the scriptures, through texts which build upon one another, as well as through texts which appear, at least on the surface, to contradict each other. Divinely inspired tensions and juxtapositions in the Bible expose layers of meaning which the human authors may not have been aware of.

Application context

Teachers of the Bible also need to consider how the text has been understood and taught over the history leading up to them. This is not hermeneutics proper, but it does inform how we read and teach the scriptures, so we also need to be aware of it. Almost none of us approach the Bible as a clean slate. We come from communities that have read and applied passages in various ways.

Previous generations are our guides - when we come up with a novel interpretation we should consider it carefully, for it is usually more likely that we are mistaken than everyone else in history, especially if you believe that God was guiding them as they read the scriptures. But equally, if our interpretation matches exactly with what you have been given, it's likely you have missed some small nuance in the text; the Bible is just too strange, so there should always be something that makes you question. The person who reads the scriptures and says "Yes I can see what the author is saying here, but there's just one verse that has a weird theological implication" has likely understood the passage better than someone who sees nothing weird in it.

Understanding the context we live in will also help us share the truths of the scriptures more effectively with those around us. There are some heavy topics in the scriptures, and we need pastoral sensitivity to teach them well. For example, no one now can teach Ephesians 5 without being aware of the great harms done by people misreading that passage and using it as a weapon. A sermon doesn't have to explicitly mention how it has been misused before - tangents like that can often be unhelpfully distracting - but the teacher needs to be aware of potential pitfalls so that they can communicate clearly and effectively.

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  • Mod to mod, this is the type of Answer I was hoping for, also many more of. The Question has no clear answer, maybe only a "best" Answer. But, might you provide at least one link, either for sources or for "further reading"? (lol) Mar 23 at 6:09
  • I'll have a think about what links I can give...
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 23 at 6:11

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