When reading the text of the Bible, one will sometimes come across a verse or a statement that seems to mean something odd. For instance, recently at the church this author attends, the pastor discussed the laws of cleanness as they relate to childbirth and pointed out that, if that was all we had, we would be inclined to think that childbirth is, itself, sinful and an affront to God. The key phrase in there is, ‘if that was all we had’.
This is what context is all about. It allows us to look at a broader scope to more fully understand what we’re reading. In the case of Leviticus 12, there are other portions of scripture scattered throughout the Bible that show that children are a blessing and that we are encouraged to have them. So we know, by bringing the weight of scripture to bear on this verse, that ‘childbirth is sinful’ wasn’t what was meant. This is a particular kind of context, which for the purposes of this article will be called expanded textual context. Let’s take a brief moment and define the primary forms of context, because some of these are terms that are being fabricated right now for this article and it is important that we’re on the same page.
Historical context – The specific events happening around the time and place of the writing that can influence the text.
Linguistic context – This is the specific language used in the original text. As nearly every Bible in the world is translated from another language (or two, frequently), there are subtlties and slang which may be lost in the final product.
Cultural context – The traditions, laws, and social environment within which the text was written.
Textual context – Local or expanded. The surrounding portions of text which lend meaning to the portion in question. Local refers to text within the same book, very frequently the same chapter, as the portion in question; expanded refers to text in various other parts of the Bible which discuss the same topic or directly explain the portion in question.
Thematic context – Closely related to expanded textual context. The overarching ideas and concepts that provide a consistency in the text to which specific portions can be compared.
The thing about context is that, unlike our agenda, we have no control over the context within which the Bible is written. We can only choose how much of it we’re going to study and how much of it we’re going to take into consideration when determining the meaning of a passage. We must be careful that we won’t overlay incorrect context on the Bible, or fail to overlay any at all, as there is a lot in there that can be taken the wrong way if taken alone.
So how do we study context? Well, as stated, a lot of it is present within the Bible itself. The textual and thematic contexts are found simply by reading more of the Bible with appropriate agenda. There are also some explanations on the cultural and historical context in there, as well, as many books (especially in the Old Testament) take time to explain their place in history. Beyond that, however, are a wealth of tools one can use to dig deeper into the context.
Concordances are a great start. In many Bibles, there will be a small one in the back, though you can also buy exhaustive ones at most bookstores or use online ones for free. These will show the way that common themes and ideas are represented throughout the Bible by listing verses in which a certain word or idea appears. They also frequently use a system (most commonly Strong’s Numbers) to help you sift through a dictionary of Greek and Hebrew words, to get a stronger sense of why the original authors used the specific words they did and how that can help shed light on the meaning of the text.
Commentaries, good ones at least, will go into extensive detail about each passage and discuss the way it relates to the rest of the Bible, history, and culture. Some are more focused on one of these aspects than the others, and it’s handy to have a few available. One should be careful with these, however, as it is very easy to push a false doctrine or agenda through a commentary. Always check who the author is, and what sort of history they have with presenting Christ in text.