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Over the past two weeks, I have been excerpting Dr Craig S Keener’s introduction to biblical hermeneutics: Biblical Interpretation.  My recent entries, taken from Chapters 7 – 10: Context of Genre, have focused on literary genres in the Old Testament. Today’s post looks at New Testament genres.

Emphases below are mine.

6. Jesus’ Teachings

Jesus’ teachings are not a broad genre like poetry or narrative; in fact, they mix together elements of different kinds of genres. Jesus was, among other things, a Jewish sage, so he often uses the teaching style used by Jewish teachers in his day: for example, rhetorical overstatements, wisdom proverbs (see [previous post]), and parables. At the same time, Jesus was a prophet, and sometimes gave oracles like prophets did (“Woe to you, Capernaum…!”) Of course, as the Messiah, Jesus was more than a prophet or a sage, and he often spoke with greater authority than either prophets or sages did. But he also used many teaching techniques that were familiar to his people in his day.

For our example, we will take Jesus’ teaching on divorce. Many people assume that what Jesus said on a particular occasion covers every situation, but while that is often the case, sometimes Jesus himself provided different perspectives for different kinds of situations. Thus we recognize that while Jesus wants us to love him more than our parents, we “hate” them only by comparison with our love for him (Lk 14:26); elsewhere he instructs us to provide for them in their old age (Mk 7:10-13) …

First we should examine the “why” of Jesus’ teaching, as best as possible. In Jesus’ day the Pharisees debated among themselves as to the grounds for a husband to divorce his wife; the stricter school said a man could divorce his wife if she were unfaithful to him, but the more lenient school said he could divorce his wife if she burned his bread. In Jewish Palestine (as opposed to Roman laws), husbands could divorce their wives for almost any reason; wives could not divorce their husbands or prevent themselves from being divorced. Jesus was at least in part defending an innocent party from being wronged: the husband who divorces his wife and remarries commits adultery “against her”–against his wife (Mk 10:11). This was a sin not only against God, but also against another person innocent of the divorce (cf. also Mal 2:14).

Second we should examine what this saying literally claims. “Adultery” in the literal sense is being unfaithful to one’s marriage partner; for remarriage to be adultery against a former spouse means that, in God’s sight, one is still married to one’s former spouse. If we take this literally, this means that marriage cannot be dissolved, and that Christians should break up all second and third marriages. (Interestingly, despite the scandal this would have caused in ancient society, we have no record of anyone breaking up later marriages in the New Testament.) But is this a literal statement, or one of Jesus’ deliberate overstatements meant to grab people’s attention–like plucking out the eye, a camel passing through a needle’s eye, or a mustard seed of faith? We can easily answer this question by examining Jesus’ other sayings on the same subject.

In the same context as Mark 10:11, Jesus also says, “What God joined together, let no one separate” (Mk 10:9). In 10:11, marriage cannot be broken; in 10:9, it should not be and must not be, but it is breakable. The difference in meaning here is this: one says that one is always married to one’s first spouse; the other says that one should remain married to one’s first spouse. The one is a statement; the other is a demand. Yet marriage cannot be both unbreakable and breakable; so it is possible that 10:11 is a deliberate overstatement (hyperbole) whereas 10:9 communicates its real intention: to keep us from divorcing, not to break up new marriages.

Other sayings of Jesus help us further. For instance, Jesus himself did not take Mk 10:11 literally: he regarded the Samaritan woman as married five times, not as married once and committing only adultery thereafter (Jn 4:18). Further, Jesus himself allows an exception in two of the four passages where he addresses divorce. A follower of Christ must not break up their marriage, but if their spouse breaks it up by sexual unfaithfulness, Jesus does not punish the innocent person (Matt 5:32; 19:9). In that case, the marriage may be broken, but only one person is guilty of breaking it. (Because both Jewish and Roman law required divorce for adultery, Mark and Luke could assume this exception without having to state it explicitly.) When Paul quotes Jesus’ prohibition of divorce, he tells Christians not to divorce their spouses, whether or not the spouses are Christian (1 Cor 7:10-14). But if the spouse leaves, the Christian is not held responsible for the spouse’s behavior (1 Cor 7:15). His wording, “not under bondage,” “not bound” (7:15), is the very language used in ancient Jewish divorce contracts for freedom to remarry. Paul therefore applies Jesus’ teaching as a demand for faithfulness to marriage, not a statement about breaking up marriages: Christians must never break up their own marriages, but if the marriage is broken against their will, we must not punish them, either. Jesus spoke to defend an innocent spouse, not to make their condition more difficult!

But even though Jesus is not really calling Christians to break up remarriages, this does not mean we should not take seriously what he is saying. The point of a deliberate overstatement is not to let us say, “Oh, that is just overstatement; we may ignore it.” The point of overstatement is to grab our attention, to force us to consider how serious is his demand. Genuine repentance (expressed in restitution) cancels past sins, but one cannot premeditate sin and expect one’s repentance to be genuine. Christians are not held responsible for marriages broken against their wills, but they are responsible before God to do everything genuinely in their power to make their marriages work. In this example, we have tried to show how we need to listen carefully to why Jesus speaks certain ways, and to examine all of his teachings to discern when he speaks literally and when he overstates his point parabolically. But overstatements are not meant to be ignored; they are meant to grip our attention all the more! We should also add two words of caution: Jesus himself uses principles like “compassion rather than sacrifice” (Matt 9:13; 12:7) and looking for the heart of the message (Matt 5:21-22; 23:23-24). But also we should be honest in grappling with what he says: proper fear of God will give us integrity in searching for truth rather than trying to justify how we want to live (cf. Prov 1:7).

7. Gospels

The Gospels are a specific kind of narrative, but rather than treating them only as narrative we make some special points here. The Gospels fit the format of ancient biographies. (Some early twentieth century scholars disputed this premise, but more recent scholarship has increasingly returned to the historic view that the Gospels are ancient biographies.)

Ancient biographers followed some fairly standard conventions in their writing, but some of these differed from the ways we write biographies today. For example, ancient biographies sometimes started with their subject’s adulthood (as in Mark or John) and sometimes arranged their story in topical more than chronological order (so, for example, Matthew’s reports of Jesus’ teaching; that is why events are not always in the same order from one Gospel to another). Nevertheless, biographers were not free to make up new stories about their heroes; they could choose which stories to report and put them in their own words, but other writers criticized those who made stories up. Further, one need not quote people verbatim, though one did have to get correct the sense of what they meant. Knowing such details about various kinds of ancient narratives helps us be even more precise when we learn principles for interpreting narratives. (We can also identify other kinds of narratives in the Bible more specifically than we have; for example, the Book of Acts is a special kind of history book that was common in the first century.)

Here we offer just a few comments on the historical trustworthiness of the Gospels as ancient biographies, using Luke 1:1-4 as a simple outline. We know from Luke 1:1 that by the time that Luke wrote, many written sources (other Gospels) were already in circulation. (Most of those Gospels no longer exist. Apart from the Gospels in the New Testament, all first-century Gospels have been lost. The so-called “Lost Gospels” some people speak about are forgeries, novels, or sayings-collections from later eras.) Luke himself writes in the lifetime of some of the apostles, and already many others have written before him! People were writing Gospels when others still remembered Jesus’ teachings very accurately ...

Further, we can trust the testimony of these eyewitnesses. The apostles remained in positions of leadership in the early church; both Acts and Paul mention Jesus’ brother and the leading apostles in Jerusalem. (No one had any reason to invent such people, and the spread of Christianity started somewhere; further, diverse sources attest them. So virtually no one today denies their existence.) Because of their leadership, no one could make up stories about Jesus that contradicted their true reports about Jesus. Further, no one can accuse them of lying about Jesus. They were so convinced that they spoke truth about him that they were prepared to die for their claims. Moreover, they were not simply dying for what they believed; they were dying for what they saw and heard when they were with him.

Third, Luke had the opportunity to investigate their claims (Lk 1:3, according to the Greek and most translations). Back when it was still possible to do so, Luke verified his sources by interviewing witnesses, wherever possible. Some sections of Acts say “we” because Luke was traveling with Paul at those points, and those sections include their journey to Jerusalem and Palestine, where they remained two years (Acts 21:15-17; 24:27; 27:1). That gave him the opportunity to interview Jesus’ younger brother James, among others (Acts 21:18).

Finally, Luke himself would not be able to make these stories up. He is confirming accounts for Theophilus, not introducing new ones (Lk 1:4). That is, while some eyewitnesses are still alive, the stories Luke records were already known by Theophilus. This further confirms to us that, even on purely historical grounds, the Gospels are trustworthy. (In the same way, Paul can remind his readers of miracles they themselves have witnessed, often through his ministry, or mention that other witnesses of the risen Christ are still alive and hence available for interview: 1 Cor 15:6; 2 Cor 12:12; Gal 3:5.)

8. Letters

As we read letters in the Bible, we must read them first of all as letters addressed to real people in the writer’s own day, for this is what they explicitly claim to be (e.g., Rom 1:7). Only after we have understood the letters in their own historical context can we consider how to rightly apply them to our situations today. In contrast to those who assume that letters require less interpretation than other parts of Scripture, they are actually among the parts of Scripture most closely tied to their historical situation …

As we noted in more detail above, cultural background in Bible study is not optional; we must take the original situation into account to fully understand the Bible. This is at least as true of letters as it is of every other part of the Bible, and maybe more so, because letters explicitly address specific congregations or people facing specific situations. Some passages are difficult to understand because the original audience already knew what was being addressed, and we are not always able to reconstruct it (2 Thess 2:5); in such cases we must learn humility!

Writers of biblical letters often followed standards of “rhetoric,” proper speaking and writing conventions of their day. Knowing some of those customs can help us understand the letters better (for instance, why Paul often opens with “grace and peace be with you, from God and Christ,” which links Christ as deity alongside the Father). At the same time, those writers were not simply showing off their writing abilities. They were making points, correcting problems and encouraging Christians in particular situations … These writers applied eternal principles to concrete situations in their own day

When we apply them, we must make sure that we find the appropriate analogies between the situations Paul addresses and our situations today. For example, some interpreters believe that Paul prohibits most women in one congregation from teaching because they were generally uneducated, hence could prove easily misled (1 Tim 2:11-12). In that culture, his command that they should “learn” (2:11; “quietly and submissively” was the appropriate way for all novices to learn) actually liberated women, who normally did not receive direct instruction except by sitting in services. It makes a difference whether or not this is the issue: if not, the appropriate analogy today may be that women should never teach the Bible (though this would leave in question what to do with other texts, like Rom 16:1-2, 7; Phil 4:2-3; Judg 4:4; 1 Cor 11:4-5). If so, the analogy today may be that unlearned people, whether male or female, should not teach the Bible.

Gordon Fee, in one of his chapters on “Epistles” in his book co-authored with Doug Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Zondervan, 1993), suggests two main general principles for interpreting letters. First, “a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers” (p. 64). He notes for instance that one cannot argue that the “perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13:10 refers to the completion of the New Testament–since Paul’s readers had no way of knowing that there would be a New Testament. Second, “Whenever we share comparable particulars (i.e., similar specific life situations) with the first-century setting, God’s Word to us is the same as his Word to them” (p. 65). Murmuring, complaining, sexual immorality and greed will always be wrong, no matter how much or little any culture practices them.

What do we do with texts that address situations very much unlike our situations today? Jewish and Gentile Christians divided over food laws and holy days, and Paul warned them in Romans 14 not to divide over such secondary matters. If we are in circles where we do not know any Christians who keep Old Testament festivals and who abstain from pork, do we simply skip over this chapter? Yet Paul’s advice in this chapter works from a broader principle in addressing the specific situation. The principle is that we should not divide from one another over secondary issues, issues that are not at the heart of the gospel and Christian morality.

Paul wrote to specific, real-life congregations. Because he was not expecting Christians for many centuries later to keep reading his letters in different cultures and situations (cf. Mk 13:32), he did not stop to distinguish for us his transcultural principles on which he based his advice from the concrete advice he gave to these congregations in their situations. Fee lists several principles for distinguishing transcultural principles from the specific examples the Bible gives us, the most important of which we have adapted here. First, we should look for the “core,” or the transcultural principle in the text. This is important so we keep the emphasis on Christ’s gospel and do not become legalists on details like some of Jesus’ enemies were. Second, the Bible presents some matters as transcultural moral norms, such as in Paul’s vice lists (Rom 1:28-31; 1 Cor 6:9-10). But in different cultures the Bible allowed different customs in terms of women’s work outside the home (Prov 31:16, 24; 1 Tim 5:14) or various forms of ministry (Judg 4:4; Phil 4:3; 1 Tim 2:12). If different passages allow different practices, we see these practices as providing guidelines in a specific culture, but not a transcultural principle behind them without exceptions.

Third, we need to understand the cultural options available to the writer. For example, biblical writers wrote in an era where no one was trying to abolish slavery; that the Bible’s writers do not explicitly address an issue that no one had raised does not suggest that they would have side with slavery’s supporters had the question been raised! On the other hand, Greeks in Paul’s day held various views regarding premarital sex, homosexual intercourse, and so on, but the Bible is unanimous in condemning such practices. Fourth, we need to take into account differences in situation: in the first century, men were far more apt to be educated, including in the Bible, than women; would Paul have written exactly the same applications for today, when women and men are more likely to share equal opportunities for education? Fee’s principles resemble those we articulated above on the use of cultural background.

We may provide one stark example of how we need to take Paul’s situation into account. In two texts, Paul requires women to keep “silence” in church (1 Cor 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:12). If we press this to mean all that it could mean, women should not even sing in church! Few churches today press these verses this far, but are they ignoring the passages’ meaning? Not necessarily. In other texts, Paul commends women for their labors for the kingdom (Phil 4:2-3), and in Romans 16 commends more women for their services than men (even though he mentions more men!) Moreover, he at least occasionally uses his most common terms for his male fellow workers to some women: “fellow worker” (Prisca, Rom 16:3); diakonos (“servant,” Phoebe, Rom 16:1); and once even “apostle” (Junia, according to the best translations; Rom 16:7)! Even more importantly, he accepts women praying and prophesying with their heads covered (1 Cor 11:4-5). How can they pray and prophesy if later in the same letter he requires them to be completely silent in church (1 Cor 14:34-35)? Does the Bible contradict itself here? Did Paul contradict himself in the very same letter?

But the two texts about silence probably do not address all kinds of silence, but deal with special kinds of situations. The only kind of speech specifically addressed in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is asking questions (14:35). It was common for people to interrupt teachers and lecturers with questions in Jewish and Greek cultures alike; but it was rude for unlearned people to do so, and they might have considered it especially rude for unlearned women. Keep in mind that women were usually much less educated than men; in Jewish culture, in fact, boys were taught to recite God’s law but girls almost never received this education. As to 1 Timothy 2:11-12, scholars still debate how Paul uses the Old Testament background (he applies Old Testament examples different ways in different passages, even the example of Eve: 2 Cor 11:3). But one point, at least, is interesting: Paul’s letters to Timothy in Ephesus are the only letters in the entire Bible where we know that false teachers were specifically targeting women with their false teachings (2 Tim 3:6). In fact, they may have targeted widows (1 Tim 5:9) who owned homes so they could use their houses for churches–one of the Greek terms in 1 Tim 5:13 nearly always meant spreading “nonsense” or false ideas. Those who knew less about the Bible were naturally most susceptible to false teachings; those who do not know the Bible should not be allowed to teach it. Whatever other conclusions one may draw from this, it seems unlikely that Paul would have refused to let women sing in church!

But Fee also cautions against extending the application too far beyond the point in the text. If the law is summed up in love (Rom 13:8-10), we apply the text rightly to love our neighbor as ourselves, a principle which has a potentially infinite number of applications. But some people have taught as if this principle empties all the moral content of the law, so that adultery or bank robbery are fine as long as one is motivated by love. That such an application twists the meaning of the text is obvious, but we practice other such distortions all the time. For instance, we sometimes quote 1 Corinthians 3:16, “you are a temple of God,” … Paul’s own primary point, however, is that our bodies should not be joined to prostitutes (6:15-17). This is a text to be used against sexual immorality! If we try to apply the principle also to smoking, because that is not glorifying God with our bodies, then we should also apply it to gluttony, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, and other problems damaging to our bodies. Our extension of Paul’s principle in this verse may be legitimate, but it is certainly secondary to Paul’s own focus, and Paul’s own focus should be primary to us: if we are joined to Christ, we must avoid sexual immorality.

Different letters were written in different ways, but for the most part we need to read letters carefully in sequence and the entire way through. Romans develops an argument through the entire book (as noted above); 1 Corinthians takes on several related issues, but most of those issues take up many paragraphs through several chapters (1 Cor 1-4, the church divided especially over the most skilled speakers; 1 Cor 5-7, mainly sexual issues; 1 Cor 8-11, mainly food issues; 1 Cor 12-14, spiritual gifts). You might practice discerning that argument by thinking up titles for each paragraph and show how these paragraphs relate to one another, developing a continuous argument.

Keener offers a selection of questions to apply when reading the Epistles — well worth a look.

Monday: Old Testament prophets and New Testament end-times prophecy

Today’s post examines more descriptions and examples of biblical genre from Dr Craig S Keener’s introduction to hermeneutics, Biblical Interpretation.  Today, we continue with Chapters 7 – 10: Context of Genre.

Keener presents a thorough examination of genre, not all of which is covered in the excerpts below.  Therefore, please refer to his link to read the chapters in full.  Emphases below are mine.

Yesterday, Keener introduced us to an overview of genre then explored narrative.  Another example of narrative is the parable. There are also historical narratives. Other genres, in addition to narrative, include prayers and songs, such as the Psalms. We also have genres of wisdom and romantic literature. (More genres to come tomorrow.) Emphases below are mine.


Parables are a specific kind of narrative that differs somewhat from other kinds of narrative. Ancient Israelite sages in the Old Testament and in the time of Jesus used various graphic teaching forms to communicate their wisdom, forms that usually made their hearers think carefully about what they were saying. One such kind of teaching was the proverb (which we will address below). A larger category of teaching (covered by the Hebrew word mashal) includes proverbs, short comparisons, and sometimes more extended comparisons, including some actually intended to be allegorized (unlike most kinds of narrative in the Bible)!

By Jesus’ day, Jewish teachers often communicated by telling stories in which one or two or sometimes more characters might stand for something in the real world … When Jesus told parables, therefore, his hearers would already be familiar with them and know how to take them.

But even though Jesus’ parables sometimes were extended analogies with truths in the real world (for instance, the four different kinds of soil in the parable of the sower, Mk 4:3-20), they often included some details simply necessary for the story to make good sense, or to make it a well-told story. (This is also the case with other Jewish parables from this period.) For instance, when the Pharisee and the tax-gatherer pray in the temple (Lk 18:10), the temple does not “represent” something; that was simply the favorite place for Jerusalemites to pray. When the owner of the vineyard built a wall around his vineyard (Mk 12:1), we should not struggle to determine what the wall represents; it was simply a standard feature of vineyards, and forces the attentive reader to recognize that Jesus is alluding to the Old Testament parable in Isaiah 5:5 so the readers will know that the vineyard represents Israel

Let us look at the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-35. In this parable, a man goes “down” from Jerusalem toward Jericho, when he is overtaken by robbers who beat him and leave him nearly dead. A priest and Levite pass by him, but finally a Samaritan rescues him and takes him to an inn. Augustine, a profound thinker and church father from the coast of North Africa, decided that this was the gospel story: Adam went “down” because he fell into sin, was abused by the devil, was not helped by the law but was finally saved by Christ as a good Samaritan. One could preach this interpretation and actually expect conversions, because one would be preaching the gospel. But one could preach the gospel without attaching it to this particular parable, and in fact this is not what the parable means in its context in Luke.

In Luke 10:29, a lawyer asks Jesus who is his “neighbor” that the Bible commands him to love (cf. 10:25-28). Jesus responds that his neighbor might even turn out to be a Samaritan–that real love must cross racial, tribal, even religious lines. This was probably not the answer the lawyer wanted to hear; the answer remains offensive enough even to many people today to suggest why many people would not want the parable to mean this! But why would the man go “down” from Jerusalem to Jericho? Simply because Jericho is lower in elevation than Jerusalem! Further, the road to Jericho (like many roads) hosted many robbers; a man who traveled alone would make an easy target, especially at night. The priest and Levite who passed by on the other side of the road (10:31-32) probably did so to avoid contracting ritual impurity; many Jewish teachers felt that one would become unclean for a week if even one’s shadow touched a corpse, and one could not tell, unless one got close, if someone “half-dead” (10:30) were really dead or alive.

The point of the story is that some very religious people did not act very neighborly, but that a person from whom one would not expect it did so. Perhaps if we told the story today we would talk about a Sunday School teacher or minister who passed by on the other side, but a Muslim or someone from a hostile tribe rescued the person. Our hearers might react with hostility to such a comparison–but that is exactly the way Jesus’ hearers would have reacted to his. The lawyer’s “neighbor” might be a Samaritan. Ours might be someone we are tempted to dislike no less intensely, but Jesus commands us to love everyone.

Narratives and History

Following the influence of the Western Enlightenment, many western scholars grew skeptical of miracles hence skeptical of biblical accounts as history. Discovery after discovery from the ancient world has challenged this skepticism, new trends have begun to challenge old Enlightenment views, and today most scholars, whether Christian or not, focus more on the meaning of the text than its relation to history.

But the early church did expect Christian leaders to be able to respond to objections raised against the faith (2 Tim 2:25-26; Tit 1:9), so we will briefly introduce some of these issues here …

Some nineteenth-century scholars asking historical questions noted that some parts of the Bible overlapped, such as Kings and Chronicles or Mark and Matthew. Thus they developed a method called “source history,” trying to reconstruct what sources biblical writers of history used. Clearly, if they depended on earlier sources, they did not simply make things up from their imaginations. Many passages in the Bible mention their sources (Num 21:14; Josh 10:13; 2 Sam 1:18; 1 Kgs 14:19; 1 Chr 29:29; 2 Chr 27:7); 1 and 2 Chronicles cite a “Book of Kings” ten times (nine of them from 2 Chr 16 on). Although the Gospel writers write closer to the time of the events they describe, when many sources probably reported similar events, hence they do not need to name their sources, they do make it clear that many were available (Lk 1:1). Although there remains some debate, the majority scholarly view is that Matthew and Luke both used Mark and some other material they shared in common.

Beyond such a basic consensus, however, source history provided few widely accepted views. Early twentieth-century “scissors-and-paste” approaches (where skeptics chopped up Scripture to their liking) are now almost universally rejected, weakening the value of those commentaries that followed it. We also know that ancient Mediterranean storytellers drew on a wide variety of sources, including oral traditions, so we cannot always identify which report derives from which source.

Some other scholars advanced a method called “form history”; Jesus’ teaching and works were reported in several different literary forms. Some of these distinct forms (such as parables) are clear, but traditional form-historians speculated too much about which forms were used by the church in particular ways, and most of their early speculations have been refuted by later scholars.

Scholars then moved to redaction-history, or editorial history. If Matthew used Mark as a source, why does Matthew edit or adapt Mark the ways that he does? Ancient biographers had complete freedom to rearrange sources and put them in their own words; a simple comparison of Matthew, Mark and Luke will indicate that they do not always follow the same sequence or use the same wording to describe the same event, and such differences are to be expected …

While there is some value in each of the above approaches, modern scholars have turned especially in two directions. The first is various forms of literary criticism, a basic component of which is usually reading each book as a whole unit to understand its meaning. The second is the social history approach, which focuses on what we have called “background.” Nearly all biblical scholars today, across the entire range from “conservative” to “liberal,” accept the validity of both these approaches.

2. Laws in the Bible

Biblical laws have much to teach us about justice, even if we need to take into account the culture and era of history they addressed. Thus God informs Israel that no other nation has such righteous laws as they do (Deut 4:8) and the psalmist celebrates and meditates continually on God’s law (Ps 119:97).

Some laws, like the ten commandments, are stated largely as transcultural principles; it is also difficult to find genuine parallels to them in other ancient Near Eastern legal collections. Most laws, however, addressed ancient Israel as civil laws for how Israel’s society should work; these were addressed specifically to an ancient Near Eastern framework, and we need to think carefully when we look for appropriate analogies in how to apply them today …

But the laws in the Old Testament, while improving the standards of their culture, do not always provide us with God’s perfect ideal of justice. In any culture, civil laws provide a minimum standard to enable people to work together efficiently, but do not address all moral issues; for instance, a law may say, “Do not kill”; but only God can enforce the fullest implications of that law for moral standards, i.e., “You shall not want to kill” (Matt 5:21-26) …

When some scholars cited Deuteronomy 24 as permission for a man to divorce his wife, Jesus said that law was a “concession” to human sinfulness (Mk 10:5): that is, God did not raise the standard to its ultimate ideal because he was working within their culture. To provide workable laws in a sinful society, God limited sin rather than prohibiting it altogether. But the morality God really demands from the human heart goes beyond such concessions. God never approved of a man divorcing his wife, except for very limited reasons (Mk 10:9; Matt 19:9). Other concessions in the Old Testament may include polygamy, indentured servanthood, and perhaps holy war; God worked through or in spite of these practices, but his ideal in the New Testament is better. Ritual and civil laws may contain some moral absolutes, but they also contain concessions to the time and culture they addressed, just as Jesus recognized.

At the same time, some offenses always carried the death penalty in the Old Testament, suggesting that God took these quite seriously for all cultures: murder, sorcery, idolatry, adultery, premarital sex, homosexual intercourse, extreme rebellion against parents, and some other offenses. This does not mean that we should enforce the death penalty against all these sins today, but we should take all these offenses seriously.

The law remains good and useful for ethical teaching, provided we use it properly (Rom 3:27-31; 7:12; 1 Tim 1:8-11). But mere obedience to the law without faith has never brought salvation; God always saved people by grace through faith (Rom 4:3-12), and since the coming of Jesus he has saved people through faith in Jesus Christ. When we consider how to apply particular details of the law today, we should also take into account other factors. Some biblical patterns, like God’s command to us to rest, were given prior to the law (Gen 2:2-3; Ex 20:11), and God also gives us commands in the New Testament (Jn 13:34; Acts 2:38; 1 Jn 2:7-11). Also, the Spirit was quite active in the Old Testament era (1 Sam 19:20-24; 1 Chr 25:1-2), but has become active in a new way in Christ (Jn 7:39; Acts 1:7-8; 2:17-18).

3. Biblical Prayers and Songs, especially Psalms

In some cases we have the historical context for psalms (e.g., 2 Sam 22:1 for Ps 18; 2 Sam 23:1-7), but in more cases we do not. One can gather that some psalms reflect mourning after the exile (e.g., Psalm 89, especially 89:38-51), but the context of some other psalms, say Psalm 150, is obscure–and ultimately not as necessary as with some other parts of the Bible. God inspired the psalms not only for the immediate circumstances that generated them, but for use in liturgical worship in later times (2 Chron 29:30); most resonate with many kinds of circumstances

Psalms on the whole may be meant less to be interpreted than to be prayed and sung. Once a person is full of the psalms, they also provide models for our own spontaneous worship to God …

Over sixty of the psalms give individuals or groups examples how to express our discouragement, suffering or sorrow in prayer to God; these are often called “laments.” Some Christians today think that we should never admit that we are discouraged; biblically, however, we should openly express our hurts to God. These psalms often follow a consistent structure; most include a statement of suffering, an expression of trust in God, a cry for deliverance, the assurance that God will deliver, and finally praise for God’s faithfulness. Prayers like this help us deal with our suffering rather than allowing it to crush our spirit.

Thanksgiving psalms are appropriate for celebrating God’s kindness to us, and are thus in some sense for different situations than laments (James 5:13); ancient temple worshipers may have sometimes used these during thank offerings (Lev 7:7-11) … In addition to these are many psalms [called] “hymns of praise,” which worship God without such focus on particular matters for thanksgiving (8, 19, 33, 66, 100, 103, 104, 111, 113, 114, 117, 145-50). Others emphasize trust in the Lord (11, 16, 23, 27, 62, 63, 91, 121, 125, 131).

The work of the biblical historians, prophets, and sages is compatible with psalms as well. Some psalms celebrate God’s work in our heritage in Israel’s history (78, 105, 106, 135, 136); some sound like the messages of the prophets, including a covenant lawsuit summoning God’s people to obedience (Ps 50); some are wisdom psalms, sounding like the teaching of the sages (1, 36, 37, 49, 73, 112, 119, 127, 128, 133). We can teach and learn through our worship (Col 3:16) …

We are trying to read the psalms according to their intention, thus according to their rhetorical function. Thus some psalms sound as if God always grants blessing to the righteous, whereas others note the frequent distresses of the righteous. Yet both psalms are in the same psalter, because those who first wrote and sang the psalms saw no contradiction; they used the psalms to express their hearts before God, and God inspired their worship and was pleased with it …

Psalms are mainly meant to be prayed, but we can also preach and teach from them provided we recognize that we are teaching models for various kinds of prayer. For instance, Psalm 150 tells us where to praise God–both in his sanctuary and in heaven, i.e., everywhere (150:1; Hebrew often summarized the whole by contrasting opposite parts); why we should praise God–both for what he has done and for who he is (150:2); how we should praise God–with dancing and all available instruments (150:3-5); and finally, who should praise God–anyone with breath (150:6). The Psalms also can provide other encouragement. For example, Psalm 2 predicts the victory of Israel’s king over the nations who mock him. This reminds us that ultimately it is not people in our society or other societies that wield power over us; God is in control, and he will reveal that; no human empire that rebels against him has ever endured and none ever will.

4. Proverbs

Wisdom teachers, or sages, often taught in easily memorizable sayings called proverbs. Most cultures have some familiarity with this genre; Americans have sayings like, “Haste makes waste,” and traditional African societies have made much more abundant use of proverbs.

Proverbs are short, succinct statements of general principle. As such, they are summaries of what is normal, not unconditional promises for all circumstances. Some general principles may actually conflict with one another in practice in specific situations. Thus in Proverbs 26:4-5 one should both answer a fool according to his folly, and not answer a fool according to his folly. For his sake you should correct him; for your sake you should be careful not to become like him. Both are true principles, and recognizing both requires us to keep attentive to the breadth of Scripture, rather than taking one text and reading it into all others without first considering the meaning of each text.

One who preaches from Proverbs may wish to gather different proverbs on the same topic and preach them together. This is important because most of the Book of Proverbs consists of sayings in random order, so normal rules of context do not apply. But the broader context of genre does apply, and pulling together other wisdom-sayings on the same topic can be very helpful ...

For example, some say that we can speak things into existence based on some proverbs (as well as some other texts out of context). They note that the tongue can bring death or life, hurt or healing (Prov 18:21; 12:18). But when one compares other proverbs about the tongue bringing healing or life, their meaning becomes clear: you can edify or hurt others by your speech, and you can get yourself into trouble or help yourself by how you speak to others (Prov 12:14; 13:2-3; 18:20; 21:23). Other statements in Proverbs about healing include the well-being of those who choose trustworthy messengers (Prov 13:17), have tranquil or joyful hearts (14:30; 17:22), receive good news (25:25) or hear encouraging words (16:24). Many texts emphasize the therapeutic value of the tongue, especially in relationships (12:25; 15:1, 4, 23; 25:11-12, 25). Egyptians and Mesopotamians also had proverbs about the tongue and about words bringing healing or death, not in the sense of speaking things into existence but in the sense of getting one in trouble or out of it (see, e.g., the “Words of Ahiqar”) …

We briefly mention some other kinds of wisdom literature. Job and Ecclesiastes both challenge the kind of conventional wisdom in Proverbs: What happens when the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper? That the Bible includes these books reminds us that the general principles in Proverbs are principles only, not ironclad guarantees that we can “claim” as if God is obligated to answer them. (He does, however, often answer our prayers of faith, including faith strengthened by such principles. But that is a different matter.) That the Bible also includes such a wide range of perspectives (although not contradictions) also may warn us to keep our own boundaries wide: God may send many Christians to us with different kinds of wisdom, and we should have the wisdom to embrace all kinds of wisdom. We may meet those who tend to be cautious and skeptical (like the cynicism of Ecclesiastes), those who have learned through the sufferings of Job, and those who have seen general principles of God’s faithfulness to the righteous; we should welcome them all, and help them to work together in Christ’s one body, just as different books of the Bible work together in one canon.

5. Romance Literature

Although some psalms may have been used at royal weddings (Ps 45), the largest continuous piece of romance literature in the Bible is the Song of Solomon. Through history many interpreters were annoyed that sacred Scripture would devote such attention to so “secular” a topic as marital romance, and so interpreted the song allegorically concerning the relationship between God and Israel or Christ and the church. But the song makes better sense in its literal meaning (Christ’s marriage to the church has some parallels to human romance, but the probable allusions to intercourse, a marital disagreement, and jealousy do not fit that interpretation!) …

The Song deals with many practical aspects of marital romance (through the specific example of the king and his bride): for example, he affirms her beauty (1:9-10, 15; 2:2; 4:1-15); she affirms his attractiveness (1:16; 2:3; 5:10-16); they participate in the wedding banquet (2:4); they experience a misunderstanding and are reconciled (5:2-8); one should beware of provoking jealousy (8:6).

This book is useful for marriage counseling and for preaching about marriage. Only after we have internalized its lessons for our own marriages can we find some marriage principles in the song that also apply to our relationship with our Lord.

Tomorrow: Genre — Jesus’s teachings, Gospels and letters

We’re now in the last few chapters of Dr Craig S Keener‘s short course in biblical hermeneutics, Biblical Interpretation.  Today, we begin Chapters 7 – 10: Context of Genre.

Thanks to a number of pastors and professors, including those teaching in seminaries, many of us have been reading the Bible incorrectly.  The books of Holy Scripture are not completely allegorical or symbolic.  Yet, not everything is to be taken literally.  Keener introduces us to the types of genre in the Bible as part of interpreting it correctly.

Emphases below are mine.  As the chapters are lengthy, please refer back to Keener’s link to read what he has to say in full.  His course has really opened my eyes to the Holy Bible and I hope that you, too, have derived benefit from it.

Chapters 7 – 10: Context of Genre

Although we have surveyed and illustrated many of the most important general rules for interpretation, we must now note that some interpretation skills depend on the kinds of writing in the Bible one is studying. For example, Revelation is prophetic (and probably apocalyptic) literature, which is full of symbols; if interpreters today debate how literal some of Revelation’s images are, no one doubts that much of Revelation (for instance, the prostitute and the bride) are each symbols representing something other than what they would mean literally (Babylon and New Jerusalem versus two literal women). The Psalms are poetry, and also often employ graphic images. Poetry involved poetic license; when Job claims that his steps were “bathed in butter” (Job 29:6), he means that he was prosperous, not that his hallways were packed with butter up to his ankles. One could provide hundreds of examples; those who deny the use of symbolism in some parts of the Bible (especially poetic portions) have simply not read the Bible very thoroughly.

On the other hand, narratives are not full of symbols. One should not read the story of David and Goliath and think, “What does Goliath stand for? What do the smooth stones stand for?” These accounts are intended as literal historical stories, and we seek to learn morals from these accounts the same way we would seek to learn them from our experiences or accounts of others’ experiences today. (The difference between biblical experiences and modern experiences is that the biblical ones more often come with clues to the proper interpretation from God’s perfect perspective.) We may apply what we learn from Goliath to other challenges that we face, but Goliath does not “symbolize” those challenges; he is simply one example of a challenge.

Even our most important rule, context, functions differently for different kinds of writings. Most proverbs, for instance, are not recorded in any noteworthy sequence providing a flow of thought; they are isolated, general sayings, and were simply collected (Prov 25:1). This is not to suppose, however, that we lack a larger context in which to read specific proverbs. By reading these proverbs in light of the entire collection of proverbs, and especially in light of other proverbs addressing the same topic, we have a general context available for most individual proverbs.

Scholars use the term “genre” for kinds of writings. Poetry, prophecy, history and wisdom saying are some of the genres represented in the Bible … Let us survey some of the most common “genres” in the Bible, and some important interpretation principles for each.

1. Narrative

Narrative is the most common genre in the Bible. Narrative simply means a “story,” whether a true story like history or biography (most of the Bible’s narratives) or a story meant to communicate truth by fictional analogy, like a parable. A basic rule of interpretation for a story is that we should ask, “What is the moral of this story?” Or to put it differently, “What lessons can we learn from this story?”

Avoid Allegory

Some principles help us draw lessons from stories accurately. The first principle is a warning, especially for historical narratives in the Bible: Do not allegorize the story. That is, do not turn it into a series of symbols as if it did not happen. If we turn a narrative into symbols, anyone can interpret the narrative to say whatever they want; people can read the same narrative and come up with opposite religions! When we read into a text in this way, we read into it what we already think–which means that we act like we do not need the text to teach us anything new!

For example, when David prepares to fight Goliath, he gathers five smooth stones. One allegorist might claim that David’s five stones represent love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, and goodness. Another might claim that he picked five stones to represent five particular spiritual gifts; or perhaps five pieces of spiritual armor listed by Paul in the New Testament. But such interpretations are utterly unhelpful. First, they are unhelpful because anyone can come up with any interpretation, and there is no objective way for everyone to find the same point in the text. Second, they are unhelpful because it is really the allegorist and his views, rather than the text itself, which supplies its meaning and teaches something. Third, it is unhelpful because it obscures the real point of the text. Why did David pick smooth stones? They were easier to aim. Why did David pick five of them instead of one? Presumably in case he missed the first time; the lesson we learn from this example is that faith is not presumption: David knew God would use him to kill Goliath, but he did not know if he would kill him with the first stone.

Where did allegory come from? Some Greek philosophers grew embarrassed about the myths of their gods committing adultery, robbery, and murder, so they turned the myths into a series of symbols rather than taking them as true teachings about their gods. Some Jewish philosophers, trying to defend the Bible against accusations by Greeks, explained away uncomfortable portions of the Bible by taking them as mere symbols … Gnostics like Valentinus, condemned by the orthodox Christians, mixed some Christian ideas with pagan philosophy. They often used the allegorical method to justify blurring distinction between Christianity and other thought systems. Many later Christian thinkers borrowed the allegorical method, which became quite common especially in Europe in the Middle Ages.[1]

Many people practice allegory because they want to discover some hidden meaning in every word or phrase of Scripture. The problem with this approach is that it defies the way Scripture was actually given to us, hence disrespects rather than respects Scripture. The level of meaning is often the story as a whole, and individual words and phrases normally simply contribute to that larger contextual meaning. To read into the story meaning that is not there is in essence to attempt to add inspiration to Scripture, as if it were inadequate by itself

Read the Story as a Whole

Sometimes we cannot draw a correct moral from a story because we have picked too narrow a text. Earlier in this book I mentioned my friend who doubted the usefulness of the passage where Abishag lies in bed with David to keep him warm. What moral would we draw from such a story? We would be wrong if we supposed that the moral was that young people should lie with older people to keep them warm. True as it might be that we should look out for the health of our kings or other leaders, that is also not the moral. Nor is the moral that live humans work better than blankets? Some might wish to draw from it a lesson that contradicts other moral teachings in the Bible. But all these interpretations miss the point, because the writer did not intend us to read one paragraph of the story and then stop. We should read the entire story, and in the flow of the entire story, this paragraph identifies that David is dying and prepares us for why Solomon must later execute his treacherous brother Adonijah. It helps us understand the rest of the story, and the point comes from the larger story, not always all of its individual parts.

How much do we need to read to get the whole picture? As a general rule, the more context you read, the better … Because it was difficult to get a very long document on a single scroll, longer works were often divided into smaller “books.” Thus 1 Samuel through 2 Kings represents one continuous story (with smaller parts); 1 and 2 Chronicles represents anothert story; Luke and Acts together comprise a single, united work (although our Bibles place John between them; read Acts 1:1 with Lk 1:3).

There is also a sense in which larger stories may contain smaller ones. For example, many of the stories in Mark can be read on their own as self-contained units with their own morals; some scholars have argued that the early church used those stories as units for preaching the way they used many Old Testament readings. But while this observation is true, modern scholars recognize that we should also recognize these smaller stories in their larger context to get the most out of them; one can follow the development of and suspense in Mark’s “plot” and trace the themes of the Gospel from start to finish. This prevents us from drawing the wrong applications. For instance, one might read Mark 1:45 and assume that if one is sent from God and fulfills God’s mission like Jesus does, one will be popular with the masses. But if one reads the whole Gospel, one recognizes that the crowds later clamor for Jesus’ execution (Mk 15:11-15). The moral is not that obedience to God always leads to popularity; the moral is that we cannot trust popularity to last, for the crowds are often easily swayed. Jesus thus focused on making disciples more than on drawing crowds (Mk 4:9-20).

Identify the Lessons in the Story

Reading a biblical story as a true account and then learning principles by analogy (the way we would learn lessons from hearing, say, our parents’ stories of lessons they learned in life) is not allegorizing; it is reading these stories the way they were meant to be read. As best as possible, we should put ourselves in the place of the original audience of the story, read it in the context of the whole book it which it appears, and try to learn from it what the first audience would have. Only then are we ready to think how to reapply the story to our situations and needs today. At the same time, if we stop we the ancient meaning, we will miss the story’s original impact. Once we understood what it meant in its first setting, we must think how to apply the passage with a comparable impact for our settings today.

Most narratives involve characters. One can try to determine whether the examples of the characters were good or bad ones in any given case by several methods: (1) When the writer and readers shared the same culture and it assumed an act was bad or good, the writer could assume that the readers knew which was which, unless he disagreed with the views of the culture. (2) If you read through the entire book, you may notice patterns of behavior; an evaluation of the behavior in one case would apply to similar cases of the behavior in that book. (3) By deliberately highlighting the differences among characters, one could usually see which were good and which were bad examples.  

Sometimes we learn from a story by looking at positive and negative characters in the story and contrasting them. We can do this frequently in 1 Samuel; in chapters 1 and 2, we learn that humble Hannah, who was looked down on by many of the few people who knew her, was godly, whereas Eli the high priest had compromised his calling. Hannah offered to give up her son for God; Eli, refusing to give up his sons for God, ultimately lost them and everything else as well. After this the story compares the boy Samuel, who hears God and delivers his message, with Eli’s ungodly sons, who abuse their ministry to make themselves rich and have sexual relations with many women. God ultimately exalts Samuel but kills the hypocritical ministers. Later 1 Samuel contrasts David and Saul; by examining the differences between them, we can learn principles for fulfilling God’s call and also dangers to avoid …

Of course, distinguishing positive from negative examples is not always simple, and most characters in the Bible, just like most characters in Greek histories and biography, included a mixture of positive and negative traits. The Bible tells us about real people, and we learn from that pattern as well not to idolize as perfect or demonize as wholly evil people today. John the Baptist was the greatest prophet before Jesus (Matt 11:11-14), but he was unsure whether Jesus was fulfilling his prophecy (Matt 11:2-3) because Jesus was healing sick people but not pouring out fiery judgment (Matt 3:11-12). John was a man of God, but he did not know that the kingdom would come in two stages because its king would come twice. Distinguishing positive from negative examples takes much work, but is rewarding. It requires us to immerse ourselves in the entire story over and over until we can see the patterns in the story which give us the inspired author’s perspectives. But how better to learn God’s heart than to bathe ourselves in his word?

We can often make lists of positive attributes we can learn from characters in the Bible, especially if the text specifically calls them righteous. One example of learning lessons from a character’s behavior is Joseph in Matthew 1:18-25. The text specifically says that Joseph was a “righteous” person (1:19). Before listing lessons, we need to provide some background. Given the average ages of marriage among first-century Jews, Joseph was probably less than twenty and Mary was probably younger, perhaps in her mid-teens. Joseph probably did not know Mary well; sources suggest that parents did not allow Galilean couples to spend much time together before their wedding night. Also, Jewish “betrothal” was as binding legally as a marriage, hence could be ended only by divorce or the death of one partner. If the woman were charged with unfaithfulness in a court, her father would have to return to the groom the brideprice he had paid; also the groom would keep any dowry the bride had brought or was bringing into the marriage. By divorcing her privately the groom would probably forfeit such financial remuneration.

The narrative implies first of all something about commitment: Joseph was righteous even though he planned to divorce Mary, because he thought she had been unfaithful, and unfaithfulness is a very serious offense. The text also teaches us about compassion: even though Joseph believed (wrongly) that Mary had been unfaithful to him, he planned to divorce her privately to minimize her shame, thereby forgoing any monetary repayment for her misdeed and any revenge. Here Joseph’s “righteousness” (1:19) includes compassion on others. The passage further emphasizes consecration: Joseph was willing to bear shame to obey God. Mary’s pregnancy would bring her shame, perhaps for the rest of her life. If Joseph married her, people would assume either that he got her pregnant or, less likely, that he was a moral weakling who refused to punish her properly; in either case, Joseph was embracing Mary’s long-term shame in obedience to God’s will. Finally, we learn about control. In their culture, everyone assumed that a man and woman alone together could not control themselves sexually. But in their obedience to God, Joseph and Mary remained celibate even once they were married until Jesus was born, to fulfill the Scripture which promised not only a virgin conception but a virgin birth (1:23, 25). There are other morals in this paragraph, too (for instance, about the importance of Scripture in 1:22-23), but these are the clearest from Joseph’s own life.

Now is a good opportunity to practice on one’s own. One could take a passage like Mark 2:1-12 and list the sorts of morals one might draw from it. For example, one critical lesson is that the four men who brought their friend recognized that Jesus was the only answer to their need and refused to let anything deter them from getting to Jesus (2:4). Mark calls this determination on their part “faith” (2:5). Sometimes faith is refusing to let anything or anyone keep us from seeking Jesus for ourselves or (as in this case) for the need of a friend. Another important lesson is that Jesus responds to their faith first of all by forgiveness (2:5), because that is Christ’s first priority. We may also note in passing that Jesus’ true teaching generates opposition from religious professionals (2:6-7). Not everyone in religious leadership is always open to God! But while forgiveness is Christ’s priority, he also is ready to grant the miracle these men sought and to demonstrate his power with signs (2:8-12). He was not a western rationalist who doubted the reality of supernatural phenomena!

One could subdivide some of these lessons and perhaps find other lessons. But one should always be careful, as noted above, to draw the right lessons in light of the larger context. As noted before, Jesus’ popularity in the text (2:1-2) does not imply that such ministry always produces popularity, for many people ultimately asked for Jesus to be crucified (15:11-14). Nor should we read into the text something that is not clear in it; for example, we should not read into Jesus’ response to “their faith” in 2:5 that the Lord will forgive others’ sins because of our faith; the text nowhere indicates clearly that the man lacked faith himself

Can We Learn “Teaching” from Narratives?

Some modern theologians have been skeptical about learning “doctrine,” or (literally) “teaching,” from narratives. 2 Timothy 3:16 explicitly declares that all Scripture is profitable for teaching, so to rule out a teaching function for narratives altogether these theologians would have to deny that narratives are part of Scripture! But narrative makes up more of the Bible than any other genre does, and Jesus and Paul both teach from Old Testament narratives (e.g., Mk 2:25-26; 10:6-9; 1 Cor 10:1-11)[2]

If narratives did not teach, there would be no reason for different Gospels. Because Jesus did and taught so much, no one Gospel writer could have told us everything that he said or did (as Jn 21:25 explicitly points out). Rather, each Gospel writer emphasized certain points about Jesus, the way we do when we read or preach from a text in the Bible. This means that when we read Bible stories, we not only learn the historical facts about what happened, but listen to the inspired writer’s perspective on what happened, i.e., the lessons to be drawn from the story. When the writer “preaches” to us from the stories he tells us, he often gives us clues for recognizing the lessons; for example, he often selects stories with a basic theme or themes that repeatedly emphasize particular lessons.

Yet despite considerable historical precedent for using biblical historical precedent, many theologians suggest that one should feel free to find in narrative only what is plainly taught in “clearer,” “didactic” portions of Scripture … I freely admit that I do not understand some portions of Scripture myself (what is the eternal function of the genealogies in Chronicles?); but other obscure parts came to make sense to me after I understood the cultural context they addressed (for instance, the design of the Tabernacle in Exodus). Some given texts are more useful for addressing common situations today than others, but all biblical texts have a useful function for some circumstances.

One of the most basic principles of Bible interpretation is that we should ask what the writer wanted to convey to his contemporary audience. This principle applies to narratives like the Gospels as much as to epistles like Romans … The way God chose to give us the Bible is more important than the way we wish He would have given it to us.

More importantly, we must be able to read each book first of all as a self-contained unit, because that was how God originally inspired these books

Most cultures in the world teach lessons through stories. Most theologians who question the use of narrative, by contrast, are westerners or those trained by them, children of Enlightenment thought. In fact, not even all westerners find Bible stories inaccessible. Even in the United States, Black churches have for generations specialized in narrative preaching. In most churches children grow up loving Bible stories until they become adults and we teach them that they must now think abstractly rather than learning from concrete illustrations. Just because our traditional method of extracting doctrine from Scripture does not work well on narrative does not mean that Bible stories do not send some clear messages of their own. Instead it suggests the inadequacy of our traditional method of interpretation the way we apply it, because we are ignoring too much of God’s Word.

When Jesus’ followers were writing the New Testament, everyone in their culture already understood that narrative conveyed moral principles; biographers and historians expected readers to draw lessons from their examples, whether these lessons were positive or negative. Students recited such stories in regular elementary school exercises, and in more advanced levels of education learned how to apply these examples to drive home moral points.

Demanding the use of non-narrative portions of the Bible to interpret narrative is not only disrespectful to the narrative portions; it implies a thoroughly misguided way of reading non-narrative portions of Scripture as well

Not only is the traditional “doctrinal” approach inadequate for interpreting the Gospels; it is inappropriate for interpreting the epistles as well. The “narrative” way of interpreting Bible stories in fact shows us how to read the epistles properly. Paul wrote to address specific needs of churches (rarely just to send greetings); while the principles Paul employs are eternal and apply to a variety of situations, Paul expresses those principles concretely to grapple with specific situations … Paul’s letters presuppose a sort of background story–he is responding to events and situations among his audience. In other words, we must read even Paul’s letters as examples. This is how Paul read the Old Testament–drawing theology (especially moral teaching) from its examples (1 Cor. 10:11).

I suspect that many scholars–including myself in earlier years–have felt so uncomfortable with finding theology in narrative largely because of our western academic training

One warning we need to keep in mind is that not all human actions recorded in Scripture are intended as positive examples, even when performed by generally positive characters. Scripture is realistic about human nature and openly reveals our frailties so that we can be realistic about our weaknesses and our need to depend always on God … Jesus alone exhibits no moral weaknesses, and even he identified with our being tempted (Mk 1:12-13; 14:34-42). Scripture shows the weaknesses of men and women of God so we will recognize that there are no spiritual superhumans among usjust, at best, men and women who depend on the power of God’s perfect Spirit to give us victory.

Tomorrow: More on genre

Over the past several days, I have been excerpting from Dr Craig S Keener‘s introduction to hermeneutics, Biblical Interpretation.

The past two posts have covered Chapter 6, Bible Background.  September 25’s entry introduced the importance of knowing the background to the books and stories of the Bible.  Yesterday’s post provided useful examples of the cultural and legal background to various passages in Scripture.  Today’s post gives further insight into several more well-known Bible passages, including St Paul’s instructions on women and on slavery.

The research below — and in yesterday’s post — reveals interesting insights into the Christmas story, the Lord’s Prayer and the Crucifixion. For those among us (myself included) who find the parables perplexing, Keener sheds light on their cultural and legal background. Finally, as Keener used this course to teach students in Nigeria, readers will also find fascinating connections to Africa in both the Old and the New Testaments.

What follows are only excerpts, so, please be sure to read Chapter 6 in full at Dr Keener’s link above. Emphases below are mine.

11. Demands of Discipleship in Luke 9:58-62

Disciples usually sought out their own teachers (in contrast to Jesus, who called some of his own). Some radical philosophers who eschewed possessions sought to repulse prospective disciples with enormous demands, for the purpose of testing them and acquiring only the most worthy disciples. Many Palestinian Jews were poor, but few were homeless; Jesus had given up even home to travel and was completely dependent on the hospitality and support of others.

The man who wants to bury his father is not asking for a short delay: his father has not died that day or the day before. Family members carried the body to the tomb shortly after its death and then remained at home for seven days to mourn. The man could be saying, as in some similar Middle Eastern cultures, “Let me wait until my father dies someday and I fulfill my obligation to bury him.” The other possibility is that he refers to his father’s second burial, a custom practiced precisely in this period. A year after the first burial, after the flesh had rotted off the bones, the son would return to rebury the bones in a special box in a slot in the wall. This son could thus be asking for as much as a year’s delay.

One of an eldest son’s most basic responsibities was his father’s burial. Jesus’ demand that the son place Jesus above the greatest responsibility a son could offer his father would thus have defied the social order: in Jewish tradition, honoring father and mother was one of the greatest commandments, and to follow Jesus in such a radical way would have seemed like breaking this commandment.

But while the second inquirer learned the priority of following Jesus, the third learns the urgency of following Jesus. One prospective disciple requests merely permission to say farewell to his family, but Jesus compares this request with looking back from plowing, which would cause one to ruin one’s furrow in the field. Jesus speaks figuratively to remind his hearer of the story of Elisha’s call. When Elijah found Elisha plowing, he called him to follow him, but allowed him to first bid farewell to his family (1 Kings 19:19-21). The Old Testament prophets sacrificed much to serve God’s will, but Jesus’ call here is more radical than that of a radical prophet! Although we must beware of others who sometimes misrepresent Jesus’ message, we must be willing to pay any price that Jesus’ call demands on our lives.

12. God’s Friends Rejoice in Luke 15:18-32

The religious elite were angry with Jesus for spending time with tax-gatherers and sinners; after all, Scripture warned against spending time with ungodly people (Ps 1:1; Prov 13:20). The difference, of course, is that Jesus is spending time with sinners to influence them for the kingdom, not to be shaped by their ways (Lk 15:1-2).

Jesus then turns to the story of the lost coin. If a woman had ten coins as her dowry, the money she had brought into her marriage in case of divorce or widowhood, she was a very poor woman indeed: ten coins represented about ten days’ wages for the average working man … She thus lights a lamp, but in this period most lamps were small enough to hold in the palm of one’s hand, and these did not provide much light. So she sweeps with a broom, hoping to hear it tinkle–and finally, she finds it! Her friends rejoice with her, just as God’s friends rejoice with him–implying, again, that perhaps the religious elite are not among God’s friends (15:8-10).

Jesus then turns to the story of the lost son. The younger son says to his father, “I want my share of the inheritance now.” In that culture, the son was virtually declaring, “Father, I wish you were dead”–the epitome of disrespect. The father was under no obigation to divide his inheritance, but he divided it anyway; the elder brother would have received two thirds and the younger one third. Under ancient law, by dividing the inheritance the father simply was telling them which fields and items each would get after his decease; the son could not legally spend the estate before then. But this son does it anyway; he flees to a far country and wastes his father’s years of work. In the end, however, reduced to poverty, he has to feed pigs … If the young man were involved with pigs, he would be unclean and not even be able to approach fellow Jews for help!

But the young man decides that he would rather be a servant in his father’s house than starve, so he returns home to beg for mercy. His father, seeing him a long way off, runs to meet him. In that culture, it was considered undignified for older men to run, but this father discards his dignity; his son has come home! The son tries to plead that he might be a slave, but the father ignores him, instead calling for the best robe in the house–undoubtedly his own; and a ring for the young man’s finger–undoubtedly a signet ring, symbolizing his reinstatement to sonship; and sandals for his feet–because most servants did not wear sandals, the father is saying, “No, I will not receive you as a servant! I will receive you only as my son!” The fatted calf was enough food to feed the entire village, so he throws a big party, and all his friends rejoice with him.

So far the story has paralleled the two stories that preceded it, but now Jesus goes further … [The elder son] is now disrespecting his father just as much as the younger brother had earlier! “I have been serving you,” he protests (15:29), thereby revealing that he saw himself as a servant rather than a son–the very role the father refused to consider acceptable (15:21-22).

The religious elite despised the “sinners” who were coming to Jesus, not realizing that their hearts were no better. The sinners were like the younger brother, the religious elite like the older one. All of us need Jesus; none can be saved without God’s mercy.

13. The First Gentile Christian in Acts 8:26-27

Since Samaritans were considered half-breeds (8:4-25), this African court official is the first fully Gentile convert to Christianity (though probably unknown to most of the Jerusalem church, 11:18).

Here a particular African empire is in view. While we might confuse “Ethiopia” here with modern Ethiopia, that is probably not in view. That kingdom, Axum, was a powerful east African empire and converted to Christianity in the early 300s, in the same generation the Roman empire converted. The empire here, however, is most likely a particular Nubian kingdom of somewhat darker complexion, south of Egypt in what is now the Sudan. “Candace” (kan-dak’a) seems to have been a dynastic title of the Queen of this Nubian Empire; she is mentioned elsewhere in Greco-Roman literature, and tradition declares that the queen-mother ruled in that land. (Ancient Greeks called all of Nubia “Ethiopia.”) …

This Nubian court official was probably a Gentile “God-fearer.” When meant literally–which was not always the case (Gen. 39:1 LXX), eunuchs referred to castrated men. Although these were preferred court officials in the East, the Jewish people opposed the practice, and Jewish law excluded eunuchs from Israel (Deut. 23:1); the rules were undoubtedly instituted to prevent Israel from neutering boys (Deut. 23:1). But eunuchs could certainly be accepted by God (Isa. 56:3-5, even foreign eunuchs; Wisd. 3:14). An Ethiopian “eunuch” in the OT turns out to be one of Jeremiah’s few allies and saves his life (Jer. 38:7-13). This African court official was the first non-Jewish Christian. Such information may be helpful in establishing that Christianity is not only not a western religion, but that after its Jewish origins it was first of all an African faith.

14. Paul preaches to Philosophers in Acts 17:22-31

Paul “contextualized” the gospel for his hearers, showing how it related to their own culture without compromising its content. (Today we often err on either one side or the other–failing to be culturally relevant, or failing to represent accurately the biblical message.) Paul speaks to two groups of philosophers present, Stoics and (probably a smaller group) Epicureans; his faith held little common ground with Epicureans, but the Stoics could agree with a number of Christian beliefs …

But while Paul was eager to find points of contact with the best in pagan thinking for the sake of communicating the gospel, he also was clear where the gospel disagreed with paganism. Some issues might be semantic, but Paul would not ignore any real differences. Although philosophers spoke of conversion to philosophy through a change of thinking, they were unfamiliar with his Jewish and Christian doctrine of repentance towards God (17:30). Further, the Greek view of time was that it would simply continue, not that there was a future climax of history in the day of judgment, in contrast to the biblical perspective (17:31). Finally, Greeks could not conceive of a future bodily resurrection; most of them simply believed the soul survived after death. Thus Paul’s preaching of the resurrection offended them most (17:31-32). But in the end, Paul was more interested in winning at least a few of these influential people to genuine faith in Christ (17:34) than in simply persuading all of them that he was harmless and shared their own views.

15. Paul Adapts Ancient Family Rules in Ephesians 5:21-6:9

Some people used Ephesians 6:5-9 alongside Greek, Roman, and Arab discussions of slavery to support the kind of slavery practiced in the Americas, but a simple knowledge of the nature of the slavery Paul addressed would have disproved their understanding of the passage. Others even more recently have used 5:22-33 to treat wives in disrespectful and demeaning ways, which also misinterprets the entire tenor of the passage.

This passage addresses an ancient sort of writing called “household codes,” by which Paul’s readers could try to convince their prospective persecutors that they were not subversives after all. In Paul’s day, many Romans were troubled by the spread of “religions from the East” (such as Egyptian Isis worship, Judaism, and Christianity) which they thought would undermine traditional Roman family values. Members of these minority religions often tried to show their support for those values by using a standard form of exhortations developed by philosophers from Aristotle on.

From the time of Aristotle onward these exhortations instructed the male head of a household how to deal with members of his family, especially how he should rule his wife, children, and slaves. Paul borrows this form of discussion straight out of standard Greco-Roman moral writing, even following their sequence. But unlike most ancient writers, Paul changes the basic premise of these codes: the absolute authority of the male head of the house.

That Paul introduces the household codes with a command to mutual submission (5:21) is significant. In his day it was customary to call on wives, children and slaves to submit in various ways, but calling all members of a group (including the pater familias, the male head of the household) to submit to one another was unheard of.

Most ancient writers expected wives to obey their husbands, desiring in them a quiet and meek demeanor; sometimes a requirement for absolute obedience was even stated in the marriage contracts. This made sense especially to Greek thinkers, who could not conceive of wives as equals. Age differences contributed to this disparity: husbands were normally substantially older than their wives, often by over a decade in Greek culture (with men frequently marrying around 30 and women in their teens, often early teens).

In this passage, however, Paul adapts the traditional code in several ways. First, wifely submission is rooted in Christian submission in general (in Greek, 5:22 even borrows its verb “submit” from 5:21); submission is a Christian virtue, but not only for wives! Second, Paul addresses not only husbands but also wives, which most household codes did not. Third, whereas household codes told the husbands how to make their wives obey them, Paul simply tells husbands how to love their wives. Finally, the closest Paul comes to defining submission in this context is “respect” (5:33). At the same time that he relates Christianity to the standards of his culture, he actually transforms his culture’s values by going so far beyond them! Paul addressed Greco-Roman culture, but few cultures today give precisely the same expressions of submission as in his culture. Today Christians reapply his principles in different ways for different cultures, but these principles still contradict many practices in many of our cultures (such as beating a wife).

No one would have disagreed with Paul’s premise in 6:1-4: Jewish and Greco-Roman writers unanimously agreed that children needed to honor their parents, and, at least till they grew up, needed to obey them as well. At the same time, Greek and Roman fathers and teachers often instructed children with beatings. Paul is among the minority of ancient writers who seem to warn against being too harsh in discipline (6:4). (Greek and Roman society was even harsher on newborn children; since an infant was accepted as a legal person only when the father officially recognized it, babies could be abandoned or, if deformed, killed. Early Christians and Jews unanimously opposed both abortion and abandonment. This text, however, addresses the discipline of minors in the household, as in the household codes.) Disobedience might be permitted under some exceptional circumstances (e.g., 1 Sam 20:32), but Paul does not qualify the traditional Roman view on children’s submission as he does with wives and slaves, since the Old Testament also mandated minors’ submission (Deut 21:18-21).

Finally, Paul addresses relations between slaves and slaveholders. Roman slavery, unlike later European slavery and much of (though not all of) Arab slavery, was nonracial; the Romans were happy to enslave anyone who was available. Different forms of slavery existed in Paul’s day. Banishment to slavery in the mines or gladiatorial combat was virtually a death sentence; few slaves survived long under such circumstances. Slaves who worked the fields could be beaten, but otherwise were very much like free peasants, who also were harshly oppressed and barely ever were able to advance their position socially, though they comprised the bulk of the Empire’s population. Household slaves, however, lived under conditions better than those of free peasants. They could earn money on the side and often purchased their freedom; once free they could be promoted socially, and their former slaveholder owed them obligations to help them succeed socially. Many freedpersons became wealthier than aristocrats. Ranking slaves in some wealthy households could wield more power than free aristocrats. Some nobles, for example, married into slavery to become slaves in Caesar’s household and improve their social and economic position! Household codes addressed household slaves, and Paul writes to urban congregations, so the sort of slavery he addresses here is plainly household slavery.

Some have complained that Paul should have opposed slavery more forcefully. But in the few verses in which Paul addresses slaves, he confronts only the practical issue of how slaves can deal with their situation, not with the legal institution of slavery–the same way a minister or counselor today might help someone get free from an addiction without ever having reason to discuss the legal issues related to that addiction. The only attempts to free all slaves in the Roman Empire before him had been three massive slave wars, all of which had ended in widespread bloodshed without liberating the slaves. Christians at this point were a small persecuted minority sect whose only way to abolish slavery would be to persuade more people of their cause and transform the values of the Empire (the way the abolitionist movement spread in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain). Further, even if this specific letter were intended as a critique of social injustice (which is not the purpose of this particular letter, though that topic arises in other biblical passages), one would not start such a critique with household slaves, but with mine slaves, and then both free peasants and agrarian slaves. Even a violent revolution could not have ended slavery in the Roman Empire. In any event, what Paul does say leaves no doubt where he would have stood had we put the theoretical question of slavery’s abolition to him: people are equals before God (6:9), and slavery is therefore against God’s will.

16. Jesus Rebukes the Self-Sufficient in Revelation 3:15-18

Laodicea became an important Phrygian city in Roman times. It was capital of the Cibryatic convention, including at least 25 towns. It was also the wealthiest city in Phrygia, and especially prosperous in this period. It was 10 miles west of Colosse and its rival city was Phrygian Antioch. The city reflected the usual paganism of the larger Mediterranean culture … The church seemed to share the values of its culture, an arrogant self-sufficiency in matters including its prosperity, clothing and health, all of which Jesus challenges in 3:17-18 …

The one sphere of life in which Laodiceans could not pretend to be self-sufficient was their water supply! Laodicea had to pipe in its water from elsewhere, and by the time it arrived it was full of sediment; Laodicea actually acquired a bad reputation for its water supply. Jesus comments on the temperature of the water: they were lukewarm, neither cold nor hot. This does not mean, as some have suggested, that hot water was good but cold water was bad; Jesus would not want the Laodiceans “good or bad,” but only good. Cold water was preferred for drinking, and hot water for bathing (also sometimes drunk at banquets), but the natural lukewarmness of local water (in contrast with the hot water available at nearby Hierapolis or cold water of nearby mountains) was undoubtedly a standard complaint of local residents, most of whom had an otherwise comfortable lifestyle. Jesus is saying: “Were you hot (i.e., for bathing) or cold (i.e., for drinking), you would be useful; but as it is, you are simply disgusting. I feel toward you the way you feel toward your water supply–you make me sick.”


The above examples of cultural background are merely samples, but hopefully they have given you an appetite for more. Background sheds light on each passage in the Bible. This is a goal, of course, not a matter on which each interpreter will always agree. Paul recognized that we “know in part and prophesy in part” (1 Cor 13:9)–some texts remain obscure to us (but we have plenty of others to keep us busy till we can understand the obscurer ones). Until Jesus returns, we will never know everything, and we need to be charitable in our disagreement with others whose conclusions differ from our own. That brings us back to some of our earlier comments: focus on what is most central and hardest to dispute, and deal with details only as you are able afterward.

Tomorrow: Genre in the Bible — an introduction

In yesterday’s post we read Dr Craig S Keener‘s lesson on discovering more about biblical background in Scripture.

Today, continuing with the second part of Chapter 6, Bible Background, he gives us a variety of examples to illustrate his points.  This is a long chapter, and I shall excerpt only a few salient points over the next two days, so, please be sure to read it in full to grasp the full meaning.

I have learned much from Keener’s introduction to hermeneutics in Biblical Interpretation and am certain that you will, too.  Some conscientious pastors — as true shepherds — transfer this knowledge to their congregations from the pulpit every Sunday.

However, many other clergy ignore it for these reasons: ‘it’s too difficult for people to understand’, ‘it’s my (legalistic) way or the highway’ or — quite simply — ‘Scripture is dead except for a few favourite “golden rule” and “social justice” passages’.  Yet, none of this is true, as Keener — and many other orthodox theologians, present and past — ably demonstrate.

The research below and in tomorrow’s post reveals interesting insights into the Christmas story, the Lord’s Prayer and the Crucifixion. For those among us (myself included) who find the parables perplexing, Keener sheds light on their cultural and legal background. Finally, as Keener used this course to teach students in Nigeria, readers will also find fascinating connections to Africa in both the Old and the New Testaments.

Emphases below are mine.

Examples of Background

Here we provide only a few limited samples concerning the use of background …

1. The New Word in John 1:14-18

Modern writers have proposed many valuable aspects of background for the “Word,” but probably the most obvious is what the “Word” was in the Old Testament: God’s word was the law, the Scripture he had given to Israel. John probably wrote his Gospel especially for Jewish Christians. Opponents of these Jewish Christians had probably kicked them out of their synagogues and claimed that they had strayed from God’s Word in the Bible. Far from it, John replies: Jesus is the epitome of all that God taught in Scripture, for Jesus himself is God’s Word and revelation …

Whole book context explains the point here more fully. God’s glory is revealed in various ways in Jesus (2:11; 11:4), but the ultimate expression of God’s glory here is in the cross and the events that follow it (12:23-24). We see God’s heart, and most fully understand what God was like, when we look at the cross where God gave his Son so we could have life.

2. Worship “in the Spirit” in John 4:23-24

Ancient Judaism often focused on the Spirit’s work in inspiring prophecy. The Old Testament speaks of inspired, prophetic worship (e.g., 1 Sam. 10:5), especially in David’s temple (1 Chron. 25:1-6). To “worship God in the Spirit,” then, may involve trusting the Spirit of God to empower us for worship truly worthy of our awesome God. Given the general belief that the prophetic Spirit was no longer active to this extent in Jesus’ day, Jesus’ words would have struck his contemporaries forcefully.

3. God’s message in the Tabernacle

Egyptians built temples differently than Mesopotamians; because the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt used in building projects, they undoubtedly knew what Egyptian temples looked like. They would have known about portable tent-shrines used in Egypt and Midian, as well as about the structure of Egyptian temples (and palaces), with an outer court, inner court, and the innermost shrine, the holiest place. God chose a design with which the Israelites were familiar so they could understand that the tabernacle they carried through the wilderness was a temple.

Some aspects of the tabernacle parallel other temples, and the parallels communicate true theology about God. In the tabernacle, the most expensive materials were used nearest the ark of the covenant: gold was more expensive than copper, and blue dye than red dye. These details reflect an ancient Near Eastern practice: people used the most expensive materials nearest the innermost sanctuary to signify that their god should be approached with awe and reverence. The tabernacle uses standard ancient Near Eastern symbols to communicate its point about God’s holiness

Some features of the tabernacle contrast starkly with their culture. The climax of other ancient Near Eastern and northern African temples was the image of the deity, enthroned on its sacred pedestal in the holiest innermost sanctuary; but there is no image in God’s temple, because he would allow no graven images of himself (Ex 20:4) … God communicated his theology to Israel even in the architecture of the tabernacle, and he did so in cultural terms they could understand. (Some of the modern interpretations of the colors and design of the tabernacle are simply guesses that have become widely circulated. The suggestions we offer here represent instead careful research into the way temples were designed in Moses’ day.)

4. Why Sarah used Hagar’s womb and later expelled her

As an Egyptian, Hagar may have been one of the servants Pharaoh gave to Abraham and Sarah several years earlier (Gen 12:16). (Some of those Egyptians would have been from southern Egypt or Nubia.) In passing, we should note what the presence of Egyptian servants of Abraham implies for the matter of some African elements in Israel’s ancestry. Abraham later passed his entire estate on to Isaac (25:5); when Jacob went down to Egypt with “seventy” people in his immediate family (46:27), this number does not include all the servants who also went with him, who were presumably retained as slaves when the Israelites were later enslaved (Ex 1:11). This means that the later Israelites included much Egyptian blood, in addition to the two half-tribes of Joseph (Gen 41:50).

But returning to the matter of Hagar: in some ancient Near Eastern cultures, if a woman could not bear her husband a son some other way, she might have her servant do it for her. So Sarah, following some assumptions of her culture, had Abraham get Hagar pregnant (16:2-3). In such cases, however, it was understood that the child would be legally the child of Sarah; but Hagar began to boast against Sarah as if she were better than Sarah (16:4).

After Isaac is born, Sarah finds Ishmael mocking him (21:9), and she realizes that Ishmael’s presence threatens the birthright of the son God had promised, Isaac. According to some ancient Near Eastern customs, if Abraham had regarded Ishmael as his son, Ishmael would be treated as his firstborn. The way to prevent this was to free Hagar before Abraham’s death, and send her and Ishmael away without the inheritance (21:10). 

It was Sarah’s initial suggestion that got Hagar in trouble, Hagar’s arrogance that perpetuated it, but in the end, Sarah did act to preserve God’s promise that she had endangered by her previous suggestion to Abraham. With the exception of Jesus, all biblical characters, including Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, were flawed in some ways; but understanding the customs of their day helps us better understand the decisions Sarah made.

5. Matthew 2:1-16

… Magi were a caste of Persian astrologers–that is, they practiced a profession explicitly forbidden in the Old Testament (Deut 18:10; Is 47:13). The term is actually used in Greek translations of the Old Testament to describe Daniel’s enemies who wanted to kill him! One of their jobs as Magi was to promote the honor of the king of Persia, whose official title was “king of kings and lord of lords.” But these Magi come to honor the true king of kings born in Judea. Matthew thus shocks his Jewish-Christian readers by telling them of pagans who came to worship Jesus, implying that we cannot predict beforehand who will respond to our message; we must share it with everyone ...

Most troubling of all, however, are the leading priests and scribes (2:4). These were the Bible professors and leading ministers of their day. They know where the Messiah will be born (2:5-6), but do not join the Magi on their quest … And a generation later, when Jesus could no longer be taken for granted, their successors wanted him dead (Matt 26:3-4). The line between taking Jesus for granted and wanting him out of our way may remain rather thin today as well. Especially when background helps us learn more about the characters in this narrative, it warns us in stark terms not to prejudge who will respond to the gospel–and not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought.

6. Keeping God’s Word in Matthew 5:18-19

One could not say, “I am righteous because I do not kill, even though I have sex with someone I am not married to.” Nor could one say, “I am godly because I do not steal, even though I cheat.” All of God’s commandments are his word, and to cast off any is to deny his right to rule over us, hence to reject him. Thus Jesus was saying in a similarly graphic way, “You cannot disregard even the smallest commandment, or God will hold you accountable.”

7. The Kingdom [Lord’s] Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13

… Jesus used some things in his culture, which was already full of biblical knowledge. Jesus here adapts a common synagogue prayer, that went something like this: “Our Father in heaven, exalted and hallowed be your great and glorious name, and may your kingdom come speedily and soon…” Jewish people expected a time when God’s name would be “hallowed,” or shown to be holy, among all peoples. For Jewish people, there was a sense in which God reigns in the present, but when they prayed for the coming of God’s kingdom they were praying for him to rule unchallenged over all the earth and his will to be done on earth just as it is in heaven. Jesus therefore taught his disciples to pray for God’s reign to come soon, when God’s name would be universally honored.

To ask God for “daily bread” recalls how God provided bread each day for Israel in the wilderness; God is still our provider. To ask God to forgive our “debts” would stir a familiar image for many of Jesus’ hearers. Poor peasants had to borrow much money to sow their crops, and Jesus’ contemporaries understood that our sins were debts before God. To ask God not to “lead us into temptation” probably recalls a Jewish synagogue prayer of the day which asked God to preserve people from sinning. If so, the prayer might mean not, “Let us not be tested,” but rather, “Do not let us fail the test” (compare 26:41, 45).

8. Enemy Soldiers Torture and Mock Jesus in Matthew 27:27-34

Roman soldiers were known for abusing and taunting prisoners; one ancient form of mockery was to dress someone as a king. Since soldiers wore red robes, they probably used a faded soldier’s cloak to imitate the purple robe of earlier Greek rulers. People venerating such rulers would kneel before them, as here. Military floggings often used bamboo canes, so the soldiers may have had one available they could use as a mock king’s sceptre …

Spitting on a person was one of the most grievous insults a person could offer, and Jewish people considered the spittle of non-Jews particularly unclean

Normally the condemned person was to carry the horizontal beam (Latin patibulum) of the cross himself, out to the site where the upright stake (Latin palus) awaited him; but Jesus’ back had been too severely scourged beforehand for him to do this (27:26). Such scourgings often left the flesh of the person’s back hanging down in bloody strips, sometimes left his bones showing, and sometimes led to the person’s death from shock and blood loss. Thus the soldiers had to draft Simon of Cyrene to carry the crossbeam. Cyrene, a large city in what is now Libya in North Africa, had a large Jewish community (perhaps one quarter of the city) which no doubt included local converts. Like multitudes of foreign Jews and converts, Simon had come to Jerusalem for the [Passover] feast. Roman soldiers could “impress” any person into service to carry things for them. Despite Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 16:24, the soldiers had to draft a bystander to do what Jesus’ disciples proved unwilling to do.

Crucifixion was the most shameful and painful form of execution known in the Roman world. Unable to privately excrete his wastes the dying person would excrete them publicly. Sometimes soldiers tied the condemned person to the cross; at other times they nailed them, as with Jesus. The dying man thus could not swat away insects attracted to his bloodied back or other wounds. Crucifixion victims sometimes took three days to finish dying.

The women of Jerusalem prepared a pain-killing potion of drugged wine for condemned men to drink; Jesus refused it (cf. 26:29). The myrrh-mixed wine of Mark 15:23, a delicacy and possibly an external pain reliever, becomes wine mixed with gall in Matthew; cf. Ps. 69:21 and the similarity between the Aramaic word for “myrrh” and Hebrew for “gall.” Even without myrrh, wine itself was a painkiller (Prov 31:6-7). But Jesus refused it. Though we forsook him and fled when he needed us most, he came to bear our pain, and chose to bear it in full measure. Such is God’s love for us all.

9. Adultery and Murder in Mark 6:17-29

Herod Antipas’s affair with his sister-in-law Herodias, whom he had by this time married, was widely known. Indeed, the affair had led him to plan to divorce his first wife, whose father, a king, later went to war with Herod because of this insult and defeated him. John’s denunciation of the affair as unlawful (Lev. 20:21) challenged Herod’s sexual immorality, but Herod Antipas could have perceived it as a political threat, given the political ramifications that later led to a major military defeat. (The ancient Jewish historian Josephus claims that many viewed Herod’s humiliation in the war as divine judgment for him executing John the Baptist.)  …

Although Romans and their agents usually executed lower class persons and slaves by crucifixion or other means, the preferred form of execution for respectable people was beheading. By asking for John’s head on a platter, however, Salome wanted it served up as part of the dinner menu–a ghastly touch of ridicule. Although Antipas’s oath was not legally binding and Jewish sages could release him from it, it would have proved embarrassing to break an oath before dinner guests; even the emperor would not lightly do that. Most people were revolted by leaders who had heads brought to them, but many accounts confirm that powerful tyrants like Antipas had such things done

10. A New King’s Birthday in Luke 2:1-14

… A tax census instigated by the revered emperor Augustus here begins the narrative’s contrast between Caesar’s earthly pomp and Christ’s heavenly glory. Although Egyptian census records show that people had to return to their homes for a tax census, the “home” to which they returned was where they owned property, not simply where they were born (censuses registered persons according to property). Joseph thus must have still held property in Bethlehem. Betrothal provided most of the legal rights of marriage, but intercourse was forbidden; Joseph was courageous to take his pregnant betrothed with him, even if (as is quite possible) she was also a Bethlehemite who had to return to that town. Although tax laws in most of the Empire only required the head of a household to appear, the province of Syria (then including Judea) also taxed women. But Joseph may have simply wished to avoid leaving her alone this late in her pregnancy, especially if the circumstances of her pregnancy had deprived her of other friends.

The “swaddling clothes” were long cloth strips used to keep babies’ limbs straight so they could grow properly. Midwives normally assisted at birth; especially since this was Mary’s first child, it is likely (though not clear from the text) that a midwife would have been found to assist her. Jewish law permitted midwives to travel a long distance even on the Sabbath to assist in delivery.

By the early second century even pagans were widely aware of the tradition that Jesus was born in a cave used as a livestock shelter behind someone’s home. The manger was a feeding trough for animals; sometimes these may have been built into the floor. The traditional “inn” could as easily be translated “home” or “guest room,” and probably means that, since many of Joseph’s scattered family members had returned to the home at once, it was easier for Mary to bear in the vacant cave outside.

Many religious people and especially the social elite in this period generally despised shepherds as a low-class occupation; but God sees differently than people do. Pasturing of flocks at night indicates that this was a warmer season, not winter (when they would graze more in the day); December 25 was later adopted as Christmas only to supercede a pagan Roman festival scheduled at that time.

Pagans spoke of the “good news” of the emperor’s birthday, celebrated throughout the empire; they hailed the emperor as “Savior” and “Lord.” They used choirs in imperial temples to worship the emperor. They praised the current emperor, Augustus, for having inaugurated a worldwide “peace.” But the lowly manger distinguishes the true king from the Roman emperor; Jesus is the true Savior, Lord, bringer of universal peace

Tomorrow: More examples illustrating the importance of Bible background

Continuing today with excerpts from Dr Craig S Keener‘s short course in biblical hermeneutics, Biblical Interpretation, we come to Chapter 6, Bible Background.

Today’s post examines Keener’s introduction to culture-specific references and situations in Scripture.  Tomorrow’s will continue with his examples from the Bible which illustrate cultural background.

Emphases below are mine.

We have noted above the importance of whole-book context, because most books of the Bible stress particular themes addressing particular issues. We should not skip from one book of the Bible to another (except where one book specifically refers back to an earlier and widely circulated one), at least not until we have figured out each passage in its own context first. But one reason particular books emphasize particular themes is that they addressed particular situations. Although people sometimes ignore such verses, many verses explicitly state particular audiences for these books–for instance, the Christians in Rome (Rom 1:7) or in Corinth (1 Cor 1:2). There are appropriate ways to apply these books to today, but first we must take seriously what these works explicitly claim to be: works addressed to specific audiences in specific times and places. In other words, before we can determine how to apply the ancient meaning today, we must understand the ancient meaning. To skip this important step in Bible interpretation is to ignore what the Bible claims for itself.

When Paul wrote letters, the very genre in which he wrote reminds us that he addressed specific situations, as letters usually do. Thus, for example, in 1 Corinthians Paul addresses questions about food offered to idols, head coverings, and other issues that Christians today usually view as relevant only in some cultures. The letter also addresses division between followers of Paul and followers of Apollos, which does not occur in exactly that form anywhere today; we have to deal with division in the church, but few people today claim to follow Apollos. If we read letters as letters, we remember to look for the specific situations they address.

We should consider the relevance even of narratives to the first audience they addressed. For instance, if Moses wrote Genesis to those who had just been released from slavery in Egypt, they could have identified readily with Joseph, who had also been a slave in Egypt before his exaltation. The repeated emphasis on the promise of the holy land in Genesis also would provide great encouragement for Israelites about ready to go in and conquer it. Considering such relevance of the Bible to its original hearers does not make the Bible any less relevant for us; rather, it teaches us how to discover its relevance properly. Everything in the Bible is for all time, but not everything in the Bible is for all circumstances.

Some examples of culture-specific teachings in the Bible

We all recognize that some commands in the Bible were limited to the period that they address. Moses says to build a “fence” around the roof lest you incur bloodguilt if anyone falls from it (Deut 22:8), yet most of us today do not build fences around our roofs. Are we disobeying this passage? But back in Moses’ day, people had flat roofs … and in Moses’ day, people would spend time on the roof, often with their neighbors … So Moses commands us to build a parapet around the roof to protect our neighbor. Today, if we do not take neighbors on the roof, the point for us is not the parapet; the principle is watching out for our neighbor’s safety … But we would not have discovered the principle if we had not understood the background.

Some today seek to get doctrine especially from Paul’s letters, so let us take some New Testament letters as examples. Paul tells Timothy to go to Troas and bring his cloak from there (2 Tim 4:13), yet none of us tries to obey this explicit command of Scripture by going to the excavations at Troas and looking for Paul’s cloak … Likewise, do we really need to beware of Alexander the coppersmith (2 Tim 4:14-15)? … We can learn principles from Paul’s bond with Timothy and his warnings against opposition, but we cannot press these statements literally as commands for today …

Paul was probably aware that the Spirit was guiding him as he wrote (1 Cor 7:40; 14:37), but it is quite doubtful that he expected Christians to be trying to apply this letter to themselves two thousand years later–or even that human history would continue for two thousand more years (cf. 1 Cor 7:29; “we” in 1 Thess 4:17). If they did try to apply his letter to Timothy, he would expect them to take into account what this piece of Scripture explicitly claims to be: a letter to Timothy (1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2).

Many Christians today question the faith of others who do not interpret literally every text that we interpret literally; yet all of us refuse to take some texts literally–or at least we refuse to apply some texts directly to ourselves without taking into account that our situation is different. Paul tells Timothy to avoid water and take some wine for his stomach’s sake (1 Tim 5:23). Paul is certainly not telling Timothy to get drunk; in Paul’s day, most wine was watered down two parts water to every part wine, and wine was not distilled, so the alcohol content was not high. At the same time, before refrigeration and hermetic sealing, any grape juice that had been kept for some months after the last grape vintage included some alcohol content. Would we tell every Christian today with a stomach ache to avoid water and go have a watered-down beer? Or was that simply the best remedy available in Paul’s day, in contrast to our own?

In fact, all Scripture is universally applicable (2 Tim 3:16). This does not mean, however, that it is not articulated in culture-specific and language-specific ways. Rather, it means that we have to take the situation into account when we interpret Scripture, reading it like case studies applying to specific situations to find its principles which we can then apply in other situations. Otherwise one would end up like some western missionaries who mixed up their own culture with the biblical message and then told African Christians they had to keep both the Bible and western culture to be good Christians (which resembles what Paul’s opponents did in Galatia–Gal 2:3-5; 6:12-13) …

Pastoral letters, like sermons addressed to local congregations, can contain universal and culture-specific exhortations side-by-side; this is true in inspired, biblical letters just as it is true in other letters …

Thus murmuring is always wrong (1 Cor 10:10; Phil 2:14); eating idol-food is sometimes wrong (1 Cor 8-10); women’s authority as ministers of the word was sometimes limited but sometimes commended (cf. Rom 16:1-12; Phil 4:3) …

When Paul exhorts men to pray properly (1 Tim 2:8), shall we assume that women should not pray properly? Or shall we assume that, just as Paul had a specific situation to address with the women in that congregation (2:9-15), he also had a specific problem in mind addressing the local men’s behavior (2:8)? Given other passages which commend (Rom 16:1-12; cf. Judg 4:4; Acts 2:17-18; 21:9; Phil 4:2-3) or permit (1 Cor 11:4-5) various ministries of women, is it possible that the limitations of 1 Tim 2:11-12 address a special situation? The answers to some of these questions are much debated, but our desire to be consistent in the way we interpret the Bible may invite us to ask such questions.

The office of an “overseer” (1 Tim 3:1), like most other local-church offices in the New Testament, arose in a specific cultural context; it was practical for the church to borrow models of leadership from the synagogues that already worked in the Roman world. Is it possible that modern denominations’ arguments about forms of church leadership may make too much of a matter that is not really central to Paul’s point? Some would retain as transcultural the requirement that one rule one’s family properly as a condition for ruling the church (3:4-5). But this borrows ancient Mediterranean requirements for respectable leadership, in a culture where paternal authority could be enforced by severe discipline (in theory even execution)–a culture which differs markedly from our own. Granted, some regard these models of church order as transcultural, so we should turn to other, more clearly culture-specific examples.

Perhaps more significant are passages providing instructions not merely to Timothy but to the church as a whole. How many would regard as transcultural the warning that widows younger than sixty will spread bad talk (probably best translated “false teaching”; 1 Tim 5:11-13), or that fables circulate especially among older women (4:7)? Here, for example, widows must not be put on the roll for church support unless they are at least sixty years old, have been married only once (5:9), have raised children and washed strangers’ feet (5:10), and also have no extended family to care for them (5:8). Americans usually relegate to government programs the caring for widows; Africans, much closer to the biblical culture, normally support them through the extended family. But in most cultures, so few widows today have washed strangers’ feet that our churches can claim to obey Paul’s teaching without supporting them anyway! Paul commands that younger widows must remarry, not taking the pledge of membership in the order of older widows supported by the church (5:11, 14). But how they can obey this precept if they do not find husbands is not quite clear. In Paul’s day there was a shortage of women (possibly due to the pagan practice of female child abandonment), and most women therefore sought and found husbands quickly. In many black American churches, however, single women outnumber single men more than two to one; in parts of rural India and China, by contrast, men far outnumber women.

Paul is clear that some of his commands in the Pastoral Epistles relate to avoiding apostasy (1 Tim 5:15) and–a matter related to the views of the broader culture–public reproach (1 Tim 3:2, 6-7, 10; 6:1; Tit 1:6-7; 2:5, 8, 10). This includes his exhortations concerning the obedience of slaves (1 Tim 6:1-2; cf. Tit 2:9-10), which most Christians today would grant addressed a specific cultural situation. If the principles are more binding than the situation-specific exhortations that illustrate them, we may wish to consider how today’s situation differs from that of the first century, and what practices support or hinder the Church’s witness.

But none of this means that these passages have nothing to teach us. Paul specifically writes to Timothy, Titus, or to particular churches, but we can learn from his inspired wisdom for their situations as long as we pause to think how it might translate differently into our somewhat different situations. Human nature and God’s nature have not changed, and we can take into account the changes in culture as long as we know something about the original cultures of the Bible. For example, Paul specifically left Timothy in Ephesus to warn against those teaching false doctrines (1 Tim 1:3), and exhorts Timothy to do so according to the prophecies given him (1:18; 4:14; cf. 2 Tim 1:6); he also addresses specific false teachers (1:20), who are now dead. Although Paul did not leave us in Ephesus nor did we receive Timothy’s prophecies, there are plenty of transcultural principles here, such as fighting dangerous doctrines, or heeding words of wisdom or properly tested prophecy. But again, noting that specific exhortations can have more general relevance does not allow us to simply assume that we know that transcultural relevance before we have studied the situation carefully.

When Paul tells Timothy to drink a little wine for his stomach’s sake (1 Tim 5:23), we learn that it is sometimes necessary to take medicine. God often heals instantly in answer to prayer, but at many other times he has provided us natural means by which to improve our health. (By “natural” we mean what he has created in nature, not occult practices which involve evil spirits.) Yet recognizing that this is the only way we can apply some Scriptures must summon us to consistency: perhaps this is the way all Scripture is to be read to be profitable for teaching (2 Tim 3:16).

This is how Paul often read the Old Testament: Those events were written down as examples for us, both positive and negative (1 Cor 10:6, 11). In the same way, we should read the stories in the Bible as case studies–as examples how God dealt with people in particular kinds of situations. Then we can take warning or encouragement when we recognize analogous situations today! But we must make sure the situations are really analogous. That is, God destroyed the disobedient in the wilderness (1 Cor 10:6-10); that does not mean that obedient people should fear destruction! We do not simply apply directly to ourselves every passage we read without taking into account the difference in situation.

The same is true for Paul’s letters. Paul addressed specific situations in a specific culture. We cannot simply apply his words to all cultures directly, as if we can ignore differences. When Paul says to “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26), he uses the standard form of intimate greeting in his culture. (Familial kisses were often light kisses on the lips.) Today Christians should still greet one another affectionately, but in most of our cultures few of us actually use kisses to do it, especially the kinds of kisses used back then. Although Christian interpreters today differ as to where to draw the line, no one tries to fulfill literally every command of the Bible with no account for the difference in situation. No one tries to get Paul’s cloak at Troas and bring it to him.

Using Cultural Background

But merely pointing out that we must take into account culture in Bible interpretation does not tell us precisely how to use it. For this, we must follow several steps.

1. Obtaining the Correct Background

We must first take into account, as best as possible, the specific culture and situations the original writers of the Bible addressed. For instance, knowing about the use of kisses in greetings in Paul’s culture is helpful. If we are going to practice (or not practice) head coverings today, we should know what head coverings looked like in Paul’s day (hence what he meant by them) and why he supported their use (to see if we share those reasons).

Where do we get this background? Some of the background is often in the Bible itself. For instance, we can learn much about the times in which Isaiah prophesied by reading the accounts of the kings in whose reigns he prophesied (listed in Is 1:1) in 2 Kings; likewise about the situations Jeremiah addressed roughly a century later. Acts 17:1-9 tells us about the founding of the church in Thessalonica, which in turn gives us some background for 1 and 2 Thessalonians. We can also reconstruct some of the specific situation addressed based on what the texts themselves emphasize. For instance, Paul seems to address Jewish-Gentile division in Rome, conflicts between the wealthier and less wealthy Christians in Corinth, and so forth. Noticing these patterns in these letters can help us reconstruct what sorts of issues the writers had to contend with, shedding light on many details in the letters …

More specific knowledge of the culture requires more work, because not everyone possesses biblical background resources outside the Bible. On some issues (like holy kisses, Jewish burial customs or waterpots in Cana) we recognize that the Bible’s culture often differs from our own. But often even when we think we can take for granted that our own cultural background (as if all modern Christians shared the same culture!) qualifies us to understand the Bible, we are mistaken. Many of us miss the shock that would have greeted the first hearers of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son: no respectable father would have divided his inheritance at a son’s demand, run to greet his son, or welcomed him home safe without punishment. Jesus compares God to an indulgent, overly lenient father–showing just how merciful he has been in view of our rebellion against him ...

Various sources provide information on ancient Mediterranean cultures. Someone who wants to study the Gospels in detail, for instance, should read in addition to the Old Testament the Apocrypha (a section contained in Catholic but not Protestant Bibles), especially Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach; some of the Dead Sea Scrolls (especially the Manual of Discipline and War Scroll) and so-called Pseudepigrapha (especially 1 Enoch; Epistle of Aristeas; 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch); parts of Josephus (especially his Life, Against Apion, and parts of the War); and probably the tractate Aboth in the Mishnah. Because most students do not have access to all these resources, one might use a Bible encyclopedia (like the new International Standard Bible Encyclopedia) to get answers for specific questions one has. But sometimes one does not even know which questions one should ask without knowing some of the background.

For that reason, one of the simplest and most available beginning tools is the IVP Bible Background Commentary. The New Testament portion provides background on each passage or verse of the New Testament …

2. Determine How the Passage Relates to its Culture

We should know the culture and situation well enough to understand why the biblical writers addressed what they addressed the way they did. Once we understand the culture and situation, we need to understand what the writers say to the situation. In the passage you are studying, does the author agree with the views of his culture on this matter? For instance, when Jesus tells his disciples to offer private reproof before public rebuke (Matt 18:15-17), he is in agreement with the usual Jewish way of doing things in his day. In some other cases, biblical writers may adopt neutral aspects of the cultures they are addressing for the sake of being a relevant witness within those cultures, as Paul clearly explains that he does in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 …

Does the biblical writer modify a standard view of his culture, even while (often) communicating his message in culturally intelligible forms? This is one of the most frequent ways biblical writers related to their cultures. For instance, from Aristotle onward Greeks and Romans often emphasized that the male head of the household must rule his wife, children and slaves. But Paul, while taking over the topic, modifies the instructions: he tells a husband not how to rule his wife, but how to love her (Eph 5:25). The wife must submit, but as a form of Christian submission that all Christians must learn to practice (Eph 5:21-22). If we read this passage as if Paul were saying exactly the same thing as Aristotle, we would miss his point

3. Applying the Biblical Writers’ Message

We cannot determine whether every culture or situation must address matters the same way the biblical writers did until we understand the biblical writers’ reasons for making the particular arguments they do. But once we have a good idea about why the biblical writers addressed particular situations the way they did, we can begin to ask how they would have applied the same principles in very different situations.

For example, knowing why women wore head coverings in Paul’s day helps us understand why he gives the instructions he does. Most women in the eastern Mediterranean world covered their hair in public as a sign of sexual modesty; thus the lower class women in the churches were concerned when some upper class women refused to wear them.

But would Paul solve matters of sexual modesty or class division in the same way in every culture as he did in Corinth? Would the head covering provide a solution to such issues in every culture? Could head coverings in some cultures become signs of ostentation, showing off wealth? Could they in some cultures actually become tools of seduction the way jewels and costly array sometimes were in Paul’s culture? What of a culture where only well-to-do people could afford to wear head coverings, thus introducing class division into the church? Is it possible that in churches in some parts of the world, wearing a head covering (as opposed to not wearing one) might draw attention to the wearer?

In such cases, do we follow Paul’s specific example for his culture, or do we follow the transcultural principles Paul used to make a specific case for a specific culture? This is why it is so important for us to take into account cultural background and read Scripture consistently in light of it: If God inspired the writers to address their own culture in a particular way, how would they have addressed our culture today? Which are the principles and which are the specific examples that illustrated those principles in the situations the biblical writers addressed?

Jesus interpreted Scripture this way. The Pharisees were interested in detailed regulations, but Jesus was more interested in the principles (Matt 12:7). Jesus took into account the human reasons some Scriptures were given: some things God permitted because of the hardness of their hearts (Mk 10:5), but their real goal should be to understand God’s ideal purposes (Mk 10:6-9). They cited a law; he cited a story. All Scripture is inspired and useful for teaching (2 Tim 3:16), so the issue is not that one kind of writing is more useful than another. The issue is that they saw only details, whereas Jesus looked for the reasons for the details. Jesus claimed that what mattered most was justice, mercy and faith (Matt 23:23)–the heart of God’s word. Paul in the same way disagreed with his contemporaries on what was fundamental, arguing that it is God’s own power that saves us, not secondary issues like circumcision or food laws. This method of interpretation requires us to keep central what matters most (the gospel and obedience to God’s will), rather than becoming legalistic on secondary matters that could distract us from the heart of the gospel ...

The only appropriate starting point for finding wisdom is the fear of the Lord (Prov 1:7); if we fear him we will be careful to truly understand his truth, wherever the evidence of the Bible genuinely leads us, rather than ways to explain that truth away.

Tomorrow: Biblical background examples

Today’s post continues with John 8, entirely excluded from the three-year Lectionary of Bible readings for public worship.

This exclusion qualifies it for the ongoing Churchmouse Campanologist series Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential to our understanding of Scripture.

Today’s reading comes from the King James Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

John 8:12-20

12Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.

 13The Pharisees therefore said unto him, Thou bearest record of thyself; thy record is not true.

 14Jesus answered and said unto them, Though I bear record of myself, yet my record is true: for I know whence I came, and whither I go; but ye cannot tell whence I come, and whither I go.

 15Ye judge after the flesh; I judge no man.

 16And yet if I judge, my judgment is true: for I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me.

 17It is also written in your law, that the testimony of two men is true.

 18I am one that bear witness of myself, and the Father that sent me beareth witness of me.

 19Then said they unto him, Where is thy Father? Jesus answered, Ye neither know me, nor my Father: if ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also.

 20These words spake Jesus in the treasury, as he taught in the temple: and no man laid hands on him; for his hour was not yet come.


John’s Gospel relates Jesus’s divinity throughout, often accompanied by the contrasting imagery of light versus darkness. Other running themes are condemnation for those who fail to acknowledge Christ as the Son of God as well as correct and divine judgment. We also see God’s sovereignty at work. So far, we have read the following verses (emphases mine on the common themes):

John 3:18-21:

18He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

 19And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.

 20For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.

 21But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.

John 5:22-23:

22For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son:

 23That all men should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father. He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which hath sent him.

John 5:26-27, 29-30:

26For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself;

27And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man.

29And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.

 30I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.

John 5:43, 46-47:

43I am come in my Father’s name, and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive.

46For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me; for he wrote of me.

 47But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?

John 6:36:

But I said unto you, That ye also have seen me, and believe not.

John 7:6-7:

6Jesus said to them,  “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. 7The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil.

John 7:19, 24:

19 Has not Moses given you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why do you seek to kill me?

24 Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”

John 7:28-30, 33-34:

28So Jesus proclaimed, as he taught in the temple, “You know me, and you know where I come from? But I have not come of my own accord. He who sent me is true, and him you do not know. 29 I know him, for I come from him, and he sent me.” 30 So they were seeking to arrest him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come.

33Jesus then said, “I will be with you a little longer, and then I am going to him who sent me. 34 You will seek me and you will not find me. Where I am you cannot come.”

John 7:44:

Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.

If we grasp only those themes from the first part of John, we will have understood what the apostle was communicating in his Gospel. Each Gospel shows a different aspect of Jesus.  In John it is His divinity.

In last week’s post, a group of scribes and Pharisees challenged Jesus in the temple by bringing before Him the woman accused of adultery.  After He alluded to their hypocrisy and sinfulness, they left suddenly and silently.  Jesus forgave the woman and told her to sin no more.

Today’s passage appears to have occurred on the same day but in the treasury (verse 20).  This was part of the temple complex. John MacArthur explains the temple layout and the treasury design:

In the temple there were a whole lot of different courts … they were just colonnades in a courtyard. The outside one, the furthest one away from the Holy of Holies … where only the high priest could go once a year … was the Court of the Gentiles. The reason it was called the Court of the Gentiles was because it was the only place the Gentiles could go … They were included in the blessing of God but they couldn’t move in to the ministry end of it. The second court in from the Court of the Gentiles was called the Court of the Women. That was because that’s all the further the women could go…unless they were going into the Court of the Priests which was the next one so that they could put a sacrifice on the altar…specifically for that purpose, the only way a woman could get into that. Now there were men also in the Court of the Women but it was called the Court of the Women simply because that’s as far as the women could go.

Now it was in this Court of the Women that the temple treasury existed. Now the Court of the Women was a great court, it had colonnades around it. And then on the walls all the way around it were giant trumpet-shaped treasure chests, and I use that word for lack of a better one. Since it was a treasury and that’s where people brought their money, they had put up on the wall these great trumpet-shaped things, they were large funnel- type things at the top and then they came down to a little kind of a bell-shaped thing on the bottom. The point was you could put something in, you couldn’t get anything out. And it’s very difficult to lock up a temple. So they just had to leave it that way. So they had this thing you could drop the coin through and it would settle into the bottom. Now they must have had some way to get it out as far as their concerned, removing it or something, but for the people’s sake that’s the way it was set up so that it couldn’t be robbed and so forth and so on. And there thirteen of those trumpets all the way around the wall.

Now the number one and two trumpet, we’ll call them trumpets though they’re really kind of a treasury [ch]est, trumpets number one and two were where you put your half-shekel tax that everybody paid, the alloted offering that you had to pay for the upkeep of the temple and so forth and so on. Everybody put something in one and two, they were designated for that. Trumpets number three and four were where you purchased pigeons. Now to buy pigeons you paid in those two so that they knew how much money came in for the sale of pigeons. You say, “Well so what’s the sale of pigeons for?” Well poor people used pigeons for sacrifices, they couldn’t afford the other animals, but beyond that it’s a very interesting thing, and I’m not sure of all the significance. Women who had just born a child had to make an offering of two pigeons, it was called an offering of purification…to purify that mother ceremonially after child bearing. So the women would go into there, pay into the three and four trumpets and purchase their two pigeons to be given as a sacrifice, cleansing symbolically after their childbirth.

Trumpet number five was where you put the money if you wanted to buy wood to keep the altar burning. You could take your choice. Number six was where you put your incense contributions. Trumpet number seven was where you put the money if you wanted it to go to the upkeep of the vessels, the golden vessels and all of the things that were in the temple. Then trumpets eight through thirteen were surplus money which you just wanted to put [in], but you didn’t care where it went.

So the temple treasury was right there. That’s where Jesus is. He’s in the middle of the Court of the Women where the temple treasury is. Now that’s an important thing, keep that in your mind, you’re going to see how that unfolds to be probably the critical thing in this whole passage.

It is there that Jesus utters the most famous words from John’s Gospel (verse 12): ‘I am the light of the world’.  He goes on to say that His followers will walk in His light, eschewing the darkness of sin.

Verse 13 introduces another group of Pharisees.  Matthew Henry believes that this was not the same group in the first 11 verses of John 8, but another, wishing to redeem the injured reputation of those who presented the adulteress to Jesus.  This new group accuses Him of bearing a false witness against Himself — in other words, lying about His origins and His being.  This is a false accusation; they are ignoring the witness of others, from John the Baptist to Nicodemus on the more noted end of the social scale, to the more ordinary, everyday people whom he healed, such as the infirm man at Bethesda, and those who believed His words during the preceding Feast of Tabernacles.  Therefore, the Pharisees are disingenuous and false in their accusations.

Jesus responds by saying that what He says of Himself is the truth (verse 14). Jesus says that only He knows His origins. On a temporal level, He was born in Bethlehem, not Nazareth.  On a divine level, He came from Heaven.  Yet, none of the Jewish hierarchy challenging Him either acknowledges or wishes to acknowledge these facts.  Note the aforementioned verses from the preceding chapters.

Jesus adds that the Pharisees judge the way men do — based on flawed or ignored evidence — ‘after the flesh’ (verse 15).  Of Himself, He says that He judges ‘no man’, which means no judgment of earthly systems relating to the synagogue or to civil government: ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36).

In verse 16, Jesus goes on to say, however, that when He does judge, His decisions are true, as He does so in accordance with God’s will. This alludes to the Final Judgment and points to a judgment of the state of their souls. Yet, these highly educated men, so well versed in Mosaic Law, miss the point entirely, whether through stubbornness or pride.  As Jesus has said many times in John, ‘If you really know who my Father is, you will recognise Me’.

Matthew Henry notes:

The first coming of Christ was for the purpose of administering, not justice, but medicine.

Jesus came to redeem us, not condemn us.  Yet, sin blinds many to the truth.

In verses 17 and 18, Jesus attempts to make the point by discussing Mosaic Law, in which they are well-versed.  The Law states that the corroborating testimony of two witnesses is deemed to be the truth (Deuteronomy 17:6).  Jesus says that He is His own witness as is God the Father.  Remember that we are not discussing temporal law here, but divine law — something which is lost on the Pharisees.  What more supreme and sovereign witnesses can there be other than God the Father and God the Son?

However, the Pharisees refuse to understand His words. Obtusely, they ask where His Father is.  Once again — see the verses at the beginning earlier in this post — Jesus says that if they had recognised Him, which they should have in their exalted religious capacity, they would also have recognised God (verse 19).

Henry cautions us not to let our flawed judgment get the better of us where belief is concerned:

If we knew Christ better, we should know the Father better; but, where the Christian religion is slighted and opposed, natural religion will soon be lost and laid aside. Deism makes way for atheism. Those become vain in their imaginations concerning God that will not learn of Christ.

Let us, therefore, avoid being like those who rip pages out of the Bible or draw lines through verses with which they disagree!

In closing, there is another reason why Jesus refers to Himself as the ‘light of the world’ in verse 12.  Two points here: first, He came not only to redeem God’s chosen — the Jewish people — but also the Gentiles, wherever they are in the world. Second, He is also alluding to the ceremony just recently performed during the Feast of Tabernacles and is asking the hierarchy to make the connection. In other words, the Jews have become so wrapped up in legalism — ritual observance, in this case — that they miss the promised Messiah and Redeemer standing in the flesh before them!

MacArthur explains why Jesus said what He did where He did when He did:

At this feast there were several very important rituals. We already saw one, that was the pouring of the water when all of them had their bows and everything over the altar … And there Jesus said, “If any man thirst, come to Me.” He grabbed that ritual and turned it to Himself. The second ritual, very important ritual during this week was called the illumination of the temple ritual. Now this is what’s going on here in Jesus’ mind, and I’ll show you what I mean.

In the evening this ritual took place and the illumination of the temple ritual was to commemorate, mark it, the light in the wilderness that had led Israel. Now you remember that during the day they were led by a light that looked like a cloud. And at night they were led by… a pillar of fire, flaming light in the sky … And to commemorate the light that led them, they had this ceremony called the illumination of the temple which commemorated the light that led Israel in the Old Testament. Now you can see we’re beginning to zero in on this light concept.

They had this ceremony … in the Court of the Women, see, that’s why Jesus is there. That’s why He went there to say, “I’m the light of the world.” I’ll show you. In the middle of the Court of the Women they erected giant candelabras, gigantic massive things with a multiplicity of lights that reflected up. And at night, in the evening, they would light all those candelabras and that light would just stream out of the top of that courtyard and flood the city of Jerusalem. In fact, the rabbis used to say that every courtyard in Jerusalem was lit all night, like a brilliant diamond flashing its light over the entire city of Jerusalem, the light just came pouring out of the top of that temple courtyard in the Court of the Women … And they actually had places where people could sit around it. At the same time it was the noisiest celebration of the feast cause everybody sang and they sang certain Psalms and they had certain dancing that they did and all this noise went on all night long while this light kept burning. And that light was to commemorate the light in the wilderness.

Now just…now that you have it in your mind, has it become reasonable to see what Jesus was doing? He walks into the Court of the Women and the light is long out … but sitting in the middle of that place is this gigantic candelabra. Jesus steps into the middle of this courtyard where there’s nothing on their minds perhaps any more significant than seeing this candelabra and remembering the great illumination of Jerusalem. And they walk in there and they see that candelabra and Jesus steps up beside that candelabra and undoubtedly with some gesture says, “I am the light of the world.” What a dramatic statement. For in their minds they would be remembering a light in Jerusalem that commemorated a light that led Israel. But Jesus says, “Yes, you remember the light last night in the temple here which made you remember the light that led Israel…I am the light of the world.” Now do you see the significance of that statement?

Next week: John 8:21-30

Today’s post continues with Dr Craig S Keener’s brief and fascinating course on biblical hermeneutics, which he gave in 2005 to a group of Nigerian students.

We have reached Chapter 5, Other Context Principles.  As each chapter is lengthy — but eminently readable — please be sure to go to his link for the full text.  Below are excerpts on meanings of words in various biblical languages and advice about chapter and author outlines.

Anyone who reads the Bible regularly — or who would like to — will learn a great deal from this course.  Emphases below are mine, except in the outline of Romans.

We should briefly survey some other context principles: context of author; anticontext methods to avoid; and the value of outlining Scripture to catch the flow of thought.

Context of Author

In some cases, we have additional help in understanding a passage or statement in the Bible because we can look elsewhere at the particular author’s style. Paul says that God inspired the Scriptures “through” people (Rom 1:2), which suggests that the author’s point corresponds with God’s point …

Sometimes the author’s style is relevant within the book. For example, when some people today claim that “abundant life” in John 10:10 refers to material prosperity, we should note that this is not what John means by “life” anywhere else (1:4; 3:15-16, 36; 4:14, 35; 5:24, 26, 29, 39-40; 6:27; etc.) If this were not enough, however, one could also note references to “life” by the same author in 1 John (1:1-2; 2:25; 3:14-15; 5:11-13, 16, 20). Some argue that Jesus healed everyone on the basis of Matthew 4:23. But does “all” mean every individual in the whole region? Matthew also says that they brought him “all” the sick in the whole province of Syria (which included Galilee and Judea); if he meant that literally, no one would have needed healing after this point (against the testimony of Acts and even the rest of Matthew’s Gospel). Jesus did not heal everyone who was sick near him (13:58), although there were reasons for this and the text indicates that Jesus normally healed people. When we read Isaiah and the Psalms, “salvation” has a broader meaning than it usually bears in the New Testament, and we should respect the context of Isaiah’s and the psalmists’ usage and not read other texts into these.

Let me take two examples from Paul’s writings. In neither case are we addressing a particular doctrine; a doctrine often may be based on other texts. But it is helpful to pick examples that will underline the point. For example, some say that the Church will not go through the Great Tribulation at the end of the age because Paul declares that we will not experience God’s “wrath” (1 Thess 1:10; 5:9). This, however, is a questionable argument for that position. Occasionally Paul speaks of God’s “wrath” in the present era (Rom 1:18), but usually when he uses the term he speaks of future wrath on the day of God’s judgment (Rom 2:5, 8; 5:9; 9:22)–nowhere of the Great Tribulation before that day. Some interpreters want to appeal to the use of “wrath” in Revelation, but Revelation had not yet been written, so Paul could not expect the Thessalonians to simply flip over to Revelation to guess what he meant by “wrath.” (If one does appeal to Revelation, however, this particular Greek word for “wrath” always refers to judgment at the end of the tribulation; the word which sometimes–not always–refers to the tribulation as God’s anger is not even the same word!)

My second example from Paul is the trumpet in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and 1 Corinthians 15:52; the latter text calls it the “last trumpet,” so some interpreters want to parallel it with the seventh trumpet in Revelation. But again, Paul’s original audience had no access to a book that had not been written yet. They could not simply flip over to Revelation to understand what Paul meant by the trumpet. They could not even flip from 1 Thessalonians to 1 Corinthians, since most of the first audience in Thessalonica would not have a copy of 1 Corinthians. (The early Christians probably had heard Paul share Jesus’ teachings with them, and may have known about the trumpet later recorded in Matthew 24:31. In this sense, we can use Jesus’ teachings as “background” for Paul’s message. But jumping carelessly from one author to another, say from Paul to Revelation, can often yield inaccurate results.) …

AntiContext methods to avoid

One must be very careful with word-studies, and should entirely avoid the usual sort of word-study sermons: These are equivalent to preaching from a dictionary rather than from the Bible! Thus some ministers preach on the different “kinds” of love in different passages, agapao love versus phileo love. But the distinction between these two “kinds” of love had virtually disappeared by the New Testament period, so they are often (probably even usually) used interchangeably! Tracing all the uses of a particular word in the Bible is helpful for finding out the different ways that word can be used. It should never form a sermon outline, however (the exception might be some passages in Proverbs), because that is preaching from a concordance rather than from a text studied in its context.

One should also avoid determining the meaning of words by their etymologies. That is, you cannot break a word down into its component parts and always come up with its meaning, and you usually cannot determine the meaning a word has by looking at how it was used centuries earlier or how the word originated …

For example, some take the Greek word for “repent,” metanoieo, and divide it into two parts, of which the second, noieo, is related to thinking. Therefore, they say, “repent” simply means a change of mind. The problem with this interpretation is that the meaning of words is determined by their usage, not by their origins! The New Testament generally uses “repent” not in the Greek sense of “changing one’s mind” but in the sense of “turn” in the Old Testament prophets: a radical turning of our lives from sin to God’s righteousness.

Another example of this problem occurs when interpreters speak of the Church as the “called-out ones” based on the Greek word for church, ekklesia. We are, to be sure, “called-out,” but we know that for other reasons, not because we can determine that from ekklesia. Some divide ekklesia into ek, meaning “out of,” and kaleo, which means “call.” But ekklesia had already been used by Greeks for centuries to mean an “assembly” or “gathering”; Jewish people who knew Greek spoke of the congregation of Israel in the wilderness as God’s ekklesia. So the New Testament does not make up a new word to call Christians the “called-out-ones”; rather, it uses a standard term for an assembly, and probably the first Christians thought especially of God’s own assembly in the Old Testament, his people.

People can twist Greek the way they can twist English, Hausa, or anything else. When Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that John 1:1 calls Jesus “a God” because there is no definite article (“the”) in front of “God” there, they neglect several factors, of which I will briefly summarize two. First, “God” does not always have a definite article in John’s Gospel; the God who sent John the Baptist does not have a definite article (Jn 1:6), but Jehovah’s Witnesses never say he was simply “a god.” Second, grammatically “God” is a predicate nominative in “the Word was God,” and predicate nominatives usually omit definite articles. Even without moving any further, we can see that the Jehovah’s Witness interpretation here is based on a lack of knowledge of Greek …

How often have we read our doctrine (maybe even a correct doctrine, supported by other texts) into a text or texts that did not really address the issue? When this happens, Christians from different groups can no longer use the Bible as a common basis for seeking truth, because we are all “sure” of our own interpretations, which we sometimes cannot defend from context! It is important enough to respect the Bible enough to let it speak for itself. If our doctrine is not in a passage, we do not need to read it in; our doctrine is probably in some other passage–or else respect for the Bible’s authority may require us to fix our doctrine. In this way we are open to fresh discoveries in the Bible each time we study it. At the same time, this does not mean that we throw away everything we have already learned and start with nothing each day. We build on what we have already learned, and go back and change particular interpretations only as we study the text as honestly as possible and find a need to change. This way we can also dialogue with other honest Christians around the Scriptures.

Outlining to Get the Flow of Context

Outlining a passage’s or a book’s structure can often help a person follow the flow of thought. Some texts break down easily into an obvious structure. For example:

2. Matthew 5:21-48

1. Angry enough to kill (5:21-26)

2. Coveting others sexually (5:27-30)

3. Unfaithfulness by divorce (5:31-32)

4. Integrity better than oaths (5:33-37)

5. Avoiding resistance (5:38-42)

6. Loving your enemy (5:43-47)

Conclusion: Be perfect like God (5:48)

Not all outlines come so simply, however; some outlines of thought may be more complicated. Thus, for example, one can divide Romans 1:18-32 into a simple outline: God judges the world for preferring idols to his truth (1:18-23); they fall into sexual sin (1:24-27); and ultimately every kind of sin (1:28-32). But a more detailed outline might also reveal Paul’s line of thought in more detail (I adapt the NASB below):

Rom. 1:10 always in my prayers making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you.

[why?–reason for 1:10]

Rom. 1:11 For

I long to see you in order that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established;


Rom. 1:12 that is,

that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine.

Rom. 1:13 And I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented thus far)

[why? purpose for planning to come]

in order that

I might obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles.

[grammatically new point (though logically continues explanation for what precedes)]

Rom 1:14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.

[1:14 provides the reason for 1:15]

Rom. 1:15 Thus,

for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

[1:16a also provides the reason for 1:15]

Rom. 1:16 For

I am not ashamed of the gospel,

[1:16b provides the reason for 1:16a]


it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

[Why is it God’s salvific power for both Jew and Greek? 1:17 provides the reason for 1:16b (both Jew and Gentile come to God on equal terms through faith)

Rom. 1:17 For

in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith;

[basis for knowing this:]

as it is written, “But the righteous person shall live by faith.”

[Why must the righteous come by faith? 1:17 is predicated on the entire section that follows in 1:18-2:29 and beyond–all are equally lost]

1:18 For

the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people=who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,

[why is God so angry? wrath (v. 18) because they should’ve known better (v. 19)]

Rom. 1:19 because

that which is known about God is evident within them;



God made it evident to them.


Rom. 1:20 For

since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made

[with the result that–the closing line shows the result of the preceding one]

so that

they are without excuse.

[why? basis for the result in the last line of 1:20, hence rehearsing the reason of the earlier lines of 1:20]

Rom. 1:21-23 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

[1:24 happens because of 1:23–sexual sin (perverting God’s image in humanity) stems from idolatry (perverting God’s image directly)]

Rom. 1:24 Therefore

God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them.

[1:25 is the basis for 1:24–rehearses the thought of 1:21-23]

Rom. 1:25 For

they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

[1:26 happens because of 1:25, and rehearses and develops the thought of 1:24]

Rom. 1:26-28 For

this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, {followed by vice list}


Outlining passages can prove very useful in seeking to convey biblical truths. Larger outlines of passages often can provide the main points for a sermon or an outline for an inductive Bible study. In this case the structure of the text becomes the structure of your sermon–making you depend still more on the Bible for what you will teach! One can also list various lessons in a passage and make them one’s main points; or one can simply tell the story in the text, and mention the lessons as they arise. In any case, we discipline ourselves and our hearers to understand the Bible better when we treat it passage by passage rather than skipping indiscriminately from one to another.

Monday: Chapter 6, Bible Background

Over the past few days, I have been excerpting Dr Craig S Keener’s brief and fascinating course on biblical hermeneutics, which he gave in 2005 to a group of Nigerian students.

Everyone who reads Biblical Interpretation will learn something new.  If you enjoy reading the Bible, especially if you teach Sunday School or are a theology student, then you will also enjoy Keener’s course, which is a great introduction to hermeneutics.  This chapter in particular helped me to overcome a few issues I had with some stories in Genesis as well as James’s epistles!

Yesterday’s post introduced the hermeneutical principle of whole-book context, which is essential when reading Scripture.  Today’s continues with more from Chapters 3 and 4, Whole-Book Context.  Please be sure to read the chapter in full at his link, as they are lengthy.  Here are a few more excerpts (emphases mine below):

11. Judah’s Punishment in Genesis 38

In his attacks on Christianity, South African writer Ahmed Deedat complains that the Bible is full of pornography and that Genesis 38, the story of Judah and Tamar, is a “filthy, dirty story.” Did the Bible include this story simply to satisfy base interests of ungodly readers? Or have Deedat and others missed the entire point of the story?

The story can be summarized briefly, after which we will quickly see a moral lesson in it. Judah has three sons, Er (38:3), Onan (38:4), and Shelah (38:5). When God killed Er for sinful behavior (38:7), his younger brother Onan automatically inherited Er’s responsibility to raise up offspring for his brother’s name. Some cultures where women cannot earn money practice widow inheritance, where another brother takes over the deceased brother’s wife. In the cultures around this family, however, normally a brother would simply get the widow pregnant, so that she could have a son who would receive her first husband’s share of the inheritance; this son would in turn support her in her old age.

But Onan spills his seed on the ground, and God angrily strikes him dead (38:9-10), as he had struck his brother before him. Why did Onan “spill his seed”? And what was so sinful about him doing so? The firstborn (in this case Er) normally received twice as much inheritance as any other brother; if Onan raised up a son for his brother, that son would be counted as his brother’s son and would receive half the inheritance, leaving only a quarter for Onan and a quarter for Shelah. But if Tamar could not become pregnant, Onan would receive two-thirds of the inheritance and Shelah one-third. Onan was greedy, and cared more about the extra inheritance than about honoring his brother and providing for Tamar. God defended Tamar’s honor, because he cared about Tamar. The text teaches us about justice.

But the story goes on. Judah, fearing that allowing his sons to sleep with Tamar is leading to their deaths, refuses to give his final son to Tamar. In some of the surrounding cultures (though never in later Israelite law), if a brother were unavailable, a father was considered acceptable; so Tamar takes matters into her own hands. She disguises herself as a prostitute, knowing what kind of person Judah is; then she allows him to impregnate her, but keeps his signet ring so she can later prove that he is the father (38:18).

When Judah learns that Tamar is pregnant, he orders her to be executed. This reflects a double standard practiced in many cultures: the idea that a man can have sex with anyone (as Judah slept with what he thought was a prostitute) but a woman cannot. But God has no double standard: sin is as wrong for a man as it is for a woman. Tamar sent him the signet ring, forcing Judah to release her and admit, “She is more righteous than I” (38:26). That was the moral of the story: Judah was immoral and raised two immoral sons, and now is caught in his guilt. By challenging the double standard of his culture, the writer argues against sin. This is not a “dirty story” at all!

But whole-book context shows us more. The chapter directly before chapter 38 is chapter 37, where Judah takes the lead in selling his brother Joseph into slavery. In chapter 38, Judah’s lifestyle of sin finally catches up with him, and he suffers for it! He sold his father’s son into slavery; now he loses two of his own sons to death. The chapter after 38 is chapter 39, where Joseph resists the sexual advances of Potipher’s wife, despite the penalty he faces for doing so. Joseph does not practice a double standard: he lives holy no matter what the cost. And a few chapters later, God rewards Joseph for his obedience; he becomes Pharaoh’s vizier, and the agent through whom God can actually rescue the very brothers who sold him into slavery. And when Joseph is exalted, Pharaoh gives Joseph his signet-ring (41:42)–inviting us to remember Judah who lent his to what he thought was a prostitute (38:11). The larger story has a moral: those who live sinful lifestyles may prosper in the short run, but eventually they suffer; by contrast, those who remain faithful to God may suffer at first, but in the end they will be blessed.

This, however, is not the end of the story. Although Judah took the lead in selling his half-brother Joseph into slavery, Judah learned from his mistakes. Later he takes responsibility for Joseph’s full brother Benjamin before their father Jacob (43:8-9), and for his father’s sake takes responsibility for Benjamin before Joseph (44:16-34). Judah is ready to become a slave himself to keep Benjamin from becoming one–and this is what convinces Joseph that his brothers finally have changed. The final moral of the story, then, is one of forgiveness and reconciliation, and the faithfulness of God who arranged events to bring it all about. Ahmed Deedat did not read far enough to understand the story!

13. Moses’ Character in Exodus 6:10-30

Most of us do not preach from genealogies; most individual genealogies were probably not designed exactly for preaching anyway. But one must ask why God suddenly interrupts the story of Moses with a genealogy in Exodus 6:14-25. God commands Moses to tell Pharaoh to release his people, but Moses protests that his own people have not heeded him, so how would Pharaoh listen to him (6:10-13)? After the genealogy, the narrative repeats the point: God commands Moses to confront Pharaoh, and Moses protests that Pharaoh will not listen to him.

What is the point of interrupting this narrative with a genealogy? The genealogy itself lists three tribes, the three oldest tribes, which sages who remembered the story might have called out until getting to Moses’ tribe. But the fact that the genealogy occurs at this point in the narrative may indicate more than that. The list reminds us that Moses was descended from Levi, and related to Reuben and Simeon. Reuben slept with his father’s concubine and Simeon and Levi massacred all the men in Shechem. By placing the genealogy here, Exodus may be commenting on why Moses was so uncomfortable with confronting Pharaoh. If he was descended from such people as Levi, Reuben and Simeon, is it any wonder that Moses would act like this?

With the exception of Jesus, all the people God chose in the Bible were people with weaknesses rather than those who might think they “deserved” to be called. God chose broken people whose triumphs would bring glory to him rather than to themselves.

14. Rebekah’s Deceit (Gen 27:5-10)

Some readers have accused both Isaac and Rebekah of equal fault in favoring their sons (Esau and Jacob respectively; Gen 27:1-10). But in context of the entire book of Genesis, the motives of the two parents are quite different. Isaac favors the elder son (25:25; 27:4), but the whole patriarchal line suggests that God does not always choose the elder son (21:12; 49:3-4), and paternal favoritism produces problems (37:4); Jacob himself finally learns and practices this in his old age (48:14-20). What are Rebekah’s motives? The clearest clue the text itself provides is in 25:22-23: she had sought God, and God had told her that the younger would prevail. In contrast to Isaac, Rebekah acts on the basis of a word from God. Further, Esau had married pagan wives and sold his birthright, with apparently no sense of responsibility for the call on this family to be God’s blessing to the earth (25:31-34; 26:34-35). In a culture where the husband’s will was law and Isaac was blind to God’s choice, Rebekah took the only route she knew to secure God’s promise.

Genesis is full of accounts that underline for Israel the miracle of their blessing and existence–three barren matriarchs (18:11; 25:21; 30:22), royal abduction or threatening of matriarchs (12:13; 20:2; Isaac repeated his father’s example–26:7), and so on. Elsewhere in Genesis someone other than the patriarch makes a choice, nevertheless leaving the right land to the patriarch (13:9-13; 36:6-8). In the context of the themes the entire book emphasizes, it is consistent to believe that God worked through Rebekah’s deception, as he worked through a variety of other means, to protect his chosen line.

This is not to say that the deception was God’s preferred means to accomplish this, though he sometimes blessed deception when it would save human life from unjust oppressors (Ex 1:18-21; Josh 2:5-6; 1 Sam 16:1-3; 2 Sam 17:19-20; 2 Kings 8:10; Jer 38:24-27). As Jacob stole his brother’s birthright through deception, so he is deceived through two sisters. When Isaac asked Jacob his name, he lied to get the blessing (Gen 27:18-19), hence incurring his brother’s murderous anger (27:41). His mother promised to send for him when it proved safe to return (27:45), but apparently she died in the meantime hence could not send for him, so when he is returning he expects that Esau still desires to kill him (32:11). Thus he struggles all night with the Lord or his agent, and he is confronted with his past. This time, before he can receive the blessing from God, he is asked his name and must tell the truth (32:26-27; and then gets a new name–32:28), in contrast to the time he sought his father’s blessing (27:18-19). But God was with Jacob even in spite of himself; he met angels both going from (28:12) and returning to (32:2) the land. In this story, though Isaac outlives Rebekah, she was the one with the greater perception of God’s purposes for their descendants.

15. Casting Lots in Acts 1:26

Some interpreters today suggest that the apostles made a mistake in casting lots for a twelfth apostle, even though it was before the day of Pentecost. The immediate context, however, suggests something positive; the believers were in prayerful unity (1:12-14; 2:1), and now Peter has exhorted them to replace the lost apostle (1:15-26). Would Luke spend so much space to describe a practice he disagreed with, and then fail to offer any word of correction?

Whole-book context in Acts actually invites us to read Luke and Acts together, for they were two volumes of one work (Acts 1:1-2; cf. Lk 1:1-4). When we read them together we see that Luke’s Gospel also opens with a casting of lots, in this case, one used to select which priest would serve in the temple (Lk 1:9). In that case, God certainly controlled the lot, for by it Zechariah was chosen to serve in the temple, and subsequently received a divine promise specifically designed for himself and Elizabeth, the promise of a son, John the Baptist (1:13). If God controlled the lot in the opening story of volume one, why not in the opening story (after repeating the ascension) in volume 2? The background would help us further: if God controlled the lot throughout the Old Testament, including for selection of levitical ministries, why should we doubt that he used this method on this one occasion in Acts, before the Spirit’s special guidance inaugurated with Pentecost (2:17).

16. Some Closing Observations on “Biblical Theology”

Sometimes today we start with specific doctrinal assumptions and read them into the Bible. The danger with this method is that it keeps us from ever learning anything new–if we read the Bible only as a textbook of what we already believe, we are likely to miss anything it has to teach and correct us. Thus it is important to learn the Bible’s perspectives as they are written.

But while we affirm that the Bible is correct and does not contradict itself, we recognize that some books of the Bible emphasize some themes more than other books do. Thus, for example, if one reads the Book of Revelation, one is more likely to find an emphasis on Jesus’ second coming than in the Gospel of John; in the Gospel of John, there is a heavier emphasis on eternal life available in the present. In the same way, when Paul writes to the Corinthians about speaking in tongues, he emphasizes its use as prayer; when Luke describes tongues in Acts, it functions as a demonstration that God transcends all linguistic barriers, fitting Luke’s theme that the Spirit empowers God’s people to cross cultural barriers. Different writers and books often have different emphases; these differences do not contradict one another, but we must study them respectfully on their own terms before we try to put them together.

This principle is important in whole-book (or sometimes whole-author) context. When a specific passage seems obscure to us and we cannot tell which way the author meant it, it helps to look at the rest of the book to see what the author emphasizes. Thus, for example, the fact that the Gospel of John so often stresses that future hopes like “eternal life” are present realities (e.g., Jn 3:16, 36; 5:24-25; 11:24-26) may help shed light on how we approach John 14:2-3, as noted above. At the same time, we should never forget that each New Testament writing, however distinctive, is also part of a larger context of the teaching of apostolic Christianity, which had some common features. Thus, though the Gospel of John emphasizes the presence of the future, it in no way minimizes the fact that Jesus will return someday future as well (5:28-29; 6:39-40).

Whole book interpretation principles:

Before we close this chapter, we should summarize some whole book interpretation principles. Most of the chapter has been illustrating these principles.

•       We must be careful never to “miss the forest for the trees,” as the saying goes: We must not focus so much on difficult details at the beginning that we miss the larger picture of what the book of the Bible is trying to say. (One can work on more details later.)

•       We should look for the themes that follow through any particular book in the Bible.

•       We should get the flow of argument in any book of the Bible where that is relevant.

•       It is often helpful to trace various themes where they occur in a book of the Bible, taking notes on them, or outline the flow of argument.

Tomorrow: Chapter 5, Other Context Principles

Over the past few days, I have been excerpting Dr Craig S Keener’s brief and fascinating course on biblical hermeneutics, which he gave in 2005 to a group of Nigerian students.

Everyone who reads Biblical Interpretation will learn something new.  If you enjoy reading the Bible, particularly if you teach Sunday School, Keener’s course is a great introduction to hermeneutics.

Keener recommends using a concordance. For those using online Bibles at, the ESV includes a concordance in the footnotes at the end of each chapter and, for this reason, is my favourite for personal study.

Today’s and tomorrow’s posts feature excerpts from Chapters 3 and 4, Whole-Book Context.  Be sure to read the chapters in full at his link, as they are lengthy.  Here are a few excerpts (emphases mine below):

While it is important to read each passage in the context that immediately surrounds it, it is also important to read it in the context of the entire book in which it appears whether John or Judges or James or other books of the Bible. This is the way God gave us most of the Bible, inspiring particular authors to write books, which the first readers received one book at a time.

Often the particular passage we are studying fits into an argument that runs through that entire book of the Bible. Often points in our passage develop themes that run through that book; viewed in light of how the book treats that theme elsewhere, the points in our passage become much clearer. In some cases, the story runs over several books in our Bible that were once connected as extended narratives (for instance, the Moses story in Exodus carries over from the Joseph story in Genesis, and 1 Samuel through 2 Kings are one long story; so also is Luke plus Acts).

A concordance can help you see how given words are used elsewhere in the same book; you can practice this by tracing the word “law” or “Spirit” through Galatians. If you want to develop this skill more fully, instead of using a concordance, simply read through Galatians and make your own list of some themes, and references of the verses where each theme appears.

Following are some examples of how reading a passage in light of the book where it occurs enriches our understanding of the passage …

2. Justice for the Poor in James

Some people, reading the letter of James, have thought that the letter collects miscellaneous exhortations that do not fit together very well. But their view is unlikely: when one examines James carefully, most of the book actually fits together quite well.

In the “immediate context” section above [see preceding chapter], we asked how James expected us to resist the devil (4:7), and argued that he referred to resisting the world’s values. This is a valid general principle, but were there any specific values that James was especially concerned about among his readers? Most likely, there were.

In the introduction to James’ letter he introduces several themes which recur through the rest of the letter. By tracing these themes, we get a simple outline of the basic issues the letter addresses. (When I preach on James, I often like to preach from the introduction of the letter, which allows me to actually preach most of the letter using just one or two paragraphs as my outline.)

First of all, we see the problem James confronts: his readers encounter various trials (1:2). As one reads through the letter, one gathers that many of his readers are poor people who are being oppressed by the rich (1:9-11; 2:2-6; 5:1-6). (Background sheds even more light on this situation, which was very common in James’s day. But for now we will continue to focus on whole-book context, since we will do more with background later.) Some of James’ readers appear tempted to deal with their problem of various trials in the wrong way: with a violent (whether verbally or physically) response (1:19-20; 2:11; 3:9; 4:2).

So James offers a solution demanding from them three virtues: endurance (1:3-4), wisdom (1:5), and faith (1:6-8). They need God’s wisdom to properly endure, and they need faith when they pray to God for this wisdom. James returns to each of these virtues later in his letter, explaining them in further detail. Thus he deals with endurance more fully near the end of his letter, using Job and the prophets as biblical examples of such endurance (5:7-11). He also demands sincere rather than merely passing faith (2:14-26). What he says about faith here is instructive. Some of the poor were tempted to lash out and kill their oppressors, and might think God would still be on their side so long as they had not committed sins like adultery. But James reminds them that murder is sin even if they do not commit adultery (2:11). The basic confession of Jewish faith was the oneness of God, but James reminds his friends that even the devil had “faith” that God was one, but this knowledge did not save the devil (2:19). Genuine faith means faith that is demonstrated by obedience (2:14-18). Thus if we pray “in faith” for wisdom, we must pray in the genuine faith that is willing to obey whatever wisdom God gives us! We must not be “double-minded” (1:8), which means trying to embrace both the world’s perspective and God’s at the same time (4:8).

James especially treats in more detail the matter of wisdom. He is concerned about inflammatory rhetoric–the sort of speech that stirs people to anger against others (1:19-20; 3:1-12). This does not mean that he remains silent toward rich oppressors; he prophesies God’s judgment against them (5:1-6)! But he does not approve of stirring people to violence against them. James notes that there are two kinds of wisdom. One kind involves strife and selfishness and is worldly and demonic (3:14); this is the sort of view and attitude which tempts his readers. James instead advocates God’s way of wisdom, which is gentle (3:13); it is pure–unmixed with other kinds of wisdom–and peaceable, gentle, easily entreated, full of mercy and the fruit of righteousness which is sown in peace (3:17-18). His readers were tempted to use violence (4:2) and desire the world’s way of doing things (4:4). But rather than taking matters into their own hands, they should submit to God (4:7).

James is calling us to keep peace with one another. And if he calls the oppressed not to seek to kill their oppressors, how much more does he summon all of us to love and remain gentle toward those closest to us, even those who are unkind to us? “Resisting the devil” may involve more work than some people think!

4. The “least of these” in Matt 25:40

Many people today emphasize the importance of caring for the poor by reminding us that Jesus warned us we would be judged by how we treat “the least of these” Jesus’ brothers (25:40, 45). While it is true that God will judge us according to how we treat the poor, is the “poor” what Jesus means here by his “brothers”? Will the nations be judged (25:32) only for this? The immediate context does not settle the issue, but the broader context of the Gospel tradition may help more. What does Jesus mean elsewhere by “brothers” and by the “least”?

Because ancient readers would unwind a scroll from the beginning, the first readers would have already read the preceding chapters before coming to Matthew 25. Thus they would know that Jesus’ brothers and sisters included all those who did his will (Matt 12:48-50), that all Jesus’ disciples are brothers and sisters (23:8), and, before they finished the Gospel, would know that Jesus’ disciples remained his brothers after his resurrection (28:10). (Because of the way the Greek language works, “brothers” often can include “sisters” as well, but in 28:10 the women disciples are addressing specifically the men disciples.) When Jesus speaks of the “least” in the kingdom, he sometimes also refers to some disciples (11:11).

Who then are the least of these disciples of Jesus that the nations accepted or rejected? It is at least possible that these are messengers of the gospel, “missionaries,” who bring the gospel to all unreached people groups before the day of judgment; certainly the message about the kingdom would be spread among all those people groups before the kingdom would come (24:14). These messengers might be hungry and thirsty because of the comforts they sacrificed to bring others the gospel; they might be imprisoned because of persecution; they might even be worn down to sickness by their efforts (like Epaphroditus in Phil 2:27-30). But those who received such messengers would receive Jesus who sent them, even if all they had to give them was a cup of cold water to drink–as Jesus had taught earlier (10:11-14, 40-42). It is possible, then, in light of the entire Gospel of Matthew, that these “least brothers and sisters” are the lowliest of the missionaries sent to the nations; the nations will be judged according to how they respond to Jesus’ emissaries.

8. The Spirit-baptized life in Mk 1:8-13

The Gospel of Mark explicitly mentions God’s Spirit only six times, but half of them appear in his introduction (1:8-13), where he introduces several of his central themes for his audience. His other uses emphasize the Spirit’s work in empowering Jesus for exorcism (Mk 3:29-30), Old Testament prophets to speak God’s message (12:26) or Jesus’ witnesses to speak his message (13:11).

In the introduction, John the Baptist announces the mighty one who will baptize others in the Holy Spirit (1:8); this Spirit-baptizer is Jesus of Nazareth. Immediately after this announcement, we see Jesus baptized and the Spirit coming on him (1:9-10). The Spirit-baptizer thus gives us a model of what the Spirit-baptized life will look like, for he himself receives the Spirit first. That is why what the Spirit does next appears all the more stunning: the Spirit thrusts Jesus into the wilderness for conflict with the devil (1:12-13). The Spirit-filled life is not a life of ease and comfort, but of conflict with the devil’s forces!

The rest of the Gospel of Mark continues this pattern. Shortly after Jesus emerges from the wilderness, he must confront an evil spirit in a religious gathering (1:21-27). Throughout the rest of the Gospel, Jesus continues to defeat the devil by healing the sick and driving out demons (cf. 3:27), while the devil continues to strike at Jesus through the devil’s religious and political agents. In the end, the devil manages to get Jesus killed–but Jesus triumphs by rising from the dead.

In the same way, Jesus expects his disciples to heal the sick and drive out demons (3:14-15; 4:40; 6:13; 9:19, 28-29; 11:22-24), and also to join him in suffering (8:34-38; 10:29-31, 38-40; 13:9-13). His disciples seemed more happy to share his triumphs than his sufferings, but the Gospel of Mark emphasizes that we cannot share his glory without also sharing his suffering. That lesson remains as relevant for modern disciples as for ancient ones!

Tomorrow: More on whole-book context

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