BIble Study Tips: Context & Background
Tips For Interpreting Scripture
Context and Background:
Understanding and Recognizing Context and Background of a Scriptural Passage or Word
When conducting an accurate study of a word or a scriptural passage it is important to recognize the overall “context” of the word or passage being studied.
For example, let’s say we’re seeking to interpret Philippians 4:6 that gives us the command, “Be anxious for nothing…”
We’d begin with the verb “be anxious” and determine it is the Greek word
merimnao or μεριμνάω . Our first step:
First Step: List and look up each occurrence of the word.
In this case, it occurs 18 times as a verb and 6 times in noun form. You would want to list these references because they represent the total New Testament usage of the word.
Second Step: Apply the principle that usage determines meaning.
We have all had the experience of encountering a word we have never heard of before; and yet the context of other words surrounding it helps us determine what the meaning of the word is that we did not previously know. For example.
Let’s illustrate this by making up a nonsensical word like “perantoo.” Now standing alone, by itself, it’s anyone’s guess as to what that word means. However, if we give it some context, the range of possibilities is greatly reduced. So, let’s say a waitress describes an item on the menu and asks if we would like it with or without “perantoo.”
Now we know some things about ‘perantoo.’ We know its edible, probably some kind of herb or seasoning. And since we are given the option of having a meal with or without it, we would assume that some people do not like it.
Now what else have we learned? We learned these things about the word without turning to the dictionary! We learned these things by understanding its usage.
Third Step: Make Observations About its Usage:
Using the verb “be anxious” as an example, we may observe the following.
1. Sometimes it refers to something bad and sometimes to something good. In Philippians 2:20, Paul bemoans that only Timothy cares about (μεριμνάω) the Philippian believers. Therefore, the word may mean “to care about” (good) or “to worry about” (bad).
2. Whenever it is bad, it is directed to ourselves, whenever it is good, it is directed towards others.
This then gives us an idea of understanding how ‘context’ plays a role in understanding a given word or passage. In understanding context, we understand it by observation of the word’s usage and the surrounding elements of the passage and also how the word is or is not used elsewhere.
So often, Biblical interpretation revolves around the concept of understanding context. A Seminary professor I once knew would frequently remind us that the 3 principle keys for correct interpretation of Biblical content was, “context, context, context.”
Correct interpretation of Biblical passages also involves an understanding of the language, culture, customs, historical setting and geography. For example: There are 12 places in the book of Acts where archaeological discoveries have been very helpful in the interpretation of the book and also demonstrating its historical foundation.
Here’s an example of the helpfulness of background in recognizing the meaning of a passage. On the day of Pentecost, those who were gathered in the Upper Room experienced an outpouring of the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues and the bystanders said, “they are full of sweet wine.”
Peter responds with a denial of drunkenness and states his reason for denial. He says they are not intoxicated, “for it is only the third hour of the day.” Since this would be 9 a.m. we must acknowledge that this is too early for the usual inebriate to be engaged in drinking strong wine. However, there are other considerations that give Peter’s answer its effectiveness.
First, this was the time of the first of the stated hours of prayer. Second, this was also the time of the daily morning sacrifice; and third it was the Jewish practice not to drink wine without food, and they ate no food until noon on the great festival days.
All of these factual, background elements underscore the false presumption of the charge of drunkenness. Now, because of an understanding of this background information, we can realize why the onlookers charged claims of intoxication were not further pursued with authorities.
In yet another example, involving the background or setting of an event described in scripture, we think of how the Jews had extremely strict regulations regarding the entry into the Temple. The outer courtyard, or Court of the Gentiles, was open to anyone. The inner courtyard however could never be entered by a Gentile.
This regulation was so strict that notices in Greek and Latin were posted warning that entry by a Gentile would precipitate their death. These notices were attached to a barrier at the foot of the steps leading to the Court of the Men (Jewish only). Two of these notices have been found by archaeologists. One was found in 1871 and another in 1935.
The Roman government so respected this Jewish law that they ratified the death penalty, even if the offender was a Roman citizen.
Paul probably had this barrier in mind when he wrote Ephesians 2:14 as he spoke of Christ “who made both groups (Jew and Gentile) into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall.
So often, in reading and studying scriptural passages, an understanding of background gives us the necessary information for a more complete understanding of a given passage or word.