What Is Historical-Cultural Context?

What exactly do we mean by historical-cultural context? Generally speaking, this kind of context involves the biblical writer, the biblical audience, and any historical-cultural elements touched on by the passage itself. Historical-cultural context relates to just about anything outside the text that will help you understand the text itself (e.g., what life was like for the Israelites as they wandered in the desert, what the Pharisees believed about the Sabbath, where Paul was when he wrote Philippians). Literary context, as we will see in later, relates to the context within the book (e.g., the form a passage takes, the flow of argument within the book, and the meaning of the words and sentences that surround the passage you are studying). In this unit we will cite resources you can use to identify the historical-cultural context, but first we want to illustrate our definition above with a few examples. We begin with the biblical writer.

The Biblical Writer

Because God chose to work through human authors as the immediate source of his inspired Word, the more we know about the human author the better. Try to find out as much as you can about the writer’s background. When studying one of Paul’s letters, for example, it is helpful to know that before the Lord radically changed his life, he used to get papers from the Jewish high priest authorizing him to imprison Christians. He persecuted the church out of a misdirected zeal to serve God. This explains why the early Christians feared Paul for a time even after his conversion: “All those who heard him [preach] were astonished and asked, ‘Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?’” (Acts 9:21). This also helps us understand why Paul describes himself as “the worst of sinners” in 1 Timothy 1:16. We don’t often think of Paul, a man whom God used to change the world, as struggling with horrible memories of the things he did before he met Christ. Paul’s life is certainly a portrait of God’s grace.

Still thinking about the biblical author’s background, consider Amos, a prophet who preached around 760 BC. Although Amos was from Tekoa in Judah (the southern kingdom), God called him to preach in Israel, the northern kingdom. Amos says about himself, “I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees” (Amos 7:14). Amos was not being paid to be a prophet, nor was he following in his dad’s footsteps. The prophetic task was completely new to him. This astute farmer answered God’s call to proclaim his message to a spiritually sick people facing God’s judgment.

Along with knowing something about the author’s background, you may also ask: When did he write and what kind of ministry did he have? While we are talking about eighth-century BC prophets, do you remember Hosea’s infamous wife, Gomer? Have you thought about how Hosea’s marriage was linked to his ministry? His heartbreaking marriage to Gomer became a vehicle for understanding and expressing the spiritual adultery of Israel against God. Just as Gomer had rejected Hosea, so Israel had rejected her true God, Yahweh, for pagan gods.

Along with knowing about the writer’s background and ministry, you will also want to understand more about the specific relationship between the writer and the people he was addressing. You can tell from the tone and the content of Galatians, for instance, that Paul is not happy with the churches of Galatia and their movement toward a different gospel. He even omits his customary thanksgiving at the beginning of his letter and moves directly into a rebuke. In contrast, Paul praises the Thessalonians for their faith and perseverance in spite of his premature separation from them as a result of persecution. He reminds them of his motherly (1 Thess. 2:7) and fatherly (2:11) love for them and reassures them of his intense desire to see them again.

What kind of relationship did Jonah have with his primary audience, the Ninevites? About the same time that Amos and Hosea were warning Israel of God’s judgment soon to occur at the hands of the ominous Assyrians, Jonah was sent to warn Nineveh. What difference does it make to know that Nineveh is the capital city of Assyria? It helps to see that at the heart of the story lies Jonah’s contempt for the Ninevites (Assyrians) and his fear that God might act with compassion toward his enemies. God doesn’t disappoint him.

Perhaps the most important thing to know about the biblical writers is why they are writing. Why does the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles, for example, repeat much of Samuel and Kings? The answer lies in the writer’s purpose. The Chronicler (perhaps Ezra) is writing for Israel after the exile (i.e., for the restored community). He is trying to show that God is still very much interested in his people after judging them by the exile. For example, the Chronicler seems to idealize David and Solomon by omitting anything that might tarnish their image (e.g., David’s sin with Bathsheba). In this way the writer reassures his audience that although God has judged his people, he still loves them and wants to use them to accomplish his purposes.

Acts offers another example of the need to know the writer’s purposes. If you are studying Acts 28, you may wonder why Luke ends the book so abruptly after spending almost two whole chapters describing Paul’s voyage to Rome. Why does he fail to mention anything about the outcome of Paul’s trial? The most likely reason goes back to Luke’s purpose in writing. He wants to show the triumphant movement of the gospel from Jerusalem, the birthplace of the church, to Rome, the center of the empire. Once he accomplishes his purpose, he wraps up the project quickly. What matters most to Luke is the success of the gospel message, not the personal history of one of its messengers.

Let’s review. When we think about historical-cultural context, we first need to consider the biblical writer. What is the writer’s background? Where does he come from? When does he write? What kind of ministry does he have? What is his relationship with the people he addresses? Finally, why is he writing? Answers to these kinds of questions will give you insight into the circumstances of the biblical writer and clarify the meaning of what he has written.

The Biblical Audience

Discovering the historical-cultural context also involves knowing something about the biblical audience and their circumstances. Take Mark’s gospel as an example. Mark makes a point of emphasizing the cross of Christ and the demands of discipleship throughout his gospel. Many scholars believe that Mark’s original audience was the church in the vicinity of Rome and that Mark was preparing them for the persecution they would soon face at the hands of Emperor Nero during the mid-60s AD. To encourage these believers to remain faithful in the midst of suffering, Mark stresses how Jesus remained faithful during his time of suffering.

When you read the Old Testament prophets, you need to know something of the general circumstances of the biblical audience in order to make sense of the prophetic message. When studying Jeremiah, for example, it helps to know that his prophetic ministry began about 627 BC and ended a short time after 586 BC. This means that Jeremiah witnessed the revival under King Josiah, the fall of Assyria, the rise of Babylon, the first siege of Jerusalem (598/597 BC), and the destruction of his nation in 587/586 BC. Jeremiah preached against the sins of Judah and predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile.

Yet Jeremiah also spoke powerful words of encouragement and hope during the dark days of the final siege of Jerusalem. Note Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” These words form part of a letter that Jeremiah wrote to people already experiencing God’s discipline—the exiles of 597 BC. The historical context of this verse will surely influence how we understand its meaning. In spite of the devastating consequences of Judah’s disobedience, God’s final word is not judgment but hope. Nevertheless, even though God’s deliverance is certain, it will not be immediate (see 29:10).

Most, if not all, New Testament letters are situational or occasional, meaning that they were written to address specific situations faced by the churches. Colossians, for example, is written to a group of believers battling a false teaching that gave Christ a place, but not the supreme place that is rightfully his (Col. 2:4–5, 8, 16–23). Paul writes to refute this false teaching by emphasizing the absolute supremacy of Christ (1:15–20; 2:9–15).

In a similar fashion, John wrote his first letter to Christians wrestling with what many scholars believe was an early form of Gnosticism. Central to this heresy was the belief that spirit is entirely good and matter is entirely evil. You can probably guess some of the implications of this line of thinking: Christ wasn’t a real human being; a person could either treat their material body harshly or indulge it; salvation meant escape from the body and was accomplished by means of a special knowledge (gnôsis is the Greek word translated “knowledge”). In the case of 1 John, knowing the historical-cultural context will clarify the main themes of the letter: the genuine incarnation of Christ (i.e., God really did become a human being), the need to walk in the light rather than in immorality, and the need for love (vs. the arrogance of those who claimed to possess the special knowledge).

Other Historical-Cultural Elements

As noted earlier, historical-cultural context involves the biblical writer and the biblical audience, plus any historical-cultural elements touched on by your passage. Sometimes it is difficult to know much about the biblical author and the audience or their specific circumstances. Often you will focus more on the historical, social, geographical, religious, political, and economic elements that shape your passage. Here are a few examples of how understanding these elements can shed light on the meaning of your passage.

Sometimes knowing more about the geography or topography assumed by the text can help you grasp its meaning. Jesus starts his parable of the good Samaritan with the statement: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho” (Luke 10:30). You would certainly go down from Jerusalem to Jericho, descending from about 2,500 feet above sea level to about 800 feet below sea level. In addition, the trip would not be a walk in the park. The distance is almost twenty miles and would take you through some rugged desert country that offered plenty of hiding places for thieves. Knowing the geography helps us understand how easy it would have been to pass by the dying man and how troublesome it would have been to be a loving neighbor.

One of the most productive areas of background study relates to social customs. If you are studying Ephesians 5:21–6:9, for example, you need to know something about Greco-Roman household codes in order to make sense of your passage. These rules were developed primarily to instruct the head of the household about how to deal with members of his family. The apostle Paul uses the household code concept, but he transforms it in powerful ways. For instance, Greco-Roman codes told husbands to make their wives submit, but they never listed love as a duty of the husband. In Ephesians 5:25 Paul breaks the mold when he instructs husbands to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Paul’s exhortation for all members of the household to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21) would have been even more radical.

Often in the Scriptures social customs are loaded with religious significance. Note again the parable of the good Samaritan. Jesus’ original audience would have been shocked and insulted by the fact that Jesus has the two Jewish religious leaders doing nothing to help the wounded traveler, while the Samaritan proves to be the man’s neighbor (and the story’s hero). We know this because in that culture Jews despised Samaritans, who were considered half-breeds.

In the parable of the prodigal son, we think nothing of the father running to greet his returning son. But when we learn that elderly Jewish men were considered much too dignified to run, we begin to see that Jesus is telling us how God feels about and responds to sinners when they come home. If you have ever been in the far country spiritually, you’ll be glad to know that when you decide to return home, God stands ready to “ditch his dignity” and run to meet you.

The book of Ruth provides another example of how social and religious elements interconnect in many passages. To understand this book you need to know something about the role of the kinsman-redeemer. After Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth both lose their husbands, they meet Boaz, who turns out to be their kinsman-redeemer. As strange as this may sound to us, Boaz could legally preserve the family name and provide an heir for Naomi’s two dead sons by marrying Ruth, which he does. It is interesting that Ruth gives birth to Obed, who in turn becomes the father of Jesse. Jesse then becomes the father of David—King David. At the end of this genealogy you will find Jesus Christ, the “son of David” (cf. Matt. 1:1, 6, 16).

Sometimes your passage will touch on economic issues. On his second missionary tour (Acts 15:39–18:22), Paul plants a church at Philippi. There Paul and Silas meet a slave girl who has a spirit by which she predicts the future. She continues to bother the missionary team until Paul finally commands the spirit to come out of her. Her enraged owners then drag Paul and Silas into the marketplace, where the magistrates order them to be stripped, beaten, and later imprisoned for causing trouble. All this happens because the demon-possessed slave girl has been earning a lot of money for her owners. When the spirit left the girl, the money left the owners’ pockets, and they take their revenge on the missionaries.

You also need to pay attention to political issues that may surface in your passage. In the Acts 16 episode just mentioned, notice what happens next to Paul and Silas. After spending time in prison (where God does some exciting things), the magistrates send word that the missionaries may leave the city. Here is the rest of the story (Acts 16:36–40):

36The jailer told Paul, “The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace.”
37But Paul said to the officers: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.”
38The officers reported this to the magistrates, and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were alarmed. 39They came to appease them and escorted them from the prison, requesting them to leave the city. 40After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the brothers and sisters and encouraged them. Then they left.

Since it was illegal to publicly beat and imprison a Roman citizen, especially without a trial, the Roman officials act quickly to apologize for their actions. Paul and Silas probably demand an escort out of town in order to make a public statement about their innocence for the benefit of the church in Philippi.

Historical-cultural context includes information about the author and the audience—their background, circumstances, and relationship—as well as geographical, social, religious, economic, and political elements connected to the passage. Some people are convinced that background studies are tedious ways of making the Bible less relevant. We have found the opposite to be true. When we take time to understand the context, the passage comes alive and explodes with relevance (sometimes more than we can take). We are able to see that God was speaking to real people struggling with real life and that he continues to speak to us.

Before citing various resources one can use to study the historical-cultural context, we want to mention a few of the dangers associated with studying this type of material.

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