Dangers Associated with Studying Background
While the greatest danger is ignoring the historical-cultural context, there are also dangers associated with studying it. To begin with, you need to watch out for inaccurate background information. Take Matthew 19:23–24 as an example:
23Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
You may have heard it explained that the “camel’s gate” was a small gate in the wall of Jerusalem through which a camel could squeeze if its load was removed and the animal got down on its knees. The problem with this explanation is that there is no evidence for this kind of gate. The “eye of a needle” meant essentially what it means today (i.e., the eye of a sewing needle). Jesus is using the largest animal in Palestine and one of the smallest openings to make a forceful statement about how hard it is for the rich and powerful to enter God’s kingdom.
This is just one example of how inaccurate information can get passed down through generations of preachers and teachers. Just because background material makes a great sermon illustration does not mean it is accurate. Your information will only be as good as your resources, and not all resources are created equal.
A second danger associated with studying historical-cultural context is that of elevating the background of the text above the meaning of the text. When studying the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9–14, for instance, you may be tempted to spend all your time learning about Pharisees and tax collectors. You certainly need to know something about these two groups and their role and reputation in Jesus’ day. Yet you don’t want to let your fascination with background information cause you to miss the point—God judges the proud and exalts the humble.
Or take the example of King Agrippa and Bernice in Acts 25:13–26:32. It is interesting to know the family history of King Agrippa, but you cannot afford to let that interest cause you to lose sight of Luke’s message. Luke portrays Paul as fulfilling the Lord’s statement recorded in Acts 9:15 that he would bear witness before Gentiles and their kings. Colorful characters like Agrippa and Bernice are not meant to overshadow the triumphant gospel of Jesus Christ. Keep in mind as you study historical-cultural context that there is a difference between the context of the passage and the meaning of the passage. We study background not to lose ourselves in a maze of historical trivia, but to grasp the meaning of the passage more clearly.
Finally, we caution you not to let yourself slowly evolve into nothing more than a walking database of ancient facts. Don’t lose your interpretive heart in your quest for information to deepen your understanding of the text. Keep your study of the background of the Bible in proper perspective. We study the historical-cultural context not as an end in itself, but as a tool to help us grasp and apply the meaning of the biblical text.
In spite of these three dangers, however, the greatest danger by far is assuming that we do not need to know any background information to understand the Bible. You cannot begin the Interpretive Journey apart from Step 1—grasping the text in its own town. And you cannot grasp that text without knowing the historical-cultural context. We turn our attention now to the resources you can use to identify the historical-cultural context of a passage.