Thursday, March 3, 2011

Literal and historical context; how would the intended readers understand?

Have I mentioned that according to The Christian Encyclopedia there are over thirty thousand denominations within the Christian faith? Further, there are many that will not fellowship or share the communal table with the others. Why is this so? They all have the bible and, they all have theologians and yet, there are so many different interpretations. I would like to submit that one of the many  problems is found in the fact that they do not begin with historical context. Usually when one speaks of the context of the text they mean the literal context…. that is, what is said prior and after the verse. I would argue that historical context is actually more important and so often overlooked. Why is it overlooked? Well, to understand historical context one has to have a solid understanding of the history. To me, the most important question to ask about a text is what would the original readers understand? After all, all writing is made to a specific audience with unique understandings of language and unique idioms that find their way into the text.
Therefore, it seems to me that the one of the most important things in the exegesis of a text would be the historical context with emphasis on the meaning the original readers would get. I find it interesting that the bulk of popular bible teachers act as if the text was written directly to us as the readers…. that we were the intended readers.  Let me show you an example of what I mean:
“1Co 10:11  Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.”
Here we can easily see that Paul is telling the intended readers that they, not some future generation are the one’s on whom the ends of the ages has come. There is no way that one can be faithful to the text and, believe anything but that Paul was addressing those alive to read his words. He most definitely believed that they were the ones on whom the ends of the ages had come. The fact is that the rabbis were teaching about the end of the age and the age to come all the time and they had reasoned from their understanding of Daniel’s prophecy that they were in fact approaching the imminent end of the age and the beginning of the age to come which they called olam ha bah.
Here is yet another example:
“Joh 15:1-2  "I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.  (2)  Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”
We tend to take this out of its historical context but it is important to realize that Jesus is speaking to the Jews who taught and believed that they were the vine. Their reason for believing this was from their understanding of Isaiah chapter five. It is spelled out in verse seven. “Isa 5:7  For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, And the men of Judah are His pleasant plant. He looked for justice, but behold, oppression; For righteousness, but behold, a cry for help.” They saw themselves as the vine and Jesus is correcting their theology. It is important to see the historical context otherwise you can miss the actual meaning of the text.
A final example:
“Mar 11:13-14  And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it. When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.  (14)  In response Jesus said to it, "Let no one eat fruit from you ever again." And His disciples heard it.”
When I was a child raised in fundamentalism,… I often wondered why Jesus did this? What did the tree do to him? Again, one must ask the question; what would the intended readers and hearers think? This is the most important  question in understanding the text… it is the historical context. The fact is that Jesus was reminding them of Hosea 9:10. It was a hint, remez, Here is the verse: Hos 9:10  "I found Israel Like grapes in the wilderness; I saw your fathers As the firstfruits on the fig tree in its first season. But they went to Baal Peor, And separated themselves to that shame; They became an abomination like the thing they loved. His cursing the fig tree was allegorical. The fig tree was a metaphor for Israel.
We would do ourselves a great service if we did much more of this. We should allow historical context to have its supreme place in exegesis.

1 comment:

  1. John 15:1-2 we may tend to take this out of its historical context, but I believe it still applies to us. The vine is Jesus. The gardener is God, and He is the One who cares for the branches. We are the branches those who profess to follow Jesus Christ. And if we are not fruitful He cuts off those branches (prunes us). Yes historical context has its place but I believe we need to be careful not to depersonalize the scriptures, because so much of the scriptures help us get through the rough roads.