Everyone, at one time or another has accused someone of taking what they said out of context. What exactly does context mean? I am including the first and second definition found at dictionary.com. 1) the parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect: You have misinterpreted my remark because you took it out of context. 2) the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, etc. Now then, when we speak of literal context we are speaking of definition number one and when we speak of historical context, we are speaking of definition number two.
Literal and historical context are very, very important when one is understanding the meaning of a biblical text. Literal context always includes all that pertains to a definite subject the author is describing and historical context always includes what was going on, what occasion precipitated what was written. Whenever, one eliminates either of these two elements of context, the result will likely be a misunderstanding of what the author wrote and what the intended reader would have understood.
The scripture must be read in a way that what is being said is totally understood by the one using it before taking parts of it to make a specific point. Here is an example. One cannot take Romans 10:1-2 without at the very least including the understanding found in Romans 10:1-4. Furthermore, it should always be understood within what is written from Romans 9:1 through Romans 11: 36. The main reason is that the larger passage, Romans nine through eleven is a parenthetical explanation of why the Jews did not receive Christ Jesus readily and the Gentiles did.
One cannot point out that Israel had a zeal for God but not according to knowledge and allow that to stand alone without including Paul's explanation of what it means to have a zeal for God but not according to knowledge. Therefore one could comment that the Muslims have a zeal for God but not according to knowledge and that statement would be true but, while it is true that one can have a zeal for God which is not according to knowledge it would not be proper use of the scripture when presenting it to a Christian group or audience to use verses one and two without including three and four. The pit fall that Paul is warning of is not recognizing and accepting the righteousness of God.
The passage explains how one is made right with God. It explains how one enters into covenant with God. Jesus Christ, his death burial and resurrection have made it possible for people to be declared righteous and enter the covenant based upon faith in Christ and his aforementioned work on the cross. It would never be possible in context to use this passage without reading that "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness for all who believe." That is an important part of the passage which cannot be eliminated without doing violence to Paul's actual meaning.
Now, while I admit that there can be debate over what Paul's comment that "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness" actually means in the greater context of Romans chapters nine through eleven, the fact that he posits that Christ is the end/goal of the law for righteousness must be factored into every use of Romans 10;1-2.
In part two of this two part post we will examine historical context.