Part of the Rightly Understanding God’s Word series by Craig S. Keener.
As appearing in Pneuma Review Fall 2004.
Bible Background (Part 1 of 2)
In any communication, some matters are stated but others can be left assumed. For instance, I am writing in English, on the assumption that I and my readers both know English; if Paul wrote to the Corinthians in Greek, he could assume that they knew Greek. I assume that my readers know what a Bible is, and would be safe to assume that my readers know what a car is, what a radio is, and what pounded yam is (though Paul’s readers knew none of these things, except what the Old Testament part of the Bible was). Paul could likewise allude to specific customs his readers practiced without explaining them, because the Corinthians already knew exactly what he meant (e.g., “baptism for the dead,” 1 Cor 15:29). But for us to understand Paul’s meaning we must either know Greek or have a translation, and we must either know the culture the biblical writers shared with their audiences or have access to resources that help explain that culture. What the writer could assume as part of his meaning was as much a part of the meaning as what he had to state.
We have noted previously the importance of whole-book context, because most books of the Bible stress particular themes addressing particular issues. We should not skip from one book of the Bible to another (except where one book specifically refers back to an earlier and widely circulated one), at least not until we have figured out each passage in its own context first. But one reason particular books emphasize particular themes is that they addressed particular situations. Although people sometimes ignore such verses, many verses explicitly state particular audiences for these books—for instance, the Christians in Rome (Rom 1:7) or in Corinth (1 Cor 1:2). There are appropriate ways to apply these books to today, but first we must take seriously what these works explicitly claim to be: works addressed to specific audiences in specific times and places. In other words, before we can determine how to apply the ancient meaning today, we must understand the ancient meaning. To skip this important step in Bible interpretation is to ignore what the Bible claims for itself.