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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Bible Background (Part 1 of 2), by Craig S. Keener

When Paul wrote letters, the very genre in which he wrote reminds us that he addressed specific situations, as letters usually do. Thus, for example, in 1 Corinthians Paul addresses questions about food offered to idols, head coverings, and other issues that Christians today usually view as relevant only in some cultures. The letter also addresses division between followers of Paul and followers of Apollos, which does not occur in exactly that form anywhere today; we have to deal with division in the church, but few people today claim to follow Apollos. If we read letters as letters, we remember to look for the specific situations they address.

We should consider the relevance even of narratives to the first audience they addressed. For instance, if Moses wrote Genesis to those who had just been released from slavery in Egypt, they could have identified readily with Joseph, who had also been a slave in Egypt before his exaltation. The repeated emphasis on the promise of the holy land in Genesis also would provide great encouragement for Israelites about ready to go in and conquer it. Considering such relevance of the Bible to its original hearers does not make the Bible any less relevant for us; rather, it teaches us how to discover its relevance properly. Everything in the Bible is for all time, but not everything in the Bible is for all circumstances.

Some examples of culture-specific teachings in the Bible

We all recognize that some commands in the Bible were limited to the period that they address. Moses says to build a “fence” around the roof lest you incur bloodguilt if anyone falls from it (Deut 22:8), yet most of us today do not build fences around our roofs. Are we disobeying this passage? But back in Moses’ day, people had flat roofs; and in Moses’ day, people would spend time on the roof, often with their neighbors. Yet if a neighbor child fell off the roof, she could get hurt. So Moses commands us to build a parapet around the roof to protect our neighbor. Today, if we do not take neighbors on the roof, the point for us is not the parapet; the principle is watching out for our neighbor’s safety (for instance, making someone riding with us wear a seat belt). But we would not have discovered the principle if we had not understood the background.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2004, Pneuma Review

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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