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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Context of Genre, Part 3, by Craig S. Keener

Biographers were not free to make up new stories about their heroes.

Further, we can trust the testimony of these eyewitnesses. The apostles remained in positions of leadership in the early church; both Acts and Paul mention Jesus’ brother and the leading apostles in Jerusalem. (No one had any reason to invent such people, and the spread of Christianity started somewhere; further, diverse sources attest them. So virtually no one today denies their existence.) Because of their leadership, no one could make up stories about Jesus that contradicted their true reports about Jesus. Further, no one can accuse them of lying about Jesus. They were so convinced that they spoke truth about him that they were prepared to die for their claims. Moreover, they were not simply dying for what they believed; they were dying for what they saw and heard when they were with him.

It is historically naive to doubt that Jesus’ disciples accurately passed on his teachings.

Third, Luke had the opportunity to investigate their claims (Lk 1:3, according to the Greek and most translations). Back when it was still possible to do so, Luke verified his sources by interviewing witnesses, wherever possible. Some sections of Acts say “we” because Luke was traveling with Paul at those points, and those sections include their journey to Jerusalem and Palestine, where they remained two years (Acts 21:15-17; 24:27; 27:1). That gave him the opportunity to interview Jesus’ younger brother James, among others (Acts 21:18).

Finally, Luke himself would not be able to make these stories up. He is confirming accounts for Theophilus, not introducing new ones (Lk 1:4). That is, while some eyewitnesses are still alive, the stories Luke records were already known by Theophilus. This further confirms to us that, even on purely historical grounds, the Gospels are trustworthy. (In the same way, Paul can remind his readers of miracles they themselves have witnessed, often through his ministry, or mention that other witnesses of the risen Christ are still alive and hence available for interview: 1 Cor 15:6; 2 Cor 12:12; Gal 3:5.)



As we read letters in the Bible, we must read them first of all as letters addressed to real people in the writer’s own day, for this is what they explicitly claim to be (e.g., Rom 1:7). Only after we have understood the letters in their own historical context can we consider how to rightly apply them to our situations today. In contrast to those who assume that letters require less interpretation than other parts of Scripture, they are actually among the parts of Scripture most closely tied to their historical situation.

As we read letters in the Bible, we must read them as letters addressed to real people in the writer’s own day.

For example, how does one apply the teachings of 1 Corinthians in a very different cultural setting? The promise of future resurrection (1 Cor 15) seems easy enough. More controversially in many cultures, in many churches in many parts of the world it is taken for granted that women must wear head coverings (1 Cor 11:2-16), even if that is no longer part of the broader culture. But what about food offered to idols (1 Cor 8-10)? In cultures where people no longer sacrifice food to idols, like much of the western world, are we free to simply skip over those chapters? Or are there transcultural principles that Paul uses there which would also be relevant to other cultures?

As we noted in more detail above, cultural background in Bible study is not optional; we must take the original situation into account to fully understand the Bible. This is at least as true of letters as it is of every other part of the Bible, and maybe more so, because letters explicitly address specific congregations or people facing specific situations. Some passages are difficult to understand because the original audience already knew what was being addressed, and we are not always able to reconstruct it (2 Thess 2:5); in such cases we must learn humility! After all, if Paul was with the Corinthians for eighteen months (Acts 18:11), one might expect him to allude to some issues with them that we know little about (1 Cor 1:16; 3:4-6; 15:29). But even in such cases we can often catch the general point of the passage as a whole, and that is what we need most. Further research into the background usually reveals more details, but there will always be some things we do not know until Jesus returns (1 Cor 13:12).

“A text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers.”

— Gordon Fee

Writers of biblical letters often followed standards of “rhetoric,” proper speaking and writing conventions of their day. Knowing some of those customs can help us understand the letters better (for instance, why Paul often opens with “grace and peace be with you, from God and Christ,” which links Christ as deity alongside the Father). At the same time, those writers were not simply showing off their writing abilities. They were making points, correcting problems and encouraging Christians in particular situations. Once we understand the situation, we can usually understand how the writer is addressing that situation. These writers applied eternal principles to concrete situations in their own day. To allow for an equivalent impact, we must reapply those principles to the concrete situations of our day, taking into account the differences in culture.

Those who do not know the Bible should not be allowed to teach it.

When we apply them, we must make sure that we find the appropriate analogies between the situations Paul addresses and our situations today. For example, some interpreters believe that Paul prohibits most women in one congregation from teaching because they were generally uneducated, hence could prove easily misled (1 Tim 2:11-12). In that culture, his command that they should “learn” (2:11; “quietly and submissively” was the appropriate way for all novices to learn) actually liberated women, who normally did not receive direct instruction except by sitting in services. It makes a difference whether or not this is the issue: if not, the appropriate analogy today may be that women should never teach the Bible (though this would leave in question what to do with other texts, like Rom 16:1-2, 7; Phil 4:2-3; Judg 4:4; 1 Cor 11:4-5). If so, the analogy today may be that unlearned people, whether male or female, should not teach the Bible.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2005

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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