The Importance of Historical Context

Real Books Written by Real People.

A lot of my time (and probably a lot of yours too) in high school was spent reading classic novels and writing papers on them. Before reading each novel we spent a whole class period learning about the historical context of that particular book. We would get notes about

  •  who the author was, 
  • when they wrote the book, 
  • important events and cultural trends that influenced what the author wrote.

 Knowing this information was helpful for understanding what we were reading. And it was crucial for writing our papers. The books made a lot more sense when we knew the historical context.

What Is Historical Context?

Historical context is simply “the social, political, cultural, economic, and environmental situations” (Mometrix.com) that influences a piece of writing. Knowing the situations that surround any book is important for understanding it.

And it’s just as important for understanding the Bible. Behind the Bible we have today is a culture that is very different from our own. 

The Bible was not written in a vacuum. Like one of my professors used to say, “The Bible didn’t just drop down to earth in King James English.” In other words, God didn’t write it up in heaven and then drop it down to earth when He was finished. Instead, He chose to work and inspire the minds of regular people, during specific times in history. Because it was written by real people, in real history there is culture behind every part. That culture had an influence on the people God inspired. 

The people who wrote the books of the Bible had ways of talking and communicating that were very different than what we’re used to today. There were certain things that they valued more than we do. As the authors of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes  say, “Reading the Scriptures is a cross-cultural experience.” And if we aren’t aware of the culture around us as we’re reading, we can get lost. At the very least, we won’t be able to really dig into the depths of what the Bible has to offer. 

Why is Historical Context Important?

If we want to understand any written work, we need to understand the culture and historical events that were influencing the author. If you read a classic novel without knowing the historical context, you may still enjoy the story. But, once you learn about the author and the culture that was influencing them, you’ll be able to enjoy it in a deeper way. 

You’ll Have a Deeper Experience

We can read, enjoy, and apply the Bible to our lives without knowing about the historical context behind what we’re reading. But, I believe that we’ll have a deeper experience with it when we learn about some of the cultural and historical behind specific books, passages, and verses.

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a great example of this. The primary theme of Philippians is joy. Paul uses the word for joy at least 16 times. For the most part, you can read this letter and understand this basic theme. You can read, enjoy, and grow in your relationship with Jesus without any idea of the background. But once you learn about the situation surrounding the letter your experience reading it will get deeper. 

When Paul wrote Philippians he was actually in prison for sharing the gospel. We can see from a few of Paul’s other letters, we can see that much of his life was spent in suffering. He was shipwrecked, beaten many times, and persecuted in various ways throughout his ministry. Understanding the life of Paul and his imprisonment makes his declarations of joy throughout Philippians very radical and surprising. It challenges us to think about our own definition of joy.    

You’ll Have a Better Understanding

There are other parts of the Bible that are very difficult to understand without knowing the history and culture influencing them. Much of the Old Testament makes a lot more sense when we learn about the circumstances surrounding certain passages and books. 

The laws we find in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy are great examples. I’m sure many of us have tried to read the Bible all the way through, only to get stuck about halfway through Exodus. You start reading about all of the rituals and regulations, and you think maybe you’ll just skip ahead to the Psalms. 

But, a lot of what we read in those books begins to make more sense when we learn more about their historical context. One of the main reasons why God gave the law to His people was to distinguish them from the nations around them. Many of these laws begin to make more sense when we learn more about the culture of the nations surrounding Israel. 

When we’re studying the Gospel of Matthew understanding the historical and cultural influences will be extremely important. We’ll see right away in the genealogy just how important it is to understand Matthew’s culture. 

How Do You Use Historical Context to Study the Bible?

You may be thinking, 

“Yeah, I get what historical context is and why it’s important. But how do I use it?”

Honestly, I think historical context is one of the most intimidating parts of studying the Bible. Not everyone likes to do research. It takes time and can be confusing.

Where do you even start? 

How do you know what sources are good? 

How do you use this information to understand a passage better? 

I get it. 

And that’s partly why I am doing this Bible study series. I want to guide you through this. As we walk through the Gospel of Matthew I want to show you how I use historical context to understand what I’m reading. When it comes to the research part, I will do a lot of that work for you. As I’ve been studying on my own, God sparked my curiosity about a couple of passages and I’ve done a lot of digging on them. In a future blog post, I will actually give you a brief background of the Gospel of Matthew. In that post, I will give you a lot of the information that you’ll need to study the Gospel of Matthew on your own. 

Grow in Your Curiosity.

But I do want to challenge you to try to do some research on your own if you have the time. Grow in your curiosity. Most of what I’ll share in this study came from just being curious about what I was reading. Take some time before we get going with the Gospel of Matthew to learn about the historical context on your own. And as you read, if you have a question about what you’re reading, go look it up. 

And again, I want to stress what I said in the last post, it’s ok to not know things. I think that’s one of the biggest barriers to people really studying their Bibles. They think they should just know everything about it. And when they don’t know something, they think it’s because they’re not smart enough or spiritual enough.

And that’s just not true. As you go through this study and as you grow in your curiosity, you’ll start to figure it out. Because you don’t know things until you learn them.

Resources I Use.

If you don’t know where to start when it comes to the research part, I want to give you a few resources that I use pretty regularly. I will probably be citing most of these at multiple points during this study.

One that I really like a lot is OverviewBible.com. OverviewBible.com creates resources for people who want to know more about the Bible. They have blog posts that look at the different books, themes, and characters in the Bible. I love a lot of what I see on this site. I love that the posts are geared toward average everyday Christians. They aren’t written for scholars or pastors. They’re written for you and me. OverviewBible has a lot of really solid information, and it’s all easy to digest. I highly recommend taking some time to explore it when you have a chance.

A couple of other resources I use pretty often include:

All of these have a lot of different commentaries and information on the books of the Bible. They’re especially helpful for getting some basic background information on a specific book.

As I mentioned in the previous blog study Bibles can also be helpful. I usually use an ESV study Bible and I’m sure one of the elders can recommend a good one as well. 

Keeping Historical Context in Mind.

 If you don’t have the time to do research, don’t worry about it.

I think that even just being aware that there is history behind the Bible is helpful all on its own. Just knowing that there are going to be cultural influences on what you’re reading can help you see the Bible differently. So, as we walk through the Gospel of Matthew together, try to keep the historical context in mind. 

Of course, while we go through Matthew, I will be here to guide and to help you. I want to show you guys how to do this. That’s why I will be going through the background of the Gospel of Matthew. We’ll talk about who wrote Matthew, when he wrote it, who he was writing to, and a few other things.

All of this will be foundational as we study the Gospel. I also want to encourage you, if you have the time, to do some investigating on your own. Take some time to look up the background information on Matthew for yourself. Take notes on what you find out. Feel free to share and discuss in the comments on this post or the next one. I look forward to seeing what you learn! 

 

Sources

Historical Context Definition [Video]. (2020, July 13). Https://Www.Mometrix.Com/. https://www.mometrix.com/academy/historical-context/#:%7E:text=Historical%20context%20is%20the%20social,see%20happen%20during%20that%20time.

Richards, R. E., & O’Brien, B. J. (2012). Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (1st ed.). IVP Books