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In discussions concerning interpretations of the Bible, we often hear the phrase, “you took that out of context.” In fact, we often hear that in discussions outside the Bible, as when the media quotes a politician and the politician feels he or she has been unfairly treated. In its popular usage, the phrase seems simply to mean, “You got that wrong.” The response is often, “no, in fact I didn’t take it out of context,” and the individual will then proceed to defend his position. Context appears to be a kind of nebulous concept, which the users employ to justify their beliefs. However, just what is context? How do we define it? In this article, I intend to prove that context is specific and quantifiable, and exists on five levels, the micro-context, the immediate context, the documentary context, the co-text and the meta-context. When we understand all five, then we grasp what the context of a particular statement is.
This is simply the immediate words and phrases surrounding a word or phrase that makes sense out of that word or phrase. We do this so naturally in English that we barely notice it. My favorite example in English is the word “run.” What did you, as the reader, think when you saw that word? If you look it up in any dictionary, you will see that it has multiple meanings and usages, and it is even difficult to see what relationship some of these meanings have one to another. Here is my favorite example in teaching this concept:
The captain can run the ship with a run in her stocking while the crew will run a race on the run on deck 10.
In this example, we have four different meanings of the word “run,” but did you have any difficulty figuring out what each one meant, or did you confuse their meanings in any way? I suspect, if you are a native speaker of English, that you had no trouble at all, or even if you know English well as a second language. The reason for this is that there are specific markers in each clause of the sentence, which narrows down the meaning of each usage. In the first clause, run takes “ship” as its direct object. When run takes a direct object, it often means something like “control, be in charge of.” We also have a subject of the verb, “captain” which provides a further control on the meaning, since captains are normally in charge of their ships.
In the second clause, there are several clues that there has been a change in meaning. The first is that we have the indefinite article, “a” before the word, signaling the reader that it is no longer being treated as a verb, but a noun. Secondly, it is followed by a preposition phrase “in her stocking.” In the prepositional phrase we find the word “stocking.” Pardon the unintentional pun, but this is what linguists sometimes call a stock phrase, and it always has the same phrasing and the same meaning in any context. Associating the word “run” with stocking narrows the meaning down to “tear/rip.”
In the third clause, we have the phrase “run a race.” This is what people normally think of as the default meaning of the word, something like “to move feet quickly to get from point a to point b.” However, the only way we know that the word in fact has this meaning in this clause is because it is followed by the words “a race.” The association of “run” with the direct object “race” confines the meaning to “move feet quickly.” We also sometimes use the same phrasing when speaking of cars or boats, in which case then it’s not feet that are moving quickly, but the cars or the boats.
In the final clause, we have “a run” used as a noun in a prepositional phrase. How do we know that it’s not a tear in their stockings? For several reasons, actually, but linguistically speaking this nominal (noun) usage of the word is again associated not with the word “stocking” but with the previous phrase “run a race.” The preposition used is also not “in” but “on.” These combine to inform us that the word here means a particular area on the ship devoted to running, similar to a “dog run.”
If we do this so naturally, why is it necessary to review it in this detail here? In order to get you, the reader, to think a little more self-consciously about the process. Why is that? Because often in Biblical interpretation, and particularly when people are making claims from the original languages, this process often seems to break down. Let me give an example from the Bible:
John 3:8 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
8 The wind blows wherever it wants, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So is everyone having been born from the spirit.”
Now in fact, the word “wind” and the word “Spirit” are translated from the same word in Greek, pneuma. I recently had a discussion with an individual who insisted that the first usage needed to be translated “Spirit” as well, in order to keep it consistent. However, based on what we have just discussed, can you see why this is wrong? It’s a micro-context issue. The word pneuma in the first clause is the subject of the verb “blows” (Grk., pnei), which would make any reader contemporary with the text think of pneuma in its usage of wind or breath. Additionally, the description of this pneuma as no one knowing its source or destination is admirably consistent with the idea of “wind.” The second clause provides a comparative word “so” (Grk., houtōs), a clue that there is a change, that the wind is being compared to something. It is in fact being compared to the result, one “born of the Spirit.” Since people are not born of wind, it is clear that the usage in the second clause is that of “Spirit.” Now, does the author deliberately choose the wording he does to make his point, instead of using another word for wind, such as anemos? Surely he does – puns are used fairly often in Scripture, not for humorous purposes, but to make a specific point, and so the author does here. But the pun, called a semantic pun (because it depends on a change in meaning of the same word), works here precisely because there is a difference in meaning between the first usage and the second.
The immediate context is the local extended passage in which the shorter passage under consideration is found. For convenience, this is usually considered the paragraph and in the Bible, even the chapter, though the range of local context is somewhat fluid, and has to be determined on a case-by-case base. Questions to ask concerning the immediate context include “What is the author trying to say in the passage, overall?” and “What is the immediate subject matter with which the author is concerned?” I think this most often what people mean popularly by the term “context,” but the question which concerns us is how do we answer the questions we have just asked? Again, we tend to do it naturally, but in examining the biblical literature, it sometimes seems to break down, and we therefore again have to give some consideration to our method. Essentially, we have to take a grammatical approach, and ask ourselves that the verbs are in the passage, since these indicate the action taking place or the state of being, and we have to ask ourselves who is doing the action (the subject) and what is the result of that action (the direct object or predicate). Other parts of speech, such as adjectives (describing the nouns) or adverbs (describing the verbs) often provide important clues as to the particular emphasis the writer wants us to take away from the passage. Since we have just looked at John 3:8, let’s have look at the immediate context of the verse, and see how such an analysis informs us:
John 3:1-15 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
Conversation with Nicodemus
3 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to him at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher have come from God, for no one is able to perform these signs that you perform unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter into the womb of his mother for the second time and be born, can he?”
A Physical and Natural Illustration
5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless someone is born from water and spirit, he is not able to enter into the kingdom of God. 6 The one having been born from the flesh is flesh, and the one having been born from the spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘It is necessary for you to be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it wants, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So is everyone having been born from the spirit.”
The Humbling of Nicodemus
9 Nicodemus answered and said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly I say to you, we speak what we know, and we bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony! 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe; how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 And no one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone believing in him will have eternal life.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
What I find interesting about this example is that Nicodemus himself seems to fail to understand Jesus simply because he needs to put Jesus’ initial statement into the proper context. Nicodemus begins his interview of Jesus by making the observation that he recognizes Jesus as a true teacher of God based on what Jesus has done so far. Jesus, in typical ancient near eastern fashion, responds with a declaration that initially to us appears to be a non sequitur but actually penetrates right to the heart of the matter, that a person must be born again. Jesus must then clarify his statement, and he does so in a rather provocative fashion. He seems to accuse Nicodemus of a sort of folly. He is a teacher in Israel, how can he not understand these things? Again, however, is more likely a type of rhetorical device to force Nicodemus to think through what Jesus is saying, and we shouldn’t ourselves judge Nicodemus too harshly, since even those closest to Jesus occasionally misunderstood him. Jesus then goes on quite directly to tell Nicodemus that he is referring to a spiritual, not a physical, rebirth, and that this spiritual rebirth is a direct result of the sovereign action of the Spirit of God. This “born again” status is the primary entry requirement for the kingdom of God. As to what being born again precisely in terms of action, how it looks in the life of the individual who is born again, that awaits further clarification from context, leading up especially to the climactic verse at 3:16.
In the previous paragraph, I did not quite as literalistically analyze the text according to the criteria that I laid down as I did in the section on micro-context. Instead, I gave an application of that procedure. We would start again by asking certain questions of the text. Who is Nicodemus? How is he described? What does he say, and how does what he says inform us of the writer’s purpose in introducing him at this juncture? We already have quite a bit about Jesus up to this point, but what further do we learn about Jesus here? How does Jesus respond to Nicodemus’ statement? What is the content of that answer? Questions like these are simply tools which help us clue into what the author is doing in a particular section, and help us to see how the individual parts fit into the whole.
The Documentary Context
The documentary context does not meant that we are thinking of a documentary in the modern sense, but the document itself in which our passage under consideration takes place. What is the overall purpose for which the author is writing? What is he trying to prove? What does he want us take away from his writing when we’re done? Normally, the passages at the beginning of the document supply the answer to the question, but often (and this is especially the case with ancient literature) we derive further information from the body of the text as well. An important part of this is genre identification. What is genre in a literary setting? Genre simply derives from the Latin genus which means “type” or “kind,” and that is just what it means, a type or kind of literature. This can be very important for proper interpretation. Poetry should not be confused with history, and apocalyptic (the genre of the book of Revelation) should not be confused with the “narrative discourse” of the epistles.
If we examine the opening passages of John we actually start with an ambiguity. It is not immediately clear that we are going to be dealing with a gospel. He begins with a section from 1:1-18 that is often called “the prologue.” This is quite different from Matthew, Mark and Luke, which start with specific historical incidents with regard to the life and ministry of Jesus. Instead, John’s prologue takes us back to the beginning of creation and into the heavenly realms to give us a much broader theological statement concerning the person and work of the Messiah. These verses have a heavily theological, almost philosophical, ring to them. They are designed to set the tone for the narrative which follows, to inform the reader that he or she is supposed to be looking for certain ideas, for certain themes, in the stories which follow. Another way to say this is that we interpret the rest of John after verse 18 in the light of those 18 verses, which in fact include every major theme in John’s gospel. Vs. 19ff also make it clear that in fact it is a gospel as defined in note 2, but it is one in which the author gives us a particular reading strategy to follow.
John also, at the end of his gospel, informs us clearly why he is writing this document:
John 20:30-31 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
30 Now Jesus also performed many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not recorded in this book, 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
If we simply had John’s prologue, we might conclude that John wants us to learn a lot of wonderful theological truths about Jesus (and that is true), but here we learn that John’s purpose in teaching us those wonderful theological truths is so that the reader might believe, and this belief results in eternal life. It is not simply to enrich us or to make us think about the transcendent nature of Jesus. John has a much more practical purpose in mind.
The co-text is the body of literature to which our particular document is specifically related. If we are reading an epistle of the Roman orator Cicero, we would want to include all his other epistles and any other documents written by him for comparison. We might include epistles written by other ancient authors roughly contemporary to Cicero himself. If it were a play of Menander, we would want to include his other plays, and similar ones written by other ancient authors. For a biblical text, the primary co-text is the canon, the inspired books of the Bible, and the secondary co-text would be uninspired texts written in the same milieu, such as the apocrypha and the pseudepigraphical materials. With regard to the biblical authors, it is clear that the later texts were written with the earlier texts in mind, so that even apart from any doctrine of inspiration or inerrancy, they should be read in relationship to each other. The entire body of associated literature allows us to read a given text from the proper frame of reference. An example would be the sacrifice of Christ. I remember hearing a possibly apocryphal story about an individual who consistently rejected the Gospel because to him the sacrifice of Christ on the cross made no sense at all. He could grasp the idea of Christ as a noble person willing to die for a great cause, but the whole idea of atonement was so foreign to his thinking that it kept him from being a Christian. He thought it barbaric and related to ancient and outmoded concepts of violence. Then, one day while studying Leviticus and especially the scapegoat (Lev 16:7-10; 26) he suddenly had a “light bulb” experience. This text provided him the frame of reference needed to understand precisely what was meant by Christ as the sacrifice, and removed all barriers to his acceptance of the Gospel. While the details of this particular story may not be accurate (I heard it over 30 years ago), it is certainly true to life. Anyone who regularly reads through his Bible and studies it carefully finds his understanding of one text illuminated by others on a regular basis.
The apocrypha and pseudepigrapha are not inspired texts, as we have noted, but they often give the reader insight into the ways in which ancient peoples themselves interpreted the canonical text and applied the themes and ideas which formed a part of their world view. As such they give us valuable insights into the canonical texts, but should never be given the same level of authority for the Christian as a canonical text.
The meta-context really exists in two “horizons.” The first and most important is the historical and cultural context of the document. Each document presents us a slice of the world in which it was written. It will inevitably include references and allusions to that world which may only make sense if we know that reference or allusion as a fact outside of the biblical reference, as listening to a one side of a phone conversation makes no sense because we don’t know what the person on the other phone is actually saying. In biblical studies, this involves what we call questions of general introduction. When was the text written? Who was its author? Who were the intended recipients? The wrong answer to this can radically alter our interpretation of the text. The famous higher critic, Rudolph Bultmann, understood the Gospel of John to be a rather late, second century A.D. production of the church, rather than a late first century text written by the apostle. As such, he saw the text as produced by the church to correct gnostic influences on the church, and even saw John as a sort of gnostic gospel itself, with Jesus being a kind of Hellenistic “soter-god” (savior-god) along the lines of Greek mythological conception. It’s a toss-up at whether Butlmann’s beliefs about the dating of the NT contributed to his unbelief, or his unbelief to his decisions about the dating of the NT, but he is a clear example of how important questions of meta-context are. Bultmann is also famous for almost completely ignoring the OT background for the NT, thus ignoring the co-text in his approach.
A less drastic example is Paul’s concept of adoption, such as in Eph 1:5. What does Paul mean by adoption? It’s actually not that far off from our modern practices. When a child is adopted, he or she becomes part of the family, gets the family name, all the privileges (and problems!) pertaining thereunto. It is helpful to know that in the Roman context, older boys and sometimes even adults were adopted, to provide an heir for a childless family. It was largely a financial incentive, to keep the family fortune and business intact. For Paul, it is the emphasis on inheritance that is that appears to be most important, the adopted child receives all that the adoptive parents have to give.
The second horizon of meta-context is our context. As Christians who take the Bible seriously and see it has having direct applications to our lives, we have a vested interest in interpreting the text and making use of it. Like John who wrote his gospel so that the readers might believe and have eternal life, so we are not primarily interested in the text academically, but practically. What does it do for us? How does it change our lives? Essentially, what we have to do is re-contextualize the text so that we can make use of it. This provides a major challenge, because in doing so we might actually change the intended meaning of the text that the author had in mind in his context. This is where problems of interpretation so often arise. The interpreter will ignore or misinterpret the context of the original and fail properly to understand apply the text in his own situation. This is in fact the cure to the problem. The modern reader must make every effort diligently to understand the context of the biblical text he is reading, in order to have the proper framework to read the text in application to himself and his modern context.
Otherwise, we tend to invent a context in order to make sense of what we are reading, or, in the case of the Bible, we are given a context by our church or religious organization. I see examples of the former all the time in teaching Latin and Greek. Beginning students who successfully translate the sentences in the exercises are those who are best at providing a context for those sentences (as well as knowing their vocabulary and grammar!). However, we don’t want to invent a context for a biblical text, even if it seems to help us understand the text better. I see the latter all the time in various discussions and publications, as people interpret the text in the light of their own theological context. I guarantee that a Calvinist Presbyterian and an Arminian Baptist will not see Eph 1:1-14 the same way. While it is impossible to avoid all theological commitments, starting with the base lines of context as outlined above should at least make clear what the areas of disagreement are based on the objective value of the text, and may in some cases even help contribute toward a resolution. In many cases, it will also help us to spot truly egregious areas of misinterpretation.
 A quick definition of “gospel” is theological narrative about Jesus Christ, writing which tells a true story about his life and ministry, but the story has a theological motivation,
 These were works which were written roughly contemporary to biblical times and deal with many of the same themes and ideas, but because of historical inaccuracies or theological inconsistencies are clearly not inspired. Examples would include First and Second Maccabees or The Wisdom of Sirach. I should note for the record that Roman Catholics include some apocryphal works as canonical, and call them “deuterocanonical” (literally “the second canon”). At Bible Translation Magazine we accept the Protestant Canon of 66 books. Going into detail on this would require a separate article, however.
 “Pseudepigraphical” means “falsely attributed,” i.e., the writer of the text deliberately assumed a false identity, usually of a famous figure out of biblical history. The majority of these works are much later than biblical times and often contain fantastic elements quite inconsistent with the canonical and even apocryphal literature. They were probably recognized as works of fiction when first written, but later generations tended to forget this and sometimes assumed that they were written by the attributed authors. Examples include The Apocalypse of Adam or the Book of Enoch.