The Limits of Bible Background

by Layton Friesen

A Bible study leader will often say “in order to understand this verse I need to tell you about the background to this passage.” The leader then describes pagan religion in Ephesus, or farming practices in Palestine, or shame and honour in the Roman empire, and everyone comes to a better understanding of the passage. This is important. If I am reading the apostle John as if he were some white guy sitting in a cubicle in Saskatoon, I am going to seriously misunderstand his gospel.

But there are limits to what Bible background can tell you.
Here’s an analogy. Say you need to predict what Layton is going to do tomorrow at 3 p.m. What would help you make the best possible guess? You would find out about my context. If you discovered that I was a male adult; that tomorrow the rest of my family was leaving for the afternoon; that my dad, as well as my grandparents always had a nap on Sunday afternoons; that tomorrow is, in fact, Sunday; and that rain is forecasted, you might predict: Layton will have a nap tomorrow at 3 p.m. My context suggests that would be a good guess.
But you immediately see the limitation of context, don’t you? No amount of knowledge about context determines that I will actually have a nap. Given my context, there are an almost infinite number of things I could do tomorrow afternoon. I just might go to the gym instead.

Now, when tomorrow at 5 p.m. comes and you see Layton shuffling down the stairs from his nap, you could set about to understand why he did such a thing and you could again dig into his context. All the relevant factors about his upbringing, the weather, and so on could help you understand why he had a nap. But, again, you see the limits. No amount of context explains why, in fact, he did choose to succumb to a nap. He may have napped only because he got the flu at 2:30.

This is all relevant for understanding the Bible. Even if we had an infinite knowledge of Paul’s context, we would still not know why he chose to say what he did. Given his context, there are an almost infinite number of things he could have said. Finally, the only way to understand what he said is to look at what he said and what he said about what he said. Another way of saying this is that two people can have exactly the same context and do completely different things with it.

This may help explain why we moderns, who have far, far more information about biblical context than readers did several centuries ago, nevertheless, are no better at agreeing on what the Bible means.

But who would be best situated to predict what Layton will do tomorrow at 3 p.m.? His wife. She knows him in a way that is far deeper and more mysterious than mere contextual information would allow. Personal knowing includes but goes far beyond contextual knowing.

Layton Friesen

This is the kind of knowing we need to cultivate as readers of the Bible. As we get to know Paul in this way, through our common bond in the Holy Spirit, we will get a pretty good guess about what he means when he speaks.

But I am a free person. Even my wife could be surprised when tomorrow there’s no nap happening.

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