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Historical-Cultural Analysis

One of the most important questions to be asked in the exegetical process is: What historical and cultural factors lie behind the writing of this text? Grant Osborne explains:

"Since Christianity is a historical religion, the interpreter must recognize that an understanding of the history and culture within which the passage was produced is an indispensable tool for uncovering the meaning of that passage. History is the diachronic aspect, relating to the milieu within which the sacred writers produced their works; it refers to the events and times within which God's sacred revelation is couched. Culture is the synchronic aspect, referring to the manners, customs, institutions and principles that characterize any particular age and form the environment within which people conduct their lives" (The Hermeneutical Spiral [IVP, 1991], p. 127).

Primary issues of historical-cultural analysis:

1.         Who is the author?

For example, it matters considerably whether one accepts the Pauline authorship of the pastoral epistles. Issues of interpretation are greatly affected if one believes that 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus were written by a disciple of Paul late in the first century or early in the second. Similar issues are raised if one should conclude that 2 Peter is pseudonymous.

Pseudonymity was a common literary convention in the NT period, wherein a letter or book would claim to be written by a given author (usually a well-known figure) when in fact it was not.It is highly unlikely, however, that pseudonymity was acceptable to the early church when it came to the Scriptures:

a)         "If we may start with the New Testament itself, we find Paul instructing the Thessalonians to give no credence to any 'prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us' (2 Thess. 2:2) and telling them of 'the distinguishing mark' in all his letters (2 Thess. 3:17). This suggests that pseudonymous letters were not entirely unknown; on the other hand, it certainly shows that the apostle did not agree with the practice of pseudonymity -- at least in the case where someone was writing a letter in his name! He does not regard this as acceptable; in principle, he repudiates the practice, regarding pseudonymity as something to be guarded against, for he gives his readers a token whereby they might know which writings come from him and which make a false claim" (An Introduction to the NT, Carson, Moo, & Morris [Zondervan], p. 367).

b.         In terms of non-canonical literature dating from the time of the NT, "there is not one such letter emanating from the Christians from anywhere near the New Testament period, and precious few even from later times. It may be correct that New Testament Christians commonly wrote letters in names not their own (an opinion that scholars routinely perpetuate), but we should be clear that it flies in the face of all the evidence we have about the way letters were written in first-century Jewish and Christian communities" (p. 368).

c.         Furthermore, "the early Christians appear to have had no great urge to attach apostolic names to the writings they valued. More than half of the New Testament consists of books that do not bear the names of their authors (the four gospels, Acts, Hebrews, 1 John; even 'the elder' of 2 and 3 John is not very explicit). Apparently the truth in the documents and the evidence that the Holy Spirit was at work in the people who wrote them carried conviction, and the attachment of apostolic names was not judged necessary" (p. 368).

d.         One must also take note of the strong warnings in the pastoral epistles about deceivers (1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:13; Titus 1:10). See esp. Titus 3:3. "Would a person who speaks of deceit like this put the name of Paul to a letter he himself had composed? Would he say so firmly, 'I am telling the truth, I am not lying' (1 Tim. 2:7)?" (p. 371).

e.         Finally, when the early church made its decisions regarding canonicity, one of the principal criteria was authorship. "There appears to be no example of anyone in the early church accepting a book as truly canonical while denying that it was written by the author whose name it bears" (p. 371).

Thus "the difficulty is not the idea of pseudonymity but the lack of evidence that the New Testament Christians gave any countenance to the idea. Nowhere is evidence cited that any member of the New Testament church accepted the idea that a pious believer could write something in the name of an apostle and expect the writing to be welcomed" (p. 370).

2.         What do we know about his background, education, life in general, etc.'

3.         Where was he when he wrote this text? Does the provenance of the book affect its interpretation?

4.         What were his circumstances when he wrote this text?

5.         When did he write this text?

Two examples of the importance of this question for exegesis and interpretation are the book of Hebrews and Revelation. Was Hebrews written before or after 70 a.d.' Was the temple still standing when he wrote? Were the sacrifices still being offered? The author's argument regarding Jesus as the fulfillment of OT shadows and types is greatly affected by one's answer to that question.

Did John write Revelation in the 60's, during the reign of Nero, or did he write it in the 90's, during the reign of Domitian? The interpretation of the beast, 666, and the like hinges on the date of authorship.

6.         Who are the recipients (addressees) of this text?

* Jewish?

* Gentile?

* Mixed?

* Saved?

* Unsaved?

* Mature?

* Immature?

* Slaves?

* Freemen

7.         Where do they live?

8.         What factors in their place of residence might influence what the author would say to them and how they might hear what he says?

* Political situation

Free? Oppressed? Persecuted? Prospering? Roman rule?

* Economic situation

Rich? Poor? Middle class?

* Religious situation

Is it a pagan environment? Is it a large or small Christian community? What are the prominent and influential theological/religious/philosophical ideas in circulation?

* Unique social customs

Family customs (marriage and educational practices); material customs (homes, clothing); daily customs (hygiene, food); athletics and recreation; music and art.

* Unique geographical features

9.         What is the relationship between the author and those to whom he writes?

10.       What were the circumstances, needs, or events that occasioned the text?

11.       Identify any other significant people, places, or events mentioned in the rest of the book.

Some examples of how historical and cultural phenomena affect the exegesis and interpretation of a text:

Matthew 24 (cf. Luke 21:20-24)

The way one understands the second coming of Christ, as well as the relationship between Israel and the Church, is greatly dependent on the significance given to the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. How much, if any, of the Olivet Discourse in Matthew refers, not to the end of the age, but to the invasion of Jerusalem by the Roman general Titus and the subsequent destruction of the Temple and dispersion of the Jews? An acquaintance with the details of what happened in a.d. 70 (largely from the writings of Josephus, an eye-witness to the events) will touch on how one exegetes the discourse.

John 2

Familiarity with the customs relating to a marriage ceremony sheds considerable light on the interpretation of John 2:1-11.

We know, for example, that the wedding itself was preceded by a betrothal that was regarded as both solemn and binding. In first century Palestine, breaking the betrothal was tantamount to divorce.

The day of a wedding was always Wednesday if the bride was a virgin and Thursday if she was a widow. The first step was the procession of the bridegroom and his friends to the home of the bride. The actual ceremony took place inside the bride's home. This was followed by another procession in which the party returned to the home of the bridegroom. It was here that the marriage feast was held, a lengthy affair that might go on for as much as a week.

Leon Morris provides this additional and important insight: "One thing that seems strange to us is that there was a strong element of reciprocity. If one gave a feast of such and such a quality (and quantity!) when his son was married, he was entitled to an equivalent when his neighbor's son was married. If the neighbor did not provide it, he could be taken to court and sued; a wedding feast was not simply a social occasion, but involved a legal obligation. This is important for our present study. It is quite possible that the bridegroom of John 2 and his family were financially unable to provide all that was necessary for the wedding feast. It is often said that it is unlikely that Jesus would have performed a miracle like this simply to rescue people from a minor social embarrassment. Quite so. But it may well have been much more than that. It may be that Jesus rescued a young couple from a financial liability that would have crippled them economically for years."

John 7

Understanding the Jewish background to John 7:37-44 is crucial to a proper interpretation of the text.

Feast of Tabernacles - in early fall, after the harvest, for 7 days in Jerusalem the people relaxed and rejoiced, living in booths or tabernacles made of leaves and branches (Lev. 23:39-44). The events of the 7th day are important. In your right hand you would carry a lulabha = a branch from a myrtle tree, one from a willow, and another from a palm tree, all tied together. In your left hand you would carry a citron (a lemon like fruit). One of the priests would then take in hand a golden pitcher and lead you and the others in festive procession to the accompaniment of flutes and trumpets to the pool of Siloam, the crowd all the while dancing and singing and rejoicing. The priest would fill the pitcher with water from the pool and then lead the worshiping parade back to the Temple. He would pour the water into a funnel which led to the base of the altar. Then, to the accompaniment of the flute, shaking in the right hand the lulabha and with fruit in the left, all the people would chant, antiphonally, Psalms 113-118, climaxing with the public recitation of Ps. 118:24-29.

The symbolic purpose of the water-ritual was to remind the people of the provision of water from God during the time of wilderness wandering (see Num. 20:7-11; Neh. 9:15,19-20; Isa. 12:3).

It was at that precise moment that a man from Nazareth stood up from a visible and prominent place and cried aloud: "If any man is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture said, 'from his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water'" (vv. 37-38).

In other words, Jesus was saying: "This feast is all about me. The water in the golden pitcher points to me. The water that flowed from the rock in the wilderness was me. The promise of refreshing waters of salvation refers to me. The water I offer is better than that which flowed from the rock, better than that which falls from heaven to nourish your crops, better than that just taken from the pool of Siloam. I am the water that gives eternal life, eternal refreshment, eternal joy. Come and drink of me."

1 Corinthians 1

The meaning of the cross is greatly enhanced when one understands the reason for the opposition to the idea of a crucified Messiah.

The cross was foolishness and a stumbling-block, not because it was intellectually or logically or even theologically objectionable, but because it was aesthetically and morally repugnant. The cross was a visible token of one of the ancient world's most repulsive obscenities. To suggest that salvation and the forgiveness of sins are available through faith in a Messiah who died on a cross was the height of folly.

1 Corinthians 9

Central to the interpretation of 1 Cor. 9:24-27 is an understanding of the Isthmian Games (second only to the Olympic Games in Athens; they were held approximately 15 miles from Corinth, every two years). Much of Paul's imagery here is derived from his own eyewitness experience of that athletic event.

1 Corinthians 11

One cannot expect to understand the meaning or contemporary significance of 1 Cor. 11:1-16 apart from insight into the "veiling" customs among women in both Jewish and Greco-Roman culture.

2 Corinthians (and its relation to 1 Cor.)

Basic to our ability to make sense of 2 Cor. is knowledge of Paul's complex relationship with the church in Corinth, his visits to that city, and especially the two letters he wrote to them, neither of which has survived (in other words, Paul actually wrote four letters to the Corinthians, only two of which are canonical).

Colossians 1:16-17

In this text Paul asserts not only that the Son of God created all things, but that he also continually preserves and sustains all things. "In Him," says Paul, "all things hold together" (v. 17b).

We have well-documented evidence (see O'Brien, xxvi) that Colossae was situated in an area of repeated earthquake activity, and that a major quake had virtually destroyed the city in a.d. 60-61. This geographical fact undoubtedly was experienced and interpreted in a different light, given what Paul says in v. 17 of the providential sovereignty of Christ over the natural world.

1 Timothy 2:8ff.

Exegesis of this paragraph will be radically affected by what we know of ancient customs regarding women's clothing as well as the educational opportunities available to them and the role of women in society in general.

2 Timothy (and Paul's imprisonment)

Knowing that Paul wrote this letter from a Roman dungeon, perhaps only days before his execution, gives new meaning to several of his statements and exhortations.

Hebrews (from whom? to whom?)

Although it is less important to know from whom, it is vital to know to whom the epistle to the Hebrews was addressed. Whether these exhortations were addressed primarily to Jewish or Gentile believers or a mixed congregation, whether to mature or immature Christians, are questions of great import in the understanding of many of its difficult passages.

Revelation 2-3

Acquaintance with a map of the ancient world often greatly aids the interpreter. For example, a quick look at the seven churches of Rev. 2-3 reveals that they were most likely addressed in the order in which we find them, not because they were prophetic of consecutive ages in the unfolding history of the church at large, but because this is the geographical order in which they would be encountered by anyone travelling in that region of the world. They formed a natural trade route by virtue of their geographic relation one to another.