Context: It’s Closer Than You Think

Eli T. Evans

Like a man who loses his car keys at night but searches for them only within the circle of light cast by a nearby streetlamp, we can be tempted to interpret biblical texts in the context that is most accessible or comfortable to us. But interpreting the Bible in the light of our own milieu was never the author’s intention.

It can be equally tempting to assume that ancient texts and cultures are nearer to the biblical context simply because they are farther from us. But like two stars in the night sky, they may only appear close together because of our vantage point. Non-biblical and non-Judaean texts come from contexts that, if not entirely foreign, are at least farther away from the biblical writers’ own cultural and religious traditions.

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For example, the pseudepigraphal book of Enoch is closer to Revelation in time, space, content and culture than Homer’s Iliad or the Egyptian Book of the Dead. But the books of Daniel, Zechariah and Ezekiel are closer still because they stand in the same tradition and treat the same subjects in the same genre.

Likewise, whatever Paul may have read during his education as a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil 3:5) “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3), he certainly read the Torah. The Old Testament—the “oracles of God” that he dearly loved—would have influenced his ideas about the struggle between flesh and spirit as much or more than the Epicureans and Stoics he debated (Rom 3:1–2; Acts 17:18). In Paul’s letters we see a debate that stretches across centuries—not simply different Graeco-Roman worldviews.

Reading the New Testament in light of first-century Palestinian Judaism will be more fruitful than reading it in light of Epicurean or Stoic philosophy. Indeed, New Testament scholar N. T. Wright sees Paul repeating early Scripture in Romans—a retelling of the exodus story for Gentile Christians. 1 Romans 1–3 alludes to Genesis: creation (Gen 1, Rom 1:19–20; compare Rom 5:12–21); the pervasiveness of sin after the fall (Gen 4–6, Rom 1:21–31); and the relationship of sin to the Mosaic law and the phenomenon of Judaism (Rom 2:17–3:31). Romans 4 retells the story of Abraham and appropriates him as a Christian—not a Jewish—patriarch. Slavery in Egypt is recast as slavery to sin (Exod 1–2, 14; Rom 5–6, especially 6:15). The believer’s relationship to the law is redefined (Exod 19–20, Rom 7). Finally, Gentile Christians could enter the “promised land” of the Spirit (Rom 8).

Nonetheless, many of the biblical authors incorporate allusions and ideas from their own cultures. No doubt they were well read: Luke may have been familiar with Tacitus, and Paul may owe some of his ideas to the neo-Platonists. However, it’s important to recognize that these types of references are often polemic rather than synthetic. The usual method of the biblical authors is to subvert and subtly mock ideas from other religions and philosophies rather than to integrate or condone them.

This is true throughout the biblical text. Genesis 1–3 may incorporate ideas from Egyptian, Babylonian, Sumerian, Akkadian and Canaanite creation myths, but in doing so it destroys their polytheistic foundations: What we see in the natural order is not the activity of many gods, but the glory of one. Several psalms “borrow” storm-god imagery from Baal worship, not to lower Yahweh to the pagan god’s level, but to strip the empty, worthless idol of the omnipotence rightfully attributed to Yahweh (e.g., Psa 29, 104). Paul quotes Greek philosophers and poets to make his points from within his audience’s own context, effectively blowing up their preconceptions (Acts 17:22–31; Titus 1:12; 1 Cor 15:33; see 1 Cor 9:19–23).

In many ways the Bible seems similar to other texts; but in its ability to penetrate contextual barriers, Scripture is unparalleled. We need not lean on the oft-abused motto “Scripture interprets Scripture,” nor Luther’s quip that “a simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it.” 2 Regardless of what ideas ruled the day when Jeremiah or Mark put pen to parchment, the big idea was always present: Jesus, the Word of God, who cuts straight to the heart (Heb 4:12).

Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 5 No. 1


1. N. T. Wright “The New Inheritance According to Paul,” reprinted on NTWrightpage.com.
2. From a public debate between Martin Luther and Johann Eck in Leipzig, 1519.