Pastor David B. Curtis

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Studying the Bible: Keeping it in its Own Context

Jeffrey T. McCormack

Delivered 06/05/16

For those of you who happened to hear my talk at the conference in April, I briefly touched upon this topic, but without much depth of explanation. So at this time I wish to revisit the idea of what it means to take Bible context serious. I wish to start by quoting one of the points from my lecture:

Just as with every text there is a context, so with every context there is a worldview. Actually, in any context there are several worldviews, the prophet’s, the hearer’s, and the one progressively unveiled through revelation, to which the first two must conform. Much of the labor of Bible study for the late twentieth century believer is the reconstruction of those worldviews, in order that the revelation may be more fully understood. Unfortunately for today however, the reconstruction of the prophet’s worldview is replaced by the imposition of the modern reader’s worldview. (Terry Morin, The Forgotten Heavens: Celestials & Thronophanies)

As Bible readers today, our job, if we are to fully understand the writer’s intent, is to keep our reading within its context. This idea is not novel, and is something most anyone here listening to me is most assuredly aware of, as it is emphasized often.

However, the usual emphasis of this topic tends to stop too soon in its application. If they have any application of the idea of context at all, the average reader tends to stop at the opening phrase – they acknowledge that every text has a context.

That is where we're going to start today, and then we will move in to the importance of the rest of this quote. So, what are the various types of “context” we mean by saying the Bible must be interpreted within its own context?

Most should already understand that what it means is that we should not take a part of a verse, or even a whole single verse, and remove it from its surrounding context to make it say something it actually was never intended to.

As the quote says, the individual verse has a context – meaning it must be read and understood within the verses that precede as well as follow it. The idea of context then grows out from there.

A verse is best understood within the full paragraph where it exists, but also within the paragraphs that surround the paragraph where it exists, as well as the chapter where these paragraphs all exists, even out to the entire book where the chapters and paragraphs exist – because as we know, the writer didn’t write in chapters originally.

It is not uncommon for people to teach the meaning of a whole chapter of a Scripture book, yet get it wrong simply because they fail to understand that chapter’s arguments in light of the entire argument of the book wherein it appears. Or to twist a chapter to where it contradicts something taught elsewhere in the same book.

Another context to consider is the context of a book in light of other books or writings that are identified as being by the same author. There is much that can be learned from how such and such an author uses this or that phrase or terminology, and that must be taken into account when understanding the context of words and phrases within the writing.

We can start small and look at things on a word level. How was it used by the author in that chapter, or that whole book, or other books they have written? How were those words used in connection to other words within the original language that produced them?

Just like people writers today, biblical writers have specific ways they may use a word. While the word may indeed have many possible definitions, oftentimes a single author may be fond of using it with a similar meaning throughout multiple writings they produce.

This brings up the point of looking at things on a single word meaning. This was something I briefly brought up in my lecture talk also, regarding people who define a word, and then use that meaning in a wooden manner throughout everywhere it comes up in Scripture.

They often may ignore the fact that it has many definitions depending on how it is being used. This kind of wooden interpretive approach leads to all kinds of problems. Again, context plays a huge part in getting to the root of how a single word or phrase is being used.

You cannot simply grab a tool like Strong’s, look up a Greek or Hebrew word, find a definition you like, and then apply it globally throughout Scripture. That is not a valid way of word study, as so much more plays a factor in the situation.

If you stop to really think about it, words themselves really have little to no meaning. For instance, think of the word RUN. What does it mean? If I asked you for a definitive meaning for the word, what would you say?

Hopefully, giving it a moment of thought, you would agree that it doesn’t really mean anything, because it could mean practically anything. Even if you looked it up in a dictionary, you would be presented with multiple options.

First off, is this word a noun or a verb? You do not know. It could be a noun, referring to:

  • Way of keeping score in a baseball game
  • After painting, those drips you find
  • A continued series – like a book or magazine
  • An animal path – a dog run

But what if it were a verb, it could be:

  • Something faster than a walk
  • Someone trying to win a political office
  • A machine that is on and functioning
  • A liquid that has spilled and spread out

In a good dictionary, the word could mean as many as 70 different things. So the word in and of itself, means nothing. Meaning is determined by context and usage. Usage is determined by author, their cultural understanding and general worldview concepts.

We know that grammar has rules, but some tend to forget that ancient languages likewise have such rules of grammar that would assist in understanding words and terms. Then we must also account for how that word was used culturally and historically at the time the book was written?

It must also be determined if the words being read are not being used literally by the author. What is the context of the words in the verse, and are they possibly part of a cultural idiom for instance?

We may write a letter where we say so-and-so “kicked the bucket” – but what would someone a thousand years from now make of that statement? A dictionary would tell us all of the possible meanings for kicked as well as bucket, but would that help someone understand what is being said here in any way?

Was there a literal bucket being kicked? No, it is part of the cultural context of the writer, it is an idiom, and likewise the Bible contains idioms we won’t understand if we do not understand their cultural use.

So when looking at context, we start simple. Hopefully everyone knows that we cannot take part of a verse out of its context and build a belief on it. An extreme example would be for someone to say that the Bible does indeed state that God does not really exist. Right there in Psalm 14, we are told, quote "There is no God." Of course we should all know that what Psalm 14 actually says is:

The fool says in his heart, "There is no God." (Ps 14:1 ESV)

While an example like that is rarely one that comes up – at least I hope that is the case - we must still understand that taking a short series of words out of their context is not a valid way to understand the text.

Moving on to full verse contextual abuse, I will state that this topic has been one  that for the last 30 years I have written occasionally against, because it is such a rampant practice in Christendom.

Back in the 1990s I used to print a self-published magazine which contained a column entitled “Out of Context” – and now I have a similar column on my blog.

When it comes to full verse textual abuse, one of the more recent ones that I wrote about is on Jeremiah 29:11, which is a favorite one of many Christians. It is on mugs, calendars, embroideries, you name it. I am sure you are likewise familiar with it, it states:

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord , plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:11 ESV)

What an encouraging and gracious saying to comfort everyone around you with, but is that what this verse is written to tell us? Let’s stop to examine this one a bit.

When we read Scripture, which consists of words written down, we do good to follow the five Ws of grammar that most of us were probably taught in school – the Who - What - When - Where - Why?

So, when we examine a verse like this one, we can ask “who is speaking, and who was he speaking to?” Well, we back up one verse to find out who was speaking:

For thus says the LORD… (Jer. 29:10 ESV)

And so who was he speaking to? For that we back up to verse four and discover:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: (Jer. 29:4 ESV)

So, we have Yahweh speaking to those sent into exile from Jerusalem into Babylon, and so we move on to the next W and ask WHAT is he speaking of. We find that out by again looking at verse 10:

For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. (Jer. 29:10 ESV)

So we have Yahweh speaking, he is speaking to those who were exiled in Babylon, and he tells them he will visit them to fulfill His promise to bring them back into their land.

So when was this written? It was written around the 6th century BC when Jerusalem was destroyed and the people taken captive in Babylon as we saw in verse four. And when were these promises to take place? When the seventy years were complete as we also see here in verse ten.

Where was this written? Well, we see in verse three how it was written and sent to the people held in Babylon:

The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. (Jer. 29:3 ESV)

Who spoke? – Yahweh spoke. Spoke to who? – the exiles from Jerusalem. When did he speak? – when they were in exile. Where did He speak? – the area of Babylon. What was He speaking of? – His promise to His people in exile.

So finally – why did He say this? We have partially seen the answer – it was to state that Yahweh was going to keep his promise to those exiled people. But why was he going to fulfil the promise? That is what our verse in question tells us:

For thus says the LORD (WHO): When seventy years are completed for Babylon (WHEN/WHERE), I will visit you (WHO), and I will fulfill to you my promise (WHAT) and bring you (WHO) back to this place. (WHY)For I know the plans I have for you (exiles from Jerusalem), declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you (exiles) a future and a hope.
Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jer. 29:10-14 ESV)

So, hopefully you see that in its proper context this verse is not a general promise of comfort to be pronounced unto all Christians today, for it was a promise from Yahweh given for a specific people in history, in a specific scenario and specific time in history past. It was to THEM that he had these special plans, and this becomes so clearly evident by simply reading the few surrounding verses.

Now, like I mentioned before, this is the point of context application where most take the idea of context and stop. I would like to now consider two more avenues of context that we will look at that assist in a better understanding of biblical text. So, we go back to the initial quote we started with to find this additional content mentioned:

Just as with every text there is a context, so with every context there is a worldview. Actually, in any context there are several worldviews, the prophet’s, the hearer’s, and the one progressively unveiled through revelation, to which the first two must conform. (Terry Morin, The Forgotten Heavens: Celestials & Thronophanies)

One of the contexts most people miss is that of the worldview producing the text. Readers today want to impose their modern worldview on the text, and that causes many issues with interpretation. So, what do we mean by the worldview of the writer? We have already hinted at it a moment ago, and you have heard Dave mention it in the past too.

This means we need to understand for instance how words, phrases, idioms, and theological beliefs were understood and used during the time period in which the text in question was written.

During the time of the writing, how were spiritual concepts understood, and how was the surrounding culture influential on the text being examined? What were the issues of the day that were influential on why the writer wrote what they did?

Sadly, the Bible, which is grammar as I said earlier, is nevertheless rarely given the same treatment as we give other grammar of our time.

When we read a book written say two hundred years ago, we know we’re going to run into words, phrases, and terms that we do not use or understand in today’s culture. We therefore stop and examine what those words meant to the writer at their time. This is often what is missed when examining the Scripture.

Instead, Scripture is viewed as a book that was given supernaturally, having had zero influence within it by the worldview or culture of the writer giving it. This is a faulty view that leads to all kinds of interpretational issues.

What is missed or often misunderstood is that biblical writers were people too. While that seems to be an obvious statement, many miss the implications such a statement has on our topic. Instead of them being people, many have this understanding of biblical inspiration that would make the writers more like robots than men.

It is probably safe to say that the majority of evangelicals would view the idea of inspiration as if it were a series of paranormal events. The prophet or writers gets up in the morning, is brushing his teeth, and ZAP BANG POW – Yahweh hits them with a vision, or puts them into a trance and feeds their hand the scientifically and spiritually perfect words of truth directly from on high.

It is viewed as if Yahweh takes over man’s functions and writes the words himself, without influence from the writer. Then the writer awakes from his trance and looks down to see these words from on high and marvels at the truth that came through him yet has zero influence from him.

That idea is a myth and not the way inspiration works. The writers of biblical texts were people – and they wrote during a specific time in history, they had a set of beliefs and understandings connected to their time and culture, and those understandings were in fact influential to their writings. 

Did some of these writers write things they did not understand? Of course they did, but that is not what I mean here. Those tend to be prophetic times when the spirit moved the writer to say something they did not understand how they would come about.

A more proper way to look at this idea is to think instead of Yahweh’s use of certain writers. While it may be thought that He randomly chose this person of here, and then put them in this trance and wrote this book, and then randomly picked this person over there to do the same, there is a better way to view the process.

Instead of it being this series of paranormal experiences at a later date in their life, think bigger picture, longer time process. Instead, think of how Yahweh picked this person to be the writer because of their existing understanding, theology and general worldview.

Think instead that Yahweh would have been instrumental throughout all of their life, leading them into places, thought and understanding to shape and form them into the person they are – and THEN he had them write this particular book which would be presented from their worldview.

Then, that real person does not need some paranormal experience to cause them to produce the text, when instead, they as real people could be prompted and led by the Spirit from God to write using their own language and manner that gets the truth across.

When you stop and think about it, this idea is not something we don’t already believe. People know that the writings of one Apostle differ from the writings of another because of their writing style difference. It is obvious that there is a human influence in the writings, and not just some robotically produce text of truth direct from on high.

So Yahweh takes real people and uses them in real time to produce a text with real human influence, to get across the truth He has for them to produce. So, that being the case, we therefore must understand that the writing produced has a context – an influence from the writer’s worldview and the worldview of those being addressed.

The biblical text produced is therefore only fully understood if the writer’s worldview is understood. We must not try to force our worldview and context upon it as so many often do, or we stray into territory quite alien to the initial audience.

In times past, the practice of imposing a modern worldview upon the Bible has been common, and it has brought forth church creeds, confessions, theological systems of belief, etc.

This is not to say that all creeds and confessions are hopelessly flawed, it is simply to say that those things are usually a product of the worldview and culture of the time in which they were produced, and not the context of the biblical writings.

We must understand that the biblical context is not my context – it is not your context. It is not the context of your pastor, or your church leadership, or your denomination. It is not the context of the popular modern day evangelists and preachers – insert your favorite preacher or author here.

It is likewise not the context of great thinkers in the past. It is not the context of C.I. Scofield, or Charles Ryrie, or John Walvoord, or Dwight Moody, or Charles Spurgeon, or John Wesley, or John Calvin, or Martin Luther. It is not the context of Augustine, or Tertullian, or Acquinas.

Biblical theology is not oriented towards any of the worldviews that any of those people had – biblical context is not their context. The context of the early church fathers, the medieval writers, the Reformers, the modern teachers, etc. is a context that is alien to the biblical context of the original writers.

So if we seek to truly keep things in context, we must understand that the context we must take seriously is that of those original biblical writers. Their context is the one we should take seriously when it comes to guiding our thoughts on interpreting Scripture properly. Therefore we must seek to know and understand what that context was.

That context goes much farther and much wider than simply looking at keeping the words and paragraphs in their context. Though honestly, if just that step alone were consistently adhered to the modern church would be in less of a mess with their interpretations.

Instead of doing this work of finding the writer’s context, most Bible readers instead filter the Scriptures through many of the various contexts mentioned - whatever their preferred filter tends to be. They believe this or that strictly because their pastor or favorite author teaches it, or because their creed or church teach it. Obviously this is a major problem.

This is one of the central issues that have caused so, so many different odd interpretations of the text that often leads to debates, church splits, or new denominations totally.

It is the context and worldview of the writers that has been mentioned to you time and time again in the past couple of years. When David speaks about things like the Ugaritic texts and other ancient near Eastern material, it is writings like those that assist in understanding the context of the writers of the Tanakh.

And then when you hear us speak of the 2nd Temple material, like the Pseudepigrapha, Deuterocanonical, and Apocryphal works, as well as some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other works from historians of the day, those are also tools that can assist in building the context of the New Testament worldview.

Of course this means more work than the average Christian is willing to spend in Bible Study. Instead, they'd rather pick up the Bible and just read it, and then misapply it to their own life, their own context, their own worldview, and twist it to mean a number of things beyond what it was ever written to mean.

Aside from misunderstanding portions of the text, there is often much that is missed. The original writer may be making a very profound point, but it is really only profound to those original hearers who knew what localized or contemporary event being referenced, or to those who have studied the context as we are speaking of.

One example which has been given already from this pulpit many times in the recent past, is the cloud rider scenario. In Ugaritic and Old Testament Hebrew, Baal's epithet as the storm god was, "He Who Rides on the Clouds." In Phoenician, he was called, "Baal Shamen, Lord of the Heavens." So when the Hebrews come along and take that title and apply it to Yahweh, they are in essence mocking, or belittling Baal. They call Yahweh the cloud rider as we see in Isaiah 19:

An oracle concerning Egypt. Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them. (Isa 19:1 ESV)

But that emphasis is totally missed by someone unaware of the context it is written in, because the full Baal story is not contained within the Tanakh. So if someone is clueless on the Baal story, then the biblical story is just read at face value, and that totally misses the deeper profoundness of the statement by the writer.

Another type of example would be in missing the point because of misunderstanding the use of language. This is something that has been touched upon at times before too. Things like idioms of the time, they may go right over our head.

Another example would be when people get introduced to the idea of the divine council, the multiple number of Elohim that exist. Many would be quick to deny such a teaching, and quote:

See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god [elohim] beside me; (Deut. 32:39)

Seems pretty clear cut – it obviously seems to be teaching that there is only one singular god – or Elohim. So the divine council idea is obviously a myth and must be thrown out it seems. Just reading the words and defining them could lead one to such a conclusion. But that only holds true if there is this ignorance of context.

Understanding the historical context and use of words would lead someone to see that the phrase "I am, and there is none beside me" was an ancient Biblical slogan of incomparability or sovereignty, and not a statement meaning exclusivity of existence.

In their worldview context, it was their way of stating that a certain authority was the absolute most powerful when compared to any other authority. It did not mean there were not any other authorities at all, but that of them all, this one was the highest. So, when properly understood, this phrase is actually a statement in favor of the divine council view.

This same phraseology is used elsewhere in Scripture in Isaiah 47:8 and Zephaniah 2:15 referring to Babylon and Nineveh respectively, and yet I doubt anyone would claim them to be using it to mean exclusivity, so it only gets brought up when it is suitable for the current argument.

So, in closing this point, there are many examples in Scripture where these types of role-reversal or idiomatic statements are made, and unless the reader knows the worldview context of the writing, they will most likely miss the emphasis being made, or totally twist the original meaning.

In scholarly circles, it is called "comparative studies" when someone is using other writings of the same era of time in order to help establish a context for whatever the writing is that is in question. It is used often in the real world, but most evangelicals ignore the practice when considering Scripture.

In our world of biblical studies, to apply comparative studies would be to use the ancient near eastern writings of the same era of time that the Tanakh was written, in order to better understand the history, culture and terminology we find in the Tanakh.

Most Christians would shy away from such an idea, because again they feel the Scriptures came from a series of paranormal experiences, and the words have come down directly from God in an unadulterated manner. Therefore there is nothing that can be gained from reading or understanding human involvement in the writing process.

This has been a long time evangelical attitude, but fortunately has been losing ground for the last few decades in the scholarly world. Of course, it may be centuries more before those ideas actually get leaked from the scholarly world into the real world, and even longer before Christians study and read on the subject.

In the end, for the average person to get the full thrust of what Scripture is saying, it will require some work in order to start thinking like an ancient writer. Fortunately, a lot of the work has been accomplished by the scholars, is just requires getting into it and becoming familiar with the ancient worldview.

Whiles I could go on further in this direction, my main point is, Scripture must be read and understood within its own context and taking into consideration the worldview of the writer. Until this is done, the church will continue to decipher things incorrectly.

Now, moving on, I would like to discuss other ways we must understand context. It is important when reading a portion of the Scripture, that we understand what type of literature we are reading, and understand the grammatical laws that apply to that. The Bible, as we know, is made up of different genres of writing, and we must approach each properly when interpreting them.

This is something we do daily without even giving it much thought, yet most fail to do the same when it comes to Scripture. For instance, if during the day you read a personal letter, a legal brief, a comic book, a blog post, a bill, or a post on Facebook, your approach each differently because you know they contain different types of styles and content. You take them in their proper context usually.

The same thing may be said about reading a book. If you read a fiction novel, you won’t approach an understanding of it the same as you would a nonfiction biography or history book. Well, we find such divisions within Scripture, but people do not always adjust their thoughts appropriately.

Within the Bible we find various literary types that are not always approached properly, and so understandings can easily be taken out of context. One of the more common literary types found in Scripture is that of the narrative – story telling.

The bigger portion of Scripture would fit into the narrative type. We have almost everything from Genesis through 2nd Chronicles, the better part of the prophets, the gospels and Acts, all being mostly of the narrative genre.

So, the best approach to reading these portions, is to approach them like you would a fiction novel. Obviously this is not to say you approach them thinking they are fiction, but simply read them with the same mindedness as you would a fiction novel.

If you read narrative like it is a novel, your mind will be tuned in such a way as to aid you in observing things within the text in an intelligent manner. For instance, while reading a novel, there is usually this intuitive sense that the writer of the story is trying to do something to you.

At times they may be trying to misdirect you, or they may be planting some scene, word or character into your mind that you know will bear some importance later on. We tend to pick up on these things, and know to expect it to show up or play significance at some later point.

A lot of times and to some extent we may store these things away subconsciously, but chances are you are doing it because you know when reading fiction, things are there because the writer has placed these things in the story for some purpose you have yet to discover.

Similarly, if you watch much TV, you probably practice the same type of paying attention to detail when things are brought up that seem somewhat insignificant. In TV episodes, you are aware that the director has a limited amount of time, and so therefore anything that is put in front of you taking up that time, must have some significance.

So as you read or watch such narrative styled things, you may start asking yourself questions about how this or that fits in with the storyline. You engage your mind and pay closer attention to the story, watching for how themes and pieces come around to fitting together.

Well, that is the approach needed when reading narrative biblical portions. Read them as you would fictional narratives. Instead, most people approach the bible as a textbook, and it not only kills our typical inquisitiveness, but we lose the context in which they were purposefully writing.

Read the biblical narratives realizing that just like fictional material, the writer had an agenda and a plan for what was written and how it was worded, because he did. As you read, just like with fiction, watch for things that could be cases of symbolism.

Look for repeating words or ideas that jump out as important. Look for words and phrases that could be written to be purposefully interpreted in more than one way. Watch for figurative language, and pay attention to the roles that the characters play within the story.

Again, these types of things you’re most likely already doing with fiction, but failing to do with Scripture. Try to change gears when reading narrative portions of Scripture, and approach things with a fictional reading frame of mind.

Moving on, I wish to briefly look at another quick coupe of circumstances in Scripture that kind of lose their power due to ignorance of the worldview and context of the writers. Let’s touch on the ancient view of ghosts as we look at this familiar story from the gospels, about the walking on the water of Yeshua.

And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified. (Mar 6:47-50 ESV)

Now there is significance here that is not always picked up on, and that is relating to them thinking it was a ghost approaching. In the ancient world of which the apostle wrote, there were indeed stories of ghosts and apparitions, and there were stories of walking on the water. But one thing there was not, is the idea that a ghosts could walk on water.

One author, Jason Combs, discusses this background history and the implications of it to the gospel story in an article he wrote entitled “A Ghost on the Water? Understanding an Absurdity in Mark 6:49–50.” He shows how it was an absurd notion for the apostles to think it was a ghost on the water, because again, it was common knowledge in their worldview that ghosts cannot walk on water. He states:

Mark, then, has set the scene for a classic tale of a haunting specter through his use of the word φάντασμα (ghost), the nighttime hours, the faint light of an approaching dawn, and the disciples’ fearful response. Yet Mark diverges drastically from one key component of ancient ghost stories that involve water: ghosts cannot walk on water. Several Greek and Latin sources demonstrate this ghostly inability. (Combs, A Ghost on the Water?)

The article goes on to make the case for the understanding of such ghosts stories at the time, and then points out one significant fact from ancient history that plays an often overlooked part in the story here. Referring to one major study on the issue, Combs states:

Adela Yarbro Collins has written a thorough treatment of the Greco-Roman texts that parallel Jesus’ walking on the sea and has quite convincingly demonstrated the wealth of evidence for gods, god-gifted rulers, and divine men walking on the sea. (Combs, A Ghost on the Water?)

What they conclude is that we have this story in the gospels, and it includes all of the elements and follows the typical storyline of a ghost story of the day, but with one twist. This perceived ghost is walking on water, something that ghosts cannot do, but that a divine man could do.

Here is the problem. In the ancient world in which this was written, Collins writes that is would have been a fairly common understanding that walking on the water was something for divinity, not ghosts.

Yet here is the Christ, walking on the water, and instead of understanding the historical significance of this being tied to his divinity, the apostles instead believe in the absurd, that it is instead a ghost doing something they cannot do. Combs puts it this way:

Yarbro Collins, as noted previously, reviews a wealth of Greco-Roman sources that describe divine men and gods walking on water. With so many prominent accounts, Mark's audience would certainly have understood Jesus’ water-walk in terms of divine manifestation, yet the disciples in Mark do not. (Combs, A Ghost on the Water?)

So why would they miss the obvious and believe such an absurdity? If you recall from the opening reading, Mark tells us just two verses later, that it was because “their hearts were hardened.”

When we read this same story in Matthew, we do get a glimpse at the idea that after the fact it might have become more evident that they understood the issue of divinity being portray here, for we are told:

And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God." (Mat 14:32-33 ESV)

In the end, unlike the original first century audience who read Mark, modern readers will most likely have missed the nuances and emphasis of this divine manifestation that is portrayed here in Mark’s “ghost story” if they are unaware of the pieces of historical context this story is drawing from and built upon.

Continuing on with this topic of “ghosts,” let us turn to what some others have pointed out regarding the historic worldview and its application to Scripture when it comes to post-mortem apparitions. In Luke 24, we are told the story of the empty tomb and the appearances of Christ to his disciples.

We are told how he appears suddenly, disappears suddenly, he eats, he is touched, and other pieces of information about his activities. However, what we may not pick up on, is the ancient worldview that Luke is borrowing from, and twisting onto its head here.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, just like ghost stories, writings also existed with stories of post-mortem activities. And for the most part, they consistently spoke in terms and ideas that those in post-mortem existence would fit into four main categories of existence – the rules of post-mortem life if you will.

In a 2007 articles appearing in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Deborah Thompson Price wrote a study entitled The ‘Ghost’ of Jesus: Luke 24 in Light of Ancient Narratives of Post-Mortem Apparitions. It examined a comparison of Greco-Roman views and Luke’s use of those ideas, though again, with a new twist. In the conclusion, it is summed up saying:

I submit that the method at work in Lk. 24 is an attempt to disorient the reader in order to reconfigure the traditions known to the author and reader in light of the disciples’ extraordinary experience of the resurrected Jesus. After all, Luke can only describe Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances with the vocabulary and literary models he has at his disposal. (Price, The ‘Ghost’ of Jesus)

Stopping right there, note that the point being made is what we have been expounding this morning. Luke is writing within the context and understanding of the worldview of his time. In other words, he is not making up terms to describe what is happening, but he is using local historical terminology that his audience at the time would have grasped.

So again, in order to fully grasp what he is saying, we must understand the context of which he is working from within. So if we acknowledge that Luke is describing things using only the vocabulary and literary models that are available at the time, then the quote continues by asking:

But what if these are deemed inadequate for his purpose, and no one type of apparition is thought sufficient to represent what the disciples had experienced? In this case Luke would be left with insufficient language and models. (Price, The ‘Ghost’ of Jesus)

So, if Luke is using only the context of the worldview wherein he is writing, yet the individual terms are inadequate for truly representing what has happened, what can be done? Well, how about just merging pieces from each, to in fact create a similar, yet contrary viewpoint that shows greater significance of the Christian view over the Greco-Roman one. As Price states:

If, however, all possible models are incorporated, thereby displaying the breadth and magnitude of Jesus’ resurrected presence, while at the same time the limitations of each model are highlighted, then the author is able to work within the parameters of the literary and cultural expectations of the audience to express a phenomenon that surpasses those expectations. (Price, The ‘Ghost’ of Jesus)

So, evidence seems to reveal that Luke took familiar ideas of his immediate context, yet combined the different concepts to produce a unique view to describe what he saw in the resurrected Christ. Or as Price puts it in the closing:

In Lk. 24 the author invites his readers to re-imagine and resist, to an extent, the perspectives of their Hellenistic community in light of their Christian community’s unique experience of, and convictions about, the resurrected Jesus. (Price, The ‘Ghost’ of Jesus)

So, let’s quickly look at the concepts Luke is working with and how he made them his own. In looking at the common worldview understanding at his time, the Greco-Roman concepts fells into four main categorical views about post-mortem existence:

  • Disembodied spirits: appear as they did in life; cannot be touched; able to disappear
  • Revenants: reanimated corpse; appear as they did in life; fully touchable; revival is short-term
  • Heroes: graves are known and revered; physical contact is possible; may change appearance
  • Translated mortals: most often without death, or death is disputed; appear as they did in life; touchable, or body is cast off and soul alone ascends

So, if the discussion was about someone coming back after death, in that time the worldview would say they fit into one of these categories of existence. Yet from what we are told about the resurrected Christ, He doesn’t fit squarely into any of these categories, but borrows from all and goes beyond the limitations of them all. Let’s break them down and see what we have:

Disembodied spirits:

  • appear as they did in life
  • cannot be touched
  • able to disappear

Revenants:

  • reanimated corpse
  • appear as they did in life
  • fully touchable
  • revival is short-term

Heroes:

  • Graves (with body within) are known and revered
  • physical contact is possible
  • when appearing, may change appearance

Translated mortals:

  • most often without death, or death is disputed
  • appear as they did in life
  • touchable, or body is cast off and soul alone ascends

So in the end, what we find is that Luke reveals this about Christ:

Lk. 23.46, 55: Yeshua is dead, his tomb is known

  • Inconsistent with disappearance and translation traditions
  • Consistent with disembodied spirits, heroes, and revenants

Lk. 24.3, 6, [12], 23-24: The tomb is empty

  • Inconsistent with most translation stories, heroes and disembodied spirits
  • Consistent with revenant traditions

Lk. 24.31: Yeshua disappears    

  • Inconsistent with revenant traditions
  • Consistent with disembodied souls

Lk. 24.36: Yeshua enters a room unseen

  • Inconsistent with revenant traditions
  • Consistent with disembodied souls

Lk. 24.39a: Yeshua offers a visual inspection (hands/feet) to establish identity

  • Consistent with expectations of all apparitions; appearance is unchanged in death

Lk. 24.39b: Yeshua offers a tactile inspection of his ‘flesh and bone’

  • Inconsistent with disembodied phantoms
  • Consistent with revenants and heroes

Lk. 24.42-43: Yeshua eats in the disciple’s presence

  • No absolute Inconsistency with any tradition
  • Clearly Consistent only with revenant traditions

Lk. 24.51: Yeshua is bodily taken up to heaven

  • Inconsistent with traditions of disembodied souls, heroes, and revenants
  • Consistent with translation/apotheosis traditions

So, as you can see, during the time the gospel story was written, the writers were taking common worldview themes and using them to tell the story. Though as was often done in Scripture, they were borrowing from the common ideas, and twisting or expounding them into a new idea for showing the superiority of Christianity.

This is not much different than what had taken place in the Tanakh when they took common worldview context of the surrounding nations and twisted them to show Yahweh’s power, like the Baal story we mentioned.

So the whole point of the message today is to show how a lot of this story-play is missed, as well as the emphasis behind why it may have been said the way it was, simply because people today take things out of their context and read their own modern worldview into the Scripture, and not the worldview of the writer.

Doing this causes much confusion, multiple odd interpretations, all of which leads to disputes and division in the church. And with each generation that gets further from the original, the worldviews change and the interpretations get more diluted and odd.

I have only looked at a few of the possible literary contexts this morning, as we could have looked into things like how to approach Parable, Proverbs, comedy, prophecy, apocalyptic, military and historic annals genres for instance. Hopefully we have covered enough to give you a peek at the depth of study that can and should be done when approaching Scripture.

Sadly, most seem ignorant of this who idea or approach, which is why I brought it up today. People have to understand that what we have in Scripture is not some purely supernatural set of heavenly text that was handed down from heaven in a force field protected bubble through paranormal activities by Yahweh, which has zero human influence.

Once it is understood for what it is, and what it contains, and how the writer’s worldview would have played a part, and what that worldview was, it is then that we can begin truly digging into Scripture. Then we can begin looking not at what the Scriptures can be made to mean to us, but what did they actually mean to them and their audience at that time, and once that is understood, we can better grasp how it applies to us.


Bibliography: For Further Study

Some have asked for a starting point or list of suggested studies for gaining a greater understanding of ancient biblical contexts. Here is a list compiled by and borrowed from Dr. Michael Heiser and his intriguing Naked Bible Podcast where chunks of this message were gleaned from.

Guides to the Literature of the Biblical Context and Worldview:

Old Testament (informed by the Literature of the Ancient Near East)

John Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context

Victor Matthews, Old Testament Parallels: Laws And Stories from the Ancient Near East

Kenton Sparks, Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible: A Guide to the Background Literature

New Testament (informed by the literature of Second Temple / “Intertestamental” Judaism)

Larry Helyer, Exploring Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period: A Guide for New Testament Students (Christian Classics Bible Studies)

Craig Evans, Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies: A Guide to the Background Literature

D. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Context, and Significance

Ancient Texts in English Translation: Ancient Near East

Books: General Collections

The Context of Scripture (COS); 3 volumes

digital version

Ancient Near Eastern Texts (ANET) by Pritchard (one volume hardcover; split into two volumes paperback; vol. 1 and vol. 2)

digital version

Writings from the Ancient World set (amazon link to volumes in the series)

digital version

Egyptian Literature:

Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature (3 vols)

digital version

Foster, Ancient Egyptian Literature

The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry; Third Edition by Professor William Kelley Simpson, Professor Robert K. Ritner, The Reverent Dr. Vincent A. Tobin and Professor Edward Wente Jr.

W. Moran, The Amarna Letters

digital version

Mesopotamia (Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian)

Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature

Foster, From Distant Days: Myths, Tales, and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia

Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others

Jacobsen, The Harps that Once … Sumerian Poetry in Translation

Ugaritic Texts:

N. Wyatt, Religious Texts from Ugarit

digital version

Gibson, Canaanite Myths and Legends

digital version

M. Coogan and M. Smith, Stories from Ancient Canaan

Websites

ETANA (Electronic Tools Ancient Near East Archives)

Internet Sacred Texts Archive

Internet Archive

Ancient Texts in English Translation: Second Temple Period of Judaism (5th century BC – 1st century AD)

Books:

Old Testament Apocrypha

King James Version of the Apocrypha

digital version

The New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version

digital version

R.H. Charles’ edition: The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament: Apocrypha

digital version (Logos has Charles’ Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha in one set)

New Testament Apocrypha (less relevant, as these come from after the apostolic period):

one-volume edition of M. R. James: The New Testament Apocrypha

two-volume scholarly compendium by Schneemelcher

New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 1: Gospels and Related Writings Revised Edition

New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 2: Writings Relating to the Apostles Apocalypses and Related Subjects

Old Testament Pseudepigrapha

R. H. Charles’ edition: The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, Pseudepigrapha

digital version (Logos has Charles’ Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha in one set)

James H. Charleworth’s two-volume edition (with introductions to each book): The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha ( 2 Volume set)

digital version

Dead Sea Scrolls (non-biblical texts)

Wise, Abegg, & Cook: The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation

digital version

Geza Vermes: The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Penguin Classics)

Garcia-Martinez: The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English

digital version (English translations are included in the two volume Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, which also has the Hebrew texts)

Dead Sea Scrolls (the biblical scrolls in the Hebrew Bible, in English translation)

Abegg, Ulrich, Flint: The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible: The Oldest Known Bible Translated for the First Time into English

digital version

Josephus

Whiston edition: The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged, New Updated Edition

digital version

Paul Maier: The New Complete Works of Josephus

Philo

Yonge, updated by Scholer: The Works of Philo

digital version

Websites (free material, but dated translations from old, public domain sources)

Old Testament Apocrypha

Sacred Texts Archive

Non-Canonical Homepage

Biblos / Apocrypha.org

Pseudepigrapha.com (includes links to OT Apocrypha)

Old Testament Pseudepigrapha

Sacred Texts archive (labels the Pseudepigrapha “other apocrypha”)

Pseudepigrapha.com

Non-canonical Homepage

New Testament Apocrypha

Early Christian Writings

Philo

Early Jewish Writings

Josephus

Early Jewish Writings

Books and Reference Works on Ancient Near Eastern Texts and Worldview

Most Recommended Reference Works for OT Study in Ancient Near Eastern Context

Sasson (ed.), Civilizations of the Ancient Near East/4 Volumes Bound in 2 Books (v. 1 & 2)

Baker (ed.), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (The IVP Bible Dictionary Series)

digital version

Williamson (ed.), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books (The IVP Bible Dictionary Series)

digital version

Enns (ed.), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings (The IVP Bible Dictionary Series)

Boda (ed.), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets (IVP Bible Dictionary)

van der Toorn, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Second Edition

digital version

Monographs

Ancient Near East

History and Culture:

Hoerth, Mattingly, Yamauchi (eds), Peoples of the Old Testament World

White, Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt

von Soden, The Ancient Orient: An Introduction to the Study of the Ancient Near East

Bertman, Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia

Mertz, Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt

Van de Mieroop, A History of Ancient Egypt (Blackwell History of the Ancient World)

Van de Mieroop, A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000 – 323 BC [Blackwell History of the Ancient World Ser.]

Ancient Mesopotamian Religion (Sumer, Assyria, Babylon):

Schneider, An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion (History of Religion)

Bottero, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia

Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion

Black, Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary

Ancient Egyptian Religion:

Pinch, Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt

Pinch, Egyptian Myth: A Very Short Introduction

Teeter, Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt

Assmann, The Search for God in Ancient Egypt

Old Testament Israel:

The Old Testament Worldview in Ancient Near Eastern Context (General):

Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible

digital version

Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate

Israelite Religion:

Miller, The Religion of Ancient Israel (Library of Ancient Israel)

Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel (Biblical Resource Series)

digital version

Hess, Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey

digital version

Mettinger, In Search of God: The Meaning and Message of the Everlasting Names

Culture and Life in Ancient Israel:

Wells, Everyday Law in Biblical Israel: An Introduction

de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions (Biblical Resource)

Dever, The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: When Archaeology and the Bible Intersect

Ebeling, Women’s Lives in Biblical Times

Books and Reference Works on Second Temple Texts and Worldview

Most Recommended Reference Works for NT Study in the Context of both the Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism

Green, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (The IVP Bible Dictionary Series)

digital version

Hawthorne (ed.), Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (The IVP Bible Dictionary Series)

digital version

Laansma (ed.), Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments (The IVP Bible Dictionary Series)

digital version

Evans (ed.), Dictionary of New Testament Background (The IVP Bible Dictionary Series)

digital version

van der Toorn, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Second Edition

digital version

Levine (ed.), The Jewish Annotated New Testament

Simmons, Peoples of the New Testament World: An Illustrated Guide

Monographs

General Works on Second Temple Context

O. Skarsaune, Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries

O. Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity

digital version

D. Flusser, Judaism of the Second Temple Period: Volume 1, Qumran and Apocalypticism

digital version

D. Flusser, Judaism of the Second Temple Period: Sages and Literature, vol. 2

C. Evans, The World of Jesus and the Early Church: Identity and Interpretation in Early Communities of Faith

Interpretation of Scripture in New Testament Times

Watson, A History of Biblical Interpretation, Volume 1: The Ancient Period (History of Biblical Interpretation Series)

Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation

Moyise, Jesus and Scripture: Studying the New Testament Use of the Old Testament

digital version

Moyise, Paul and Scripture: Studying the New Testament Use of the Old Testament

Moyise, Later New Testament Writings and Scripture, The: The Old Testament in Acts, Hebrews, the Catholic Epistles and Revelation

Greco-Roman / Hellenistic Context

Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity

Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity

D. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture

digital version

History of the Second Temple Period

Grabbe, An Introduction to Second Temple Judaism: History and Religion of the Jews in the Time of Nehemiah, the Maccabees, Hillel, and Jesus

Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism

Sacchi, The History of the Second Temple Period (Academic Paperback)

Dead Sea Scrolls & Christianity

P. Flint and J. VanderKam, The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance For Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity

digital version

C. Evans, Christian Beginnings and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology)

digital version

J. Fitzmyer, The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Origins (Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls & Related Literature)

digital version

J. Collins, Religion in the Dead Sea Scrolls

digital version

J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls

C. Evans, Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature, V. 1) (Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls & Related Literature)

digital version

Pseudepigrapha, Apocrypha, and the New Testament

Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha & the New Testament

deSilva, The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha

Contextualized New Testament Theology

N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God Volume 1 (Christian Origins and the Question of God)

N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume 2)

N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 3)

all three in digital version

Yinger, The New Perspective on Paul

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