We continue our thoughts on Texts & Contexts with a brief discussion of the importance of context. Context can signify several different things and all are necessary for a proper interpretation of not only Scripture but most any piece of literature. Because of the "sloppiness" of the term context some linguists distinguish between cotext and context. The word cotext would refer to the sentences, paragraphs and chapter surrounding the "text" under consideration. These linguists then use the term context to refer specifically to the sociological and historical setting of the text. It is traditional to talk of "literary" context and "historical" context but I like the more precise language of cotext and context and shall be using that in his mini-essay. Thus context refers to the sociological and historical situation of the writer and text produced. It is not important that you adopt this terminology rather what is important is that we take seriously what these terms represent.
It should be evident that context is a matter of paramount importance. Unfortunately this is not always the case for we often come to the biblical text and simply read our contemporary ideas back into the text. This is actually unfair to two people: the author and the reader. It is not "common" sense to read a text that is at minimum two thousand years old in dead languages and an alien culture as if it was written yesterday from Nashville, Tennessee.
The "Givens" of Context
Every author, when he or she, writes a text makes lots of assumptions. She will assume a common framework in reference to accepted usages of words, cultural allusions, and the like. The author takes these common assumptions about the world as GIVENS. If the author had to explain every metaphor, historical allusion or figure of speech, her piece would be clumsy, wordy and obtuse . . . and no one would read it. It is these GIVENS of context that a contemporary author ASSUMES on the part of his readers are the very things that are LOST on non-contemporary readers.
GIVENS of a text is natural and it is something we experience everyday. E.D. Hirsch, writing not about ancient books but contemporary newspapers and discourse, calls this simply cultural literacy. Cultural literacy is the common "background information" that the "comprehending reader must bring to the text" in order for understanding to take place (Cultural Literacy, pp. 13-14).
Hirsch illustrates his point beautifully with a series of excerpts from the Washington Post.
"A federal appeals panel today upheld an order barring foreclosure on a
farm, saying the U.S. Agriculture Secretary John R. Block has reneged on his responsibilities to some debt ridden farmers. The appeals panel directed the USDA to create a system of processing loan deferments and of publicizing them as it said Congress had intended. The panel said that it is the responsibility of the agricultural secretary to carry out this intent 'not as a private banker, but as a public broker." Missouri
This passage, in a common newspaper, is loaded with "givens" on the part of the author. What is a foreclosure? What is a federal appeals panel? Where is
Missouri and what about is relevant to this article? Why are farmers debt ridden? What is the USDA? What is a public broker? None of these "givens" would make any sense to even a chronologically contemporary person living in China. For the citizen of that culture to grasp even that paragraph he or she would absolutely be required to investigate the social setting of Missouri and the Federal government. If we would expect this of a contemporary situation how can we think that less effort may be required of a text that is two thousand years old? Missouri
There is simply a "ton" of information that authors take for granted . . . givens on the part of the readership. That information "fills in the blanks." (And I have just used two idioms (i.e. "ton" and "fill in the blanks" that I assume the reader will readily grasp).
Givens, this assumed information, is not specialized information. It is not information that only select individuals from certain fields would recognize. Rather this information is part of the common knowledge base of the readership. One can have a "common" knowledge of the USDA without having to write an encyclopedia article about it. The common knowledge is that folks recognize it, know what it means, and know why it is important. But it is that "common knowledge" that a person living in Hong Kong would simply miss!
I want to stress, once again, that assumed knowledge is (at the time of the author!) the common knowledge of most any commonly educated Joe Cool walking down the street. The problem for readers of the Bible is that those GIVENS of the text are lost . . . without work on our part.
I heard Gordon Fee say "today's scholar could literally spend the rest of his life doing nothing but reading the classics, the Apocrypha, learning Greco-Roman legends, social customs and still not know what the average Joe Blow did walking the streets of Corinth in A.D. 54!!" He said it is sort of ironic that "we supposed to be scholars and yet still would not have a high school education in if we actually LIVED in the Roman world." These things are simply "given."
I am convinced that if we take the Bible seriously then we will in fact take its context seriously. The Apostle Paul, like the writer of the newspaper article quoted above, simply assumes a great deal . . . quite legitimately . . . on the part of his contemporary readers. Those givens are simply lost to us and can only be recovered through immersion in Paul's world.
A thorough knowledge of the Hebrew Bible is essential filling in the blanks of Paul's givens. When I say "thorough" I mean just that too. But most Jews did not read Hebrew but Greek thus encountered the Bible in the Septuagint. If a person knows Greek it is a wise thing to spend a great deal of time in the Septuagint (which can also be read in English translation btw). The Dead Sea Scrolls show us that the Jews read, wrote and studied all manner of books beside the Bible. Traditions about the Maccabees, Greek theater/festivals and many other things simply "fill the air." This information becomes part of the givens . . . that is "things that are in the air." The Jews and Greeks had a certain "Cultural Literacy" as much as Hirsch thinks Americans should. Our task as modern readers is to simply be as "culturally literate" as the average Joe Blow going down the street . . . we will be amazed at how often this fills in the blanks of the biblical text.
Any reader of the NT then should have a thorough knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. They should know the legends of the Maccabean martyrs. They should have a working knowledge of the Apocrypha (especially Sirach, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, the additional legends regarding Daniel and I mentioned the Maccabees independently). Josephus is a valuable tool for understanding some of the political givens in the Gospels. First Enoch is an important text too. All of these writings, save Josephus, are in one way or another assumed on the part of NT authors and do in fact allude to them and (at times) quote them. This hopefully does not seem like a lot of work, it does have its rewards. Our aim is simply to be able to read the NT like any average Roman would have.
BTW, Hirsch's book Cultural Literacy is worth reading. Everett Ferguson's book "Backgrounds to Early Christianity" is a beginning point. And the Apocrypha is available in an excellent translation through the NRSV.