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Day 3: Literary Context

 

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Learn to Study the Bible with Logos: Part 1

Day 3: Explore the Literary Context

Step 4: Explore the Passage’s Literary and Intertextual Context

Step 4 in our Bible study method starts our exploration into the context of the passage we are studying. There are four contexts we need to be sensitive to when we study the Bible: the literary context, the intertextual context, the historical context, and the cultural context. Our fourth step is to explore the first two: the literary context and the intertextual context of the passage. We’ll talk about the literary context in this video and the intertextual context in the following video.

The literary context involves two main areas of exploration: genre and the surrounding context. In order to interpret a passage in the Bible correctly, we must determine what kind of genre our passage is. Law, like Leviticus, is interpreted differently than poetry, like Psalms. Narrative, like Judges, is approached differently than epistolary writings, like Romans.

Two very accessible books that explain the different categories of genre in the Bible are Basic Bible Interpretation by Roy Zuck and How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee. Both are available from Logos and come highly recommended. Zuck’s descriptions of genre are brief and understandable. Fee’s are more extensive, including entire chapters devoted to each genre. For instance, Fee states, “Because of the unique nature of the gospels, … one must do two things here: think horizontally, and think vertically.” As Fee later states, reading the gospels horizontally, or comparing them to each other, is important, but cannot be our main approach to them. Each gospel writer had a theological purpose for his gospel and simply comparing the gospels to one another misses the individuality and point the gospel writer is making. Fee continues, “To think vertically means that when reading or studying a narrative or teaching in the gospels, one should try to be aware of both historical contexts—that of Jesus and that of the evangelist.” Finding the gospel writer’s intention for where and how they included the words and sayings of Jesus in their respective gospels is really important. Fee concludes with a really helpful illustration that you can check out if you own this resource.

If we want to find out what category of genre the passage we are studying falls into, most commentaries will point us in the right direction and give us recommendations on how to approach the passage as part of that genre.

Factbook—Bible Book Guides

The Factbook’s Bible book guides are the best place to get information on Bible books. We won’t be able to use the Go box or the context menu to get to them, but if we can remember they exist in the Factbook, we’ll be able to access them easily. In the Tools menu, select “Factbook.” Then type Matthew into the search box. The resulting report takes information from the introductory portions of our commentaries and organizes it into distinct sections. Let’s concentrate on the form section.

Notice under “Style,” the Word Biblical Commentary, one of the best commentaries on Matthew, has a section on “The Genre and Purpose of Matthew.” Donald Hagner states that the genre of Matthew is “gospel” and defines this genre by stating that “Fundamentally, a Gospel proclaims the good news concerning the saving activity of God.” He then provides six other options: midrash, lectionary, catechesis, church correctives, missionary propaganda, and polemic against the rabbis. He concludes, “This variety of options concerning the genre of Matthew indicates something of its multifaceted character. Several of these explanations may well be equally true. The evangelist could have had several purposes. This much at least is clear: Matthew is a ‘community book,’ written to a considerable extent in order to meet the immediate needs of the evangelist’s church or churches during the interim period between the historical events narrated and the return of Christ. In particular, … the evangelist intends to help his Jewish-Christian readers understand their new faith as in continuity with the faith of their ancestors, as the fulfillment of the Scriptures, and as the beginning of the realization of the hope of Israel. The author wrote, above all, for the Church to interpret the Christ-event but also to instruct and edify the Christians of his own and future generations.” There will be times when we want to save quotations like these to a document of our own. Clippings are perfect for this.

Clippings

Let’s highlight the sentences above, right-click on them and choose, “Add a clipping.” We’ll give this Clipping file the name “Quotations for Matthew 4.” We can access our clippings later by going to the Documents menu.

The second area of literary context is the surrounding context. Context determines meaning, both at the word level and at the sentence and paragraph level. Therefore, spending time studying how our passage fits in the overall story or argument of the book is essential. The first way to do this is reading the entire book in which your passage appears several times. Another way to get the overall argument or flow of the book is to read a summary in an Old Testament or New Testament Introduction. The most well known introductions are An Introduction to the Old Testament by Tremper Longman and Ray Dillard and An Introduction to the New Testament by D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo. As you can see, Carson and Moo have an ample section giving you the flow of the book of Matthew. They also have an edited version of the text entitled Introducing the New Testament.

Outlines

We can also grasp the surrounding context by looking at outlines from biblical scholars. The Passage Guide has a section devoted to outlines that links us directly to the outlines in commentaries. We’ll simply click on our favorite commentary and Logos will open it to the exact location we need. We can also use the Bible Outline Browser interactive. Interactive resources are tools that visualize the data in our software that we can interact with. We can access the Bible Outline Browser and all our interactive resources by going to the Tools menu. When we click on the the Bible Outline Browser we can compare how different scholars outlined the text we’re studying or drill down into the outline we find most helpful.

Assignments

Here are your assignments:

  • Find a book in your library that talks about genres, read the section on the genre of gospel, and add your findings to the Clippings document (hint: search your library for “hermeneutics” or “interpretation”)
  • Continue to explore the Factbook’s Bible book guide on Matthew (especially the form section) and add three insights you find to the Clippings document

If any of this seems technical or intimidating, don’t be discouraged. The next few videos will shed more light on how context can help uncover the meaning in a passage. If you need help, please contact the Pro team at LogosPro@Faithlife.com.

In the next video, we talk learn about the significance of intertextuality.