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Day 6: Cultural Context

 

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Learn to Study the Bible with Logos: Part 1

Day 6: Explore the Historical Context of the Writer and the Cultural Context of the Passage

Step 5 (cont.): Explore the Passage’s Historical and Cultural Context

Yesterday, we spent a good deal of time researching the historical context of the events Matthew described in his gospel. Today, we’ll look at the second part of the historical context, that of the writer and his audience.

We want to uncover who wrote the text we are studying. We also want to find out why, when, where, and to whom it was written. Finding out this information will help us understand the intent of the passage. As we’ve noted in the past, Bible dictionaries, commentaries, and introductions to the Bible are great places for finding information on the historical context of the passage. Logos’ Factbook compiles the information you need into a central place for easy access.

Factbook—Bible Book Guides

We’ve accessed the Factbook’s Bible book guides in a previous video to look at the genre of the passage. They contain much more information that will help us understand the historical context of the writer and the audience to whom he was writing. We can easily access the Factbook from the Tools menu or from the context menu. Let’s change the report to the book of Matthew by typing “Matthew” in the search box and selecting “Gospel of Matthew: Writing.” Here we can explore the origin (who wrote it, when he wrote it, and why he wrote it), background (including the recipients), place in the canon, and meaning of the book of Matthew. Before getting into interpreting the text, it is absolutely essential for us to know this background information. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of data here, but if we can read one short article from each section, we’ll have a good grasp of the necessary information we need to understand the Gospel of Matthew as a whole. We can simply click one of the links, read the article, and add the important information we find to our Clippings document. The most beneficial element of these book guides is the accumulation of multiple perspectives concerning each issue. In the past, we would have to open multiple commentaries and Bible dictionaries to compare the different views. Logos makes diving into these resources really convenient. We may not spend less time studying the passage, but the time we do spend will be on reading the material instead of flipping pages just to access it.

Biblical Theology

Let’s pause our survey of the Bible Book Guides, and think about biblical theology. Biblical theology seeks to understand the theology, emphases, and themes of the different books and writers of Scripture and then see the connection of that book or writer to the overall narrative and theme of Scripture. Understanding the emphases and themes of Matthew will make us sensitive to those themes when they appear in the passage we are studying. We find different takes on the theme, emphases, message, theology, and significance of Matthew in the Meaning section of the Factbook, but one of the most helpful and comprehensive resources I’ve found is the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. It includes an extensive section that defines and clarifies the essential part biblical theology plays in exegesis, a comprehensive article on the biblical theology of each section and book of Scripture, and a detailed list of important themes in the Bible and how they are developed through the story of the Bible.

For instance, in the article on Matthew, Donald Hagner states, “It is a given for Matthew that Jesus, the Messiah, comes in fulfilment of the promises of Scripture. Matthew contains more than sixty explicit quotations from the OT, not to mention a great many allusions. This is more than twice as many as in any of the other Gospels.” This brings a lot of clarity to why Matthew quotes the Old Testament so much. The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, along with a solid introduction to the New and Old Testaments, are staples in my Bible study. I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Cultural Context

The last context we’ll spend time on is the cultural context, also called the social context. When we study the historical context, we observe the details of the event described and circumstances surrounding the writing of that passage. We study the cultural context of a passage to understand the customs, traditions, economics, politics, and social setting. By studying the cultural context we are trying to find out what life was like for the ancient people who wrote the Bible and were written about in the Bible.

When interpreting the Bible, we must resist the tendency to read the passage without considering the society in which it is written. Too often, our understanding of our own culture overshadows the culture of those who lived and wrote the Bible.

A great example is Jesus’ baptism. We often allow our understanding of what baptism looks like in the modern church to influence our understanding of what John was doing in the wilderness and why Jesus was baptized.

There are two ways to access the cultural context of the passage, primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are texts written around the same time as the text we are studying. For instance, Josephus wrote about the society and history of the ancient world, particularly of the Jewish people, during the first century after Christ.

The best secondary sources on the background of the Bible are contemporary works that take everything we know today about the ancient world, with the help of primary sources and archeology, and describe the culture of the biblical world. Most commentaries describe the social context of the passages they cover, but I can’t recommend highly enough Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas’ IVP Background Commentary: Old Testament and Craig Keener’s IVP Background Commentary: New Testament. These commentaries specialize in alerting us to important cultural issues that need further study in the passage. The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary is also highly respected and reputable. Commentaries in the Socio-Rhetorical Commentary series devote an extended amount of attention to the social context of specific books of the Bible. So, if you are studying a particular book this series covers, make sure you consult it.

In the past, the primary sources were reserved almost exclusively for scholars. We had to rely on secondary sources for background information. With advances in technology, primary sources are increasingly more accessible, but nowhere are they more accessible than in the Cultural Concepts section of the Factbook in Logos. When we use Logos, we can read about ancient cultures from the people who lived and wrote during the time of the Bible.

Cultural Concepts

Let’s look at how the Cultural Concepts section will help us understand why Jesus was fasting in the wilderness and how the concept of fasting in the ancient world may be different from our modern experience and understanding.

We’ll right-click on “fasting” from the text. Choose the cultural concept of fasting from the right and click on Factbook. The Factbook directs us to media, passages, dictionaries, and many other items related to fasting. The Lexham Bible Dictionary explains that Jesus fasted “perhaps to express reliance on God in times of temptation.” It also directs you to Jesus’ teaching on fasting. When you look at “Fasting in the Early Church,” you see that the early church often fasted. The author of this article then cites several places in early Christian writings that tell you about the church’s practice of fasting—a twice-weekly fast and the belief that fasting could conquer temptations and prepare people for worship and baptism.

You can find even more information from the Cultural Concepts section. You’ll see a section entitled “Pseudepigrapha.” “Pseudepigrapha” literally means “false writings.” It's a group of texts falsely claiming to have been written by various Old Testament characters, but they are still useful for understanding significant ideas in the ancient world. Here, Adam suggested to Eve that they fast for forty days in repentance, Simeon fasted to learn deliverance from envy, and Joseph promised God’s presence to those fasting.

You will also find the references from the Apostolic Fathers that the Lexham Bible Dictionary mentioned and you can read their context.

Searching for Cultural Concepts

One of the most impressive elements of Cultural Concepts is the ability to search Bibles or even the entire library for a concept. This broadens your search abilities from words to concepts. Searching for one word leaves out synonyms or concepts that can’t be expressed by just one English word. Searching based on concepts greatly helps with this limitation. Let’s right-click on fasting again and choose the Cultural Concept. We’ll then choose “Search: all resources.” You have a good number of hits; it would be a great idea to limit them. Type “pray* WITHIN” before our search syntax. This will search for words related to prayer within passages tagged with the cultural concept of fasting. When we open our results from the esv we see a strong connection in the Bible between prayer and fasting. This helps us understand what Jesus was doing in the wilderness. Let’s add these insights to our notes by right clicking on verse two, choosing the reference, and selecting “Add a note to Matthew 4 Notes.”

Assignments

Here is your assignment:

  • Read through as many of the articles in the Factbook’s Bible book guide on Matthew as you can (read at least one from each section) and record your findings in your Note file
  • Continue to explore the Cultural Concepts section of the Factbook on fasting, find three more insights, and record them in your Note filee
  • Find another cultural concept within Matthew 4:1–11, explore its Factbook, execute a proximity search, and record your insights in your Note file

This is the last video dealing with the context of Matthew 4. Tomorrow we’ll move on to the next stage in Bible study, interpretation.