the New Testament: context and story


Growing up, there were a few things I understood about the Old Testament, although the ideas were inconsistently applied and various preachers and sermons could throw all of these principles out of the window on any whim.

First, I knew that there was a difference between “Ceremonial Law” and the “Moral Law,” and that Jesus had re-established the “Moral Law” in places like the Sermon on the Mount, so that’s why we still think the Ten Commandments are valid, but we like eating shrimp and bacon. Because of teachings like this, I knew that a significant portion of the Old Testament did not apply to my life, and had to be understood as a part of Israel’s history. The “Law,” the word we used for everything that wasn’t the Ten Commandments or a story or a prophecy, applied only to Jewish people and only up until the moment Jesus died.

Second, we were taught that the reason we admitted the Jewish scriptures into our Christian cannon was that the Old Testament clearly pointed to the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. It would be impossible to truly understand the mission and purpose of Jesus’ life and earthly ministry without the context of the Old Testament. The writers of the New Testament were also almost entirely Jewish, and referenced the Old Testament frequently in their work. In order to understand what they were talking about, we’d have to be able to follow their allusions and references.

Third, the Old Testament is largely devoted to stories. There’s a few books scattered throughout that have very little narrative, but most of the books are interested in conveying history and parable. We believed that God had given us these stories to illuminate his character and to show us what we are are to do– and not to do. We were to draw larger lessons and morals out of these stories, and what the lesson could be was flexible and contextually based; a single story could have multiple meanings, and that was part of the beauty of Scripture (that this is inherently a post-modern understanding of literature and story . . . yeah, no one mentioned that).

Lastly, the most important thing we had to keep in mind about the Old Testament was that it was very old and you had to be careful with how you went about trying to interpret it. Knowledge about ancient history was important, because you had to be familiar with the cultures and religious practices that the stories talked about. I was given a lot of tools to help us read the Old Testament– maps and glossaries and reference manuals and concordances and chronological histories and lexicons– and told that we had to use them in order to be “rightly dividing the word of truth.”

But it occurred to me the other day that hardly any of those things were true when it came to the New Testament. I was halfway through college before I ever used a Greek lexicon in order to look up the meaning of a word (“touch” from I Corinthians 7:1. It’s ἅπτομαι, in case you were wondering, and its root meaning has something to do with “to set on fire.” That was a crucial part of a discussion I was having).

When we read the New Testament, we were reading for things like “the plain meaning of the text,” and doing our best to take the King James English translation at face-value. We didn’t really throw around statements like “the Bible says it, that settles it,” unless we were using a passage from the New Testament– and probably just the Pauline epistles, since the Gospels got left out of a lot of conversations. In retrospect, I think that Jesus was just a little to commie/free-love for my conservative community.

It’s taken me a long time to really wrap my brain around the fact that I am just as removed from the culture, tradition, and ideologies that the writers of the New Testament were operating with as I am from the writers of the Old Testament. Heavens, the New Testament is almost two thousand years old. If we were reading anything else from the Middle East and the Roman Empire written around the same time, there would be all the glossaries and maps and lexicons all of the time. Instead, we would sit down with our translated-from-a-language-we-don’t-speak-by-people-thousands-of-years-removed-from-its-history and it didn’t phase us.

I’m not entirely sure why this happened, but I think it might have something to do with the fact that the New Testament is largely propositional statements and arguments. We get some of the richest, most meaningful stories in the entire Bible in the shape of the Gospels, but we rarely ever study them the way we go through Galatians or Revelation. Instead, those stories and parables are ignored in favor of what appear to be “plain English” statements about women being silent and forsaking not the assembling of ourselves together.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve come to view the Bible principally as story, and not in the sense that I think it’s fiction. In graduate school, I was in a lot of discussions about the meaning and power and beauty of “story,” and how we use narratives to shape our lives and help us understand our world. I don’t think the Bible is any exception. And, just like I would study any piece of literature, I try to understand time and place and culture and the possible experiences of the author (if we know who that is, which, shockingly (at least to me), we don’t for most of the NT books).

And, just like I would approach any other ancient text, I have to approach the New Testament with the respect that something so old deserves. I have to admit my almost complete and total ignorance regarding the environment it was written in, and admit that just because something is a propositional statement it doesn’t mean I have any clue whatsoever what it means– because I don’t really understand the motives he or she might have had for writing it that way, and who they were writing to, and what questions they were answering and what their relationship might have been like for their audience. I don’t even understand the language.

I think it would be a huge shift in American evangelical culture if they collectively admitted to this– that our understanding of the New Testament is crippled by the fact that we are so utterly removed from it.

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  • I’ve been trying to do this for a Romans class my friends and I are doing this fall/winter at our church. As I’m going through the book and planning, I’m coming across more and more statements and declarations, even terms (what exactly does the word for faith [πιστις] even MEAN?), that I realize I have no idea what they actually meant coming from Paul’s pen. It’s terrifying how much we take for granted that the writers of the NT weren’t thinking about US when they wrote to THEIR communities.

    • Maria

      According to my faithful Perseus online dictionary, ‘pistis’ translates as ‘trust, confidence (in someone of something), reliance’.
      And after 4 years of Greek in college, it’s the devil to get both the meaning and the nuance in a translation. Add in several langages as well, and you could end up anywhere.

  • This makes my little English major heart go squee.

    • Caroline M

      I know right?!

  • Reblogged this on Heaven-or-Hell and commented:
    Very Good post !!!

  • I was privileged enough to participate in a Bible Study this spring which took this approach to the book of Acts. We approached every story in Acts asking questions of “What was the historical context of this statement?”, “Did this story actually happen?”, “Does whether or not this story actually happened really matter?” and “What is the author of Acts trying to convey to us with this story, and how can we apply that message to our own church?”

    It was far and away the best Bible Study I’ve ever been involved in.

  • Carrie

    Even better: the different books of the NT each come from different times, places, cultures, and groups. The four canonical Gospels were written by/for four very different groups of Christians and tell different stories for different reasons. There’s a wealth of fascinating historical context for the Gospels, before even getting into the other books!

    I highly recommend Bart Ehrman’s textbook “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.”

  • Caroline M

    You are SO right! In fact, my Calvinist background makes me hate the epistles, especially Romans. (Calvinist churches get a hard-on from Romans 9.) In the Episcopal church where I currently reside, the Gospel is given pre-eminence, which was quite new to me. And yet, in spite of all this NT attention, we were supposed to take all of it at face value. Unless Jesus was talking about selling possessions, in which case there were ALL the contextual reasons why it no longer applied. “Jesus was too commie” indeed.

  • Spot on. It is amazing what a little historical context can do to meaning. Modern evangelicalism/fundamentalism does seem to have thrown this out completely – along with all use of context, honestly. It often feels like a complete reduction to proof texting of preconceived beliefs.

    It never ceases to amaze me how beautiful scripture can be when given this room to breathe.

  • karenh1234567890

    It is also the case that the KJV is about 400 years old and, since it is in Shakespearean English, we are under the mistaken impression that we know what the words mean. The most egregious example I have come across was in an article I read in the Dallas Times Herald (now defunct) in the 1980s where man arrested for child abuse was quoted as saying something like “but the Bible says “suffer ther little children.””

  • Gack. Even if you think “suffer” means what it does now, there’s a world of difference between “suffer the little children” and “the little children suffer”.

  • Don

    For many centuries, the Roman Catholic Church fought every attempt to translate the Bible from Latin into any vernacular language. To allow the commoners to interpret the text was unheard of. And that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of translation difficulties between Greek/Latin and the English of King James’ time to say nothing of the difference between what words might have meant then and what they mean now. But since we commoners aren’t to trouble our little minds with that, it’s best just to accept what John Hagee says.

  • Samantha says: “I think it would be a huge shift in American evangelical culture if they collectively admitted to this”
    I was taught and have known this for the 30 years this month that I’ve been a Christian.

    1. What does it say? (exegesis) Raw lexical and grammatical data.
    2. What does it mean? (hermeneutics) The historically contextualized cultural form.
    3. How does it work? (application) The universally binding trans-cultural principle.

    That is standard conservative protestant interpretation for going on 500 years. (since the patristics anyway)

    My studies demonstrated that this had always been the method employed by historic reformed orthodoxy. I can name off the top of my head a few dozen faithful scholars including ones alive today who have been and are champions of the historico-exegetical method as this has always been called. There are some hyper-fundamental KJV only outfits that do not practice this. They are very much in the minority and easily dealt with. I’ve done so myself.

    It requires the belief that the eternally immutable God has left His covenant bride in severe error for a coupla few thousand years if one is to embrace theological or moral positions unheard of before my lifetime. (I’m 50) Doctrine and practice that NObody saw in the text until now? Nobody?

  • Jon Wilson

    I recently read Paul Tillich’s “The Courage to Be.” It’s a difficult book to get through, but it explains why people so often retreat into certainty. Tillich’s answer is that people have always had a basic existential longing to be connected to their source. It makes sense that people would read the Bible in a fundamentalist (or conservative evangelical) way, because it resolves basic fears about death and meaninglessness. Unfortunately, as he points out, this kind of certainty is brittle, and every doubt that’s caused by science or reason must be blocked by closing your mind and heart.

    When evangelicals argue that “this is how it’s ALWAYS been understood,” they have at least two problems. First, there have always been serious disagreements about the meaning of the “fundamentals.” And second, it makes sense that people who are seeking a definitive answer will read answers into a text, and also try to establish a closed canon.

    But Tillich was an optimist at heart, and saw the possibility in finding peace in the “God above god.” Meaning, that when we recognize that the man-made god of orthodoxy, doctrine, fear and doubt, still leaves us yearning for an unmet need, there is a God above that idea of god, which Tillich describes as “the ground of all being.”

    He also sees in Christ the culmination of all the questions of the world’s religions–a bridge between humanity and the Divine.

  • Jon Wilson says: “there have always been serious disagreements about the meaning of the “fundamentals.””
    No there hasn’t. There has always been a core orthodoxy preserved by God to this day. This is a lie told by liberals to allegedly justify their groovy artificial relativism. Even Calvinists and Arminians usually call each other brethren.

    Jon Wilson says: “people who are seeking a definitive answer will read answers into a text, and also try to establish a closed canon.”
    The God who in the beginning created the heavens and the earth, IS truth itself. He has so very graciously provided man with a collection of writings that He has Himself declared as His own θεόπνευστος word. Absolute utter unshakeable certainty is the prize of those who been given the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16) and been made partakers of the very divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) You are welcome to limp along in the sinful delusions of your own mind if you please. Most of today’s apostate church is way ahead of you.

    The God I know is “the alone foundation of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom, are all things; and [whom] hath most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them, whatsoever himself pleaseth. In his sight all things are open and manifest; his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature; so as nothing is to him contingent or uncertain. He is most holy in all his counsels, in all his works, and in all his commands. To him is due from angels and men, and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience he is pleased to require of them.” (Magnificent synopsis of biblical truth as proclaimed in the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646)

    That is the God who while I was yet dead in trespasses and sins, by nature a child of wrath (Eph 2) and a sinner (Rom. 5:7), loved me and gave Himself for me (Gal. 2:20) so that He may justly (Rom. 3:26) call me brother(Rom. 8:29), bride (2 Cor. 11:2) and son (1 John 3:1). His Spirit bears witness with my spirit that I am His child.(Rom. 8:16). Every beat of my heart and breath of lungs is to serve Him with all that I am and all that I have. You do not impress me sir.

    Jon Wilson says: “”Tillich was an optimist at heart”
    Paul Tillich was an adulterer and flaming godless heretic who did not affirm even the threadbare core of Nicea that Samantha has herself just yesterday told me that she does affirm. Pick somebody else to lend yourself credibility please.

    • I’m respectfully interested, Tiribulus, in what kind of study you’ve done on the formation of the New Testament cannon and the gnostic movement?

      • What specifically are you referring to? The journey to canonicity differs from book to book in many cases and pseudonymous gnostic works were the chief competitors to genuine authorized writings. I won’t be teaching seminary on these topics this week, but again. What specifically are you referring to?

        (sorry for the delay. I was out working for 12 hours today)

  • “We believed that God had given us these stories to illuminate his character and to show us what we are are to do– and not to do. We were to draw larger lessons and morals out of these stories, and what the lesson could be was flexible and contextually based; a single story could have multiple meanings, and that was part of the beauty of Scripture (that this is inherently a post-modern understanding of literature and story . . . yeah, no one mentioned that).”

    Post-modern or not, that type of interpretation goes back about two thousand years in Christianity.

    • Tim

      Perhaps it’s “pre-modern” as well as post-modern. 🙂
      It’s certainly true that modernism had an impact on how Protestants read and interpreted the New Testament for at least a couple of centuries. Samantha observes that, in her experience in fundamentalist/evangelical circles, “story” in the New Testament, particularly in the Epistles, was down-played versus an emphasis on propositional statements and arguments; that sounds credible to me. I think it’s possible to see common threads in the tradition of interpretation of Scripture within Christianity across millenia, while still recognizing that Christian approaches to interpretation have been influenced over the years in different times and places by the larger cultures surrounding Christians. It may not be as remarkable that Christian interpretation of the New Testament was influenced by modernism as it is that there has been some continuity in interpretation of the Old Testemanent that resisted modernist reductionism.

  • I remember being told that one of the reasons we know the Bible comes from God is that it says something different to each person who reads it, and that no matter how many times you read it, you’ll always find new wisdom you hadn’t noticed before. I think the idea was “each person is told something applicable to their own life.” That went unquestioned until I realized not only is that just as strong evidence for Christians just being wishful thinkers, but it’s also exactly what happens with Lord of the Rings or the collected works of Shakespeare, and I don’t see anyone claiming those are inerrant, or indeed understandable without linguistic and historical aids…

  • Teaching world history in a mufti-cultural setting I had Mormon and Muslim students question our notion of religious liberty when plural marriages are illegal. A number of my Christian students quoted Paul’s admonition to be the husband of one wife (is that only for preachers in this context?). And as a Christian nation under Christian laws monogamy doesn’t infringe on religious beliefs. With that justification forbidding plural marriages would be a violation of religious freedom, but…
    If you put Paul’s words in historical context, as I explained to my students, he was telling Timothy to obey Roman marital laws, and since all European laws even Common Law coming to America via England adopted monogamy from today’s version of Roman law: Civil Code. Monogamy is secular law, not religious law, and under the Supremacy Clause in the constitution secular law takes precedent over all other laws in the U.S.

  • Sorry goofed at end of post. That should be federal law takes precedent over all other laws, thus secular law takes precedent over religious law.

  • “we use narratives to shape our lives and help us understand our world. I don’t think the Bible is any exception. ” – This 🙂
    Wise words as ever from you Samantha. Any time I try to get friends to understand the bible as predominantly a story few of them a glazed over eyes and a minority think I’m bonkers – but most are slowly starting to understand this idea. We’ve been so bound up by enlightenment thinking, and the assumption that this way of thinking has been the way the scriptures have been read for millennia (it really isn’t) that we’ve forgotten why most of it was written. ie that it’s God saying I love you, and everything else is window dressing. And He says it a hundred different ways, that’s why there are lots of stories. So ye, Loved this post 🙂 Thanks for sharing

  • Thank you for this. I have found Bishop John Shelby Spong’s writings to be helpful. His thesis that the first three gospels are midrashic (“Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes” – 1996) really helps me. The important part of Jesus is that he personifies God’s love for us in unique way. We may or may not believe in the virgin birth and still live by his example. We may or may not believe in the details of the Holy Trinity and still live by his example. Love for ourselves, for each other, and for all of God’s creation are the foundation upon which each of us should build his or her theology. Words help us but we also have to understand their inadequacy in expressing the reality of God.

  • well written Samantha. i will post a link to this next time I blog.

  • God

    Christianity is a false religion. End of story. Salvific grace by blood sacrifice is an invention of Satan.

    • Crystal

      Where did you get that idea; are you Hebrew Roots?

  • Crystal

    No, seriously; I’d like to know where you picked that one up from. Why is salvific grace by blood an invention of Satan? Also, why is Christianity false to you? I’m curious to know where you’re coming from; something doesn’t sound quite right to me but that’s because I have never heard of such a notion before.

  • Don’t be shocked if you find out our friend “God” is some variety of Muslim. (could be wrong)

    • That comment is Islamaphobic and is against my comment policy. Please refrain from saying something like this again, as you will be blocked.

  • Cheryel Lemley-McRoy

    One of the books I wish every Christian would read is, “Misquoting Jesus” by Bart Ehrman. It is the history of how the Bible was put together and got to your hand. I would advise before you read it, that you determine if your Christian faith is based in the inerrancy of old manuscripts, or on a living encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ.

  • Tim

    Reading through this I was reminded of Sitting a the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. Like the other books mentioned by some commenters, it does a great job of giving background and context to the gospel texts. Have you read that one?

    • TIM!!! Fancy meeting you over here LOL!!! 😀