A question of context

Throughout the ad a clip is repeated of Webster saying, “My wife should submit to me”. In fact, it is an edited version of a speech in which Webster said that when picking verses in the Bible men should not choose the one that says wives should submit to their husbands, but rather the one that says husbands must love their wives.

Source: Lihle Z Mtshali, South African journalist living in New York inTimes Live South Africa

Back in the old days (last month) when I was still a Bible college professor, I incessantly told my students, Sem contexto, não há texto, “Without context, there is no text.”

Two examples in South Africa this week have caused me to remember that admonition. The first was the incident quoted by a South African above. The second was this very inspirational poster on our wall in Afrikaans, that says:

In still-wees en vertroue bestaan julle krag
Jes. 30:15

Our family first guessed that “Jes” must be Jeremiah, but a look at that verse told us,

“Why do you complain about your injuries,
that your pain is incurable?
I have done all this to you
because your wickedness is so great
and your sin is so much.”

While Biblical, we decided it probably wasn’t suitable material for a poster featuring a placid lakeside scene.

The Afrikaans reminded me of the phrase, “In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.” And it turns out that is the correct phrase from Isaiah 30:15 which is indeed quite inspirational as long as you don’t look at the context of the verse:

For this is what the master, the LORD, the Holy One of Israel says:
“If you repented and patiently waited for me, you would be delivered;
if you calmly trusted in me you would find strength,
but you are unwilling.” (Isaiah 30:15, NET)

It’s got me thinking about just how much context do scripture passages need in order to have “contexto.” If you’re quoting John 3:16 do you always need to explain John 3, and the Gospel of John, and the book of Numbers, etc.  Don’t verses out of context serve as shorthand for larger biblical truths.

In the case of the smear campaign against candidate Webster, the verse was quoted out of context to mean the opposite of what he intended. But in the Isaiah poster, couldn’t you say that “In quietness and confidence shall be your strength” is a fine Biblical sentiment and leave it at that?

This brings me to our recent discussions on the meanings of Romans 3:31 and Romans 4:1. Can we really even begin to interpret those verses without casting a much wider circle around the entire opening of Romans or even the whole book? Isn’t interpreting out of context just as bad as quoting out of context?

What do you think? Or what examples of verses cited out of context have seemed to you to have the opposite meaning of the original passage? A final example is from the separatist white South Afrikaners who would like to return to apartheid,

“When Yahweh showed Abraham the Promised Land, it was fully populated by the heathen nations… When I take my wife to the shopping centre, I look at the mob and wonder, ‘How is Father going to separate them out.'”

In search of a volk, Times Live South Africa

How much context do we need to make sense of the text?

9 thoughts on “A question of context

  1. WoundedEgo says:

    I think this is a good example:

    1 John 2:1 My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous:

    This is taken out of context to mean that “if any of us sin, we have a lawyer that will argue our case with God, and get us off the hook.” This is the “normal reading.”

    But if we look at the context, John is writing concerning those who seduce the believers:

    1 John 2:26 These things have I written unto you concerning them that seduce you.

    This same word is written here:

    1 John 1:8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

    What John is saying is that these seducers say that there are those who are simultaneously unrighteous (in reality) and counted righteous (forensically). He repeats his rebuff here:

    1 John 3:7 Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous.

    So the “we” is the authentic apostles and their advocate sides with the Father (God) against the seducer.

  2. iverlarsen says:

    Context is often used in two different senses. Relevance Theory talks about context in terms of contextual assumptions, that is, everything you know already that is relevant to the text in front of you. The originator of a text assumes that the intended audience has certain background knowledge (contextual assumptions), and if the actual audience do not share those assumptions, miscommunication occurs. Your family apparently did not know or remember that Isaiah in Afrikaans is Jesaja (I don’t know either, but I do know what it is in Dutch, so I make the assumption that it is the same). You were reminded of a text which is from the KJV, so you must be familair with this translation. It is part of your context.

    The other use of context is what is common in exegesis and Biblical studies. I often liken the different types of context to circles in the water that spread out when a stone is thrown in. These circles have a priority as follows:

    1. Context of the immediately preceding verse.
    2. Context of the surrounding several verses, especially the preceding ones.
    3. Context of the whole section.
    4. Context of the whole chapter.
    5. Context of the whole book.
    6. Context of all the writings by this particular author.
    7. Context of parallel passages by different authors.
    8. Context of the whole Bible (assuming we talk about a Biblical passage.)
    9. Context of the original setting, including situation, culture, religious beliefs etc.
    10. Your own assumptions.

    The last two are a bit different, in that they are used simultaneously with the first 8 rather than after them.

    For exegetical studies the list should be used in this order, but many Bible readers use it in the opposite order, more or less, or they only use number 10. I am not saying that one always has to go through the whole list from 1 to 8 (You cannot avoid 10 and should not neglect 9). Quite often, number 1 is adequate. But if not, include number 2. If that is not enough, then include number 3, and so on.

    One example I hear often is Phil 4:13: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” People conveniently forget the preceding verse about the suffering Paul went through.

    Another example is Matt 11:12 which has two parts that are often quoted out of context and misapplied. First: “the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing,” (NIV, NLT, GW). Seen in its proper and immediate context, the meaning of the Greek text here is: “the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence” (NET, RSV, etc.) Second: “forceful people lay hold of it.” (NET). I don’t know what it means for forceful people to lay hold of it, but some preachers actually preach that one should use or need force to enter the kingdom of God. In context the meaning is that “violent people are attacking it” (NLT) (like king Herod Antipas and his father.) These opponents are trying to destroy and get rid of the kingdom of God by violent means.

  3. David Ker says:

    @Wounded Ego, thanks for those examples.

    @Iver, I like the image of a pebble in a pond, but it made me think about how we normally read a book. For example, if I’m reading a novel I start a page one and carry through page after page to the end. The context of any page is all the preceding pages but not those after. So to go back to the Isaiah example the context would be chapters 1-30.

    Of course “sound bites” used on posters and bookmarks are a different genre and I suppose all rules are off.

  4. iverlarsen says:

    Hi, David,

    Although I agree that the context of a particular passage is especially the preceding text, it is common in Hebrew narrative to not follow the chronology. Quite often a theme is hinted at briefly, and looking at the following context can help one to understand the brief hint.

    I have also noted that it has become common in English novels and movies to start in the middle somewhere and then fill out the beginning later.

  5. Donna says:

    “How much context do we need to make sense of the text?” Give me more context and I will understand the text better!

    Just a note on pragmatics – when people say that the text was “out of context” there are two things to consider – pedagogy and content.

    Some people mean that a text is used wrongly, and the surrounding context was not given, with the implication that if the relevant context had been given, they could not coherently have ascribed the meaning to the text that they did. (Eg. your first example). That is a question of the content of the text.

    However, I have met some people who don’t like for a text to be quickly quoted without discussion of the context, even if it is used correctly. They’re more concerned about teaching people how to use a text correctly, and they start to marginalise people who quote verses quickly (like in topical sermons) even if the text was used correctly, but they just haven’t said what that context is.

  6. David Ker says:

    @Donna, your second type is the interesting one. If there is a shared context for understanding that verse in a faith community it seems wrong to begrudge someone quoting a verse that stands in for a larger body of knowledge. Jesus’ pronouncement stories mnemonically might have been built on a single pronouncement or apothegm which carried with it a lot of rich shared context by the hearers.

  7. jkgayle says:

    If there is a shared context for understanding that verse in a faith community it seems wrong to begrudge someone quoting a verse that stands in for a larger body of knowledge.

    Seems to me like Paul’s Rom 3 – 4 has three contexts: The context of his text that NT readers read; the context of Greek-translated scriptures (i.e., LXX Deuteronomy 6 and Genesis 15:6) for the Jewish diaspora and Hellenic Jews from the third century BC to first century AD; and the context for Hebrew scripture reading Jewish peoples of various times and places (particularly the orthodox, observant Jewish peoples). Likewise, when a couple of Christian bloggers start arguing over the meaning of a Hebrew word in Genesis 21:9, and appeal to context, we wonder Whose contexts? (I blogged on this last week). One of the Christian bloggers is a “Hebraist” scholar (looking at the concerns of Judaism, perhaps). But neither considers the context of the same text for Muslims in quite a different “faith community”; and yet Dr. Mohiuddin Waseem does:

    “To understand the background … you need to keep in mind … the tribal environment of the ancient Middle East…. I have reason to believe that both Ishmael and Isaac had normal brotherly relationship and like all young boys they too spent time playing together (Genesis 21: 9-10).”

  8. WoundedEgo says:

    Another word that has a particular referent in the context of 1 John and 2 John is ARKH (“beginning”). Here are the verses where it appears:

    1 John 1:1 That which was from the beginning , which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life [message that gives life];
    1 John 2:7 Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning . The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning .
    1 John 2:13 I write unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning . I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the wicked one. I write unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father.
    1 John 2:14 I have written unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning . I have written unto you, young men, because ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in you, and ye have overcome the wicked one.
    1 John 2:24 Let that therefore abide in you, which ye have heard from the beginning . If that which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you, ye also shall continue in the Son, and in the Father.
    1 John 3:8 He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning . For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.
    1 John 3:11 For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning , that we should love one another.
    2 John 1:5 And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning , that we love one another.
    2 John 1:6 And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, That, as ye have heard from the beginning , ye should walk in it.

    The referent in each case is “when Jesus originally gave the message.” He establishes that here, where he claims to have been involved with the historical Jesus:

    1 John 1:1 That which was from the beginning , which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word [message] of life [the message that gives life];

    Not understanding this usage of “beginning,” some think this refers to the laws of Sinai:

    1 John 2:7 Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning . The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning .

    The “commandment” then is the command of Jesus to love one another.

    And what the fathers came to know, and still know, is the original message, and that remains with the young believers:

    1 John 2:13 I write unto you, fathers, because ye have known him [not “him” but rather “the message”] that is from the beginning . I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the wicked one. I write unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father.

    The original message remains among the young:

    1 John 2:14 I have written unto you, fathers, because ye have known him [not “him” but the original message] that is from the beginning . I have written unto you, young men, because ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in [persists among] you, and ye have overcome the wicked one.

    I’m not sure about this.

    1 John 3:8 He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning . For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.

    Again, these are Jesus, not Moses:

    1 John 3:11 For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning , that we should love one another.

    2 John 1:5 And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning , that we love one another.

    2 John 1:6 And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, That, as ye have heard from the beginning , ye should walk in it.

    ENTOLH refers to Jesus’ commands, and not the Torah.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s