When we talk about the context of Scripture there are several things that need to be considered. One important thing to consider is the text itself.

What you know and believe about the text will influence how you engage with it and how you understand what is contained within it.

For one thing, the text contains a variety of genres.

There are the history books that record various times in Israel’s history and offer the Jewish perspective on historical events that they believed are important.  They make note of when they followed God’s instructions and when they didn’t as well as how things went at those times.  There are records of kings and kingdoms, wars and times of peace.

In the New Testament the book of Acts is a history of the early church.  The stories of Paul’s encounter with Jesus is recorded here, as well as Peter’s dream that told him to take the Gospel to the Gentiles!  Paul’s trials and testimony are a strong through line in the story as the author traveled with him on his later journeys.  We learn a lot about how Paul approached sharing the Gospel with the Jews and the non-Jews and how he helped established communities mixed with members from both groups.  Understanding Paul’s approach and learning about the towns and regions gives context to his story.

There are books of Wisdom — and the Jewish tradition and the Christian tradition differ on where some books should be.  Jewish tradition does not, for example, consider Daniel to be a book of prophecy.  Prophecy is different from dreams and interpretations of dreams — not better or worse, just different.  Christian canon puts Daniel with the prophets.  This changes how both communities regard the text of Daniel and influences how Prophecy is approached in both traditions.

Within the books of Wisdom there is poetry, parable, dreams and interpretations of dreams, story telling rich with metaphor and simile.  There are characters we are supposed to relate to and those we are supposed to revile from.  Wisdom herself is personified!

A Torah Scroll being rolled back on Simchat Torah

In the New Testament we have letters written by various Apostles (Paul, Peter, James and John write the most). They address questions that are sent to them from the growing communities of faith and send information to them — sometimes to challenge, sometimes to teach, sometimes just to encourage!  There is the book of Hebrews — a letter written to the Jewish believers.  It got into the canon because most people thought Paul wrote it but there is no claim to authorship and there is strong evidence that it was written by Priscilla — a leader in the early church who is included in Paul’s story and is greeted by him in his letters.  She is clearly a pastor and a teacher in the early church and there was a tradition of writing in the style of your teacher that would explain why some aspects of the letter are similar to Paul’s letters while allowing for the difference in voice.

There are books of the records of the Prophets and these writings address things that would happen in their lifetime, or soon after they had their prophecies, and spoke to things that would happen in the End of Days or the World to Come.  This speaks to some time in the future and there is debate over whether some of these things have already happened or not.

In the New Testament there is the book of Revelation.  It is a book of prophecy that speaks to things in New Testament times and, in the tradition of Jewish Prophetic writings, addresses issues of the End of Days and the World to Come.  There are many ideas about how best to understand the book of Revelation and it’s too much to go into now, but no doubt there will be writings to come on this. For now, suffice it to say it is important to know that prophecy is not something you can read literally and think you understand.

There is the Torah – the record of the Jewish understanding of Creation, and the generations of their people as they sought to serve God.  The stories of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs – their mistakes and their successes.  Within the Torah is the record of the Law.

The Law is the formal instructions given to Moses that created a system for governing within the Land of Israel that is an expression of the eternal Law that God had taught directly to Adam and Eve and that had been handed down through the generations as well as specific instructions for how to take care of the Tabernacle and, eventually, the Temple, and the sacrifices that would be performed.  The Law of God is eternal and is contained within the Mosaic Law.  It is understood as “the way of life” and is why the early church, which was a Jewish sect, called themselves The Way in the book of Acts.

The Mosaic Law also contains the system of penalties and consequences for violating the Eternal Law.  This is the “curse of the Law” that Paul argued Jesus did away with.  Paul is resolved that because of what Jesus did anyone is able to walk boldly into the throne room of God.

In the New Testament there are the Gospels. They are four tellings of the life and teachings of Jesus. Paul and the other New Testament authors are convinced he is the Jewish Messiah.  The Gospels are written in different styles and there are a lot of ideas about what this means and what is reveals.  They each focus on different aspects of his life and teachings and offer different goals for what they contain.  There will be more written about this as well.

The Old Testament is written in Hebrew.  The New Testament was written primarily in Greek, but it was written by Jewish authors who though Hebraically.  There are times Paul was so limited in his ability to express a Jewish idea in Greek that he invented Greek words that later appear in Greek writings but are not found prior to Paul’s letters.

Most readers are encountering the Bible in their native tongue — this means they are reading translations. Whether the translation is in King James’ English, modern English, Ebonics, French or any other national language of today, a translation is exactly that — a translation that was done by (primarily) men who all brought their own filter and their own reality from in front of the text into their efforts to translate the text.  This is not reason to dismiss the text, but, rather, reason to more intentionally engage with what is in front of the text and what is behind the text in order to try and understand the text and what God is trying to communicate through it.