The Context of the Early Church

September 01, 2017

by David E. Briones

Context is vital. Without it, we can’t communicate with one another. The meaning of our words is determined by their context, the setting or background in which those words are spoken. Consider, for example, the words steel sinks. If you hear these words at Lowe’s or Home Depot, you would assume there are steel sinks available for purchase, whether for your home or workshop. But what if you hear these words spoken by a professor lecturing on material sciences and engineering? You would assume the professor is describing the material properties of steel. Steel is denser than water, so steel sinks to the bottom of a body of water. Context determines the meaning of our words.

This is no less the case with God’s Word. It is divinely situated within an ancient historical context. We also have to pay attention to the grammatical and theological context of the Bible. But it’s definitely important to consider the historical context when reading Scripture. Obviously, we do not need to understand all the intricate historical, cultural, and social details behind Scripture to believe its primary message. God’s story of redemption in Christ is simple and clear. But understanding the ancient context provides at least two advantages for readers of the Bible.

Our interpretation of Scripture can be misguided by our own context.

The first is that it helps us become better readers of the text. How so? By reminding us how far removed we really are from the ancient setting of Scripture—some two thousand years. If we forget this contextual distance, we will read God’s ancient text through our modern glasses, and this will inevitably lead to misreading the text. A good example of this is how we, as Americans, can read Philippians 2:12 through our Western, individualistic glasses: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” From our perspective, “your” means “my,” and we assume this text calls me—as a lone individual—to work out my salvation. But from an ancient perspective, “your” primarily meant “ours,” not only because this word is plural in the Greek (better translated in Texan talk as “y’all”) but also because the ancient mind-set was far more communal. Back then, no one believed a person had his own private relationship with God. Personal relationship, yes, but private relationship, no. Working out our salvation was—and still is—a joint effort in the church. We need one another to reach the end, all the while knowing that our perseverance depends ultimately and sovereignly on God (Phil. 1:6; 2:13). If you have interpreted Philippians 2:12 in this exclusively individualistic way, don’t be discouraged. Even the best interpreters are guilty of reading their modern presuppositions into God’s ancient Word. Nevertheless, it’s a good reminder of how easily our interpretation of Scripture can be misguided by our own context.

The second advantage to understanding the ancient context of Scripture is that it adds color to our reading of the text. Just as the background of black velvet brings out the beauty that already resides within a diamond, so, too, context can draw out the beauty of God’s Word. It’s just as beautiful without it, but the background helps us see its beauty more vividly.

You may be thinking to yourself, “OK, but I never liked history, and I find memorizing facts and dates boring.” Point taken. My students say this all the time. But don’t sell yourself short. You know more about the Bible’s historical context than you might think. You may not know specific details about Alexander the Great’s Hellenization of Israel in 332 BC, the Maccabean Revolt in 167–165 BC, or even the Roman general Pompey’s conquest of Israel in 63 BC—all pivotal events in Israel’s history. Perhaps you have never read the Pseudepigrapha or Apocrypha, noncanonical texts written during the four hundred “silent years” between Malachi and Matthew (otherwise known as the Intertestamental Period). But even if you lack knowledge in those areas, you more than likely know that God’s people in the first-century world were eager for a messianic king. They were eager to be liberated from Roman oppression. And they were eager for God’s kingdom to be established on earth. You may not be an armchair biblical historian, but you have received enough doses of Bible background from your pastors and teachers to get the big picture.

Understanding the ancient context of Scripture adds color to our reading of the text.

And yet, it’s hard to deny that a deeper understanding of the historical context enhances that same picture. To give one example, have you ever wondered why people spread palm branches before Jesus at His triumphal entry into Jerusalem at Passover (Matt. 21:8–9; Mark 11:8–10; John 12:13)? The Old Testament prescribes palm branches only in celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev. 23:40), not Passover. So, to answer the question, we need to look elsewhere. We turn, then, to the Maccabean Revolt in 167–165 BC, where the palm branch played a significant role.

The revolt began with a prominent Jewish family taking a stand against the Syrian forces, especially King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who issued decrees prohibiting Jewish religion—the Scriptures were to be destroyed, the Sabbath and festivals were no longer to be observed, the food laws were to be abolished, and circumcision was no longer to be practiced (1 Macc. 1:41–64). The national identity of the Jews was in grave danger. Antiochus even erected a small altar on the great altar of burnt offering in the Jewish temple. There he sacrificed pigs in the supreme insult to Judaism.

But in 165 BC, Judas Maccabeus (“the hammer”) and his warriors destroyed every Syrian detachment sent after them. This left Antiochus no option but to surrender. Shortly thereafter, Judas and his troops moved into Jerusalem and rededicated the temple on December 14, 165 BC. The people celebrated for eight days. They lit a menorah with only one day’s worth of olive oil, but it miraculously stayed lit the entire time. They also celebrated in the manner of the Feast of Tabernacles with “beautiful branches and also fronds of palm” in thanksgiving “to [God] who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place” (2 Macc. 10:6–7). In commemoration of the event, a new festival was added to the Jewish calendar: Hanukkah (meaning “Dedication”; mentioned in John 10:22).

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