Part 1 of An Introduction Into Biblical Context looked at a number of aspects which affect the way we read Scripture. If we simply read Scripture ‘as is’ – so without any knowledge of contemporary traditions and circumstances – there will be cultural details that we fail to appreciate, background information that we haven’t considered, symbolism that we are not familiar with and Jewish cultural aspects that we are unaware of. Even we, the reader, risk ‘changing’ the story, depending on our perspective when reading the text.
By properly considering their context, the Gospels and Epistles can really come to life for you! Even if you’ve read them all before: read them again, with ‘fresh eyes’! Perhaps try a translation you haven’t read before, and allow it to introduce new details to you that you hadn’t previously noticed in your ‘trusted translation’.
1. Times change
One aspect that is easily forgotten as we read Scripture – in particular the Old Testament – is that the texts that are now conveniently published in one single Bible, are all separate books, written over a long period of time (in the case of the Old Testament, a period of approx. 1,000 years). This means that most of the things we read about, came and went before Jesus Christ was even born.People in Jesus’ days had largely switched to Koinè Greek rather than the original Hebrew/Aramaic texts and in addition, also relied on another source of religious information: oral tradition and teachings.
In practice, this meant that Jewish teachers (Rabbis) and scholars were adding their own verbal instructions to God’s Word – sometimes in direct conflict with God’s Word (one example is Mark 7:10-13). These additions are, of course, not allowed (Deuteronomy 4:2). There are 80+ references to the Pharisees in the New Testament, and most of them are not very positive. Within the Pharisee movement it had been Rabbi Shamai ha-Zaken and Rabbi Hillel who, in the last decades before Christ, had introduced their own (opposing) teachings of the Law. The Sadducees had been around for slightly longer and then there were also the Heriodians, who were mostly a political movement.
It is (very) important to note that whenever Jesus debated and berated the Pharisees and Sadducees, it was because of their self-invented teachings. Jesus did NOT dispute or ‘cancel’ words from God Himself! God is immutable meaning that He does not change His mind (Numbers 23:19) and in Jesus we see God the Father (John 14:9). This unchanging aspect of God is expressed in the most sacred Name of God in the Hebrew Bible, JHWH or Jehovah.
2. Names with meanings
Many Christians will know that the name ‘Jesus’ – Yeshua in Hebrew – means, ‘the Lord is salvation’. And that ‘Christ’ – Mashiach in Hebrew (Messiah!) – means, ‘the Anointed One’. But non-Jewish readers of the New Testament may not have realized that many other names have meanings, too. For example the village Jesus was born in. This is Bethlehem – Beit Lechem in Hebrew – meaning, ‘House of Bread’. Jesus, of course, in John 6:35; 6:48 and 6:51, describes Himself as “the Bread of Life” and “the living Bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.”
Jesus is not known as ‘Jesus of Bethlehem,’ though, because Joseph and Mary went to live in the town of Nazareth after their return from Egypt. That is why Jesus became known as Jesus of Nazareth. This name, Nazareth, is believed to have been derived from the Hebrew word ‘netzer’, meaning a ‘branch’ or ‘shoot’. This reminds us of Isaiah verses 11:1-2, which say, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
Jesse was the father of King David, but the Shoot is our Lord Jesus Christ: clearly these verses are a Messianic prophecy! Incidentally, ‘Isaiah’, is a name with an interesting meaning as well. It is derived from the Hebrew yesha’yahu, which means, “God saves.”
3. Context provided by images – and local knowledge
This is an interesting one: there are no images in the Bible! This means that we, the readers, do not have the benefit of seeing what the authors saw when they wrote their Books. Biblical writers such as the Prophet Ezekiel and the Apostle John (writing in the Book of Revelation), who both saw the most magnificent and incomprehensible sights, struggled to explain to readers which images had been presented to them – because these vistas were so fantastic!
But even for ‘normal conversations’ between Jesus and His disciples, an image or the lack of an image, might greatly affect our understanding of what is being said. For example, Mark 8:27 tells us that, “Jesus went on with His disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi”. In the minds of the average 21st century reader, this verse may create the mental image of a pleasant walk to scenic villages surrounding a larger, busy town.
Let’s see if this image matches reality.
First of all, it would have been a ten hour journey (and an uphill climb, as the town was 1150 feet above sea level) presumably using the Roman road on the east side of the valley. So, secondly, Caesarea Philippi must not be mistaken for the coastal town of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast. Caesarea Philippi, named after (Herod) Philip1, had been re-established roughly at the time of Jesus’ birth, but unlike Bethlehem where the Lord was born, had the reputation of being ‘the gates of hell’. This was because in a couple of decades, the area had developed into a center of idolatry of the worst kind.
The (Roman) worshipers of the Greek gods revered there, considered a cave on the outskirts of the town to be the place where the underworld connected with their world, hence the ‘gates of hell’ analogy. Jewish people living in the area referred to the place as the ‘rock of the gods’, because of the idols displayed there.
During the trip, of course, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27). Their replies spark the famous exchange that the Apostle Matthew records in 16:14-19, about Peter being ‘the rock’. ln the absence of a Biblical image, we have no idea where Jesus and His disciples were standing when this conversation happened. Were they anywhere near this cave? Was Jesus looking in its direction; gesturing at it, perhaps? Consider Jesus’s words in Matthew 16:18, “…on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
So we have Peter (‘Petros’, meaning ‘rock’) who is also called Cephas which is an Aramaic boy’s name meaning ‘stone’ or ‘rock’, and they are all standing in the immediate vicinity of an actual rock (for which the Greek word is ‘pétra’) – where Jesus says that He will build His church right on ‘this’ rock. And the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
Suddenly, the mental image in our mind shifts. We realize that Jesus acknowledged the worst of the worst kind of God-rejecting behavior people can be guilty of, but said: ‘My church will be built on top of it, and it will be victorious!’ Praise be to our Lord of Lords!