28 Feb 2007

Text & Context 2: Authorial Givens

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Ministry, Preaching

Text & Context #2: Authorial Givens

We continue our thoughts on Texts & Contexts with a brief discussion of the importance of context. Context can signify several different things and all are necessary for a proper interpretation of not only Scripture but most any piece of literature. Because of the “sloppiness” of the term context some linguists distinguish between cotext and context.
The word cotext would refer to the sentences, paragraphs and chapter surrounding the “text” under consideration. These linguists then use the term context to refer specifically to the sociological and historical setting of the text. It is traditional to talk of “literary” context and “historical” context but I like the more precise language of cotext and context and shall be using that in his mini-essay. Thus context refers to the sociological and historical situation of the writer and text produced. It is not important that you adopt this terminology rather what is important is that we take seriously what these terms represent.
It should be evident that context is a matter of paramount importance. Unfortunately this is not always the case for we often come to the biblical text and simply read our contemporary ideas back into the text. This is actually unfair to two people: the author and the reader. It is not “common” sense to read a text that is at minimum two thousand years old in dead languages and an alien culture as if it was written yesterday from Nashville, Tennessee.
The “Givens” of Context
Every author, when he or she, writes a text makes lots of assumptions. She will assume a common framework in reference to accepted usages of words, cultural allusions, and the like. The author takes these common assumptions about the world as GIVENS. If the author had to explain every metaphor, historical allusion or figure of speech, her piece would be clumsy, wordy and obtuse . . . and no one would read it. It is these GIVENS of context that a contemporary author ASSUMES on the part of his readers are the very things that are LOST on non-contemporary readers.
GIVENS of a text is natural and it is something we experience everyday. E.D. Hirsch, writing not about ancient books but contemporary newspapers and discourse, calls this simply cultural literacy. Cultural literacy is the common “background information” that the “comprehending reader must bring to the text” in order for understanding to take place (Cultural Literacy, pp. 13-14).

Hirsch illustrates his point beautifully with a series of excerpts from the Washington Post.

A federal appeals panel today upheld an order barring foreclosure on a Missouri farm, saying the U.S. Agriculture Secretary John R. Block has reneged on his responsibilities to some debt ridden farmers. The appeals panel directed the USDA to create a system of processing loan deferments and of publicizing them as it said Congress had intended. The panel said that it is the responsibility of the agricultural secretary to carry out this intent ‘not as a private banker, but as a public broker.”
This passage, in a common newspaper, is loaded with “givens” on the part of the author. What is a foreclosure? What is a federal appeals panel? Where is Missouri and what about Missouri is relevant to this article? Why are farmers debt ridden? What is the USDA? What is a public broker? None of these “givens” would make any sense to even a chronologically contemporary person living in China.  For the citizen of that culture to grasp even that paragraph he or she would absolutely be required to investigate the social setting of Missouri and the Federal government.  If we would expect this of a contemporary situation how can we think that less effort may be required of a text that is two thousand years old?
There is simply a “ton” of information that authors take for granted . . . givens on the part of the readership. That information “fills in the blanks.” (And I have just used two idioms (i.e. “ton” and “fill in the blanks” that I assume the reader will readily grasp).
Givens, this assumed information, is not specialized information. It is not information that only select individuals from certain fields would recognize. Rather this information is part of the common knowledge base of the readership. One can have a “common” knowledge of the USDA without having to write an encyclopedia article about it. The common knowledge is that folks recognize it, know what it means, and know why it is important. But it is that “common knowledge” that a person living in Hong Kong would simply miss!

I want to stress, once again, that assumed knowledge is (at the time of the author!) the common knowledge of most any commonly educated Joe Cool walking down the street. The problem for readers of the Bible is that those GIVENS of the text are lost . . . without work on our part.

I heard Gordon Fee say “today’s scholar could literally spend the rest of his life doing nothing but reading the classics, the Apocrypha, learning Greco-Roman legends, social customs and still not know what the average Joe Blow did walking the streets of Corinth in A.D. 54!!” He said it is sort of ironic that “we supposed to be scholars and yet still would not have a high school education in if we actually LIVED in the Roman world.” These things are simply “given.”

I am convinced that if we take the Bible seriously then we will in fact take its context seriously. The Apostle Paul, like the writer of the newspaper article quoted above, simply assumes a great deal . . . quite legitimately . . . on the part of his contemporary readers. Those givens are simply lost to us and can only be recovered through immersion in Paul’s world.
A thorough knowledge of the Hebrew Bible is essential filling in the blanks of Paul’s givens. When I say “thorough” I mean just that too. But most Jews did not read Hebrew but Greek thus encountered the Bible in the Septuagint. If a person knows Greek it is a wise thing to spend a great deal of time in the Septuagint (which can also be read in English translation btw). The Dead Sea Scrolls show us that the Jews read, wrote and studied all manner of books beside the Bible. Traditions about the Maccabees, Greek theater/festivals and many other things simply “fill the air.” This information becomes part of the givens . . . that is “things that are in the air.” The Jews and Greeks had a certain “Cultural Literacy” as much as Hirsch thinks Americans should. Our task as modern readers is to simply be as “culturally literate” as the average Joe Blow going down the street . . . we will be amazed at how often this fills in the blanks of the biblical text.

Any reader of the NT then should have a thorough knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. They should know the legends of the Maccabean martyrs. They should have a working knowledge of the Apocrypha (especially Sirach, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, the additional legends regarding Daniel and I mentioned the Maccabees independently). Josephus is a valuable tool for understanding some of the political givens in the Gospels. First Enoch is an important text too. All of these writings, save Josephus, are in one way or another assumed on the part of NT authors and do in fact allude to them and (at times) quote them. This hopefully does not seem like a lot of work, it does have its rewards. Our aim is simply to be able to read the NT like any average Roman would have.
BTW, Hirsch’s book Cultural Literacy is worth reading. Everett Ferguson’s book “Backgrounds to Early Christianity” is a beginning point. And the Apocrypha is available in an excellent translation through the NRSV.

22 Responses to “Text & Context 2: Authorial Givens”

  1. Zack Says:

    Cool stuff Bobby! Very interesting. Do you have any recommendations for OT stuff for use in NT backgrounds or English/Hebrew lexicons? All of what you wrote about today is of great interest to me too. Thank you for writing about this today. God bless! Zack
    ps. How is Rachael doing? I pray she has (or is) recovering her full health.

  2. shannon Says:


  3. Tim Archer Says:

    1432, from L. contextus “a joining together,” orig. pp. of contexere “to weave together,” from com- “together” + textere “to weave” (see texture).

    Anyone who would destroy such beautiful etymology by coining the term “cotext” deserves to be whipped with a wet noodle! Bah…

    Rant aside, your thoughts are very well presented. Too often I find myself supposing that Paul wrote his letters from New York in the late 1980s…

    Grace and peace,

  4. Missionary's Missionary Says:

    I look forward to this blog series. Thank you for taking this topic on.

  5. Bill Denton Says:

    Very well done! I’ll be reading what comes next.


  6. Alan Says:

    Hi Bobby,

    I think Gordon Fee was right. Regardless of how much we study those outside materials, we cannot approach a first century “Joe Cool”s understanding of his culture. So we must be careful. This could turn into a free-for-all where people manipulate the scriptures to say whatever they wish, by presuming some special understanding of the first century culture. I doubt God left us in a situation where we could not understand his will without speculation based on uninspired writings.

    That’s not to say I consider these outside works unnecessary. I just think we need to proceed with caution.

  7. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Alan we must always approach the text and the ancient world with a certain amount of humility. Indeed we need to have a healthy skepticism about our “assured” conclusions.

    Yet the more we know about the setting and context of any writing the more confidence we can have in our reading. Indeed that “context” often shapes “how” a writer presents his or her work to the reader. I intend on, in the next installment, giving a demonstration of sorts of a specific text.

    I agree with you, however, that we move forward with all interpretation humbly and cautiously.

    Bobby Valentine

  8. Steve Kenney Says:

    Hey thanks for checking my page! And thanks for linking me back to yours. Good stuff. Carry on!

    Grace & Peace,
    Steve Kenney

  9. preacherman Says:

    Great post.
    I want to also thank you for the book recommendations. Sounds like great reads. Can’t wait to dive into those!

  10. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Zack, Rachael is doing much better. She gets tired really easy and we are trying not to over do anything with her. I have been trying to be an attentive Dad. That is more important than any other project I have going on right now. I appreciate you asking.

    As for Hebrew Bible materials: the standard Hebrew/English lexicon is Brown-Driver-Briggs. The work is in need of major revision but few scholars want to take on such a task. It is also a very intimidating book. Words are listed according to ROOTS and if you do not know Hebrew well enough to get the root then the book will be of little use. But it is the standard too.

    There is a very user friendly book by Bill T. Arnold and another author published by Baker Academic called Encountering the Old Testament World (or something close to that … I will have to double check). This is an excellent work and entry point.

    For the NT Paul Barnett has written a wonderfully useful book called “Behind the Scenes of the New Testament”. I have recommended this book many times.

    For some insight into social values in the NT world then David DeSilva’s book Honor, Patronage,Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture will probably open as many passages in a new way as any other book.

    There are books galore brother. Finding the time to read them all is the challenge. Get a good translation of the Apocrypha. You will be glad you did.

    Bobby Valentine

  11. Messianic Gentile Says:

    Thanks for the encouragement to study the context.

    I am amazed at how so many people can believe so furvently in almost anything when it comes to Jesus and/or matters of faith. It seems we live in an anthing goes world.

    I am with you on the context issue. And you encourage me to push deeper all the time. And I think you are right that the more context you know, the more sense the Bible makes.

    Many blessings…

  12. Zack Says:

    Cool stuff. I’ll certainly make it a point to get some of those. Glad Rachael is doing better. We’re praying for her and for all of you. Be blessed!

  13. cwinwc Says:

    I remember Carroll Osburn relaying a discussion he had with someone who was taking exception with a point he was making. If I remember correctly he said this person said to him something to the effect of, “What is so important about all this “context stuff?”

    We must be students of “context stuff” for if we are not, we are doomed to make some serious errors in Biblical understanding or even worse, inject our opinion into that understanding.

    I’m looking forward to the next post.

  14. Bobby Cohoon Says:

    Good post as always brother. I have a question for you (not related to this post). Do you have a website with your writings on the apocrypha on it?
    Keep up the good work.


  15. Trey Morgan Says:

    I can’t wait for the other post’s on this topic. Excellent work. I’m looking forward to printing them off.



  16. Raymond Perkins Says:

    Very well thought-out, researched and written. This is something I taught for years, albeit in a less scholarly fashion. We do serious damage to scripture when we strain it through our modern, or post-modern as it were, experiences, preconceptions, etc. The text must first carry enormous weight and significance to the original audience before it ever means anything to subsequent audiences, including us. The failure to do so has led to many a wrong conclusion and doctrine, and unfortunately division within the body.

  17. Candle (C & L) Says:

    Bobby – Thanks for dropping by — I’m glad my “spinning wheels” had some value for you — unfortunately I’ve started spining into the mud and getting stuck soI haven’t had time to pay your site a proper vist for some time. I like what I see at a glance but I’ll confess I haven’t looked closely enough the make an “intelligent” comment.

    God Bless

  18. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Bobby you will find a series of short studies on different books in the Apocrypha at the following location:


    Bobby Valentine

  19. poet_imp Says:

    As I read this I wonder how the new Christian would feel if I told them they had to become a historical anthropologist to really understand the meanings of Paul’s teaching? That the Bible, is only valuable in the light of obscure documents that were common to the day? That they really need to understand words such as “exegesis”, “Septuagint”, “Apocrypha” and the nuance of cotext vs. context. I am not a new Christian and I find statements like the quote below daunting and disheartening.

    “Any reader of the NT then should have a thorough knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. They should know the legends of the Maccabean martyrs. They should have a working knowledge of the Apocrypha (especially Sirach, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, the additional legends regarding Daniel and I mentioned the Maccabees independently). Josephus is a valuable tool for understanding some of the political givens in the Gospels. First Enoch is an important text too.”

    I have read a number of these and some I have never even heard of.

    All of these sources are good for the scholar. But in reality, how many of us are really scholars in the real sense of the word? Most of us are average “Joe Cools” with an average education. This would include most Proclaimers, Church Leaders and Teachers of the Word. It certainly includes me.

    I see the value of knowing the the material presented here. The more we know the better we can convey the truth. Is the truth really this hard though? I wonder.

    There are a number of traps that we need to be cognizant of as we tread these waters.

    1) Knowledge that does not lead to deeper relationship with God is worthless.

    1 Cor 13:2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

    This is the heart of Phariseeism.

    2) Requiring a “deeper understanding” is at the heart gnosticism. It separates people in to intellectual levels building a spiritual aristocracy that is of man not of God. There is not a good single verse for this one that expresses the depth of this problem. The whole of the NT is filled with it.

    3) As we delve into the depths of the vehicle of the message, we need to be concerned that we not forget the message itself. This is the trap the Ephesians fell into.

    Rev 2:2-5
    I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.

    This comment is not meant to be a criticism of anyone. Bobby, I do not believe you are guilty of falling for any of these traps; quite the opposite, actually. It is however a call to caution.

  20. poet_imp Says:

    With what I said above out of my system now, I would also like to add… Thank you!

    I appreciate your scholarship and willingness to share your thoughts. They are deep and wonderful, causing me to both question where I am at and how I think. You are a blessing.

  21. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    Thank you for adding some very good comments. I detect wisdom in your words of caution. I think you are quite right that a brand new Christian or one coming to faith in Christ need not be a historical anthropologist. And I would submit to you that even a more experienced Christian need not be one either.

    On a different level however, I would argue that a seeker or a more “advanced” student may often need outside help in grasping the text. The Biblical record testifies to this in a number of places.

    First I would produce as exhibit A the Ethiopian Nobleman. I would assume the Nobleman was of at least average intelligence. He was a seeker and a student too. But Luke is quite clear that he did not grasp the “meaning” of the text. He was asked “Do you UNDERSTAND …?” And his reply was “How can I, unless someone EXPLAINS it to me” (Acts 8.30-31).

    The Nobleman needed “outside” assistance. In this case that aid came from an oral discussion and human teacher. In our day it could be that way, it could be in the form of a book or the like. But the principle is the same. The Nobleman was not left to his own devices in his interpretation of the text.

    I would also submit Peter’s commentary on Paul. The apostle, again of at least average intelligence, said “His letters contain some things that are HARD to understand” (2 Pt 3.16)

    And Peter was speaking as a contemporary. How much more will his statement be true for those who are are two thousand years later.

    The Bible, precisely because it was aimed at real people, who lived in a real time and at a specific place, will contain material that are specific to that time and place. As a people who have come to faith in the Messiah we want to grasp that text as best we can. This will require work on our part and it will take the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

    The Hebrew Preacher was not talking to babes in the faith (chronologically) but rather folks who should have developed. Note the Preacher’s language:

    “We have much to say about this, but it is HARD to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you needed some one to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again … (Heb 5.11-12)

    This Preacher makes use of all kinds of material that he fully expected his hearers to recognize and grasp. His use of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible is immense. His use of Jewish tradition from beginning to end was readily understood in his day. He borrows from the Wisdom of Solomon in chapter 1; in ch. 11 he goes to town with the various appeals to legends about the prophets, Maccabean martyrs and a host of others.

    Thus we are called simply to be students.

    On the other hand you are also quite right about knowledge and love. I have no sympathy for Gnosticism. Indeed I can honestly say if there is something I detest it is Gnosticism.

    But our study of the text and its context is done out of reverence for the One who is encountered in and through the Word. This study is not some mere academic exercise or we are simply engaged in idolatry. No, I believe we come to the text fully expecting to be transformed by the Living Word into his image. Knowing what “cotext” is is not worth a lot if the love of Jesus is not infused into our hearts.

    Have we really grasped the text if we come away assured of our own righteousness … or even our wisdom. I think the goal of truly studying the text is to love God with our hearts AND our minds. God wants all of me.

    But all of me will always be “not enough.” Thus we are never arrogant or smug about what we think we know. Scriptural knowledge should lead to a kind of gentleness and humility.

    Thank you for sharing. I do not know if any of this makes any sense. It is kind of convoluted. For that I apologize.

    Bobby Valentine

  22. Anonymous Says:

    i’m new… hope to post round more regularly!

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