Understand the Historic and Literary Context

Historical Context

To understand the words we read in the Bible, we must understand the history surrounding the particular document we are reading. This is the way Bible scholars describe this task: “In speaking through real persons, in a variety of circumstances, over a 1500-year period, God’s Word was expressed in the vocabulary and through patterns of those persons and conditioned by the culture of those times and circumstances. That is to say, God’s Word to us was first of all his Word to them. If they were going to hear it, it could only have come through events and in language they could have understood.” We need to know what the text said to its original readers before we can possibly understand what it means today. Thus the task of interpreting involves the student/reader at two levels.

First, one has to hear the Word they heard; he or she must try to understand what was said to them back then and there.

Second, one must learn to hear that same Word in the here and now.

How does someone who is not an archaeologist or historian get this context? A number of kinds of reference books provide this information. They are called commentaries, Bible encyclopedias, and Bible dictionaries. There are also versions of the Bible that include brief notes about this kind of information as footnotes and introductions to the Bible documents. These are called “helps” and often have been authored by well-known evangelists, preachers, and scholars. 

Literary Context

To understand a specific statement or verse in the Bible, it is essential to see all of the other Bible verses related to that topic as well as to understand the reason the particular statement is included in the document or “book” of the Bible in which you are reading.

“One of the most important aspects of the human side of the Bible is that to communicate His Word to all human conditions, God chose to use almost every available kind of cultural communication: narrative history, genealogies, chronicles, laws of all kinds, poetry of all kinds, proverbs, prophetic oracles, riddles, drama, biographical sketches, parables, letters, sermons, and apocalypses. To interpret properly the ‘then and there’ of the biblical texts, one must not only know some general rules that apply to all the words of the Bible, but one needs to learn the special rules that apply to each of these literary forms (genres). And the way God communicates His Word to us in the ‘here and now’ will often differ from one form to another. For example, we need to know how a psalm, a form that was often addressed to God, functions as God’s Word to us, and how psalms differ from ‘laws,’ which were often addressed to people in cultural situations no longer in existence. How do such ‘laws’ speak to us, and how do they differ from the moral ‘laws’ which are always valid in all circumstances?”1

These are the questions Bible scholars have discussed for centuries, and they are essential to interpreting Scripture.

Again, the way you get all the right kind of information about the texts and stories of Scripture is by utilizing the standard tools of Bible study: a good Bible dictionary (that defines the many different words in the Bible), a good Bible handbook (that gives much of the cultural context of the passages), a good translation of the Bible, and good Bible commentaries (verse-by-verse descriptions of the best scholarship relating to each Bible passage).

And there’s also no substitute for the discipline of simply asking good questions as you read the Bible.

Who wrote this? When was it written? Where was it written? What kind of document is it? Why was it written? These questions are attempting to get at the original meaning and setting.

Literary context refers to the principle that words have meaning only in sentences and sentences have meaning only in relation to preceding and following sentences and paragraphs. How does the material before and after explain this statement?

Another good question to ask as you read the Bible: What’s the point? Careful observation is crucial; the choice and meaning of words, the grammatical relationships in sentences, why this particular description. What was the author trying to communicate?2


1. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1981), p. 20, emphases in the original.

2. Adapted with permission from the iFollow Discipleship Resource, ©North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.