SEEK THE CONTEXT: Biblical Texts, Language, Cultural Background & Meaning. Context Changes Everything!

Harmonizing God and Bible Verses

Harmonizing God and Bible Verses

When it comes to the Bible people have many ideas curious ideas of what it actually is. Why does that matter? It matters simply because what the Bible reveals and what it means to us, and whether we believe its witness. Some believe the Bible is ancient literature full of myth and folklore. Others believe the Bible to be a creation of a Jewish religious hierarchy whose ideas about God evolved over time. Is the Bible even historically accurate?  Is Bible a book of fictional legends and lore? Are these merely spiritual oracles? Examining the Bible alongside other ancient texts may help understand it. The history of how we got the Bible is complicated, but it also may shed some light on the question.

Biblical Authorship

Whatever opinions people the people who actually embrace the Bible have, eventually, two main major trajectories emerge… Some see the Bible as actual words that came from God, while others see it as inspired ideas of men about God. There is a third view that the Bible is truly a joint creation of God and mankind working together, but it is less prevalent than the other two views. For those who believe that the Bible consists of actual messages and oracles from God preserved by human authors through the ages, God is the primary author of the Bible. And if this is true, then what God says about various topics should be holistic and cohesive all throughout the Bible. Since there is one author, the Bible should not contradict itself. In fact, many people who like to discredit the Bible, do so by pointing to what they see as internal contradictions. Most of the time these are unfair arguments, but the skeptics learned this technique from believers themselves. How is that possible? Simple. Its theological harmonizing.

Theological Harmonizing

The main objective of this article is to consider the practice of blending and harmonizing Bible verses after they were pulled from a variety of books to make a theological point. You may be very familiar with this practice. It is related to proof-texting (see The Blunder of Proof-texting). In a sense theological harmonizing is like proof-texting, but it is taken to the next level where one uses multiple texts to make some factual assertion, often systematically blending the truth found in each verse into a concise holistic statement. The backbone of Systematic Theology is built on this very practice. Let’s go through the whole Bible, collect all the verses about some thing or an idea or behavior or concept, harmonize the data and come up with understanding who or what they are, what they are like and what they do and what that all means. Sounds familiar?

It is a nice idea and generally, this is a good method. Only one problem. Each text has a unique context! And the tendency in fact-gathering is to ignore the specific context of each verse, but instead to look at the big goal of creating a systematic understanding of the studied subject. This practice may be very sound where contexts are similar and they do not affect the interpretations substantially. But usually, communications are not made in a vacuum. Messages are usually wrapped up in some special and situational context.  Messages may become completely meaningless or incomprehensible without the knowledge of proper context. It is not that God wanted to remain a mystery, but that we are so far removed from the original audience, we struggle to understand the relevance. That is why many people read the Bible but do not get its message. Their understanding of life is radically different from those to whom the ancient words were addressed.

Making A Harmony…

So the fact that all books in the Bible have the same author counts. We should not dismiss this idea. The big picture should be overall harmonious and more or less the same on any given topic. That is reasonable. But the actual meaning, the specific meaning intended by the author for that moment and for that situation depends greatly on the context. So this is where we, the modern readers get lost. We focus on the words and not on the meaning of the overall message and not on the specific reasons and the particular impact of those words we investigate.

Use your imagination with me for a moment… Your name is Sam. You are a well-known public person. You speak a lot and you express a lot of diverse ideas. Sometimes you express your ideas by using similar language and your topics can overlap from time to time.  You mention the same subject in various contexts as you appear in public. You use some of the same favorite examples to illustrate your points.  But that does not mean I can take all of what you said about let’s say “the discipline of children” and harmonize it together into one cohesive philosophy.

Apostle Paul by Rembrandt

Imagine that one time, you (Sam), were addressing a particular matter, talking about a particular incident or a misunderstanding that occurred in relation to disciplining children. You probably gave some sound words of advice and/or judgment just for that unique situation. You provided some analysis. Then a year later you were teaching young parents in your church and expressed many generic ideas that relate to the experience of raising children and practices of discipline in general. And yet at another time you wrote in your personal journal and lamented about your own shortcomings as a parent. Maybe you were brokenhearted that own children have gone astray, or did not listen, or caused some pain. Who knows? And in your journal, you expressed wishful ideas on how you should have given then better/harsher/stricter discipline. Can you imagine?

Imagine If Your Words were Harmonized…

Now imagine I have been following you around, taking notes for years. I collected the newspaper articles and You-Tube videos and e-mails. When you died I got your journal in an estate sale. And I took all of what you said on the topic (publicly and privately) and blended it into one cohesive message. I later published a book called “Sam’s Theology of Raising Children and Discipline”. How accurate do you think it will represent your ideas? All of what you said would be absolutely true in each instance. I documented your words with precision! But it would only be true and would apply fully only in its own specific context in which these words were uttered. It may not be universally true. It may not be true in all imaginable cases. After all, most of the time you were dealing with a specific context. Are you not the author of all of those things you said? Yes, you are.

Your teachings and ideas I published are all true, but not necessarily blended and harmonized together. I am fairly confident, it will actually twist and misrepresent what you, Sam, actually meant or would have written in a book yourself. And that is exactly what we do with the Bible when we pull one verse from here and another verse from there and then another verse from yet another book (maybe written centuries apart) and blend them all together. It is the same author, it all true, it should harmonize well… I hope you see my point.

Theological Harmonizing Ignores The Context

Context changes everything! Meaning is contextual. Blending verses from diverse contexts is a problem. They were never meant to be. Too often we blend what the Bible says, but not what it means. However, what Bible messages actually meant and how the author meant them is only truly understood through proper context. So let’s be aware and seek the context together!

Pinchas

I am an educator, researcher, a faculty member and an avid believer in online education. My specialties are Sacred Texts and Cultures (Second Temple period, early Judaism and nascent Christianity). I am passionate about meaning, context, and cultural transmission of ancient texts. My preoccupations with history, ancient languages and contextual interpretation often find expression in my blog posts. Every human has a pretext, every message has a context. Context changes everything! Enjoy reading.


Reader Comments

  1. Hello Pinchas!
    Thank you very much for creating this site and making it available to those who love the Bible and are thirsty to know more!

    I too believe that ‘context’ is a vital key, as well as understanding and appreciating the Hebrew mindset and language of the Torah and the New Testament…it is all so fascinating and like mining for gold and jewels – you and Dr.Eli are absolute stars in
    the way you both Shepherd those who are privileged enough to have access your discipleship – be assured that I do not take your provision of this site for granted but thank Hashem for it….Blessings Fiona

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