NT303/503 Principles of Hermeneutics
(Formerly D2152/3152 Exegetical Methods)
Lesson 4 - Historical/Cultural Context (Step 3)


This lesson comprises:


At the completion of this lesson you will be able to:

  1. discuss the importance of the historical-cultural context of the biblical documents
  2. analyse the reasons behind the writing of a document by a careful anlaysis of its contents
  3. use relevant data from the historical-cultural background of the NT to assess the meaning of certain words and phrases


The section on Historical-Cultural Context in the main bibliography consists mainly of resource literature to help with this step

Introduction: The Importance of Historical-Cultural Context


In the first lesson we observed that the author and readers of biblical documents are removed from us in three ways.What are they?

Click here if you need a reminder

Thus, on occasions, the scriptures present a mindset, perspective, or worldview than is quite different to ours.

The upshot of all this is that the meaning of certain texts is not always that obvious to us. This is because also the scriptures are God’s word to us, they are only secondarily so. Yes the basics regarding salvation are clear, but there is much that is difficult and problematical for us. Much labour and brainpower are needed, and thus there is a heavy responsibility on teachers.

As the biblical documents were (in the main) written to quite specific historical situations, there are three very important questions that need to be asked as a prelude to the interpretive task:


Historical-Cultural context is a study of the historical and cultural factors that i) relate to the world of the biblical documents, and ii) gave rise to the writing of a particular document.


In general, what is the "world" that needs to be studied for:

i) The OT scriptures?

ii) The Gospels?

iii) The NT Epistles?

click here for answers

1. A General Analysis of the Historical-Cultural Context

There are a variety of tools available here (see the main bibliography relevant to this section). They include:

For example, D. A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity (Illinois: IVP, 2000) is an excellent introduction to the first century cultural values of the Greco-Roman world. If you are interested in reading a short snippet, click here.

2. A Specific Analysis of the Historical-Cultural Factors Pertaining to a particular Issue or Statement

Often an investigation of a particular cultural norm, a geographical location, or an historical situation brings great illumination to a biblical statement or incident.

For example, an appreciation of the general regard for the Pharisees in Jewish society, and the understanding of true repentance as involving some tangible form of restitution, sheds light on how shocking Jesus parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Lk 18:9-14) really was!

Again, there are various tools to help you with this. The better commentaries will discuss such issues in their analysis of the text, while the IVP Bible Background Commentary offers a verse by verse treatment specifically dealing with historical and cultural factors that inform the text.

3. A Specific Look at the Historical Situation that Gave Rise to a Document

Also various tools available here, such as commentaries, NT & OT Introductions. But much of the information can be gleaned by an inductive reading of the material. It is much more rewarding, and academically sound, to do your own work first, as you are likely to have a far better grasp of the issues concerned. Then you can check and supplement your work with the available literature.

Example: The New Testament Epistles

Here we need to keep in mind both the readers and the author, who may well be in different locations and situations:

e.g. 1 Peter is written from Rome to Nth Asia Minor

e.g. Paul writes Philippians, Colossians, and Ephesians from prison, probably in Rome

The task is then to read the document purposefully. Read it through in one sitting at least twice, and note the following:

Are these people, or this location, mentioned elsewhere? If so, what more can we learn? Use this information to build a likely scenario of the historical situation of the readers.


Example 1: Ephesians

Read chapter 1 verses 15-23. What word or idea dominates?

Now read chapter 6:10-17. What is unique about this passage in the NT?

Click here to check your answers, but only after inserting your own thoughts first.

The two-fold question that is begging to be asked is: Is there a link between these two sections of Ephesians and is it a co-incidence or not?

But before we answer that, let's look elsewhere in the NT to see what we can dig out regarding Ephesus. Of course Paul's visit to Ephesus is narrated in Acts 19. Verses 18-20 are especially interesting!

Now try to put all this together. Given the Acts passage, why might Paul have included the two passages we have read in Ephesians? What might this say about the recipients and their situation and need?

Have a go first before you click here


Example 2: 1 Peter

Now you are on your own! Read 1 Peter carefully, at least twice, and answer the following questions, citing verse references in support:

What are the main themes of the letter?

What is the main trial the readers are experiencing?

Who is the source of the trial - the governing authorities? Other?

Are the readers Jewish or Gentile? Why?

Why was the epistle written?

Now that you have done some hard thinking, click here


For another example of constructing a likely scenario behind the writing of a biblical document (1 Corinthians), see Fee & Stuart, How to Read the Bible for all its Worth, pp. 46-51.

4. The Use of Historical-Cultural Background for Exegesis

Well, know that we know what we are looking for, and how to look for it, how do we fit this into our exegetical work. In exegetical work, historical cultural context operates in two different sections:

a) Introductory Section (Section B of the 13 steps)

For a full exegetical essay, provide a summary of the following:


For an exegetical exam answer you will not have time to cover the above to the same extent. Focus on the purpose of the document. The key is to be brief and concise.

b) Verse Analysis (Section C of the 13 steps)

In the main body of the exegesis (verse by verse analysis), a knowledge of the historical-cultural background of the readers, and to some extent of the author, should inform the interpretation of words, phrases, and specific passages.

Assessment Exercise

Submit the following assignment to your designated e-coach.

1. In Revelation 3:14-22 the church at Laodicea is rebuked for being "lukewarm". Using the attached source material on NT background, state what is significant about this designation given the historical-geographical setting of the town of Laodicea.

2. Read 1 Timothy thoroughly at least twice. Given that false teaching is the major issue the letter is confronting, answer the following questions without consulting anyone or anything:

a) What is the nature of the false teaching (i.e. what does it promote or forbid)?

b) Who appears to be the target of the false teaching?

c) Based on your answers to the above questions, why might Paul be forbidding women to teach? How might the intriguing statement in 2:15 regarding women being saved through childbirth be understood? (Note that the Greek word dia ["through"] can also have the sense of "in the circumstances of")