How to Interpret the Bible, Part 3: Context, Context and Context

A Swedish buffet with mostly desserts
Photo by Dorina Andress (Eberswalde), used under CCASA license

Don’t believe me, believe your Bible!  Believe God!

~ Herbert W Armstrong

This is part 3 of the series “How to Interpret the Bible“, so if you have not yet read the introduction, you should do so.  Likewise, we have already covered “Ask God for Help” and “Standard Definitions Don’t Depend on What the Meaning of the Word ‘Is’ Is“.  Simply put, taking things out of context will narrow down both of these but not violate them.  However, people do take things out of context a lot in order to use definitions that fit their preconceived ideas rather than God’s ideas.  Taking thing out of context is like a buffet dinner where people pick and choose whatever they want to eat, but it won’t necessarily lead to a balanced or healthy diet.

I place this third in importance, for it should not violate seeking what God has to say, and it should not radically alter our standard definitions of words (both in the ancient language and in the modern English) without a significant cause.  Of course, that cause might be because people have twisted the actual definition of the word for so long that only the context can clarify the situation.  I submit to you that such deviations are not the norm, however.  In most cases, the actual definition is really there but has been buried in the baggage of those who twist Scripture in order to make it say something other than what it means.

Potatoes in Hell

One example of a word with baggage is “hell”.  It is actually a pagan word that was borrowed and applied to the Bible.  For some reason, the KJV translators took 3 different Greek words and translated them “hell” in the NT.  However, those three Greek words, not surprisingly, are talking about three different things.  This violates the principle of using standard translations, and this error has been compounded with successive generations.

The word “hell” itself even does not always mean the “underworld”, from the Proto-Germanic haljo.  It’s etymology includes probable Norse source of Hel, which comes from a related word, halija, or “one who covers up or hides something“.  Notice what the Online Etymology Dictionary says about “hell” (bolding mine):

…Transfer of a pagan concept and word to a Christian idiom. In Middle English, also of the Limbus Patrum, place where the Patriarchs, Prophets, etc. awaited the Atonement. Used in the KJV for Old Testament Hebrew Sheol and New Testament Greek Hades, Gehenna. …

This entry also directs us to a related word, cell, which also comes from a word that means “to hide, conceal“, and which is the root word for cellar.  Growing up, I remember the basement had a back section for potatoes.  It literally was a potato cellar.  It had curtains over wooden shelves to help keep the light out in order to prevent them from sprouting.

An interesting article, “To Hell with Hell“, is on Vanguard, which states:

A prime example [of the commandments and teachings of men whose minds are already made up] is the bogus Christian concept of hell. The idea of God torturing sinners in a fiery furnace for eternity is a staple diet in Christendom. However, it is completely without true biblical foundation. The concept was developed long after the bible was compiled essentially as a manipulative devise for populating the churches. It was then extrapolated into the scriptures by bible translators 1600 years later.

The word hell itself had nothing to do originally with a place of torment. It came from the anglo-saxon words “helle” which means “a hidden place;” and “helan” which means “to cover or conceal.” Thus, something that covers the head is a “helmet.” “Helliers” “helled a building” by roofing it. Farmers “put potatoes in hell” by burying them in the ground to preserve them in winter. This original meaning was then corrupted by Roman Catholics into a place of fiery eternal torture controlled by demons.

This is what occurs when the clear meaning of something is distorted to suit preconceived ideas and others are taught to perpetuate the false teaching.

Context of Hell

However, it is not just a simple misunderstanding but a deliberate manipulation at work here.  In order to arrive at the preconceived notion, it also requires the lifting of the meaning of ancient words from their contexts as well.  IOW, it requires a deliberate mistranslation on both ends!

Now, some people poo-poo the idea of historical and cultural context, but this false teaching about hell illuminates exactly why it is important.  If we understand neither the correct translation of the modern word or the ancient word, we will come to the wrong conclusion.  Even if we understand that words can have multiple meanings, if we do not understand the historical, cultural and textual context correctly, then we are doomed to misunderstanding because someone out there is surely teaching some false idea based upon twisting the definition and taking it out of context in order to do so!

Even before Jesus’ day, some Jews were becoming Hellenized.  They were becoming more and more influenced with pagan ideas.  It was primarily among this dispersed group that Gnosticism took root, for it required allegorical and symbolic interpretations of much of Scripture.

However, the OT and NT were written by Jews, with the notable exception of Luke (who obviously traveled with Peter and Paul, as well as interviewed other disciples).  Its roots were not pagan, and so it is a mistake to tack on pagan ideas unless the context demands it (as in when referring directly to pagans or pagan ideas).  In the case of the word “hell”, it not only is not warranted by the context, but it contradicts other passages that say the dead are unconscious and awaiting a resurrection to life.

So, in order to turn hell into some fiery torture for immortal souls requires plucking it out of the context of culture and even the words of the Bible itself!

Cultural Context

Some people supposedly cling to the notion of “the Bible interprets the Bible” so tightly that they will outright put down any notion of cultural context.

Let me just state plainly how I feel about this:  That is stupid.  Seriously, it is!  It not only shows an utter and complete ignorance of what language is, but they show themselves hypocrites every time they crack open an Strong’s or Bible dictionary.

The Bible is a bunch of words.  A bunch of words cannot make sense without language, otherwise they are nothing but scratchings on a page.  Language is part of culture, and so the culture not only frames the language, but linguistics shows that the language frames the culture!

You cannot separate language and culture.

To put it another way: If it were only a one-way street, then why are there dialects?  While dialects do not make as much difference since the invention of radio and TV, there still are regional differences even within the US.  However, if language influenced culture but not vice versa, then there should be no regional differences.

In American English, there actually are a lot of “loaner” words.  This occurs naturally when things are imported into the culture.  American scientific language also has a lot of Greek words used to describe more precisely certain things.  While this change in language has changed the culture, that wasn’t where it started.  New ideas, new inventions and new discoveries required that precision that did not already exist in the English language, so words were borrowed or modified from other cultures, or in some cases they were made up.

What is a Post-It Note?  It is an invention that required a catchy term in order to sell better.  However, even its previous name, Press ‘n Peel was a made up phrase.  Without the invention, new words would not have been needed.

Go back 100 years.  How many would have known what an automobile was, let alone a “car”?  How many would have understood a rocket ship, let alone a space ship?

I live in the Midwest, where snow and ice are pretty much taken for granted.  Travel to somewhere closer to the Equator, and you might find some oddities in language when it comes to these items.  In Thai, for example, ice is literally translated to “hard water”.  Most of them only know ice from modern refrigeration, and only those who have traveled outside of the country have seen snow.

Forgive me for going on and on about what is probably quite obvious to some of you, but the way some people talk about the Bible, it is as though they believe it was written in a vacuum.

In fact, context can even trump the literal word-for-word translations at times.  In particular, there are parts of speech called idioms, which don’t mean literally what the individual words are defined as.  Every language has them.

And then, there are things that are just “known” by the participants that would not necessarily be obvious to outsiders.  Cop shows used to show criminals being read their “Miranda Rights”.  Yet, outside of the US, what would it mean to say, “I have the right to remain silent”?  Probably not a whole lot.  Just ask Amanda Knox!

Divorce and Remarriage

I’ve written about this before, but it fits really well into this category.  A lot of people read the “plain words” of Jesus on marriage and divorce and think they have a clear understanding of them, but do they?  I’ve covered this in much more detail in “Book Review: Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible by David Instone-Brewer“, so this will just be a very brief summary of one point.

First and foremost, Jesus upheld the Law.  Does anyone disagree with this point?  If that is so, then that means He also upheld the points about divorce and remarriage.  He also added information to the argument (such as one man, one woman, no polygamy, for example), which is why the Pharisees left off the argument from that and why His disciples were perplexed thereafter, but those two items are outside the scope of this article.  However, He never took away from the Law!

Part of the misunderstanding revolves around what He did not say as much as what He did say.  He did not say that the man giving a certificate of divorce was wrong in all circumstances, but He did say marriage was intended to be life-long.  He did not address the issue of widowhood at all, for which the person should obviously be free to remarry.  He did not address abandonment, which was a complicated matter because of how the Jews interpreted the Scripture.  He did not address the matter where a woman was not receiving her fair share of food, shelter, clothing or intimate needs, which the Law provided for in the case of multiple wives (and by extension meant even one wife was supposed to be cared for under the Law; S. Ex 21:10-11).

No, He was specifically addressing the issue of divorce “for any matter”.

24  When a man taketh a wife, and marrieth her, then it shall be, if she find no favor in his eyes, because he hath found some unseemly thing in her, that he shall write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.

~ Dt 24:1 (ASV)

The argument between the different sects of the first century Jews centered around “some unseemly thing”.  Here is an excerpt from my previous article:

It’s a little hard to follow in English, but “some thing” was believed to be “any matter” by the Hillelites.  They discounted the “unseemly” or as other versions say “unclean” or “indecent”.  However, the Shammaites did not buy this at all.  They would say this verse meant not to divorce “except for indecency”, the same language Jesus used.  Perhaps the wife has not been caught in adultery, but the husband might suspect such activity.  This would have been “indecency” in the eyes of the Jews.  However, the Shammaites did not disavow the rights of the wife outlined in Exodus 21.  They allowed divorce if a wife was neglected of her basic necessities.  Rather, in the context of the argument, the Shammaites and Jesus were throwing out the notion that a man can divorce his wife over “any matter”.

Languages use shorthand all the time.  If I write “9/11”, you know what I mean.  You probably understand the difference between it and “9-1-1” or even “911”.  “Any matter” was such a shorthand to an argument over the meaning of Deuteronomy 24.

If such a divorce were illegal, then if either party were to remarry, it would be considered adultery in the eyes of God.

9 Now what I say to you is that whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality [“indecency”], and marries another woman commits adultery!”

~ Mt 19:9 (CJB)

Context is paramount here, for without the context of what the argument was about can and has led to erroneous answers.  If Jesus’ words were to be taken literally, then a woman could not be granted a divorce for neglect, abuse or even Paul’s provision of abandonment (and even Paul’s argument is given in a cultural context, although not as controversial for most, so I suggest you read the original article).

In fact, Jesus’ teachings were quite controversial for several other reasons, including the fact that divorce was not ever compulsory, whereas the Jews often forced people to divorce (such as in the cases of adultery) even when the two parties were willing to be reconciled.

Jesus was less concerned with illegitimacy and the religious propriety of the time than with the principle that marriage was meant to be lifelong.  Both partners should do all they can to make sure that their marriage survives.  This means that both partners should take care to fulfill their marriage vows, but also that they should be ready to forgive a partner who breaks the marriage vows and subsequently repents.  However, divorce is “allowed” if one partner stubbornly continues to break the vows, as Israel did when God divorced her.

~ Location 1596 of 5555, Kindle edition, Instone-Brewster

Types of Context

So, if you’ve been paying attention, and maybe even if you were not, I have labored to point out there are different contexts.  So, let’s identify them and assign a meaningful priority upon them, for if there are two different contexts that cause a contradiction, it is important to know which one to go with.

The Bible Interprets the Bible

9 Whom will he teach knowledge? and whom will he make to understand the message? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts?

10 For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, there a little.

11 Nay, but by men of strange lips and with another tongue will he speak to this people;

12 to whom he said, This is the rest, give ye rest to him that is weary; and this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear.

13 Therefore shall the word of Jehovah be unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, there a little; that they may go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.

~ Isa 28:9-13 (ASV)

HWA realized that one key to the Bible was that one passage in one place could interpret another passage in another place without contradicting other portions of Scripture.  Notice that it is not the educated of the world, whether it be Moody Bible Instittute or even necessarily Ambassador College, but babes “that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts”!

The Pharisees and religious leaders criticized the disciples for being unlearned men.  Paul wrote that it isn’t the vaulted and important men of the world who are called now but the ignorant (1Co 1:20, 27).  Isn’t it amazing, though, how many have criticized HWA for getting his information from reading the Bible and looking up the passage in Strong’s and coming to conclusions apart from those who studied Greek and Hebrew so much?  Yet, what he did was ask God for help, look up the clear definitions of the words in question and then look at the passage in its biblical context!

Yet, even then, there is fulfillment here, for Jesus did say, probably in Aramaic, that He would give us rest if we were heavily burdened.  His words were then written down in Greek, yet “with another tongue”!  And yet again, those words were further translated into English and went all over the world to even more nations and fully translated yet again into over 500 languages!

Notice how I got almost all of that from context!

I’m sure we are all familiar with the notion that the Bible can generally speak for itself.  The important matters related to sin, forgiveness and salvation should all be clear from the clear wording of Scripture even in a standalone sense.  However, some things, such as prophecy, will require clarification and require the circumstances to be outlined.

Even here, symbolism may be immediately expounded or spread out throughout Scripture, so even here we need to assign a priority order:


  1. Within the context of the passage itself.  In particular, prophetic symbols are often interpreted immediately after the description of the dream or vision.  “What are these?” or some variation on it is quite common in some OT prophecies.  The context might be a couple of chapters earlier or later, seeing as chapters and verses are not in the original, and so we must discern when passages begin and end.
  2. Within the book.  If the immediate context doesn’t reveal it, then often the book being studied does.  In the Book of Daniel, for example, he sees four different kingdoms in various visions and in various ways.  However, the fact that he sees four of them, and that early on is the first one, should clue us in that he is describing the same four kingdoms.
  3. Within parallel passages.  The keys to much of the Book of Daniel are in the Book of Revelation and vice versa.  The key to how God tested King David in the taking of the census of Israel in the Book of 2 Samuel is explained that He used Satan to test David in 1 Chronicles.
  4. Within the entire Bible.  Some symbols are only used here and there throughout the Bible.  The Tree of Life is only mentioned in three books of the Bible.  Interestingly, those books are in the beginning (Genesis), middle (Proverbs) and the end (Revelation).  The serpent in the Garden of Eden can only be assumed to be Satan in reality until we read that he is the “serpent of old” in the Book of Revelation (and interestingly, Christadelphians still discount that even then!).

In the study of women as symbols in the Bible, this is important because we have already seen that one of them is a symbol for “wickedness”.  However, the immediate context in any other place in the Bible does not justify that, and even in context we are told what many of them stand for and it is not wickedness.  So, we see a mix of these types of context with this symbol, and the nearest one is the one we should use in the given case.

Language and Culture

Language and culture, as already discussed, are inseparable.  If the current context and the context in the Bible itself doesn’t provide a frame of reference, then that’s where studies of archeology and the other writings of ancients can come into play.  In fact, even if the passage is already clear, then linguistic and cultural studies can still enhance our understanding if it doesn’t contradict what the Bible actually says.

The exchange on divorce between Jesus and the Pharisees is but one example of how it can even make it clearer what the discussion is about.  They were engaging in linguistic shorthand to discuss one of the issues of the day.  Another might be words that were once argued to not be used outside of the Bible actually were, and so that can also give us insight to its meaning.  Agape love is just such an example of how important it is to remain grounded in literary reality and not get carried away.

It can also help to explain some puzzling things.  For example, why did Abraham pay Ephron the Hittite for the field even though Ephron said he would give it to him?  Apparently, this was a type of bartering in that culture.  However, Abraham wasn’t interested in bartering, so he simply paid the price that was mentioned in an off-handed way (“a piece of land worth four hundred shekels”, Ge 23:15 ASV).

The Bible was not written in a vacuum, so we’d expect quite a few cultural items to come our way from the text as well.  The Law states that if a brother will not redeem his dead brother’s family by giving him children, then he was to take off his shoe and be proclaimed the shoeless one in Israel (Dt 25:9-10).  So, when the nearest kinsman to Naomi refused to marry Ruth the Moabitess, he takes off his shoe, but it appears that the custom had morphed into a more general type of acknowledging an agreement by that time according to the accompanying commentary (even though it certainly fits the context).


Last, and certainly least, is outside commentary.  They have studied the texts, and presumably the older translations, as well as the cultural and linguistic items before commenting.  Sometimes, these are based upon sound exegetical principles, but sometimes not.  Use with salt liberally.

This also included parenthetical statements added by scribes during transmission.

Mark 7:19 is a good example of this, and it is simultaneously an important reminder of why the KJV is actually superior to some of the more modern translations.  First, the KJV:

19 Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?

~ Mk 7:19

However, notice the RSV:

19 since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?”[a] (Thus he declared all foods clean.)

The parenthesis indicates it was a scribe’s addition!  That does not sound to me like anything I would want to base a doctrine upon!  However, some modern translations are worse because they do not include the parenthesis, simply making it appear to be part of the inspired text!  Notice the CEV:

19 It doesn’t go into your heart, but into your stomach, and then out of your body.” By saying this, Jesus meant that all foods were fit to eat.

To its credit, the NIV doesn’t fall into this last category, although I have other criticisms about it in particular.

So, commentary, even scribal comments within the text, can be deceptive and harmful.  Always use with caution!

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know, and Why It’s Important to Know This

At the end of the day, there are some things that will still be unclear or even unknown to us.  That is where the arrogance and narcissism of those who seem themselves in every page of the Bible really gets irritating.  They write entire booklets on things they have no clue about, and God will one day hold them accountable for their words.

36 And I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.

~ Mt 12:36 (ASV)

One in particular puts out the false idea that he can contradict Scripture and write down the unknowable!

10 And I saw another strong angel coming down out of heaven, arrayed with a cloud; and the rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire;

2 and he had in his hand a little book open: and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left upon the earth;

3 and he cried with a great voice, as a lion roareth: and when he cried, the seven thunders uttered their voices.

4 And when the seven thunders uttered their voices, I was about to write: and I heard a voice from heaven saying, Seal up the things which the seven thunders uttered, and write them not.

~ Rev 10:1-4 (ASV)

This same so-called “prophet” says that he was the one to “prophesy again” (v 11).  Really?  I don’t see his name here!  Not only that, but what is the timeframe?

Revelation 9 tells us the angels with the trumpets, and at the end is number 6.  Revelation 11 has the 7th trumpet sounding in v 15.  Revelation 10:7 says that the seventh angel “is about to sound”.  So, we are between the 6th and 7th angels sounding their trumpets during the Great Tribulation!

So, are we there yet?

First of all, who was told to prophesy again?  John!  This is why the next concept, who is being addressed, is so important!  John was told to prophesy again, not some ungodly false teacher breaking up families!

What are the seven thunders?  We don’t know!  Anyone who tells you otherwise is arrogant beyond belief!  They are contradicting clear Scripture which tells us John is to “seal up the things which the seven thunders uttered”!  When will they be revealed?  Context tells us!  “When he (the angel) cried”!

It is time for us to plainly state that God knows everything, and we are not God!  We will not and cannot in this life know everything there is to know!

Perhaps that is the most important thing of all to know.  Because if we can acknowledge that we do not have perfect knowledge, we will be less likely to make stuff up!

From here, you may:

Go back to the Introduction

Go back to Part 2

Go on to Part 4

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