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How to Analyze the Historical-Cultural Context of a Book or Passage (Andrew Naselli)

Here are seven questions to ask when analyzing the historical-cultural context of a New Testament book or passage. Let’s illustrate this with the letter of 1 Corinthians.

1. Genre: What is the Style of Literature?

First Corinthians is a letter–very similar to other ancient Greco-Roman letters.

2. Author: Who Wrote It?

The apostle Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. Paul identifies himself as the author in the letter’s opening line, and few have contested the claim.

3. Date: When Did the Author Write It?

Probably early in A.D. 55.

4. Place: Where Did the Author Write It?


5. Audience: To Whom Did the Author Write It? 

“To the church of God that is in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2).

6. Purpose: Why Did the Author Write It?

Paul is responding to a report that Chloe’s people gave him about the church in Corinth (see 1 Cor. 1:11) and to a letter that the church wrote to him (see 1 Cor. 7:1a). He has many specific purposes for writing this letter. The most basic is to exhort the Corinthian church to live like what they are: God’s holy people (1:2). Here’s a basic outline of the letter that shows the ten major issues Paul addresses:

1. Introduction (1:1–9)

2. Issues That Paul Responds to Based on Reports about the Corinthians and a Letter from the Corinthians (1:10–15:58)

2.1 Dividing over Church Teachers (1:10–4:21)

2.2 Tolerating Incest (5:1–13)

2.3 Bringing Lawsuits against One Another (6:1–11)

2.4 Excusing Sexual Immorality (6:12–20)

2.5 Having Sex in Marriage, Staying Single, Getting Divorced, and Getting Married (7:1–40)

2.6 Eating Food Offered to Idols (8:1–11:1)

2.7 Wearing Head Coverings (11:2–16)

2.8 Abusing the Lord’s Supper (11:17–34)

2.9 Desiring and Using Spiritual Gifts (12:1–14:40)

2.10 Denying That God Will Resurrect Believers (15:1–58)

3. Conclusion (16:1–24)

Everyone recognizes that it is important to ask these first six questions. Just read the introduction to a book of the Bible in any mainstream evangelical study Bible. The seventh question is controversial.

7. Background: What Historical-Cultural Details Does the Author Probably Assume?

Gordon Fee explains, “Most people who communicate with each other do so on the basis of shared assumptions that are seldom articulated. These shared assumptions have to do with common history (family or group stories), sociology (the relationships and social structures that determine everyday life), and culture (the values, often not articulated, that a group shares in order to function).”

Paul, for example, mentions a lot of historical-cultural details in his letters, but there are also some exegetically significant ones that he doesn’t explicitly mention–often because he assumes that he and his audience already share that knowledge. It’s not always necessary to understand those historical-cultural details in order to accurately understand the Bible, but understanding the historical-cultural context can certainly enhance how you understand a particular passage. Here are six features worth considering:

1. Worldview. The values and mind-set of (1) the writer, (2) the recipients, (3) other people the text mentions, and/or (4) the larger society.

2. Societal and economic structures. Marriage and family patterns, gender roles, ethnicity, slavery, social status through patronage, means of earning a living, issues of wealth and poverty.

3. Physical features. Climate, topography, buildings, tools, manner of transportation.

4. Political climate. Its structures, loyalties, and personnel.

5. Behavior patterns. Dress and customs.

6. Religious practices. Convictions, rituals, affiliations, power centers.

Every one of those six features is significant for interpreting various parts of 1 Corinthians.

So those are seven questions to ask when analyzing the historical-cultural context of a New Testament book or passage.

Editor’s note: This article was taken from How to Understand and Apply the New Testament by Andrew Naselli  ISBN 978-1-62995-248-2  pages 168-170.

Andrew Naselli

Andy Naselli is associate professor of systematic theology and New Testament at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis and one of the pastors of Bethlehem Baptist Church.

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