Importance of Historical-Cultural Context

“But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.” – Luke 10:33, ESV

“Give me liberty or give me death.” This would seem like an extreme statement to make if one does not know the history behind this historical statement by Patrick Henry. To understand this statement, one has to understand the history of the American Revolution, and the oppression of the American colonies by the British empire. The pre-revolutionary war American colonialists were not represented in the British Parliament, were not given freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, have freedom of speech, freedom to bear arms, were forced to house British soldiers, and were taxed without representation. This little bit of informational history gives some insight into Patrick Henry’s words. He wanted to be treated fairly by the British government. Since he did not have that, he wanted to be free from British rule, and the colonies to run themselves, or die.

When addressing the topic of Hermeneutics, interpretation, one often hears about the importance of context, information that makes since of the subject of study. There is surrounding context, book context, authorial context, literary context, and historical context. I have talked about surrounding context, book context, and authorial context in previous blogs. This blog will discuss historical context. Historical context involves the historical and cultural information behind a passage. It can also involve knowledge about the author, audience, and situation the book was written. It also involves politics, cultural customs, economics, historical events, and social norms. This is discovered in the research or observation stage in interpreting literature. In reference to Scripture, this can be found in good commentaries like The MacArthur Commentary Series, study Bibles like the MacArthur Study Bible or the ESV Study Bible, and almanacs like The Bible Almanac by J. I. Packer.  

To better illustrate the importance of historical context we will look at the parable of the Good Samaritan.

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37, ESV).

Cultural Context

When we study cultural context, immediately we discover some interesting facts. Some translations use the word “lawyer” for “expert in the law”. The lawyer questioning Jesus was an expert in Jewish law, specifically the Torah.[1] If anyone could trap Jesus, it would be this guy. Jesus’ turning the question back on the law expert by asking what is in the law revealed Jesus’ knowledge of the trap, and was a great comeback to show Jesus’ superiority to the lawyer.

            The question of who is the lawyer’s neighbor points to the debate within Judaism where they taught that one should love their neighbor but to hate their enemy, and one’s neighbors were people who were deemed righteous.[2] This would have been taught by the average rabbi in the synagogue. Jesus also addressed this in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:43.

            In Jesus’ parable of the Samaritan the man’s descent into Jericho to only be attacked by robbers would have made sense to the lawyer. The Jerusalem/Jericho road was steep, descending more than three thousand feet in a wild country perfect for robbers in waiting.[3]

            Other things to consider are people did not have supermarkets, hospitals, fast travel, ambulances, police, or any modern conveniences. People generally traveled by foot with a walking stick, or on an animal. They carried a purse to keep wine, oil, a snack, honey, and money. Clothes were expensive, made by hand, and often were used to sleep in. Men usually wore three layers of clothing: a loin cloth, an under garment, and an overcoat. This certainly puts things in perspective when this guy was beaten, stripped, and left for dead. There was no one to help, no hospital to go to, no police officer would come and call an ambulance. This guy was hopeless and needed the compassion of a neighbor.

            Priests and Levites were Jews who not only should have felt compassion for this man, but also could have helped him medically for priests were trained in Old Testament on how to deal with sickness and leprosy from the book of Leviticus. If anyone could have helped this Jew, it would have been them. That would have been a shock to the expert in the Law that these people did not help.

Historical Context

            Historical context also sheds some light on the passage. The reason the Samaritan helped is also a surprise in the story. The Samaritans were half-breed Jews who had a syncretistic religion that involved also worshipping pagan deities and worshipping on a different mountain and in a different temple than the Jews did. Their story originates from the Assyrian captivity in 722 B.C. where Israel was exiled and scattered all over the Assyrian empire for their idolatry.[4] The Assyrians brought in people from other countries to work the land but were killed by lions for not following the laws of God (2 Kings 17:24-26). So the king of Assyria sent a priest, not a priest from the tribe of Levi but one of the captured priests from the syncretistic religion of idolatrous Israel, to teach the people of the land how to worship God (vv. 27-28). These people chose to serve the gods from the countries they originated from and the Lord (vv. 29-33).

            The Jews and the Samaritans also had several wars, skirmishes, and defilements and destructions of each other’s temples. Samaritan cities and their temple were destroyed by Jews during the reign of John Hyrcanus.[5] The Samaritans also had once defiled the temple during the Passover in 6-9 A.D. with human bones.[6] It is no wonder why the lawyer in reply to Jesus’ who was the one who showed to be a neighbor was the one who showed mercy.

Conclusion

            The point of the story is one has to show mercy even to one’s enemy and one cannot perfectly fulfill the law of loving one’s neighbor as oneself nor to love the Lord with all one’s being. This should have caused the lawyer to repent and ask how God might save him. Jesus would have answered to “repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15, ESV) The gospel at that time would have been to believe Jesus is the messiah who came to take away sins. Jesus ultimately did that by being the perfect sacrifice to appease God’s wrath paying the penalty of our sin on the cross, so God can legally dismiss the case of the one who has repented of their sin and trusts in Jesus. Jesus also rose from the dead and defeated death so that we might have the hope of eternal life in Him.

            Historical context is important. It helps the interpreter better understand what was being communicated at the time of the original audience. The goal of interpretation is to understand what the author meant, not what it means to me. When we understand the author’s intentions, we can draw principles from what the author is saying and apply them to our present-day situation. Maybe you think you are a good person, or maybe you are trying to justify your sin. The parable of the Good Samaritan showed an expert in God’s law cannot live up to God’s standards to be saved. We do not love God fully like we should, nor our neighbor as ourselves. We need to turn from our sin and self-righteousness to the one who is sinless and died so that we could have forgiveness of our sin. If you want to know how to dive deeper into the Word of God, please buy the resources from the resource section. The Using Hermeneutics Series is designed to help you better understand the scriptures, the Christian faith, and implement God’s Word in your life. If you buy our resources, you will greatly help our ministry to help others know and love Jesus more. Lord bless you and have a great day.

References


[1] Leon Morris, Luke: An Introduction and Commentary, Part of the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Vol. 3, (Downers Grove, Illinois, InterVarsity Press, 1988).  206

[2] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary, (Nashville, Tennessee, Thomas Nelson, 2005). 1298

[3] Leon Morris, Luke: An Introduction and Commentary, (Downers Grove, Illinois, InterVarsity Press, 1988). 207

[4] David E. Garland, Luke: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 2011). 455.

[5] Full Ibid.

[6] Full Ibid.

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