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BibleProject Podcast
BibleProject Podcast
New Testament Letters • Episode 10
How Much Context Do We Really Need?
56m • August 10, 2020

This week, we finish our How to Read the Bible podcast series with one final Q+R episode where we answer questions like, “How do we know Paul’s letters are authentic?” and “Are morning devotionals still okay?” Tune in to hear your questions answered!

What You'll Learn:
  • The importance of literary context
  • How Paul's audiences experienced his letters
  • How Paul confronted division
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We’re not trying to replace one mode of studying the Bible with another way of reading. We’re saying we need a balance. And as you balance a more contextual reading of the letters with a more personal or integrated devotional reading, I think what you find is your own personal takeaways or the personal one-liners don’t become less meaningful. They actually become more meaningful because you know the context of the paragraph where the verse occurs.


  • Studying literary context isn’t the only way to read the Bible. But understanding this context helps us to see the depth and richness of the New Testament letters.
  • Just like today, Paul’s audience experienced his letters at different depths based on their background. Everyone can find it instructive, but teachers within the church help people understand it more.
  • Passages like Romans 14-15 give us wisdom for how to respond in our current cultural climate by examining how Paul confronted division within the church on socio-economic and ethnic lines.

Is there still a role for devotional reading?

Tim introduces Dr. Carissa Quinn, a member of the BibleProject team who is joining the podcast for her first Q+R while Jon is on vacation.

Tamsyn from Australia (02:12)

Now that we know there’s a lot of interpretation involved in understanding what the letters are trying to say, is there still a role for devotional reading in our lives? Can I pick up my Bible and read a few verses, and meditate on them, and pray about them, and get value out of that without having to do a really intense Bible study where I look up commentaries and expert opinions and cultural stuff?

Tim says that intense study is not the only way to approach the Bible. While it's true that many people read the letters out of context as a devotional grab-bag, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t find inspiration and beauty in our daily reading. The goal is to let the letters speak for themselves rather than letting our own desires drive our reading.

When most Western Christians think of “devotional” reading, a specific picture often comes to mind that doesn't include studying context. As we learn to read the letters, we can practice both contextual reading alongside personal and devotional reading.

Did the New Testament authors take the Old Testament out of context?

Andrew from Mexico (07:20)

In a past episode you mentioned that we shouldn't read the New Testament as a grab bag of inspirational verses. So I was wondering if you could speak to the issue that, on the surface, it might appear to many people that the apostles themselves are doing that with the Old Testament. I'm thinking of examples like, "O Death, where is your sting?" and "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"

How do we account for the way New Testament authors seem to quote the Hebrew Scriptures out of context? Tim says this confused him many years ago because he didn’t understand Old Testament context or different translations. We gain more clarity when we understand the broader original context of Old Testament passages and also accept that the New Testament authors sometimes use Scripture with a different goal than the authors they quote.

Tim says most of the time, we benefit by questioning ourselves and our understanding before questioning the New Testament authors. When the apostles quote the Hebrew Scriptures, they are activating not just one verse but a whole network of hyperlinked themes.

How much of the Hebrew Scriptures did Paul expect the Gentiles to know?

Kayleigh from South Africa (15:30)

Do you think that the Gentile believers of the early Church would have had any prior knowledge of Israel's hope of a Messiah before hearing the message of Jesus? And how did they pick up the subtle references to the Hebrew Bible when they heard the letters being read aloud since they didn't grow up immersed in the Scriptures?

Because the New Testament authors were steeped in the Scriptures, their words implicitly weaved references from the Hebrew Scriptures. So what did they expect from their non-Jewish audience? What was true then is true today, that people in the Church have a wide variety of backgrounds when it comes to hearing and understanding Scripture.

Letters like 1 Corinthians show us that even Paul’s original audience sometimes misunderstood him. Yet Paul communicated to multiple audiences at once through his writing.

How much context do we need to really understand the letters?

Toby from California (21:37)

So this context is very helpful in understanding what the writers of the New Testament are saying, and I really appreciate you guys going into it. But I remember hearing that some hold a view that putting too much stock into historical context can taint your interpretation. Their point was that knowing the cultural context is helpful, but if a reader in, say, Papúa New Guinea has everything they need to understand the Bible without the resources of cultural context, then don’t we also have everything we need to understand the letters? This viewpoint has challenged me for a long time, and I wanted to get your take on it.

Carissa says this question resonates with her. Sometimes our reconstruction of historical context can be more hypothetical than at other times. Many biblical scholars subscribe to the view that the primary context of meaning in the letters are the words in the text.

Tim says that, over time, puzzling or odd details in the letters became clear to him when he learned about historical context. Because the New Testament letters are only offering us one side of a conversation, they force us to recognize and consider context. Tim says the primary context of the letters is understanding how they fit into the expansion of the Church in Acts and how it all fits into the broader biblical story.

In one sense, we have everything we need to understand the Bible when we have the Bible and the Church. As part of that, a healthy church will have those who are teachers and can help to bring a greater depth of understanding to the Scriptures. Understanding is a lifelong process.

How was Paul able to write letters while in prison?

Jomei from California (30:38)

It's fascinating to hear Tim and Jon talk about how the letters were produced. I'm just wondering, since Paul had written several of his letters from prison, how can he carry out such an elaborate process from prison?

Tim says he learned a lot from reading books such as Jerome Murphy-O'Connor’s book Paul the Letter Writer. He quotes a section at the end of 2 Timothy.

2 Timothy 4:9-13
Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.

This passage shows us that Paul, even while he was in prison, was still able to activate his network and resources, including letter writing materials. Paul was never alone and always worked within a network of the Church, which allowed him to write the prison epistles of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, and 2 Timothy.

Could the use of scribes explain differences in Paul’s style?

Reuben from England (35:38)

I've loved the series on the epistles, especially episode eight on how the letters were made. My question is, do you think that the stylistic contributions of the secretary might go a long way in explaining the differences that lead scholars to think some of the letters are not authentically Pauline, such as Ephesians and Colossians?

In episode eight, Tim and Jon talked about the presence of co-senders, co-authors, and the role of the scribe as a writer in the letters. It shouldn’t surprise us if the letters each sound a little different based on the team involved in composing Paul’s thoughts.

Although some scholars have questioned the genuineness of Paul’s letters due to a different vocabulary or tone, this doesn’t provide enough grounds to dismiss Pauline authorship. There are many reasons the letters may sound different related to age, audience, purpose, or the role of a scribe or writing team.

Carissa asks a follow-up question. Even if the letters aren’t authentically Pauline, does that mean they’re no longer Scripture? Tim says this gets back to the theme of inspiration. Our modern understanding of inspiration often limits the picture of how the Holy Spirit can work through the apostles to communicate to us.

How do we apply Paul’s words in Romans to our context today?

Elizabeth from Georgia (42:42)

You mentioned that the New Testament letters are not written to us but have been given for us. Within the context that Romans was written regarding the social unrest surrounding the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians, how can we best apply the lessons Paul writes to the Romans to the social unrest and injustice that has permeated our culture today?

Historical context tells us that Jews were kicked out of Rome related to controversy that arose around the message of Jesus. When Jewish believers later came back, the churches were divided along ethnic lines. Paul’s argument addresses social unrest and division between groups in the Church.

Carissa says application begins by asking where we see these divides within the Church today. Tim references the different terms Paul used to describe these groups in Romans 14 and 15 in terms of social status. Carissa adds that unity and oneness is a central aim in Paul’s writing and in the biblical story itself.

In Romans 15, Paul calls for the “powerful” to humble themselves and receive the “not powerful” on their terms. Unification doesn’t ignore social differences; instead, the strong lay down their rights to lift up the weak. When we understand that historical context, we get a much clearer idea of how the message to the Romans can practically be applied to our culture today.

Additional Resources

Show Music
Defender Instrumental by Tents

Show produced by Dan Gummel and Camden McAfee. Audience questions collected by Christopher Maier.

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