Is 'Background Information' Ever Necessary to Understand the Bible?
My answer is a cautious yes: "background information" (which I prefer to call the historical context) is sometimes necessary for understanding the Bible accurately.
I say "cautious" because there are dangers if you answer that question either yes or no.
Dangers If You Answer Yes
- Some misuse "background information" in a way that twists the text to contradict what it transparently says. (E.g., see Bob Stein, Clint Arnold, and Doug Moo share concerns about mirror reading.)
- Others so focus on "background information" that they end up foregrounding what is in the background and backgrounding what is in the foreground (to borrow language from Doug Moo's critique of Tom Wright's new perspective on Paul). And as important as, say, extracanonical Jewish literature is for New Testament studies (see here and here), those studies often illustrate the law of diminishing returns.
It's important to remember John Piper's three cautions in The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 34-36:
- We might misunderstand the sources.
- We might assume agreement with a source when there is no agreement.
- We might misapply the meaning of a source.
Dangers If You Answer No
Some argue that "background information" is never necessary to understand the Bible: archaeology and other historical knowledge can confirm that you correctly understand the Bible and enrich your understanding, but it is not necessary. Consequently:
- Some discard "background information" as relatively unimportant and thus not worth studying carefully.
- Some even view it as a threat to the Bible's clarity and sufficiency.
Those who hold this view may fail to recognize how much basic "background information" they regularly employ to understand the Bible accurately.
Illustration: Wayne Grudem Answers No
Wayne Grudem illustrates someone who answers the question with a No, but he is not guilty of the two dangers I suggest above. He asserts ("The Perspicuity of Scripture," Themelios 34 : 297, bold added),
Historical background information can certainly enrich our understanding of individual passages of scripture, making it more precise and more vivid. But I am unwilling to affirm that background information can ever be properly used to nullify or overturn something the text actually says. In addition, I am reluctant to affirm that additional historical background information is ever necessary for getting a proper sense of a text.
On the other hand, information about the meanings of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words in the Bible does have to be obtained from the vast linguistic resources found in extra-biblical literature, resources that I consider God's good gift to the church for the purpose of enabling us to understand the Bible more accurately.
So what is the difference? I think (but I am not certain) that it is possible to maintain a distinction between (a) lexicographical resources in ancient literature and inscriptions that I think to be necessary for understanding the words of Scripture and (b) resources that provide historical background information (such as archaeological evidence and historical evidence from ancient texts) that I think to be helpful for improving our understanding but never necessary for gaining a correct understanding of the sense of a text. The difference (if it can be maintained) is the difference between what is needed for translation and what is useful for fuller understanding. For example, a translation will tell me that Ezra journeyed from Babylon to Jerusalem (see Ezra 7:9), and background information will tell me what the terrain was like and that it was a journey of about 900 miles (1,448 km). This does not change my understanding of the passage (it still means that Ezra traveled to Jerusalem), but it does give me a more vivid sense of the journey.
I stumble over that bold sentence and the distinction in the final paragraph.
I highly recommend Grudem's article, and I'm sympathetic with his first paragraph above. Nevertheless, I'd gently push back on that bold sentence. There are at least two reasons to be gentle:
1. I'm not sure what Wayne means by "a proper sense of a text." If he means "the general message of Scripture," then I agree with him (see the final section of this article). But I suspect that he means more than that.
2. Wayne tempers his language. He says, "I am reluctant to affirm." Later he adds, "I think (but I am not certain) that it is possible" to make this distinction ("if it can be maintained"):
- "lexicographical resources" = "necessary"
- "historical background information" = merely "helpful" (not necessary)
Here's my pushback: How can one logically grant language this degree of independence from the historical context? It doesn't seem possible because the authors use some words to refer to things outside the text (i.e., the words have extra-textual referents) that the first readers would have immediately grasped but that we might not. How can we determine the meaning of words apart from a historical setting?
Here are three examples (which we could easily multiply):
1. How can we determine what a δηνάριον (denarius) is without historical context? (Δηνάριον occurs 16x in the NT: Matt 18:28; 20:2, 9, 10, 13; 22:19; Mark 6:37; 12:15; 14:5; Luke 7:41; 10:35; 20:24; John 6:7; 12:5; Rev 6:6 [2x].)
2. It's important to understand what a lamb is to understand parts of the Bible, and those passages are part of deeply important typology. But what if someone today (such as an adult in a remote tribe or a child in America) has never heard of (let alone seen) a lamb? They would need some extra-biblical information in order to get "a proper sense of a text" (to use Grudem's words).
3. D. A. Carson writes this regarding Revelation 3:15 ("Approaching the Bible," in New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition [ed. D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, and G. J. Wenham; 4th ed.; Downers Grove: IVP, 1994], 15-16):
A fair bit of nonsense has been written about the exalted Christ's words to the Laodiceans: "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!" (Rev 3:15). Many have argued that this means God prefers people who are "spiritually cold" above those who are "spiritually lukewarm," even though his first preference is for those who are "spiritually hot." Ingenious explanations are then offered to defend the proposition that spiritual coldness is a superior state to spiritual lukewarmness.
All of this can comfortably be abandoned once responsible archaeology has made its contribution. Laodicea shared the Lycus valley with two other cities mentioned in the NT. Colosse was the only one that enjoyed fresh, cold, spring water; Hierapolis was known for its hot springs and became a place to which people would resort to enjoy these healing baths. By contrast, Laodicea put up with water that was neither cold and useful, nor hot and useful; it was lukewarm, loaded with chemicals, and with an international reputation for being nauseating. That brings us to Jesus' assessment of the Christians there: they were not useful in any sense, they were simply disgusting, so nauseating he would vomit them away. The interpretation would be clear enough to anyone living in the Lycus valley in the first century; it takes a bit of background information to make the point clear today.
So historical context may sometimes be necessary to understand the Bible accurately.
Does that Mean that the Bible Isn't Sufficiently Clear?
No. Here's how I address that in "Scripture: How the Bible is a Book Like No Other" (p. 66):
Not everything in the Bible is equally clear. . . . But the Bible's central message about God's saving work throughout history is unmistakably clear and easily understood. Its basic storyline—creation, fall, redemption, and consummation—is so simple that a young child can easily grasp it. God's communication in the Bible as a whole is accessible.
This assumes two debated premises. First, the Bible means what God and the human authors intended it to mean. Second, we can understand that meaning. But that doesn't mean that we can understand everything to the fullest possible degree. Case in point: Can a young child understand Genesis 1:1: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth"? Sure, that's not hard for a child to grasp. But that same child's understanding of Genesis 1:1 may continually increase as she learns more and more about the Bible and God's world. We can't know anything absolutely (exhaustively or omnisciently) like God, but we can know some things truly (substantially or for real).
If we can understand the Bible truly, then why don't all humans completely agree with each other on what the Bible teaches? The problem is not with the Bible. The problem is with finite and sinful humans. Were it not for the effects of the fall on our heads and hearts we would interpret the Bible the same way. But the point to stress here is that the Bible's central message is clear.
[Footnote] Cf. Wayne Grudem's seven sensible qualifications: "Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood but (1) not all at once, (2) not without effort, (3) not without ordinary means, (4) not without the reader's willingness to obey it, (5) not without the help of the Holy Spirit, (6) not without human misunderstanding, and (7) never completely." "The Perspicuity of Scripture," Themelios 34, no. 3 (2009): 288-309.
So yes, "background information" is sometimes necessary to understand the Bible. And this should provoke us to study God's Word (and his world) more diligently. Thank God for the abundant resources we have today to do that.