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Background - Part 2
Understanding the Context of Biblical Passages

(Last updated 1/17/00)
First Century Religious and Political Background


Most Bible studies will teach the concept of "taking verses in context." Unfortunately, the only concept of "context" usually taught is, "literary-grammatical," referring to the surrounding words and sentences. While literary-grammatical context is important, there are others just as important to consider, including:

  • Religious/Cultural Context (1st century Jewish)
  • Historical/Policital Context (Jewish, Roman and Jewish-Roman)
Religious/Cultural Context

This would include "theological" statements made by Yeshua and the authors of the "New Testament" as often time they are reflecting Second Temple era religious opinions, including those found in the Talmud. It also takes into account habits of Jewish lifestyle, Judaism's relationship to the gentile world, and idioms and figures of speech used in first century Hebrew dialogue.

Historical/Political context

This includes "global" events leading up to the first century scene depicted in the "New Testament," first century Jewish life under Roman authority, and relationships between Jewish religious factions such as the Pharisees, Saduccees and Essenes.


Most people studying the Scriptures today have an "approach" that is formed by their church, cultural, educational and family background. No matter how objective they try to be ("letting the Scriptures speak for themselves"), the fact is that they are 20th century, "western-minded" people, who are reading documents from another time and (Hebrew) culture. In the case of the New Testament letters, you also have documents that were translated into the Greek language of 1900+ years ago and then into today's modern language(s).

All of this presents not only a question of grammatical difficulty -- it also often involves understanding complex Hebrew religious concepts for which there was no adequate expression in the Greek language, and are "lost" in the translation. (i.e., You need to put the text back into the context the Hebrew authors intended it to be read in.)

Although this may sound "simple," it is in reality the single greatest obstacle for the modern Bible student to overcome, especially one raised in "Christian America or Europe."

The first step toward eliminating bias is to understand that Matthew, as well as the rest of the books of the "New Testament," must be studied in the following context:

  1. They are first century Hebrew texts written by authors with a Hebrew understanding of such things as "faith" or "salvation" or "law." They were never meant to be interpreted with a 20th century "western mindset," (that has been tainted by almost 2000 years of non-Jewish, and even anti-Jewish theology.)
  2. They were written with an assumption that the reader(s) have some grounding in Torah (i.e., books with the primary focus on gentiles, such as "Romans"), and in some cases are well established in Torah (i.e., books with the primary message to Jews, such as "Hebrews").
  3. They are written at a time when Rome controlled the land of Israel and its people, and gentiles "coming to faith" by the preaching of the disciples, were entering from a very anti-Semitic Roman culture and had little regard for anything Jewish, even as believers.
  4. They are written at a very "Messianically-focused" time in Israel's history.
  5. There was a wide range of opinion on spiritual matters in Judaism at that time.