Leah Everson is a Redbud Writers Guild colleague of mine with a sharp mind. We’ve only met virtually thus far, but sometimes that’s all you need to appreciate and connect with someone on certain levels.
Today, as part of our Best Practices series, Leah is introducing us to one of my favorite parts of the Bible study process: analyzing the literary context of a passage.
I had originally scheduled this post for the “One Thing You Can Use in Your Bible Study Today” series over at the natalieeastman.com blog. But I realized it’s much more of a how-to supporting what should and can be your best practices in your Bible study. Thus, it’s now located here.
This tool of studying literary context is used frequently in one form or another by Christians, yet is often done lopsidedly, emphasizing certain aspects out of proportion to their actual importance and underemphasizing other aspects that are more important than one realized. Of course, as with pretty much every strategy and tool, studying literary context has multiple layers of opportunity for study: you can go deeper and deeper. But here, in both video and written form, Leah has given us a simple yet robust introduction I hope you will find helpful in demystifying this process as a tool for your study as you dig deeper in the Word.
Without further ado, I give you Leah Everson on studying literary context.
How to Study Literary Context
Contributed by Leah Everson
Transcript: How to Study Literary Context
Contributed by Leah Everson
When Dr. Natalie Eastman asked me what “One Thing” I could share with you to help you in your Bible study, I quickly thought of the word I repeat to my students over and over again: Context. In order to properly understand the meaning of a verse – or even a word! – in the Bible we must be sure we know the literary context of that verse. Don’t worry, it’s not hard. If you can read an article or even a short story, you can do this!
Studying the Literary Context is simply reviewing what came before and after a verse in order to determine the meaning of that verse.
Simple, but essential. Pulling a verse out of its literary context can result in confusion and in worse case scenarios dangerous understandings of Scripture and God.
Consider this meme that popped up on my Facebook feed last week:
So… who said it?
If you don’t know, don’t feel bad. I had to look it up. Just by reading the verses before and after this “inspirational” verse, I discovered that Satan said these words while tempting Jesus to sin. Poor material for an inspirational calendar. Definitely not words from God.
In this post I am going to teach you 3 simple steps to study the literary context. In order to illustrate this process, we are going to study James 2:17 together:
“In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (NIV)
I don’t know about you, but some questions come to mind for me when reading this verse: What is James saying about faith? Aren’t we saved by faith as Paul wrote? Or are we saved by our actions, our works? What action is James talking about?
Three Simple Steps to Study the Literary Context
1. Identify the passage surrounding your verse. Where does the passage begin and end?
James 2:17 begins “In the same way…” I hope you’re asking, “In the same way as what?!” We must look back to find out. But how far back?
Bible translations often have headings that mark off when a section begins and when it ends. But I challenge you as you read your Bible not to assume these are the best divisions. After all, they are added by editors to help us understand Scripture.
If reading a narrative, look for changes in scene or characters, just like a novel. If reading a teaching or a letter, look for breaks in flow of thought or conjunctions which continue the flow from previous verses.
James often uses the little phrase “my brothers and sisters” to mark the beginning of a new thought. They are found in 2:14 and 3:1. We can then agree with the NIV that 2:14-26 is an independent passage within the letter.
2. Identify the theme of the passage. The author or speaker is talking about something. What is it? How does the verse in question support the theme?
a. First, look for a thesis statement. James opens his passage with the question: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?Can such faith save them?” (v 14)
By reading this verse alongside verse 17, we can see that James is asking the very questions I proposed at the beginning of this study. Does faith alone save us?
b. Second, look for repeated words or phrases. Repetition is key literary style in the Bible. If something is stated two or three times, it is probably related to the theme.
i. In our passage, “faith” and “believe” are repeated 14 times.
ii. “Deeds”/”actions”/”what ‘they’ did” are repeated 12 times.
It is logical to conclude that the theme is related to the relationship of faith and deeds and that James will explain what he means in verse 17 in the passage.
c. Finally, what does the passage say about God or people? James uses Abraham and Rahab as case studies for his argument
i. Verses 21-23, Abraham’s faith in God was evident by his willingness to follow God to a new land and to sacrifice his one and only son. According to James, Abraham’s “faith and his actions were working together,and his faith was made complete by what he did” (v 24).
ii. Verse 25, Rahab, though she was a prostitute, showed her faith in God and reliance on God when she chose to honor Him by hiding His people from the authorities in Jericho.
These stories illustrate James’ statement in verse 18, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” Their faith is seen in what they did.
3. Identify the meaning of the verse within the passage.
Based on the theme and unfolding of the theme in James 2:14-26, we are more prepared to understand verse 17: In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
Both Abraham and Rahab showed their faith in their actions. Their deeds were the proof, the evidence of their faith in God. If we say we have faith, but no one can see that faith in our daily lives, that faith is dead. It doesn’t exist. This is the same thing Paul teaches about the fruit of the Spirit. If we have faith, if the Spirit is in us, the fruit of our actions will show it (Galatians 5:13-26).
Bonus: Identify the meaning of the verse and passage within the book.
I still have a lingering question: What does faith look like? What kinds of actions or deeds are evidence of our faith – besides risking our lives as Abraham and Rahab did?
James answers this question throughout his letter. Faith looks like taming your tongue (1: 19-20, 26; 3:1-13), seeking wisdom (1:5-8; 3:14-18), a life of prayer (5:13-18), being humble before God (4:1-17), being patient (5:7-12), and caring for the poor (1:27; 2:1-13; 5:1-6).
The overwhelming number of times James speaks about caring for the poor and oppressed in society leaves me feeling that I can do more. The emotional force of James 5:4-6 leaves me breathless.
Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.
In my family’s current financial situation, it is tempting for me to cut corners: to buy the cheapest coffee or chocolate instead of researching whether or not the farmers were paid a fair price. It is easier to get new clothing or accessories off the rack at the nearest big box store than to buy direct trade or second hand.
But, what good is it, brothers and sisters, if we get a good deal at Walmart while another person suffers bodily or financially for it?
I am grateful that I am not alone in making wise decisions. James promises, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (1:5). He is the giver of every good and perfect gift (1:17) who will help us in our actions and faith.
That’s it! I hope this helps you in your personal Bible reading.
Thanks for having me!
Leah D Everson (MDiv, Denver Seminary) is a Minnesota girl, a washers rookie, a book addict, and a messy mama. She divides her time between encouraging new mothers in their walk with God and taking care of her own busy boys. Loved by Jesus, Leah is learning to rest in Him. She was the founding director and teacher of the Scum Study Center at Scum of the Earth Church in Denver, CO, for five years. Leah writes about her joys and struggles as a mama on her website, www.LeahDEverson.com. She is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and part of the Five Minute Friday community. Follow Leah on twitter, instagram, or Facebook.