On the Importance of Context for Biblical Study

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of context in Biblical studies. Rodney Decker in his new book Reading Koine Greek (Baker Academic) provides a nice sidebar on this subject with some excellent examples from English. He writes,

“You have noticed by now that the word context shows up quite frequently in this textbook (over 200 times, if you are curious). Perhaps you have begun to think that Greek is unique in this regard—that it is the only language that requires so much attention to context to decide what something means. Greek is actually quite normal in this regard. We do not notice it in our own language, because we do it intuitively without even realizing that we are making such decisions. Here are a few examples to help you understand how important such contextual decisions are in English.

The bandage was wound around the wound.

The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.

Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.

After a number of Novocain injections, my jaw got number.

How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

Yes, these are all homonyms. But how does an English speaker disambiguate forms with different meanings, especially when many of them involve different parts of speech? How do we know that a given word is a noun rather than a verb? Or which meaning of a noun is intended? Context!” (p. 250)

This is vitally important especially for those who are trying to use some of the standard Greek and Hebrew helps for lay people. You can’t just look up a word in a lexicon and decide which definition you like best and plug it into the text. It’s not that simple. Context becomes a huge factor in which of those definitions will work best. The English examples above should make this obvious.

Reading Koine Greek

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