Out of Context
Within the Christian community, the most commonly quoted text is the Bible, and rightly so. Our faith places authority in the Scriptures; our holy text forms the basis of our theology. We often use verses from the Bible to offer motivation, to remind ourselves of God’s promise, to remember Jesus’ sacrifice, to instruct how we live our lives. Bible verses are used to affirm actions we agree with, and condemn actions–as well as the people that do these actions–we do not. Problems arise when we take the Bible out of context, both in a historical/cultural sense and in an intertextual sense.
The Old Testament can be dated as early as the fifteenth century BCE, and the most recently written parts of the New Testament are dated to the first few centuries of the Common Era. 1 Despite this, it’s easy to fall into the habit of too quickly and too carelessly applying verses to modern life from a completely different historical and cultural context. There are many cultural realities in Biblical times that have since changed dramatically; examples include slavery, status and treatment of women, and ethics of sexuality and sexual identity. Even within the Bible itself, historical and cultural contexts shift, taking for example the Roman Imperialism that Jesus lived under versus the reign of King David. We have to consider all topics in the way that they are considered contemporarily, and therefore we should not use singular verses from a text that old without great care and sensitivity. We must remember the contingency of history–the perspective that we have on the past and the future perspective those after us will have as well.
Quotes from a variety of nonreligious texts have been taken out of context with great consequences. These examples help to highlight the danger when this happens with the Bible and illuminate some of the many problems with contextual inconsistencies. These incidents can range from humorous, to awkward, to hurtful, to anger-inducing. In 2013, it was announced that Jane Austen would replace Charles Darwin as the next face of the British £10 note, accompanied with a quote from one of her most famous novels (that all Columbia College students read during their time in Literature Humanities), Pride and Prejudice. The quote reads, “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” which seems fitting to accompany the portrait of one of England’s greatest novelists. 2 However, this line is actually said by the deceitful character of Caroline Bingley, as she pretends to read a book in order to get attention from Mr. Darcy, one of the main characters. It’s a nice line, but the intertextual context from which it was taken greatly diminishes its effect and significantly undermines the entire effort to put Austen on the note.
A more serious contemporary example is that of a quote translated into English from Vergil’s Aeneid, another Literature Humanities text, that was placed on the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. The quote itself is beautiful and reads, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” But the context of this quote in Vergil’s text makes it highly problematic, especially because it has been placed on the memorial of such a serious and tragic event. In the Aeneid the quote comes right after the death of Trojan soldiers Nisus and Euryalus, who had just completed a gory murder rampage before being killed themselves. 3 And these two are not remembered in the story in a way that we want to honor those lost on 9/11; rather, their heads are paraded around the camp of their enemies.
There are many areas in which biblical verses have been and continue to be inappropriately taken out of historical and intertextual context. Slavery in America was justified using the famous verse from Ephesians, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear.” 4 For decades, verses from Leviticus–as well as Romans, 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy, and others–have been misused to condemn homosexuality and the LGBTQ community. 5 Factions of the church continue to use individual verses to subdue and silence women, such as this passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands.” 6 And this quote from Ephesians: “For the husband is the head of the wife.” 7
Without becoming bogged down in these many and controversial examples, it is my desire that we consider the dangers of taking the Bible out of context. We see this practice more often than we think: politicians’ one-liners, Instagram captions or bios, argumentative articles about both Christian and secular issues, in conversation among our friends of faith, and even in the sermons of our pastors. Before quoting the Bible, we should read the passages we are quoting from to ensure the context is relevant for the situation in which we are using the verse. Similarly, we must critically evaluate others, especially when it comes to controversial issues, to make sure that the way in which the Bible is cited is appropriate historically, culturally, and intertextually.
- https://www.biblica.com/bible/bible-faqs/when-was-the-bible-written/. ↩
- See also https://www.theguardian.com/business/shortcuts/2013/jul/25/jane-austen-quotation-10-note. ↩
- See also, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/07/opinion/07alexander.html. ↩
- Ephesians 6:5. ↩
- Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-28, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 1 Timothy 1:8-10. ↩
- Colossians 3:18. ↩
- Ephesians 5:23. ↩