A Tale Of Two Cultures: Understanding The Historical And Cultural Context Of The NT Epistles. -- By: James R. Payton, Jr.

Journal: Priscilla Papers
Volume: PP 16:1 (Winter 2002)
Article: A Tale Of Two Cultures: Understanding The Historical And Cultural Context Of The NT Epistles.
Author: James R. Payton, Jr.

A Tale Of Two Cultures: Understanding The Historical And Cultural Context Of The NT Epistles.

James R. Payton, Jr.

James R. Payton, Jr., is professor of history at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, ON, Canada. He served from 1996-2001 as a member of the Task Force on Women in Ministry of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

In the evangelical world, we stress the importance o f context for understanding Scripture rightly. We warn against “taking a verse out of context,” because the meaning of a verse is shaped or influenced by the paragraph or chapter in which it appears. Context may not be everything in interpretation, but the literary context is undeniably important for interpreting a passage faithfully.

As a historian, though, I have often found that we seem much less attuned to historical context. To be sure, we recognize the need to find out something about the Assyrians or Babylonians to understand what the prophets proclaimed, but we often fail to ask about the historical context into which New Testament authors wrote. Much of the time, we approach passages in the New Testament almost as if they were written with the twenty-first century in mind. Of course they weren’t. The New Testament letters, for example, were written to first-century churches in the ancient Roman Empire. To understand them, we need to take into account the culture into which the biblical authors wrote; that is, we need to consider the historical context.

One of the things that strikes me about the debate over the roles of women in the church over the last generation is how little attention has been shown to the question of the historical context for the statements made by the New Testament authors. There have been studies into some practices of other religions, arguments about the significance of certain artistic presentations in the catacombs, and so on; but I have not found sustained and informed attention given to the historical context—or, more accurately, historical contexts—of the various declarations about women and the church found in the various New Testament books.1 Responsibility for regularly teaching a course on “Classical History” (ancient Greece, the Hellenistic period, and ancient Rome) has helped me become familiar with the historical contexts of the first-century churches. “In context,” the New Testament’s teaching on the role of women in the church is “a tale of two cultures.”

Two Ancient Cultures

Historians have long recognized that the ancient Roman Empire was composed of two quite different cultures. One was the Hellenistic culture spread around the eastern Mediterranean basin through the conquests of Alexander the Great in the ...

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