“In order to understand a Bible passage, you need to know the historical, cultural, and literary background.”
I’ve heard such things said many times. I think it’s ridiculous.
There are three main reasons I don’t think you need to know the historical, cultural, or literary background of a passage to understand the passage.
First, the origins of this advice come from literary criticism. Literary criticism, as it relates to the Bible, comes from liberal theology. One of its foundational beliefs is that the Bible is not inspired. There are cultural norms and commentary that can be ignored in the Bible. Literary criticism only exists because of doubts concerning the authenticity and inerrancy of the Bible. Now that this sort of stuff has been around long enough, it’s part of typical Christian speak. Not everyone who brings up such things doubts the inspiration of Scripture, but that is the foundation of such things, so beware when someone brings it up.
Second, who is to say what the historical, cultural, or literary background is? What are the trusted sources of such information? Most of the time, an appeal to culture or history is nothing more than code words that you’re about to hear why the Bible doesn’t mean what it clearly says. Rarely have I heard anyone use cultural, historical, or literary background to build up a literal understanding of Scripture. Typically it will serve to bolster some sort of allegorical interpretation. If not that, than it will at least be used to throw out the traditional common-sense meaning of a text. Rarely does the historical, cultural, or literary background add anything, and many times it detracts from what the Bible says.
Third, in order to understand the Bible you don’t just need the Bible and the Holy Spirit, you now also need historical, cultural, and literary books. This undermines the authority of the Scripture as well as the Holy Spirit’s ministry. If I need Josephus to understand the Bible, then all bets are off. Who says Josephus got stuff right? Why do we put more trust in historians than in the inspired Word of God?
Historical, cultural, and literary background is just a way for overly-intellectual ivory tower types to tell the average laymen the Bible is too hard for them to understand. I have more confidence in God’s ability to say exactly what He meant than in scholars to tell me what God really meant.
The Bible is not that hard to understand with study, prayer, the edification of the Church, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. You don’t need to buy some professor’s books to understand it. Just read the Word and pray for Wisdom. Let the Spirit teach you.