Quote and Context: Finding Deeper Meaning in Scripture

An often-practiced ritual in our culture is the quotation of the Bible verse. Stop and think for a moment: In how many mediums of communications does one see a Bible verse? Bumper stickers on cars, inspiring Facebook messages, warnings posted on Billboards, messages on key chains… these are but a few examples found in our society. What I will do in this post is explain why a person should take caution in such a practice and offer my own alternative.

Short quotes from the Bible possess the possibility of either being inspirational or harmful. The overall problem with quoting the Bible stems from the fact that the Bible is a diverse collection of literature. The Bible itself is not a book, but rather a library. Therefore, the “books” found within the Bible originated from various historical contexts, with varying purposes behind their composition. Take for example one book from each Testament: Proverbs (Old Testament) and Romans (New Testament). The book of Proverbs is an anthology of short sayings, and because of their various themes, it is difficult to date the book’s composition. Although traditionally attributed to King Solomon, other superscriptions in the Proverbs suggest otherwise, thus making it highly unlikely that the book was composed as a whole. In addition, scholars have pointed to pre-exilic themes in certain passages, as well as post-exilic themes in others, also suggesting different historical contexts.

Paul’s letter to the Romans, an authentic Pauline letter, dates towards the end of Paul’s life, somewhere around 57 or 58 CE, give or take a few years. Already the composition is removed from Proverbs’ ancient Near Eastern Assyrian/Babylonian, or perhaps Persian context, to a Roman imperial context. More importantly, we are no longer dealing with a collection of sayings, but rather a personal correspondence between Paul and the Church. This matter is further complicated by the fact that scholars call into question the authenticity of Romans 16:3-20. Here is another example:

Let us say that someone wants to provide the following warning, using the Bible as his or her authoritative backing:

“I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them.” (Romans 16:17, NRSV).

In this example, one encounters the problem that Paul is writing to a specific community for a specific purpose, as well as the fact that this portion of the letter does not fit with Pauline authorship, thus many scholars point to it as a later addition.

My second reason for urging caution in quoting the Bible is less exacting. The Bible (again, remember my bias for the Hebrew Bible) is filled with some of the richest material that the world has produced. The ancient Israelites and later budding Christian communities that composed what we call the Old and New Testament saw the world differently and wanted to interpret their own history through the lens of their God. Quoting a short passage of the Bible may provide a spiritual reinforcement or memorable saying, but the richness of the original text is lost in the process. Perhaps instead of focusing on short verses, Bible readers should commit figures or pericopes to memory. Instead of remembering the David and Goliath narrative as a story of an underdog, we should contemplate how David fits into the narrative of Israel’s history, as well as the rich complexity of his character as presented throughout 1 and 2 Samuel. Of course, I should be clear in that understanding the historical context of any biblical passage is not paramount to discerning meaning from the text. The passages themselves are beautiful and stand on their own; historical and biblical context provide a deeper meaning.

Before concluding, I should say a word regarding quoting the Old Testament in general. Many quote the Old Testament in an attempt to provide an authoritative stance to an issue, such as what is prohibited or required in life. A practice riddled with problems, this subject will have to wait for another post.

While one should not stop quoting the Bible in a “verse of the day” style, we should take caution and remember that one or two verses are but a small sampling of a vastly rich literary work. Perhaps instead let us focus on learning the history of Israel and practice discerning the circumstances that gave rise to the various Biblical writings. They are far too complex to be reduced to small quips, but it is a start. With that, I close with my favorite singular passage:

“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”  The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, JPS).

– Andrew

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