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Don't Ignore the Religious Context

Updated: Jul 17, 2019

If you want to get confused about a passage, just ignore all the religious context.

This is the third topic in our series How Not to Read Your Bible and it has to do with ignoring religious context. If you want to get confused, misunderstand and misapply key concepts like grace, love, mercy, just ignore every bit of the religious context.

Just as our own culture has deep religious contexts, so did the religious setting of the first century world of the New Testament.

If we take the time to understand the religious context we will grow in our understanding of the text and our interpretation and application will be much more accurate and powerful.

In the time of Jesus there were several thousand Pharisees in Israel but they were powerfully divided by ideology into two main schools of philosophy named after their respective leaders or founders; Shammai and Hillel.

Pharisees from the school of Shammai were very strict in their interpretation of scripture. They believed that God only loved Jews and that His plan for salvation was limited to Abraham’s descendants. They were strict and inflexible. You can readily see that Jesus and Paul are going to butt heads with this group of Pharisees. So it’s no surprise that when you see Jesus or the Apostles in an sharp argument with a Pharisee, it’s with a Pharisee from the School of Shammai.

Pharisees from the school of Hillel however were more liberal and flexible in that they focused on people and mercy rather than strict observation, interpretation and application of the nation’s religious laws. They would be more flexible and would welcome Gentiles to Judaism. So it follows that whenever you see Jesus or Paul interacting positively with the Pharisees (i.e. Nicodemus), they were probably interacting with Pharisees from the school of Hillel.

An example of the struggle over Jesus between both schools is seen in the tension that Jesus created when he healed the man who was born blind in John 9.

John 9:16-- Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided.

Pharisees from Shammai would reject Jesus because he did not keep the Sabbath. Pharisees from Hillel would ask, “but wait a minute, healing a blind man is a big deal, even if it’s on the Sabbath. Perhaps we should listen to this Jesus fellow.”

Where does that leave us?

As I said, understanding the religious context helps uncover the multilayered issues and tensions present in the text. When we take the time to understand those issues, our interpretation and application will be much more accurate and powerful.

On a more personal level, I'm asking myself: Am I more of a Shammai or Hillel kind of Christian? Do I lock in on some principle and hurt others by demanding absolute compliance or is there grace in my interactions with others?

Enjoy Walking with the Savior Today, John

Extra Credit - If you want to keep reading various verses that show the differences between Shammai and Hillel read these;

Matthew 9:11: 12:2; 19:3

Mark 12:13

Luke 6:7; 7:36; 11:37


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