The Value of Extra-Biblical Historical Study for Pastors: One Case Study

Earlier in the week I suggested that extra-biblical historical and cultural background research is valuable and can benefit preachers. Today I want to show you one example of how this works out in practice, although I could have chosen from many examples. (Anyone tried to explain the covenant at Sinai in Exodus 19–20 without first explaining Hittite and Assyrians suzerain-vassal treaty structures in the ancient Near East?) The case study for this post is pulled from the New Testament.

Bruce Winter is a favorite biblical historian of mine and his books have helped me better understanding the Greco-Roman world of the New Testament, especially the urban centers. In his excellent book Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities, he quotes from a letter written by the philosopher Seneca to his mother, a letter written in AD 42 or 43. I want to cite one paragraph from Seneca’s letter because it reveals first century Roman culture in a stark way. Listen to him contrast the morality of his mother with the degenerating moral standards of popular culture and especially those of wives and mothers.

Unlike the great majority of women you never succumbed to immorality, the worst evil of our time; jewels and pearls have not moved you; you never thought of wealth as the greatest gift to the human race; you have not been perverted by the imitation of worse women who lead even the virtuous into pitfalls; you have never blushed for the number of children, as if it taunted you with your years; never have you, in the manner of other women whose only recommendation lies in their beauty, tried to conceal your pregnancy as though it were indecent; you have not crushed the hope of children that were being nurtured in your body; you have not defiled your face with paints and cosmetics; never have you fancied the kind of dress that exposed no greater nakedness by being removed. Your only ornament, the kind of beauty that time does not tarnish, is the great honour of modesty.

The cultural contrasts in this paragraph are really quite striking. Here Seneca praises his mother for a number of things:

  • she was sexual chaste and avoided immoral female influences
  • she was financially content
  • she avoided extravagant jewelry and makeup
  • she was in not ashamed to be a mother
  • she was not embarrassed by the physically changes to her body brought about by pregnancy
  • she was not ashamed by the wear and tear of childbearing on her body
  • she did not seek to preserve her physical appearance through abortions (which were available at the time, and very dangerous)
  • she did not wear sexually suggestive clothing
  • she was a modest woman in an increasingly immodest culture

Okay, now fast-forward about 18 years to when the Apostle Paul wrote these words to Timothy (AD 60-ish):

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. (1 Tim. 2:8–10)

These words prohibit Christian women from wearing in public anything that the culture would regard as sexually suggestive (see this connection made in Revelation 17:4). And so here Paul’s reference to extravagant jewelry and clothing clearly implies a standard of public sexual purity. We can argue all day long in the comments over standards of modest and immodest apparel in today’s culture (obviously, given the historical and cultural changes, I don’t believe makeup or hair styling or gold rings automatically cross the line of sexually promiscuous attire).

What’s important to see is that a pagan philosopher holds to a standard of feminine modesty that contrasted the sexual promiscuity of “the great majority of women” in the first century Greco-Roman world. A preacher who has the time to study this background will discover that many of the social challenges we face in our own culture existed 2,000 years before Roe v Wade!

I am not suggesting that preachers must include references like this one from Seneca in their sermons in order for those sermons to be biblically faithful. I’m not. But I am suggesting that by including relevant historical research your hearers may more clearly see that Paul’s world was not so very different from our own world, and that Paul’s words are equally urgent and relevant for us today.

One thought on “The Value of Extra-Biblical Historical Study for Pastors: One Case Study

  1. When we, as preachers, can bring to light the cultural and social setting in which a given biblical statement was written we better equip our hearers with the tools needed to apply biblical principles to our lives today.

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