Like me, you might have seen the now-infamous picture of President Obama taking a selfie at the funeral of Nelson Mandela and thought, “Sheesh, what a cheap and tasteless display from our nation’s top dignitary. How embarrassing.” After all, a funeral is no place to be talking, laughing and celebrating, right? Or, is it?
Once again, we learn that context matters. And in this case, the guy who shot the viral picture says the situation at Mandela’s funeral was far different than most of us imagine. In North America, we experience funerals as somber displays of honor and respect for the dead, but Roberto Schmidt, a German-Columbian professional AFP photographer, tells us that the scenario was far different in Africa.
He shot the photo halfway through the four-hour funeral amidst a stadium full of people that were celebrating, dancing and singing. Though not what many of us are used to, this is the way the people of South Africa honor their dead. The photographer saw nothing uncharacteristic about the President’s behavior as Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt took out her cell phone and snapped a picture. It seemed “perfectly natural.” Leaders from around the globe were enjoying themselves, talking, hugging and settling in for an extensive celebration. (More celebrative pictures from the service here.)
Does knowing the context change the interpretation of the picture? It does for me. What I once thought was a cold and tacky gesture, now appears to be a contextually appropriate participation in the celebration. Knowing the situation and discovering what was happening beyond the edges of the photo—the places that can’t be seen by the viewer—changes the meaning of the picture.
It’s similar with Scripture. Twenty-first century Bible readers often make the same mistake that many of us made with the Obama photograph from Mandela’s funeral. Contemporary Christians read the Bible without considering the context in which it was written, thus missing essential information. We do a great disservice to the Word of God if we don’t work to understand its original setting.
Here’s an example. I have heard Christians interpret 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 in ways never intended by the Apostle Paul, the original author.
16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (NRSV)
Many people have used this to champion a disciplined and regimented physical workout schedule. Still others have used these verses to make a case against eating unhealthy foods or abusing harmful substances. “Your body is a temple,” they say. “You need to take care of it.” The message is obvious, right? Or, is it?
It’s especially important to know the context of Paul’s letters if we are to make proper sense of them. First Corinthians is one of those letters that provides a quick snapshot—a selfie of sorts—of a gathering of believers in first-century Corinth. Reading this ancient letter is like looking at a photograph and not knowing what is happening just off the edges of the picture. We make inferences about what is going on, but without a complete picture. Paul gives us glimpses into the lives of early believers; we will better understand what he is saying if we can know something more about what’s happening on the edges.
Back to 1 Corinthians 3:16-17. Is this a text about taking care of your physical body?
A quick glance at the surrounding passages and an overview of the entire set of letters to the Corinthians reveals some helpful information. Paul was concerned with divisiveness in the Corinthian church. He continually reminded church leaders that they should work together to create a community of harmony and strength. This passage reminds them that when they come together, they are functioning as the new temple of God, and anyone who would work against the goal of unity was working against God himself.
Furthermore, reading from a 21st-century culture of individualism and narcissism, we can’t help but read this as a passage of personal instruction, a passage written to “me.” Unfortunately, our English texts do not make an important distinction that every Greek reader would have immediately noticed. Every time the word “you” is used in this passage (and almost every letter in the New Testament), it is a plural form. From our context, we read “you” as meaning “me” in the singular sense, but this is exactly the opposite of what Paul intended. In the southern United States people say “y’all” when they’re referring to the plural form of “you.” (And they say “all y’all” when they really want to emphasize plurality!) That’s a fitting expression for the 1 Corinthians 3 passage. An appropriate translation could be “All y’all are God’s temple!”
So, Paul’s message was not, “You should take care of your body like it is a temple of God,” but rather, “When all of you come together in community you are the temple of God, and don’t let anybody hinder your unity.” Paul is telling us to work toward unity at all costs, for when we do, together, the Spirit of God will dwell in our midst just as it did in the actual temple of the Old Testament.
This is just one example of appropriate biblical interpretation. Learning the context of any “text”—whether a biblical passage, a work of art, a song lyric or a selfie—will always help us interpret that text better. Understanding what’s just outside of the photo leads to a better understanding of the photo itself, and that’s both good theology and good hermeneutic practice.