Tools need for Book Background Study.
A Bible Handbook.
A Bible Atlas
A Bible Dictionary / Encyclopedia
The bible is a historical document. All its individual books were written to actual people who were living in a certain time in the past. Even though the Holy Spirit guided the writing of the Bible and intended that the words written in it be of benefit to us, it is clear that the Bible was not written to us directly.
The Holy Spirit inspired the recording of what we have. He inspired the choice of stories that are in there. But that doesn’t mean that he inspired every action of the characters and people that we see in the Bible. These people lived within a historical, geographical, political, linguistic, and cultural context that shaped their ideas and the way they lived and what they did.
What is a book background study?
A book background study is concerned with studying the historical, cultural, geographical, economic, political, and linguistic backdrop against which the stories of the Bible are played. Understanding this background will increase our understanding of the message of the Bible.
The best person to understand a book of the Bible is someone who
– Was alive at the time when that particular book was written.
– Personally knew the author well
– Understood the circumstances the author was facing. For example, who knew that Paul was in prison, suffering and awaiting a possible death sentence when he wrote the prison epistles. A person who thoroughly knew what was going on in Paul’s mind and life.
– Understood the purpose for which the author was writing.
– Understood the cultural, geographical, political, and historical context of the author.
– Personally knew the audience well.
– Understood the circumstances that the audience was living it. For example who knew the deplorable conditions that existed in the church in Corinth well beyond what we find in the Bible.
– Understood the cultural, geographical, political, and historical context of the audience.
That person would best understand when the authors speak with the tone they do and make the kinds of statements they make.
Let’s look at a simple example. Imagine that you live in a small remote village that knows little about the rest of the world. Imagine that I went on a business trip to a different country and from there wrote an email to my wife who was at home. In it I ask her to do some things for me. You intercept this email but you don’t know anything about us. In fact our culture is very different from yours. You read the email and it was written in plain English with no abbreviations or coded language. You would read it and not understand the full message when my wife would. Why? Because there is so much information that is common knowledge to us that is assumed when the message is written. My wife and I know so much about each other and our society that I don’t have to describe everything. For you to understand the letter completely, you will need to find out who I am, get to know more about me, my circumstances, what I was going through that day when I wrote the email to my wife, where I was, why I was there? And you would need to know my wife too and where she was etc. You would even need to know how capable my wife is of carrying out tasks because the tasks I assign to her would be based on what I think she can carry out. To know what I tell her, it is important to know why I don’t tell her other things. If I told my wife in the email to kindly take my clothes to the dry cleaners. Before you start reading it and making it a doctrine that wives should take their husbands clothes to the dry cleaners, you need to know why I said that. Is it because we don’t know how to do laundry at home? May be we know how to do laundry at home but we don’t have a washer and dryer. Maybe I always wash my clothes myself and I’m only asking my wife to do it for me now because I need to wear them to an occasion and I’m not home. Maybe I do most of the laundry when I am home. There are many possibilities and to know the right one, you must know more about the audience and the author. That is true with the books of the Bible.
Even people living at the time of Paul who were part of his audience when he wrote the letters didn’t have a perfect understanding of Paul’s situation or that of the audience. But their understanding was profoundly better than ours.
The Holy Spirit is the best interpreter of scripture not only because he inspired the recording of the events that happened but because he knew everything that was going on with the author and everything that was going on with the audience. That’s why we must rely on Him for interpretation.
Another thing that we must do is to travel back in time to the era where the authors and audience lived. We must first place ourselves in the city where the author was and in the life of the author and know what he was going through when he wrote. Next we must travel to the city of the audience and enter their lives and know what they were going through that caused the author to write to them.
We are thousands of years away from the time the documents were written. We even have a hard time imagining how life was just 50 years ago. How about imagining life almost 2000 years ago when Christ lived? How about imagining life almost 3500 years ago when some of the books of the Old Testament where written?
We must get the best knowledge we can about the backdrop against which the events in the Bible occurred to understand the significance of what is written. After we have understood that, then we can apply lessons to us who live in a different era with different challenges.
Step 1: Choose your subject.
You can use this method to study the background of a character, the background of a book, even the background of a word.
Step 2: Bridge the gaps.
To vicariously travel back in time, we need to bridge the following gaps.
Historical: The first gap to bridge is historical gap. The bible has actual records of historical events and people. Knowing Bible history will allow us to put the people and the events in their proper historical perspective and better understand the play that unfolds. Learning the history of Israel in a chronological fashion will help throw light on many things in the Bible. A Bible dictionary or encyclopedia is one of the tools that can help you bridge this gap.
Geographical: To understand the Bible, you need to bridge our second gap—geographical gap. When you know the geography of the Holy land (Palestine) and the near east, the bible will come alive. You will want to know the topography, the climate, landmarks, roads, geographical boundaries, political and economic capitals, and the location of seas and other bodies of water (the sea of Galilee, river Jordan, etc.). A bible atlas is a good tool to begin this kind of investigation.
Cultural: The third gap is the culture gap. This is a very important gap. People’s thoughts are shaped by their culture. People’s thoughts determine their believe systems and their believe systems determine what they do. So when you hear a character in the Bible speaking, realize that the very words that he is speaking have been shaped by his or her culture. Even her feels and predispositions and inclinations are shaped by her culture. So without understanding the fist century Jewish culture, you cannot understand the gospels. Acts and the Pauline epistles have to be read with an understanding of both Jewish and Roman cultures. Without that knowledge, you are left with no option but to interpret the events in light of your own culture and values, which is a big mistake. As you investigate, try to find out the manners and customs, the type of music, clothing, architecture, art, weapons and tools, languages and literature, different religions and cults, trades and professions, religious ceremonies and family life of the culture you are investigating.
There are many great books out there that will provide you this information. But one that has been of tremendous help to me is a book called Backgrounds of the New Testament. It covers all the different types of gaps that need to be bridged. I will put a link to this book at the bottom of the page.
Political Climate: Our fourth gap is the climate gap. From genesis to revelation, everything that happens in the Bible happens in a political environment. Many times the political system and those in power is the cause of the narrative that we see in the Bible. Right from Genesis, we see many kings and Kingdoms. Abraham and Isaac dealing with Abimelech. Then the Israelites would be slaves in Egypt for 400 years because of the political system. Because the King put them into slavery. Moses would be trained in that political environment. Prophets who were with the nation of Israel in exile wrote many Old Testament books. Look at the book of Esther. You can go through the entire Old Testament and see the involvement of kings and political systems and how they are often directly responsible or involved somehow in the narrative.
In the New Testament, the political environment was shaped by Rome. It was a Roman empire. You see emperors, kings, governors, prefects, and centurions playing a part in in creating the environment of the narrative and even being characters who are mentioned in the narratives. Knowing the political system will help you know a lot about Jesus’ life. You would understand why Jesus was born in Bethlehem as was prophesied, why the Romans not the Jews had to physically nail Jesus to the cross, why two Kings tried Jesus, why John the Baptist’s ministry was cut short. You would also understand the source of much of the persecution that Paul and the other apostles went through as they went about preaching the gospel. You would understand their martyrdom better and you would even understand church history better when you see the role that Constantine’s elevation of the status of Christianity played.
Resources that might help with this study include a Bible Handbook, and a book on Backgrounds of the New Testament.
Language: The fifth gap is the gap of language. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. People think with their language. You and I think with our words. The bigger your vocabulary, the more robust will be your thinking. That is a scientific fact. It is not only the words, but also the language. Some languages are more complex than others. Hebrew for example is a straightforward pictorial language. Greek on the other hand is a more complex language. The language we speak shapes our thinking. For us, we need to bridge the gap of language. Learning the language would of course be best. But merely learning the language is not enough. Taking Hebrew and Greek classes and passing even at a seminary level doesn’t mean you much. Many people forget foreign languages that are not spoken on a daily basis very fast. But we thank God that we have few good experts many of who work as professors in language departments at Seminary schools and universities who really know the languages well and use it daily. Many of them work on translation projects that produce the Bible translations that you are reading from. Over the years, many of these experts have produced resources that have helped greatly to bridge the language gap for people who have not learned Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic. Some of these resources include exhaustive concordances, Vines Expository dictionary and more. Please see the chapter on Tools for details.
Contemporary Issues at the time: As you study the background, you should find out what other major contemporary issues were going on at the time of the event that you are studying.
Economic and Social: Also seek to understand the economic and social environment in the culture at the time you are studying. During times of economic hardships, families hurt. In the Bible, we see some of these difficult times. Famine, a time of economic depression or hardship was the reason why the Israelites ended up in Egypt before being slaves. In the book of Ruth, we see times of economic hardship being the reason Naomi and her family moved out of Bethlehem before being connected with Ruth.
Step 3: Application.
Summarize your research and write out a personal application. You need to review all the information you have gathered on the various gaps. Write a summary of it.
Then write one lesson you have learned and apply it to yourself.