How to Study the Bible Effectively | The Importance of Historical Context
Everyone is an interpreter. We perform the task of interpretation on a daily basis when we are reading manuals for putting something together or memos from the office giving us information that relates to doing our job. The college student must read and interpret a professor’s expectations for the class based on a course syllabus and read verbal cues when in class. However, what if we lacked the knowledge for putting these things into use? What if we attend college without ever having gone through any previous education? We would be in a pretty sorry state of affairs for sure since we wouldn’t understand how things worked together. What background something is built upon. It would be like giving you all the ingredients for a recipe and no recipe to follow, that could make for a bad loaf of bread or a terrible custard if you’re just winging it without the steps or amounts to use. In interpreting biblical passages, the first thing one must do is engage in the task of exegesis, which we discussed previously as in involved in drawing something out of the text rather than imposing and commanding something of the text to fit our needs, wants, desires, etc. In asking how to study the Bible effectively then, we must engage the first task in exegesis which requires historical context.
Historical context plays a very important role in biblical exegesis and interpretation. For the reader, it allows you to put yourself into the shoes of those who first heard these writings read to them in the temples, churches, and other meeting places. These people are thousands of years separated from our time, culture, customs, language, etc. By suspending what we want a text to do for us, and entering into its setting, we are able to see a scriptural passage in a greater light of detail that can reveal to us something hidden at one point by a surface reading of a text with our current verbiage and ideas.
If we are to study the bible effectively, then historical context will be a critical role in our reading of a biblical passage. The historical context will of course be different for each book given the time and culture of the biblical authors and their audiences, the original hearers and readers in various geographical, topographical, and political climates in the author’s setting. This also plays an important role in the occasion of the books genre or form, for example, John wrote Revelation in three genres and used additional clues and symbols that are especially cryptic to some of us today. His audience however would quickly know their meaning and what was being referenced in them.
Where Do I Find This Information?
So, the first question you are probably asking now is about finding this data. Fair enough, but I’m guessing you probably already have some of the tools on your bookshelf. For starters, a good study Bible is always a great tool to have. Many of these have introductions to each book of the Bible that covers various contextual items about a biblical book such as the date of writing, who the author was, information about the setting of the author and their audience, etc. Some Bibles go a step further and implement a micro-commentary in the footnotes section of the Bible that can give surface level information and clues about a certain passage, but don’t stop there you need more information.
As I mentioned above about the study Bible having commentary notes, well that is one of the first tools to earning about historical context of a book. Getting a few good commentaries written within the past five to ten years will be instrumental in boosting your understanding of a book and its historical setting.You’ll want multiple different commentaries however, because some are written better than others and the publisher may have different audiences in mind for their writing. Some commentaries will be very heavy of language and others will be very practical in their handling of materials, you want a good mixture of both and everything in between. My personal recommendation is the New Beacon Bible Commentary series that has a good balance of both styles, but takes into account recent scholarship and discoveries in archeology. Within these commentaries, however; you will find introduction materials that will begin to develop the historical markers in each book of the Bible and begin to give you an understanding and lens with which to read the text through. This will help you to begin to hear the words of the Bible in a way that the original audience heard them and help you to identify situations that are unclear at times when you would have read a text and heard about someplace or something that you had no reference for.
Another great tool to have for developing the historical context is Old and New Testament survey text or introductions. These books are full of depth and coverage of historical data on each book of the Bible and interact more broadly than a commentary does. Some recommendations I have are Discovering the New Testament and Discovering the Old Testament, both have been written in the 21st century and take into account many of the recent development and discoveries, but are extremely easy to read and have great illustrations, maps, timelines, and other materials to really help you dig deep into your Bible.
A third source of information that you will want to consider is Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias with separate articles not just on books, but on authors and themes and background issues. One such example of a good item that does this is the Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets, which happens to be a part of a series that covers several other areas that you can check out.
Fourth, are archeological works and atlases that enable us to grasp at topography behind a book. I highly recommend you consider grabbing a subscription to Biblical Archeology Magazine at this point as it will have the most up-to-date archeological discoveries. Some good examples of these materials will be The IVP Atlas of Bible History and The World of the Bible. These will give you an idea of the land and cultural climate that the biblical audience was in and help you to identify places in a book and discover why the biblical author may have saw significance in it and felt a need to write about it.
The fifth item on our list of tools is books of Old and New Testament theology. You’ll get some of this in the Bible commentaries, but these will often aid you in discovering theology of individual books and help you to be mindful or identifying common themes. They also will help you in conversing with others about the themes of biblical text and even help you to develop your own opinion and grounds for disagreeing with someone else’s take on a biblical text and its meaning. Should you desire to go deeper into academics, being familiar with the various viewpoints will equip you to be a better debater as your skills develop in understanding biblical languages and customs, but also help you to root out error and falsehoods when teaching in a Sunday school or similar setting and be able to guide the conversation back to orthodox beliefs. This of course, is not meant to make you a bully, but to become protective of the gift of Scripture that God has given us. By becoming knowledgeable about the sacred text that is also God’s Word, we also carry the torch to defend it and the ideas we develop from studying and reflecting on it from error and from the enemy. Other benefits develop out of these also, but let’s move on to our final tool.
Our last tool is books of customs and culture in the biblical period. These items provide us with direct historical background behind specific items in a text. Do you know what an ebenezer is? What about the construct of the relationship between Yom Kippur and repentance and what took place? Such materials will again help you to identify and understand things that are taking place in a biblical text, thus making the Bible less of a book we must try and decode, and instead into a book that has something to say to us about how we are to relate to God and to others.
The Stuff We Need
Ok, now that we have all these tools what information do we need. Well, in one sense all of it, but in another sense we are looking at four different factors. (1) Authorship, (2) date, (3) the audience for which the work is addressed, and (4) the purpose and themes of the writing. At this point in the process of studying the Bible we are relying on secondary sources to learn primary data, we will always need to read the book itself first to gain several clues (more on this in a minute), but understand that this information is not final truth but serves as a blueprint that we can edit later. These are ideas held by someone else, and our later more detailed and direct study of primary materials may change or challenge those ideas. The point of this preliminary information is that it begins to draw us out of our 21st century perspective and forces us to become aware of ancient situations behind the biblical text.
Now, at times we can get a lot of this information simply from reading the biblical text. Many of the books in the Bible open with contextual data telling us who the author is, a little about the audience the author is writing to, the purpose of the writing, and other contextual clues. However, these things are not always clear cut and self-evident. Some books, like Hosea, offer little to no historical data and the text may not even be written in a chronological order, but arranged in a thematic manner (we’ll explore this last bit in a later post). In studying the authorship of a book we are able to begin to place the book historically and get familiar with when and who the author was ministering to and get an idea as to why certain statements have been made by them.
Next to authorship, perhaps the second most debated issue in biblical scholarship is date. This is an important factor to study however and something we need to be aware of when studying historical data. Different dates for authorship of a writing can affect the setting and understanding of the statements an author makes about certain issues. Isaiah would mean something different if it were written during the period of the Maccabees and Romans would be very different in its final interpretation if it were written to a community of Diaspora Jews in AD 110. I, along with many others would tend to go with a more traditional route in most cases, but the date affects how I would approach a text and with what understanding I had given a different time period.
The next thing we need to know about is the person of group that a work is addressed to. This plays a huge role in the meaning of a biblical passage. As noted above about date, different situations took place at different times, so we need to know something about the community, culture, and events that were going on with the audience when a text was written to them as their circumstances determine the content of the book. In fact, it matters if John’s Gospel is addressed to Jew, Greek, or a mixed group of people. As an author I would utilize different styles, symbols, references, etc depending on who I was writing to. It’s a similar concept when you are marketing a business product. If you’re trying to market a baby bottle, you probably wouldn’t be marketing that towards male parents, but instead directing your message to mom. We must be aware of our audience and know all we can about our audience.
The last thing we will need to look for in our study is purpose and theme. This is probably the most important of these four areas as an aid to interpretation. Simply put, we need to have a basic understanding and knowledge of the problems and situations that are addressed in each book and the themes that the author used to address such problems. Recent Bible tools have started to discuss matters of biblical theology when addressing context. While you will still need to determine if that fits the audience, it does give you an idea of broader perspectives of a book and help when we try to “translate” the message of then and there to one in our modern vernacular.
Once we’ve looked at these historical items we now arrive at a beginning stage of a filtration process that we are able to run all the passages of a book through. This preliminary data can be corrected later during more detailed study and research, but it helps us to narrow things down into the proper rules we need to follow that will allow us to ask the right questions and focus our attention back to the original time and culture of the writer and the setting behind a given text. This will prevent us from reading our own meaning from the 21st century back into a first century culture. In our next post in this series we will begin to look at literary context of a passage. This will help us to look at other clues and factors that help us to further refine our process of studying and developing an interpretation for today.
Grace & Peace,