by Matt Lantz Posted Dec 29, 2014
This is the fourth post in a series of articles that outline some basic steps to practice in studying the Bible. For a list of all the posts, click here.
After taking the time to outline the book and understand the author’s flow of thought throughout the letter, I then turn my attention to understanding the immediate context of the book.
The Bible has been written over thousands of years by multiple different authors from all walks of life. It was written in three different languages and over the course of several major world events in history. If we hope to correctly understand our author’s message, we must first consider the context in which he is writing.
While there are plenty of different elements that can be researched, the primary subjects should be author, date of composition, audience, culture, and purpose.
The first place you should look for information is the Bible itself. For example, we are studying 1 Peter. The four gospels contain all of the biographical information we need to rightly understand who Peter is, where he came from, and what his relationship with Jesus was like.
However, the Bible doesn’t always give us all of the cultural information that we need. So, we need to turn to reliable sources outside of the Text for our research. Some of these sources may include: Bible dictionary, Bible encyclopedia, Bible atlas, historical writings that are contemporary to the book being studied, commentaries on the book being studied, Bible handbooks, even the information from a Study Bible can be helpful.
Since many of us don’t have these volumes in our libraries at home, there are some online resources that I find particularly helpful in this regard:
soniclight.com – the expositional notes of Dr. Thomas Constable. He was a seminary professor of mine who has written a very basic and lay-friendly commentary on each book of the Bible in .pdf format – for free. The beginning of his commentaries are the most helpful parts as he does a thorough introduction covering much of the historical information you need.
Bible.org – This website has a number of resource articles as well as its own online study Bible (the NET translation).
Preceptaustin.org – This website also has a lot of background and study materials that might be useful.
As I approach my resources (both within the Bible and outside of it), I am looking for a number of different things about the culture and context of the book:
Author: What is the author’s family heritage? Jew or Gentile? Rich or poor? What kind of education does the author have? What was his occupation? Any significant events shape the author’s life?
Date of Writing: When was the book written? What was going on in the area where the book was written at that time in history? Who were the important historical figures of the time? Who had all the influence?
Audience: Who are they? Old Testament or New? Jew or Gentile or both? Believers or not? Where are they? What is unique about where they are? What is the social situation for the audience? What is their spiritual condition?
Cultural: How many cultures are in play? What conflicts exist? What are the social, religious, political and/or economic trends, issues, policies of the day?
Purpose of the Book: Any explicit references to purpose in the letter (ex: John 20:30-31)? Any implicit references to the purpose? What are the major themes that are repeated? How does the purpose of the book intersect with the cultural information you have researched?
As I do my research I will often find out information that will change the way I outlined the book. So, I am continually re-assessing my preliminary outline and understanding of the book as I learn more about the world from which it came.