Several years ago a series of videos came out featuring a young, stylish preacher discussing well-known Bible stories in a way that captured the imagination of its target audience. The preacher made frequent appeals to little known details of the culture and history that lay behind the biblical teaching, and by doing so was able to show that many well-known and cherished biblical passages did not at all mean what everyone had assumed they meant.
I had heard others talk about this video series, but I’m a book guy, so I didn’t pay much attention. One day I happened to walk into a classroom while a friend was previewing the video. I paused. I watched for a few minutes. Engaging video. Good speaker. And then I said it, “That’s not true.” My friend looked at me. “What do you mean?” I explained to him that the historical reconstruction behind the passage that this preacher had laid out just wasn’t accurate. It wasn’t true. It sounded good. It produced a great effect. But it wasn’t true.
That whole experience made me both leery of the impact of bad research and thankful for the fruit of good research. The truth is that the Bible was written a long time ago. It was written by different people living in a different time and with different customs and outlooks on the world. And within the pages of Scripture, we find that some authors occupied worlds as different from other biblical authors as ours is from both of their worlds. Moses lived in a very different time and under very different circumstances than did the Apostle Paul. If we’re going to understand the Bible well, we need to understand the worlds of the biblical writers and their original audiences. We call these “worlds” the historical and cultural contexts.
You don’t have to be an expert on ancient history or a biblical scholar to understand the world(s) of the Bible. But you do have to devote yourself to a bit of basic research. Consider the opening words of the book of Amos: “The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake,” (Amos 1:1). Clearly, this historical information about the prophet is given to us to aide in our understanding of the book. But if you don’t know who Uzziah is or the identity of the nations of Judah and Israel, you’re going to have a hard time making any sense of this entire book! You need to know that Judah and Israel were once a single nation. You need to know that after the death of Solomon, the son of David, the nation was torn in two and that the descendants of David continued to rule in the southern kingdom of Judah. You need to know that Amos being a shepherd puts him in a different class than most of the prophets of Judah and Israel, who were prophets by trade and occupation. These and other details mentioned in the first verse of Amos matter.
Suppose you read in the Gospel of John about Jesus speaking to a Samaritan woman at a well. You need to know about the general disdain and even hatred of the Jews toward Samaritans. You also need to know something about the faux pas of men speaking to women in public in the way that Jesus does in the story. Knowing these things sheds light on Jesus’ words to the woman: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth,” (John 4:22–24). The Good News is only strengthened and made more glorious when you understand Jesus is redefining true, authentic, and acceptable worship. No longer will salvation be limited to the Jews and no longer will acceptable worship be confined to the temple in Jerusalem. That’s Good News for the Samaritan woman and for us!
How does one go about gaining accurate and sufficient knowledge of the historical and cultural background of the Bible? First, we need to know what questions to ask. Second, we need to know where to find the answers. Here are a the most relevant questions related to the background of the text that we need to ask:
Who wrote this? When did they write it? To whom is the book written (original audience)? Where does the story take place? Where do the people live? What led up the writing of the book or the events recorded in the book? How does this story fit into the overall story of the Bible?
In addition to these questions, we need to pay attention to historical places, people, events, and customs mentioned in the text and make sure we know what/who they are. As a general rule, if you do not know where some place is or who someone is, you ought to find out. If some response or action seems strange, you need to find out what cultural practices or beliefs may lie behind it. The answers to these questions and the information we need is not hidden away. Much of it is in the Bible! You can find out about the division of the Kingdom of Israel by reading 1 Kings 12. You will discover the attitude of Jews in the fist century toward Samaritans in the story of the woman at the well itself: “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?’ (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)” (John 4:9, emphasis added). In reality, most of what we need to know about the historical and cultural background of the Bible can be found in the Bible. Our problem stems from the fact that this information is scattered throughout Scripture and not always easy to locate. This is why Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias (and other resources) can be helpful. Scholars have mined information from the Bible, other ancient documents, and archeological finds for us. They have then written summaries of them for us. We live in an incredible time, and we need to make use of these time-saving resources!
In order to avoid inaccurate (or simply made-up) information, you need at least a couple of reliable resources. Below I’ve provided the authors names and titles of a couple of helpful resources:
Merrill C. Tenney, ed., The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 5 vols.
Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament
What about online resources. They can be helpful, but they can also be misleading and contain inaccurate information. However, for basic information like the locations of ancient cities or the identities of people mentioned in the Bible websites like Wikipedia and Google searches can help. Use them with caution. Before using these tools, use something like biblestudytools.com to search the Bible itself for information. For instance, you could search for the word “Sadducee” and find every place that word occurs in the New Testament. Reading the passages indicated will tell you something about who the Sadducees were and why they matter in the Gospels.
Finally, beware of substituting historical research for Bible study. Study of the historical background of a text should always aim at understanding the text. History is often fun to learn. Unfamiliar cultural practices can be fascinating. But knowing these things by themselves will not help you to know and love God more. That’s what the Bible is for!