Bible Background Knowledge: Why is it Important, How does it Help?
I am currently in the process of reading two large commentaries on Bible backgrounds. Both are from IVP, the first is entitled Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, and the second, Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. As some of you are aware, I have already posted an initial review of the Old Testament Bible background commentary (click here to read the review). Why spend so much time learning about Bible backgrounds? Why not just jump right in and study the Bible itself? Well, I do believe we all should “jump in” and study the Bible, however, when it comes to understanding the Bible, knowing things about the history of Israel and the ancient Near East, the cultural settings of the biblical world, yes, and even the languages, can make a huge difference in understanding a passage properly.
As I noted in a previous post (Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes), reading the Bible is like taking a trip to another country. At first we might not even think about the differences; we’re just excited to be making the journey! However, once we arrive, we inevitably experience culture shock. Not only is the language different, but what is considered polite, humorous, or acceptable behaviour is often quite different. Living conditions, how governments work, how (or if) children are educated varies from place to place. Even when countries speak the same language, the meanings of words, as well as what is considered socially acceptable, can be quite different, as I have learned as an American living in England these past 11 years. Cultural knowledge is indeed important. As a result, when it comes to the Bible, I have become a bit of a Bible backgrounds junky. This is why I am constantly reading and reviewing books that deal with Bible background material (like my review of The World of the New Testament), or posting articles that deal with some aspect of ancient culture which can enlighten our reading of Scripture (see, for example, my articles on Grace in 3D, Envy and the Cross, or Cross Examination). It also explains my fascination with archaeology and why I love reading about the excavations of ancient biblical cities, or the discovery of interesting artefacts (see the articles under Biblical sites).
Any number of passages confuse Bible readers who are unfamiliar with the “world of the Bible.” Even the simplest of things such as the mention of weights, measures, or money can be frustrating. What’s a cubit, or a seah, or a denarius, and how do they compare to modern standards of weight, measure, or currency? What makes Sarah think it is OK to give her handmaid Hagar to Abraham as a wife? What is Paul’s discussion of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 all about? Not only are there things we don’t understand, but there are also presuppositions we carry with us from the 21st century when reading the text. For example, we may forget that ancient Israel was an agrarian culture, not an industrial culture. Or, when we read Paul’s letters we may assume that he is writing to Christians who worship in large public buildings like we do today, as opposed to smaller house-churches, or even smaller apartment buildings. This may seem like a small matter, but understanding that Paul is addressing many small house-churches in Romans, and not some big metropolitan church that meets in a large public facility, helps us to better understand some of the problems he confronts in this letter. Being aware of cultural values that were important in the ancient world such as honor and shame, can deepen our understanding of a number of passages throughout Scripture, including Jesus’ clash with the Sadducees and Pharisees in the Gospels.
In a future article I will seek to demonstrate some of the benefits of applying background knowledge to our understanding of the Bible (meanwhile, if you’re unfamiliar with some of the posts I’ve mentioned above please feel free to read them. Just click on the links provided). I will also share some of the insights that can be gained from the Bible background commentaries mentioned above as I continue my review of them.