Two weeks ago we looked at getting to know the 40 people God inspired to write the 66 books of the Bible. (Check out Part 1 if you didn’t read it yet.) Last week we shifted our focus from authors to the audience? (Here’s the link to Part 2.) In this final, installment, we’ll shift one last time and look at the atmosphere. It’s time to answer the question What was the setting when this author wrote to this audience?
You’ve heard it said many times… Context is king. Nowhere is that more true than when you are reading the Bible.
If I wrote you a letter about enduring hard times while I sat on a beach in Hawaii, how much clout would I have? Would my “clout level” increase if the letter was written from prison? Of course. Understanding the atmosphere – or setting – for a book is vitally important to understanding the book’s message.
The Atmosphere background study is done by asking three questions.
When was this book written?
There are a few Biblical books for which scholars are not sure of the actual date of authorship, but for most books they have a relatively good idea as to when a book was written. Most Study Bibles or commentaries will also have this information. Establishing the date of authorship can lend tremendous credibility to a book’s message.
Let’s take II Peter as an example. Early on in this letter, Peter writes,
For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. (1 Peter 1:16, NIV)
II Peter was written sometime between 60-70 AD. This means that when Peter wrote these words, there were still many people living who were around when Jesus did all the things Peter was claiming he did. If Peter started fabricating his stories, these “eyewitnesses” could easily have stepped in and pointed out the errancy of his claims. The fact that there were people reading Peter’s letter who were also eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus increases the authority of Peter’s writing.
After establishing the “when” of a book, the rest of the study on the atmosphere has to do with the situations the authors and recipients found themselves in at the time the book was written. As with any other background study, you can be as thorough as you want to be.
What does the Bible have to say about what was going on?
Always start with the information you can glean from the Bible itself. As I mentioned in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, Acts can be a good reference for many of the New Testament letters. If you are studying an Old Testament prophetic book, you will find the historical books (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, etc.) to be helpful. On the flip side, if you’re studying an Old Testament history book, the prophetic books can give you insight into the spiritual climate of the time.
What does my study Bible (or other online or printed resources) say about the atmosphere at the time and location of writing?
If you want to go deeper (and I highly recommend it), many Bible dictionaries and commentaries provide background on the issues the authors and recipients were facing. As you read, write some of the key ideas into your Bible study notes. As you gather information from many different sources, having the main points in one location allows for quick, easy review later on.
Many people find that “atmosphere” background studies can become quite a fascinating exercise. The more you find out about a city, culture, people group, or individual, the more you want to know. There is so much historical information to be found – both Christian and secular – that there is truly almost no end to the depth of study you can do.
The key is to find out how much background you need to make the Bible come alive and become more “real” to you. For one person, a 20-minute overview might be plenty. For another, there may not seem to be enough hours in the day.
Here are some of my favorite resources for background studies.
- Simplest: Almost any study Bible will have basic background information at the beginning of each book of the Bible.
- Online: Faithlife Study Bible or BibleHub
- Mobile: ESV Bible App or Logos
Question: What is your favorite tool for finding out about the atmosphere of the Bible? You can leave a comment by clicking here.