How much thought do you give to the author of a particular book or letter when you are reading the Bible? How about the first readers of that book or letter? Do you put any thought into what they were facing or the surrounding social and political climate?
NOTE: This 3-part series is adapted from the chapter ‘How about a little context?’ in my book Falling in Love with God’s Word: Discovering What God Always Intended Bible Study to Be. You can read reviews or a grab a copy on Amazon. I also cover background studies in my 8-week, online video course Relational Bible Study.
Instinctively we know the importance of context in other areas of our lives.
For example, think about the sentence “I’ll be back before you know it.” If the person saying it is running to the refrigerator at halftime of the football game, it carries very different meaning than if it was spoken by your child as she boarded a plane bound for her freshman year of college.
It is impossible for us to grasp the big picture for any situation or idea – let alone accurately interpret the details – unless we first know the context. Understanding context can make that same kind of difference when you read a book of the Bible.
When we discover personal details and characteristics of the book’s author, the situations and challenges the author and recipients were facing at the time, and the events occurring in the world around them, we gain an entirely new perspective and depth of understanding for the book.
Taking even ten minutes (or a lot longer if you’d like) to do a background study will provide the necessary context for correctly interpreting and applying a passage to our lives.
There are three basic questions that background studies answer:
- Who wrote the book? (Author)
- To whom was the book written? (Audience)
- What was happening at the time the book was written? (Atmosphere)
Most study Bibles have information at the beginning of each book or in the back of the Bible that provides some context. While this is certainly helpful, I have found this is rarely all the information I want.
Fortunately, you don’t have to own a massive, 300-volume library to do extremely thorough background studies. Do you have access to the internet? (I thought so. After all, you’re reading this.) I won’t go into every resource I use in this post, but you can find lots of amazing – and free! – resources at www.keithferrin.com/resources.
The wonderful thing about background studies is that you can dig as deeply as you want to, or simply skim over a few items to bring a general sense of context to the book you are reading. Background studies also don’t need to be done every day. Think of them as “seasoning” rather than the main dish.
This week – and the next two – I’m going to tackle one of the three types of background studies: Author, Audience and Atmosphere.
Step 1: What can you learn from the book itself?
Before diving into any external resources, it is always important to start by asking, “What does this book of the Bible have to tell me about the author?” As you read through the book you are studying, start jotting down information about the author.
- Where was he when he was writing?
- Is the author one person, or several people writing together?
- What kind of mood does he appear to be in?
- Is he encouraging the recipients? Thanking them? Challenging them? Frustrated with them?
- What other information does he provide that gives you insight into who they are or what they were thinking?
Step 2: What does the rest of the Bible have to say about the author?
Once you have deduced all you can from the book itself, it is time to move on to other parts of the Bible. If you happen to be studying one of Peter’s or Paul’s letters, you might want to check out the book of Acts for background information. In their letters, Peter and Paul often refer to events that are talked about (some in great detail) in the book of Acts.
Acts is also a good place to gain further insight into James and John, two other New Testament authors. The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) also contain information about some New Testament authors – particularly those who were among Jesus’ disciples.
If you are studying one of the first five books of the Old Testament, you will want to check out Exodus to learn about Moses. Or if you are studying David’s or Solomon’s writings, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings will be super helpful.
If you own a study Bible, you probably have a system right in the page margins (called “cross-references”) that shows you where in other parts of the Bible you can find information about the passage you are reading.
Step 3: What do external sources have to say about the author?
After you’ve gleaned what you can from the Bible – the book you’re studying the other Bible books – now is the time to go to one of your external study tools. As I mentioned earlier, there are lots of resources at www.keithferrin.com/resources. Here are a few to get your started:
- If you like print books, grab a good Bible Dictionary or Bible Handbook.
Simply look up the author you are studying and read more about him. You’ll be surprised at how much background you can get in a few clicks!
Step 4: Write it down.
As you read, write down the key elements you want to remember. This is where you can get creative. You need to find a way of writing this information down so that it will stick with you and make you want to look at it again.
Here are a few ideas:
- Create a bulleted list with key points at the beginning of your notes on the book you’re studying.
- Jot down your notes on a note card or half-sheet of paper you can keep right in your Bible.
- Draw a “mind map” of sorts to create a visual representation of who that person is. If you want to check out mind mapping, here’s a cool (and free) online tool – mindmapfree.com.
My goal in writing this is not simply to give you a homework assignment that you check off the list and leave behind. I want you to fall in love with God and His Word! Taking some time to find out about the people God inspired to write the Bible is a fantastic way to do just that.
Next week, we’ll take a look at the many different audiences in the Bible – and why it makes a massive difference to understanding and enjoying the Bible.