The Role of Background Studies in Interpreting the Bible

This current academic term I am teaching a course entitled Biblical Backgrounds here at Grace. The goal of the course is introduce students to how people thought, communicated, and lived in the ancient world during the Old Testament, New Testament, and Intertestamental periods. To do this I emphasize key people groups and political, cultural, theological, and literary developments that form the background to the Bible.  Students are exposed to insights from geography, cultural anthropology, sociology, philosophy, politics, literature, and history for the interpretation of Scripture in light of the history and culture of the people to whom it was addressed.

But the study of background materials raises some important questions. After all, sometimes information from background studies is used to claim that a biblical text cannot mean what it seems to say. While it is true that background studies can shed important light on a text, I am convinced that God has spoken in Scripture in such a way that believers can achieve a sufficient, basic understanding of the text without advanced training in backgrounds. Yet the use of background studies does have the potential to greatly enrich our understanding of the Bible and as a result our understanding of who God is and how he expects us to live.

Here then are four summary statements on the value of background studies in Interpreting the Bible:

  1. Studying the history of the Ancient Near East (ANE) and the Greco-Roman world is a means of recovering knowledge of the events that shaped the lives of people in the ancient world.
  2. Studying the archaeology of the Ancient Near East (ANE) and the Greco-Roman world is a means of recovering the lifestyle reflected in the material culture of the ancient world.
  3. Studying the literature of the of the Ancient Near East (ANE) and the Greco-Roman world is a means of penetrating the heart and soul of the people who inhabited the ancient world in which Israel and the early church lived.
  4. Studying the languages of the the Ancient Near East (ANE) and the Greco-Roman world is a means of gaining additional insight into the semantics, lexicography, idioms, and metaphors used in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

Special Note for Pastors & Teachers:

It is natural that those who have invested the time and energy necessary for studying background materials and languages to share the fruit of those labors. And pastors and teachers should use these tools to enhance their teaching and preaching of God’s Word. But it is possible to do this in a way that discourages people rather than edifies them. The person in the pew who hears a steady stream of “what the Greek actually says here” or “The [fill in Bible translation] gets it wrong here; the Hebrew should be translated…” is being taught to not trust their Bible. Why would the average layperson read their Bible on their own when they are constantly being taught that they really can’t know what it says since they don’t know the original languages?

Bottom line: Use the background tools to enhance people’s understanding of and confidence in the biblical text, not undermine it.

One thought on “The Role of Background Studies in Interpreting the Bible”

  1. Great last point. I would have never thought of that being a negative at all, but we do need to make sure we don’t cause people to think they can’t trust what they’re reading if they don’t know Greek or Hebrew.

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