The Bible is not a book of abstract religious teaching. If it were, understanding its historical context would be of relatively minor importance, although even then questions about the circumstances of its composition could not be ignored. Furthermore, the Bible did not arise out of a single cultural and historical environment; it certainly is not the product of revelations given to a single man, as the Koran claims to be. If it were, understanding its historical background would be far simpler.
As it is, the writing of the Bible took place over a period of more than 1,000 years. Although most if not all the writers of Scripture were Israelite or Jewish, those authors lived in a wide variety of circumstances. The cultural backdrop to the Biblical stories includes Egypt of the pharaohs, Mesopotamia, Canaanite culture, Israel across the Late Bronze and Iron Ages, the royal court of Persia, the expansive Hellenistic civilization, and the Roman Empire. The languages of the Bible are Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, but there are traces as well of the influence of Egyptian, Ugaritic, Akkadian, Sumerian, Persian and Latin. Portions of the Bible were composed in Israel, Egypt, Babylon, Asia Minor (Turkey), Greece, and Rome. The writers of Scripture were sages, kings, farmers, exiles, governors, fishermen, and traveling preachers.
The literature of the Bible is itself of a wide variety, and a given genre is likely to have much in common with the literature of its day. Narratives that tell the story of God’s people in simple yet absorbing tales run through the Bible in books as diverse as Genesis, Judges, Ruth, Esther, and Acts. Legislative texts that have parallels in the law codes of Mesopotamia emerge in books such as Numbers and Deuteronomy. Hymns and devotional songs appear in the Psalms, and when set in comparison to the hymns and religious poems of Egypt, Ugarit and Mesopotamia, they display both striking similarities and telling dissimilarities to their counterparts. The Bible even contains love poetry (Song of Songs), and this, too, is both like and unlike contemporary Egyptian love poetry. Like the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, the people of Israel composed many proverbs.
Of course, differences can be as significant as similarities, and not every type of literature in the Bible has strong parallels outside its pages. The proclamations of the Hebrew prophets have limited parallels in ancient Mesopotamia, and it is difficult to find anything else that compares with the four Gospels of the New Testament. On the other hand, the apocalyptic visions of Revelation can be compared to the apocalyptic texts of “Second Temple” Judaism, just as the letters of Paul may be evaluated over against other epistolary literature of the Greco-Roman period. In short, the Bible is an amazingly diverse collection of texts, none of which originated in a vacuum.
The NIV Archaeological Study Bible focuses on the historical, literary, and cultural context of the Bible. This context includes the history of peoples and places populating its pages, daily life in various periods and under widely diverse circumstances during Biblical times, and ancient texts that illuminate the Bible and the archaeology of the Biblical world. In addition, the articles in this Bible devote particular attention to challenges archaeologists and Biblical scholars face on the critical issue of the trustworthiness of Scripture. But why is there a need for a tool that focuses on historical context? Several answers apply:
1. Context is crucial to interpretation. Imagine reading the words of a political or religious debate without the benefit of any knowledge of the circumstances, customs, or beliefs of those involved in the discussion/dispute. The reader would either be bewildered or would run the risk of grossly misinterpreting the issues and positions people were taking. It is foolish, even arrogant, to think that we can rightly understand the Biblical writers without knowing anything of their environment.
2. As described above, the Biblical world is complex and spans a great deal of history. The ancient world is simply too extensive and too diverse for us to expect a few passing comments on “background” to give us a meaningful awareness of the cultures that the Biblical writers inhabited.
3. A study of the context of the Bible is an encouragement to faith. Many modern Christians shun the study of the ancient world for fear that scholars will make them aware of troubling facts that will serve only to undermine their faith in the Bible. In reality, a careful study of the world of the Bible enhances our confidence in its historical accuracy and in its distinctiveness as the Word of God. Set against the astonishing variety of cultures that made up the Biblical world, the unity of the message of the Bible is remarkable. The writers of Scripture spoke in diverse times and places, but they were inspired by one changeless Spirit. And, of course, the only way to answer those who claim that historical facts undermine Biblical credibility is to take a firsthand look at those very facts.
4. Awareness of the context of the Bible is an antidote to the dangerous dismissal of history that we see too often in both the church and the academy. In our day the postmodern outlook all but rejects history and context. Under the influence of this movement readers simply refuse to hear the writers of Scripture on their own terms and instead assert that it is up to each reader to make whatever he or she will of the ancient texts. Many reject outright the suggestion that we are obligated to attempt to understand the objective of a passage’s original writer. The author’s intended meaning is thus rendered irrelevant to the modern reader, who feels free to interpret a text in any manner whatsoever. Such an approach makes a mockery of Biblical authority. Further, many well-intentioned Christian readers, although not fully committed to a postmodern way of thinking, tend to interpret the Bible strictly in terms of their own experiences and standards, without ever considering what a prophet or apostle was saying to the people of his own day. An awareness of the beliefs, conflicts, history and habits of the people of Biblical times forces us to confront questions like, “What did Paul actually mean when he wrote these words to the Corinthian church?”
5. Awareness of the world of the Bible instills within us a deeper appreciation for the writers of Scripture and a deeper love for the Bible itself. It is difficult for us to genuinely love someone we do not really know, and we cannot enter into the experiences and prespective of Biblical people without first relating to their world. By looking at the tools with which they worked, the struggles they faced, the literature they knew and the customs under which they lived, we acquire a profound admiration for their faith and wisdom.