4 "Power Tools" for Understanding Cultural Elements Behind Any Bible Passage
In a post last week, I mentioned a bit of “cultural background” behind the story of David and Goliath, noting that David’s sling was not child’s toy but rather a serious weapon. I wrote that sling stones could be 3+ inches in diameter, the size of a peach, and could travel over 100 miles per hour—serious weapon indeed. Through the years I have found that understanding aspects of cultural background can shed great light on passages in the Bible.
The question is, how can we get at reliable information on the cultural background behind Scripture? Let me mention 4 “power tools” to consider for your Bible reading and study.
1. A Great Study Bible
If you have followed this blog for very long or heard me speak about Bible reading and study, you know that I believe the place to begin is with a good study Bible and a Bible dictionary. The best study Bibles have been produced with large teams of biblical scholars, specialists in various parts of the Bible, writing the notes on their specialties. In essence, a scholar takes his or her years of study of a book and pours that knowledge into the footnotes of a study Bible. Among those notes will be aspects of cultural background. Some of the best study Bibles, in my opinion, are The NLT Illustrated Study Bible, The ESV Study Bible, The HCSB Study Bible, and The NIV Zondervan Study Bible. Each of these has particular strengths, so check them out for yourself. In addition my friends Craig Keener and John Walton have just released the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Zondervan, 2016). As the title suggests, the notes in this study Bible focus attention mainly on cultural backgrounds issues behind the text of Scripture. This should not replace one of the general study Bibles mentioned above, but it is a wonderful reference tool in its own right, a tremendous resource for your Bible study.
2. A Bible Dictionary
Second, you need to have on hand a good Bible dictionary, which will cover a wide ranges of topics, including background information. For instance, in the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary you will find articles on the “Temple of Jerusalem,” “Weddings,” “Weights and Measures,” “Insects,” and “Food.” “Bible Encyclopedias” are similar to Bible dictionaries but tend to be larger, multi-volume sets.
These first two tools, a great study Bible and a Bible dictionary, are “must haves” for anyone who wants to read and study the Bible more effectively.
3. Backgrounds Commentaries
In recent years publishers have come up with a new kind of commentary, one that focuses particularly on backgrounds information. For instance, Craig Keener’s The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament is now in its second edition. This wonderful resource is a single volume on the whole New Testament. Craig is one of the best scholars I know of on both Jewish and Greco-Roman backgrounds behind the Bible—and he also is a dear brother.
I contributed the Hebrews section in the four volume Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (New Testament), edited by another friend, Clint Arnold. There is also an Old Testament version edited by John Walton. You can buy the whole set, or individual volumes on a book or group of books. I use this resource regularly and learn a great deal from the commentary on different parts of the Bible.
I also have just submitted the 2 Corinthians section for a new backgrounds commentary to be released in a year or so by Baker Books, but I will have to wait to tell you about that one when it is released!
Because of their focus, backgrounds commentaries are some of the most helpful tools available for rich Bible study. Yet, they tend to be somewhat underused since many people don’t know about them. Now you do.
4. Books Focused on Particular Topics
Publishing houses that focus on biblical literature are constantly putting out books that focus on particular topics related to the Bible. Some of these can be wonderfully helpful in understanding particular aspects of the culture behind the Bible. For instance, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity by Oskar Skarsaune (IVP, 2002) is a rich resource that focuses on earliest Christianity within the context of broader Judaism. Skarsaune’s sections on Jerusalem, the Temple, the the various “Judaisms” during the time of Jesus, are worth the cost of the book. Such specialty studies can expand your knowledge greatly.
Finally, a word of caution. The internet can be a helpful tool, of course, but when it comes to Bible backgrounds information, there is a great deal of information on the internet that is not reliable. For instance, you may have heard taught or preached that Jesus’s statement, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25), was referring to a gate in the wall around Jerusalem called, “the Eye of the Needle.” The thought goes, “this gate was so small that a camel had to get down on all fours to pass through.” That is a very popular explanation—that has absolutely no basis in fact. During Jesus’s time, there was no such gate. Rather, as Keener points out in his Background Commentary, camels could carry up to 400 pounds of goods, and a loaded camel needed a large gate, some 10 feet high and 12 feet wide, to pass through. The eye of a needle by comparison was tiny. Jesus was using hyperbole, exaggeration, to make a point.
So use sound tools for accessing backgrounds information. The ones mentioned here should get you started and serve you well. Enjoy!