Editor’s Note: This series is for those who want to better understand the New Testament’s historical-cultural background. You can find previous posts in this series here.
It’s rather embarrassing to admit that I’m just now finishing this series after beginning it in November. And I’m not just now finishing it because of the wealth of material I’ve been producing. My last post in this series was December 8th. But, alas, I have finally gotten around to finishing what I’ve started.
This post will be pretty straightforward. I’m simply going to provide a list of books which I think are very helpful for someone who is ready to dive deeper in to the New Testament’s historical-cultural context. I have listed these from easiest to hardest, so the order below is by design. I hope that you will find these helpful!
One final reminder before we get to the list: rejoice in the fact that our faith is rooted in actual history. Some believers I have met bemoan the fact that we need this type of context in order to understand certain passages of the Bible. Don’t. It is superbly glorious that the events and situations recorded in the New Testament happened in real time and space. In actual, documentable history. We do not have a God who operates only in the theoretical or speculative realm. We have a God who stepped out of heaven and invaded human history to make Himself known. The gospels record this invasion and the epistles record how we are now to live in light of it.
Okay, with that reminder in place, let’s get to our list.
1. NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, ed. by Craig Keener & John Walton
This work is an absolute gem. If you’re looking for a study Bible, I strongly urge you to consider this one. Rather than dictating to you what a given verse may mean, this Bible provides you, the reader, with the necessary background information for you to actually engage with the text and discern its meaning.
2. Zondervan Atlas Of The Bible
There are many great bible atlases available. The reason I like this one is because of the amazing graphics used in developing the maps. Rather than just the having the topical maps we’re use to seeing, where everything looks flat, this atlas is filled with maps which view the terrain at an angle, helping you to see notable changes in topography, such as mountain ranges and valleys.
3. New Bible Dictionary, 3rd Ed.
This book is exhaustive in its treatment of terms, plot motifs, customs, and historical contexts found within the pages of Scripture. For example, how did the Pharisees develop as a group during the Intertestamental period? After all, the word “Pharisee” occurs nowhere in the Old Testament. Buy this book and find out.
4. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, ed. by Clinton Arnold
This set is great for really entering into the world of the first century. I particularly appreciate the fact that it is replete with references to Jewish works written during the Second Temple Period.
5. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament
Another great background commentary, written by one of my favorite scholars, Dr. Craig Keener.
6. The Greco-Roman World Of The New Testament Era: Exploring The Background of Early Christianity
This book (and the two which follow) is not in any way a commentary. Rather, it reads more like a general history of the New Testament period, with particular emphasis on its Greco-Roman background (hence, the title). It also explores different facets of ancient life, such as what it was like to live in a city in the Roman Empire versus the country, how the ancients viewed gender roles, how they viewed a cosmos which, to them, teemed with supernatural entities.
7. Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament
I really enjoyed this one and I think you’ll find its content both enjoyable and very accessible. In my view, the most important context for understanding the New Testament is its Jewish context (over against its Greco-Roman context) and this book will guide you into that world.
8. Backgrounds Of Early Christianity, 3rd Ed.
Weighing in at 620 pages, this book is definitely the heftiest of the last three. This book is chock-full of information regarding the New Testament’s Greco-Roman and Jewish backgrounds. I really enjoyed his chapter dealing with the Dead Sea Scrolls, As enjoyable as this book is, I would recommend starting with the previous two before trying to tackle this one.
Well, that officially wraps this series up. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and, more importantly, I hope it has encouraged you to read the Bible in light of its historical-cultural contexts.