Setting the Stage: Historical-Cultural Background
Every book of the Bible has historical elements to it. As written documents, each book was written in a historical setting and contains details about historical events. It is vital for competent interpretation of Old Testament writings to develop a solid grasp of the chronological framework of the various books of the Old Testament. A timeline can be sketched as follows (for specific dates, see the various charts in Invitation to Biblical Interpretation).
The Old Testament period begins with primeval history. Though we might not know specific dates for this time, we do believe that the events recorded in Genesis 1–11 represent not only a literary but also a historical reality: These were real people living in real places. The rest of Old Testament history moves from the patriarchal period to the exodus, the united monarchy, the divided monarchy, and the exile and return.
Students of the Bible should not ignore what happened next. Sometimes the 400 years that followed are called the “silent years” because no biblical texts were written during this time. But this epithet is misleading because many extrabiblical documents are available (the so-called “Second Temple literature”), and many noteworthy events took place during this time. The Second Temple period started with Babylonian domination. The Medes and the Persians soon eclipsed Babylon, followed by the Greeks under Alexander the Great. Eventually, the Jews revolted and enjoyed a brief period of self-rule known as the Maccabean period. Next came Roman rule, which brings us to the period of the New Testament.
The Bible’s history can also be undergirded by archaeological evidence: “In some cases, the Old Testament Scriptures are confirmed by archaeology. In others, our lack of information with regard to difficulties becomes illumined, while in still other cases the biblical data are supplemented by ongoing discoveries” (111). Extrabiblical literature can also provide helpful background information to the biblical text. For example, the Histories of the Greek historian Herodotus mentions historical characters such as Xerxes and Cyrus: “This illustrates that while the biblical documents must remain primary, extrabiblical information can be used in tandem and can helpfully illuminate aspects of the biblical story that may lie in the background and be assumed by the biblical writer” (118). Other helpful documents include the Old and New Testament Apocrypha, the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
An Interview on Biblical Interpretation
In conjunction with our new course on biblical interpretation at The Gospel Coalition, I was interviewed by Fred Zaspel at Books at a Glance. In Part 2, we discuss the importance of history. You can listen below:
- Blog post: Invitation to Biblical Interpretation
- Blog post: Preparation: The Who, Why, and How of Interpretation
- TGC Course: Invitation to Biblical Interpretation