Trisha, a high school teacher who had been honored, recognized, and praised for her prowess as a teacher of American history, agreed to lead a small group of adults who wanted to read the entire Bible over the course of three years. Trisha had grown up in the church. She had heard and read the Bible since she was very young. She knew where to find particular stories and could recite by heart several psalms and a large portion of the sermon on the mount and other sayings of Jesus.
“What I cannot do,” she told me, “is figure out the context of much of the Bible, especially the Old Testament. When I assign a document for my students to read in American history, such as the Declaration of Independence, I can describe to them the events and conflicts that led up to the writing of that document. I can describe to them the colonial culture and the literary style Jefferson adopted.” She held up her well-worn Bible and said. “I know what this says, but I often have no idea why it says what it does.”
I led Trisha down the hall to the church library where we have shelves and shelves of commentaries on each book of the Bible. “Almost everything you want to know about the Bible, you can find here in one of these commentaries.”
I allowed as to how she was right.
“What I need,” Trisha said, “Is a concise book on context. I want a list and a brief description of the major historical events, the major cultural differences, and the literary genres of the Bible. That would give me something to grab hold of when I stumble across some obscure passage of Scripture we have never understood before.”
While I could find excellent commentaries on particular books of the Bible, several books on history, a few on culture, and books on particular genres of the Bible (the parables of Jesus, the Psalms, and the epistles of Paul, for instance) I could find no concise guide to biblical context for small group Bible study leaders.
So, here it is.
Over the next nine or ten weeks, I will post 18 (give or take a few) blog entries on the basic historical, cultural, and literary elements of biblical context. Many of you know more about it than I do, so feel free to chime in and correct my errors, add missing essential information, or tell a story that is apropos to the subject.
I’m a pastor, not an academic, so I’m not likely to use academic jargon; if I do, call me on it. I am writing for small group Bible study leaders, both lay and clergy, who need an easy-to-understand handbook. I value your thoughtful comments and they will shape the content of the final product. At the end of our 18 weeks, I will post an e-book, (free to you, dear readers) with a clear and simple description of the basic contextual elements that seminary-trained clergy use in preparing to teach or preach the Bible. And, it is much cheaper than a seminary education. Like I said, it will be free to you.
There are, of course, many more than six elements in each category; but, with my purpose being to create a concise handbook, I have somewhat arbitrarily grouped historical events, cultural differences, and literary genres into broader categories and left out some that would be added in a more detailed study.
Whether you are a leader of a small group Bible study, or you want to read the Bible on your own with deeper understanding, I hope this blog will provide you with contextual landmarks to help you find your way.
Next post: Six essential historical events behind the Bible’s formation–the Most Important One–What would you pick? My choice is Babylonian Exile; the floor is open for your nominations!