The Necessity of Background Information for Understanding the Bible

The Necessity of Background Information for Understanding the Bible August 1, 2013

Over at TGC, Andy Naselli gives a cautious “yes,” to the question as to whether or not knowledge of historical background is ever necessary to understanding the Bible. It’s a good article and weighs the options wisely.

His article is all the more interesting in light of the recent presidential address by Chris Tuckett at the recent SNTS meeting in Perth just last week. Tuckett said in his address:

[I]t would be accepted by all that some (considerable) knowledge of non-canonical texts (such as Qumran, Josephus, Plutarch, Thucydides etc.) is a sine qua non for any contemporary discussion of NT texts themselves. If we are to place these NT texts within their broader social, cultural, linguistic and ideological thought world, it is essential that we pay attention to other texts of the period in which they were written, whether canonical or non-canonical. In this sense, any kind of ‘canonical criticism’ which claims that methodologically one must focus on other ‘biblical’ texts as the only legitimate comparator, and context, for analysing NT texts has not often found a place within modern NT studies.

I have several assertions to make on this topic:

1. A basic and sufficient knowledge of the Bible can come from an intelligent and close reading of it in its canonical context. You can know that there is a God our creator, who called Israel, sent his Son, Jesus died and rose for us, salvation is by faith, and God will judge the world, and the elect will dwell with God for eternity. No Ph.D required here.

2. The assumption seems to be about whether an individual needs background knowledge to adequately understand the Bible. But if we get away from the scenario of just “Me and my ESV” and think about reading and studying the Bible in a community of faith; a community with preachers and teachers who have been instructed in the Scriptures, then we should think of pursuit of historical background knowledge as a basic part of any regime of preaching, teaching, catechesis, or discipleship. All the more so when we are now served by wonderful and very readable resources in this area like the books on backgrounds by Craig Keener and Darrell Bock. If we read in a community of faith where people before us and around us have labored in the fields of biblical, theological, canonical, and historical study,then  background knowledge should be the norm, not an exception.

3. While I am sympathetic to the view that reliance on historical background can turn into a kind of scholarly gnosticism so that only learned men of letters can truly understand the Bible with their secret knowledge of historical background, even so, the opposite is a docetic view of revelation, a view that rips God’s revelation out of the historical context in which divine revelation takes place. If God reveals himself in events, places, cultures, and languages then to the study of events, places. cultures, and languages we must go because our doctrine of revelation demands it.

4. There are several concrete places where you could say that background knowledge is to some degree essential. The discussion of head-coverings in 1 Corinthians 11, why Cephas separated from Gentiles at Antioch, or else the rise and fall of empires in Daniel. You just HAVE to know something about context here or else it won’t make a lot of sense.

5. To confessional Christians, I would point out that the WCF and LBC both affirm that the clarity of Scripture pertains only to the “things necessary for salvation,” not to all things. Think on that! Moreover, while many confessional Christians urge us to read Owen, Edwards, Spurgeon, Warfield, and Machen and the like (and no reason why not), it wouldn’t be such a bad idea for them to also urge Christians to also read Josephus, Virgil, Horace, the DSS, Eusebius, and Philo too. In fact, James Charlesworth says that he has inherited three libraries from retired or departed ministers and in each one of them was a copy of the complete works of Josephus by William Whiston. A previous generation knew the value of knowing ancient history, so should we!


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  • An interesting follow up to your point at the end. I inherited my grandfather’s library several years ago. He was a boilermaker turned missionary. A practical man and preacher rather than an academic. He trained at SMBC in the 1940’s and headed out to Bolivia to serve in the Amazon jungle for 15 years. He took with him a well-used copy of Whiston’s Josephus which I now have on my shelf.

  • Chris Porter

    Amen. You don’t go and start reading Quantum Physics without a basic knowledge of maths and science, so why do we seem to think that we can insinuate heavily nuanced positions from an English translation (cue me and my KJV types)?

    Although given discussions with some friends in the Pacific and Africa the conservative and evangelical parts of the church could be equally accused of breaking point 1.

  • Ian Thomason

    G’day, Mike.

    Amen and amen.

    God bless,


  • Navjeet Singh

    i learn so many things from this blog.keep updating.thank you.