6 Tools to Help You Learn About the Background of the Bible

by Bibles.net
Time: 20 Minutes

Can you imagine someone reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet only once, or better yet, just skimming over some sections of the play, and then claiming to be a Shakespearean expert? Of course not!

Why, then, do so many people treat the Bible this way? They read a little here, a little there, and then they claim to know what the Bible says.

At Bibles.net, we love God’s Word. We love reading it, meditating upon it, memorizing it, and yes, even studying it. In fact, we believe that in order to truly understand God’s Word, you must study it.

So fair warning: this article is not for the fainthearted. Rather, it is for those who truly want to dig deeply into Scripture, to probe the Bible and better understand what it means. It is for those who are prepared to do the hard work in becoming adept students of God’s Word.

This article is also more of a list than an article—we want to introduce you to some helpful resources as you begin Bible study.

Here are six tools serious Bible readers can access to better understand the cultural, historical, and geographical background of the Bible, and where you can find these tools. Let’s start simple and work to the more complex items.

1

Study Bibles

There are few things more important to purchase for young Bible students than a study Bible. This is a standard Bible that includes notes at the beginning of each biblical book and at the bottom of every page of Scripture.

Check out this article from our friends at Ligonier to discover the history behind study Bibles. While the first English study Bible was the Geneva Bible published in 1560, study Bibles exploded in popularity in the 20th century. Today there are over 100 different study Bibles on the market.

Resources:

The NIV Study Bible

Published in 1985, this Bible became the benchmark for modern study Bibles. The 2015 edition has over 20,000 notes. Just prepare yourself for a large book; it has nearly 3,000 pages. This is not the kind of book you carry around everywhere.

The ESV Study Bible

Another popular modern option is the ESV Study Bible published in 2018. It has over 25,000 notes and 200 full-color maps.

We suggest purchasing a larger version of both of these Bibles, as smaller versions use very tiny font.

2

Cultural Background Books About the Bible

 Why do we need to understand the cultural background of the Bible?

Here’s an example:

In Mark 4, Jesus tells a parable about a farmer who sows seed. Some of the seed falls on rich soil, but other seed falls on rocky places, thorny patches, and even on the path the farmer walks on (Mark 4:4-8).

Modern readers of this parable may wonder why the farmer was so sloppy with his sowing, especially when today we have high tech equipment that does much of our farming with great precision.

However, once we understand how seed was typically sown in the first century, we begin to to understand Jesus’ parable better.

The farmer would walk through his fields with a pouch of seed tied to his waist. As he walked along the path, he would thrust his hand in the pouch and pull out a handful of seed, distributing it with a sweep of his hand. Knowing this, it becomes much easier to understand why some seed falls in the wrong places.

The above example explains why we have several problems when trying to understand Scripture. The Bible was originally written in a foreign language, in a time nearly 2,000 to 3,500 years ago, in a region of the world much different than our own. The New Testament Gospels, for example, recount history from a time when animal skins were used to carry wine, when plows and oxen were employed for farming, and crucifixions were a form of public execution.

The Bible is written in a way that assumes we have some knowledge of its culture and practices, which are very unfamiliar to us today.

Resources:

Fortunately, there are books that can help us bridge this cultural gap.

The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times

This book concentrates on general background studies.

Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey

If you want similar material that walks through each Bible book with an eye for general background information, consider this book.

Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary

This book is for those looking for background studies on steroids! It’s a monumental ten-volume commentary covering the whole Bible.

3

Dictionaries and Concordances

Where was Nineveh? What does “Abba” mean? Who were the sons of Korah? With a Bible dictionary, you can easily look up these questions and hundreds of other places, people, and objects found in the Bible.

A concordance contains an alphabetical index of all the keywords in the Bible, cross-referencing them so you can easily find all instances a particular word is used.

Resources:

Holman’s Ultimate Bible Dictionary

Of course, you can just Google these things, but having a volume handy removes the opportunity for distraction from being on the internet, and makes a great addition to your personal library. This is a great volume for your bookshelf.

The NIV Bible Concordance

This book is a straightforward concordance with over 50,000 references.

New Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible

This popular volume includes a Hebrew and Greek dictionary of Old and New Testament words.

BlueLetterBible.org

If you’re looking for an online dictionary and concordance, go to BlueLetterBible.org. You can type in any phrase or verse in the Bible and can  click on any word and find its definition, as well as a list of its occurrences in the Bible.

GotQuestions.org

Although we recommend a physical copy of a dictionary and concordance, if you’re on the go or in a hurry, our friends at GotQuestions have answered hundreds of thousands of questions about the definitions of biblical words and the meaning behind biblical phrases.

4

Bible Atlases

Knowing United States geography, specifically, the difference between New York City and Alabama, will help you understand stories that take place in these places, like The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird. In the same way, understanding something about the geography of the Ancient Near East and the Greek and Roman worlds will help us understand the stories we read in the Bible.

Resources:

Reference Bibles

While most Bibles have some maps in the back, these maps are usually basic. If you want to be sure that your Bible has a map, you will want to choose a Reference Bible.

Holman Bible Atlas

This resource will provide you with more detailed maps of more places than you will find in any single Bible.

5

Bible Commentaries

One-Volume Commentaries

Commentaries are books that walk through specific books of the Bible, giving scholarly insight into its teaching. There are hundreds of them, so sifting through them is a daunting task. We’ll take a broad look at two types. First, we will discuss one-volume commentaries. These are a cheap, quick options, but lacking in-  depth study.

New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition 

Though most people associate commentaries with academics, this commentary is written for those who haven’t studied the Bible before. It includes visuals like maps and illustrations, which are not usually included in single-volume commentaries.

Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary

This book is written in non-technical language, so even though it’s quite a thick volume, it’s a great resource covering the whole Bible and is engaging. It includes commentary on every book of the Bible, maps, illustrations, and historical facts, outlines, and other visual aids.

Book-by-Book Commentaries 

Second, and more frequently used, are book-by-book commentaries. These often come in a series, and are far more thorough than one-volume commentaries. Cumulatively, these are much more expensive, because there are more volumes to buy if you want to read an entire commentary set.

However, if you want to read a commentary on just one book of the Bible, they are reasonably priced like any book. Fortunately, you can purchase these a book at a time, only buying the ones you want. Here is one series we recommend: 

New International Commentary.

This prestigious commentary series has been undergoing a second-edition update over recent years and continues the excellent academic content of this important series.

Below are two online commentary resources we highly recommend. Granted, there are many free online resources to access, but then you are never sure about their scholarly accuracy or veracity.

Matthew Henry Commentary

 This commentary can be found on BibleStudyTools.com, and if you can bear the older English style, Matthew Henry was a wonderful Bible scholar with a lot of insight to offer. You can look up his commentary by book of the Bible, and by specific chapter.

BestCommentaries.com

 There’s also a priceless resource online called BestCommentaries.com. Here, you can look up commentaries by book of the Bible. They are ranked by style and difficulty, as well as by how biblically sound they are. Many seminary students and students of the Bible have found this site extremely helpful.

6

Biblical Language Tools

The 66 books of the Bible were originally written in Hebrew (Old Testament) and Koine Greek (New Testament). Unfortunately, both of these biblical languages are now dead; no one naturally speaks them today. They only exist as academic languages for those who study the Bible.

This means every single Bible today is a translation. Whenever you move from one language to another, meaning and content can be lost or confused. This means that people who study the original biblical languages have keen insights into the meaning of the biblical text.

However, few people have the commitment to study dead languages long enough to become proficient in them, especially when they can simply read the Bible in a language they readily understand. For this reason,  99% of Christians must rely on Hebrew and Greek experts.

Fortunately, there are many tools available that will help us do this.

Resources:

The Interlinear NIV Hebrew-English Old Testament

These Bibles have the Greek or Hebrew text, with a line of English text directly below them showing the translation. This helps to identify the specific words used in the original language.

Bible Study Tools Online Interlinear Bible

“Lexicon” is a fancy word for dictionary, but one that gives us definitions for foreign language words. These definitions are valuable to see the original meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words behind the English translation.

Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words

This volume is an easily accessible book for those who are not proficient in the biblical languages. It helps us English speakers understand the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic words that we find in the Bible.

A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature

This book is more in-depth than Vines and focusses on translating the original Greek words into English.

Conclusion

For those wanting all of the above six tools digitally, consider purchasing a Logos Bible software set. They offer several different packages and a wealth of Bible study tools for every level of student, all on your laptop, PC, or smartphone.

As you can see, studying the Bible involves hard work. But take heart! Ask God to help you as you begin to tackle some of these resources.

Begin your journey today to a better understanding of God’s Word by adding some resources to your library. Maybe purchase your first commentary on a book that interests you, or bookmark one of these websites on your computer or phone.

Return to this page when you need materials on Bible background, or share it with a friend today!

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