The Importance of Historical Context

Jesus in Context book coverWhy a blog post about Darrell L. Bock and Gregory J. Herrick’s book Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study?

If you’re at all like me, there comes a point in your reading of the New Testament where you start to realize that the world of the New Testament is vast in scope, and the New Testament itself only tells us a little about the context of that world. And you start to wonder how much you’re missing. Not doctrinally, of course. I’m thinking more of the literary and historical setting of the New Testament.

From here (if you’re like me) you research a bit and you find there’s all sorts of stuff you can read. There is so much it is almost overwhelming. You can (and should) read, of course, the Old Testament for the setting of the people of God. But this is only the start.

From here you can dip into the apocrypha (or deuterocanonical books) for insight on the developments between the testaments. Then the firehose opens wide: you can go from here to the works of Josephus (a historian contemporary with the time of the New Testament), and to Philo (an Alexandrian Jew from the same era) whose writings are preserved for us. You can go to the Apostolic Fathers (a personal favorite of mine) for some understanding of how the early Christians lived, thought and preached. You can go to Jewish literature — to the Talmud, to the Targums, to the Mishnah and all sorts of stuff. You can also go to what is called the “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha,” which helps you understand how both Jews and Christians interacted with their literature, and how they understood it, and what they expected to happen. From here your search will only get wider.

But (again, if you’re like me), that’s a whole lot of reading. And some of the material is a bit … er … “dry” in translation. What to do?

Thankfully, Bock and  Herrick published a book called Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study. What is this book? It is laid out in parts, and it provides readings from texts like those of Josephus, Philo, the OT Pseudepigrapha, Apostolic Fathers, Targums, Talmud, etc. for each major section of the gospels. So, for the section on “The Calling of the Disciples” (Mt 4:18; Mk 1:16–20), a section of the Qumran Hymn Scroll (1QH 5.7–8) is referenced. On the section of the healing of the Demoniac in the Synagogue (Mk 1:23–28; Lk 14:33–37), some Greek Magical Papyri (yes, such things exist) and 1QapGen 20.27–29 (the Genesis Apocryphon from Qumran) are cited. This is fun stuff!

You’d have to read and study a whole lot to put all of this together for the Gospels. But Bock and Herrick have done the heavy lifting for you. And they’ve arranged it in a way that makes it easy to consult while you’re studying the Gospels on your own. If you’ve ever thought, like I did, that there is more to the literary and historical context of the NT that (if you knew of it) might help your understanding of these important events recorded in the Gospels, then you should definitely check out Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study.

A few further notes

In 2002, Darrell Bock published a book called Jesus According to Scripture (currently on pre-pub here at Logos). That book arranges the Gospels in such a manner that makes the events of the Gospels easier to associate with their likely order of occurrence. The numbering system used by that book is also used in Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study. While Jesus in Context is considered a companion volume of sorts to Jesus According to Scripture, both texts do stand alone and are designed to be useful for their contexts.

Also, the Baker New Testament Studies Collection includes Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study and 13 other volumes. The collection is a great set of books at a great price. If you’re interested in more than one or two of the titles, you might want to consider the whole collection instead of the individual volumes.

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3 Responses to “The Importance of Historical Context”

  1. peter hernandez September 22, 2011 at 3:48 am #

    I firmly believe historical context is extremely necessary.in reading the scriptures I have found that there is a central theme to really understand what the lord is saying, and one big aspect of that theme is historical context. If we don’t understand him as alpha then we will have a hard time understanding him as omega… in the end of old testament malachi 4:6 says return to the fathers lest I send a curse…I believe that is saying life is out of context if not understood in light of history…we need to go back to our “first” love…

  2. Ryan Burns September 22, 2011 at 6:22 am #

    Rick,

    Thanks for this post. Please continue to post more like this. I found myself saying, “I think I own that already.” Sure enough, there it was. Read through some of it last night. What a cool resource. Looking forward to reading more form it.

  3. Johanne Tournier September 23, 2011 at 7:31 am #

    Jesus in Context has been selected for a course I’m taking (taught by Craig A. Evans at Acadia Divinity College)next term on Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians, and I think that speaks highly of the books level of scholarship. Thanks for this post – it’s got a lot of great supplemental info on the text.