Learning the background of the world around Bible times is critical to good Bible study. There are a number of excellent books to choose from to get you closer to their world. The better you understand their world the better you hear the words from scripture. So here are a few books to consider in getting your ears more in tune with the world of the Bible.
Old Testament Background
IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament By John Walton
This goes section by section and sometimes verse by verse through these books giving you relevant historical information and parallel practices in the ancient world that shed light on what you read. There is another volume that gives just Genesis- Deuteronomy
If you want a more in depth history of Old Testament events check out A Biblical History of Israel by Provan or A History of Israel by John Bright or his shorter book The Kingdom of God. Another similar book If you are wanting to get a better understanding of second temple Judaism
Peoples of the Old Testament World – this is a book that gives information about the various people groups that you read about in the Old Testament. This is the “go to” resource on the “ites”.
Victor Matthews wrote another excellent resource called “Social World of Ancient Israel 1250-587BC“. This is explains roles people had in the their world from father and mother to elders and slaves. If you want something similar but more advanced/technical try The Hebrew Bible in Its Social World and Ours by Gottwald.
William Dever has two excellent books on the world of the Old Testament that are great resources: What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When did They Know it? and Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did they Come From?
Another area of Old Testament background is getting familiar with parallel ancient near eastern texts. The simplest book that does this is by Victor Matthews “Old Testament Parallels.” He goes through the Old Testament and provides works from outside the Old Testament that give similar information. You can get more of these in the work of James Pritchard who wrote, The Ancient Near East: Vol 1 – Texts and Pictures,and The Ancient Near East: Vol 2 – Texts and Pictures.
New Testament Background
Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson
If you only bought one book on Bible backgrounds for the New Testament this is the book you want to buy. Dr. Ferguson is a professor at ACU and this book is regarded as one of the best books in the field. He goes topic by topic through the main areas of New Testament backgrounds hitting on everything from Greco-Roman religious practices to the political and religious sects and groups in Jesus’ day. This is one of those books every serious student of the Bible should own and at least refer to when studying if not read cover to cover. If you want something like Ferguson but more comprehensive and by a variety of scholars instead of from one perspective you should look at the IVP Dictionary of New Testament Background
IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament By Keener
This is a whole New Testament commentary on background information to the text. So if you are studying a text and want to know what the main, relevant historical background information might help you in your study this is a great place to start.
The First Urban Christian: The Social World of the Apostle Paul by Wayne Meeks
I read this after N.T. Wright repeatedly referenced it in his TOME on Paul. This is a fascinating book that will give you plenty of historical background information on Paul and his writings. Meeks doesn’t hold to Pauline authorship on all of the Pauline epistles, just so you are aware. Nevertheless, a fantastic book and one any student of Paul will want to read. He also wrote two other books worth mentioning: The Moral World of the First Christians and The Origins of Christian Morality.
Abraham Malherbe, who like Ferguson was a member of the Church of Christ, has also done some great work on the social aspects of early Christianity. His book Social Aspects of Early Christianity is fantastic. You should also consider his book Paul and the Popular Philosophers.
There has been a resurgence of interest in the Jewishness of Jesus and the emergence of Christianity out of Judaism. If you want to study that more in depth here are some good places to start. Thanks to Bobby Valentine for pointing out a few of these to me:
Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament by Scott
In the Shadow of the Temple by Skarsaune
Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith by Wilson
The Temple and the Church’s Mission by Beale
Judaism in the New Testament by Chilton
A few other books you will want to look at are:
Families in the New Testament World by Carolyn Osiek.
Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence by Craig Evans
The New Testament World by Malina
The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era by Jeffers