People have often said that reading the Bible is like reading someone else’s mail. It was originally addressed to particular people in a particular time. Getting to know their circumstances can help us better hear, understand and apply what is being said in the Bible.
I want to share a stellar example of this from Dr. Richard Oster of Harding School of Theology. He did a lecture on head coverings from 1 Corinthians 11 a number of years ago that I ran across and have saved for over 15 years. He goes into Roman worship practices as depicted in archaeological discoveries (friezes, busts, statues, and coins) that show Roman worship practices that inform our understanding of what Paul is up against in Corinth.
I hope you will take the 30+ minutes to listen to his lecture, observe the included pictures, and appreciate how reading outside the Bible helps us understand what is inside the Bible!
The context and frame means a whole lot, and the Bible does not have all the historical material and the dates are often in the format of in the third year of the reign of X or not included at all. This does not mean that knowing the secular history is all bad. It gives every story in the Bible a setting. To those to whom the letters in the Bible were written or the prophesy directed, they would have known current events and leaders. Corinth, the letters to which are constantly quoted in the cofC sermons, was a rich city among its other issues. I have heard it was likely the richest city. This can be compared to the San Francisco of today. Many prophesies and Jonah were directed at and sent to Nineveh, a huge city of >120,000 people. Some sources say the largest city in the world at one time. Yet the story of Jonah with explanation is rarely mentioned from the pulpit aside from on Yom Kippur afternoon in temple, when it is read in its entirety. From the secular history books, it took about 10 months for Egypt to experience all 10 of the plagues. I only recently learned that. The secular sources allow the whole story to come together.
My Bible study was dull and going nowhere for years until I began reading about the historical cultural settings of the writings.
“Before Jerusalem Fell” by Gentry and “The Myth of Persecution” by Moss both demonstrate conclusively that nothing was going on ca AD95 in the Roman world that impacted Christians. This caused me to reconsider the early date for The Revelation, as was favored by most 19th century scholars. I gained an entirely different and exciting view of the Kingdom today and gained a new appreciation for the organized civil disobedience inspired by Lipscomb 1861-1918.
Similarly, “The Mystery of Romans” by Nanos gives a deep contextual setting for the first century churches within the Roman world and truly gave me the first consistent understanding of this important letter.