In my Bible school, there was something we had to do before moving into the interpretation phase of our study, and that was to find out some basic required information (BRI). To fully observe a book (and then interpret and apply it), we need to know some essential facts such as: Who is writing the book? Who are they writing to? What circumstances led them to write this? When was it written? What was the historical background– the political, social, spiritual, cultural climate? And more. Knowing these things helps us to understand why the author wrote the book and how the original reader/hearer would have understood it. These details not only help us understand the context, they bring out spiritual truths that might otherwise be overlooked.
Here are some tips for discovering the historical background of a book:
- Always start with internal evidence… within the book itself for information about the author, the audience, their culture, and their present situation. For example Titus 1:1 & 4 say “Paul… to Titus” so we know that Paul is the author and he is writing to Titus. Then in verse 5 he goes on to give instructions to Titus, which clues us in to why he is writing the letter.
- Look at the cross-references in your Bible to see where names, places, or a similar situation is mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament (when reading NT letters it is especially helpful to cross reference the book of Acts) and/or Old Testament. If you do not have cross-references in your Bible, you can look them up online, or you can look up the names and places in a concordance. Investigate the audience’s culture, geographical location, and political situation.
- If it is a New Testament letter, investigate the events of Paul’s visit(s) to that city or region and how it fits in to his ministry (conversion, missionary journeys, imprisonments, etc.) in order to discover where he was, what he was doing, and why he wrote the letter. Investigate Paul’s relationship with the audience. Also, if the book is an epistle (letter) to a specific church, investigate the church’s size, makeup, and length of existence.
- If it is an Old Testament book, investigate what was happening in Israel’s history at that time.
- If you’ve looked internally– within the Bible– and still don’t have all of the necessary facts, move to external sources to find the answers.
- Use Bible handbooks or dictionaries to look up the specific book of the Bible.
- Discover more about the audience’s culture, geography, and political situation by looking up their city or province in a Bible dictionary, Bible atlas, or Bible encyclopedia.
- Discover more biographical information about people in the book by looking up their names in Bible dictionaries or encyclopedias.
- Look up key words (ex. grace, justification) to further understand their meaning to the original readers in a Bible dictionary or Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words.
- Discover more information about the culture by looking up social structures or religious systems that are mentioned (for example Judaism or slavery) in a Bible dictionary or encyclopedia.
- Look up illustrations and cultural information (such as circumcision, yeast, or crucifixion) in a Bible encyclopedia, Bible background commentary (these two are among my favorite resource books), and Bible customs reference.
Here are printable BRI sheets you can download for your study:
In the next post, I’ll talk about the second step of inductive Bible study… interpretation. (Read about step 1 here.)