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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Bible Background (Part 1 of 2), by Craig S. Keener

Often we miss the point of the passage because we are unfamiliar with the culture in which it was written. Some cultures, such as Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures or some traditional rural African culture, are closer to the cultures in the Old and New Testament than most western cultures are. (Bedouin culture may be closest to that necessary for understanding Abraham; a mixture of peasant farmers and Jewish sages gives us the best background for Mark; Paul’s writings reflect a broader cosmopolitan, urban Greco-Roman world.) But none of us dare assume that we will always interpret the Bible correctly without consulting the ancient culture. African cultures are closer to biblical cultures than western cultures are, but this makes it easy to miss the fact that sometimes African and biblical cultures differ (for example, in Corinth either husband or wife could divorce the other regardless of the other’s protests, 1 Cor 7:15).

Various sources provide information on ancient Mediterranean cultures. Someone who wants to study the Gospels in detail, for instance, should read in addition to the Old Testament the Apocrypha (a section contained in Catholic but not modern Protestant Bibles), especially Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach; some of the Dead Sea Scrolls (especially the Manual of Discipline and War Scroll) and so-called Pseudepigrapha (especially 1 Enoch; Epistle of Aristeas; 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch); parts of Josephus (especially his Life, Against Apion, and parts of the War); and probably the tractate Aboth in the Mishnah. Because most students do not have access to all these resources, one might use a Bible encyclopedia (like the new International Standard Bible Encyclopedia) to get answers for specific questions one has. But sometimes one does not even know which questions one should ask without knowing some of the background.

For that reason, one of the simplest and most available beginning tools is the IVP Bible Background Commentary. The New Testament portion provides background on each passage or verse of the New Testament, and was written by the author of this book on Bible interpretation. I spent many years researching ancient Mediterranean culture so I could provide these in one volume, passage-by-passage, to make it widely available to all Bible readers. While I tried my best to take into account all cultures, I could address most fully only those questions which I could anticipate, so you may still find some questions unanswered that will drive you to further study. The IVP Bible Background Commentary provides a bibliography of sources useful for further research into ancient Mediterranean culture, for those who are able to pursue it further.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2004, Pneuma Review

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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