The Bible is a daunting book to study, and very imposing in its scope, size and nature. The barriers to getting into it present real problems—problems that we have to deal with if we hope to help people find nourishment in the scriptures.
One of the most significant barriers is that that there is a lot of background stuff that you have to absorb if you’re going to be able to pick up what’s going on in any text—and lots of texts have different background pieces that inform them particularly. If you’re a historical nerd who loves geeing out on facts about the ancient world, this is great news for you—people like you and me love this stuff, and it is absolutely endless. You’ll never learn it all.
But what about everybody else? One of the big questions of how the church studies scripture is: What’s the baseline of background detail that people need to understand? What do people need to grasp in order to begin to wade into scripture without feeling like they’re drowning? How can we set up people to learn well, and feel capable of going further?
It’s an open question for me, but I want to suggest a set of areas in which having a basic understanding of the ancient world can really help people get some traction.
- Geography. I think it’s helpful if you can put ancient Israel, Egypt, Babylon, Nineveh, and Rome on a map. Probably Syria, too.
- The Exile. A huge part of the Old Testament revolves around the events of the Babylonian Exile. If you get that story, and the problems it presented, a large part of the canon opens up.
- Pharisees. A better understanding of what the pharisees were about is exceptionally helpful in understanding the stakes of the conflicts in the gospels. It needs to go beyond “Pharisee = Bad”, too.
- Economics. I think having a little understanding about the scale of the ancient economies really helps as well. What was the relationship to having land and being self-sufficient? What about ancient wealth distribution? It doesn’t get talked about in most sunday schools, but it’s an eye-opening subject.
- Honor/Shame. These categories were incredibly important to the identities of ancient people. Get this and their motivations make much more sense.