This is the process in which we seek to build up the circumstances behind the writing of the book. The aim is to find as much information as possible about the situation into which the book was written. Each book, especially the letters, was written to a specific person, at a specific time, about an issue or issues that they knew, understood and which concerned them. The more we can find out about the historical setting, the better our interpretation will be.
These are some of the questions to be asked:
a) Who was the author?
b) When was it written?
c) From where was it written?
d) To where was it sent?
e) What problems were being addressed?
f) What were the individual's (or church's) strengths or weaknesses?
For some books, a large amount of information can be determined about its historical setting, while for others there are often a number of unanswered questions.
There are two stages:
a) Internal evidence: What can we learn from the content of the book itself?
b) External evidence: What can we learn from other sources?
i. From other books in the Bible
ii. From other reference books (eg: Bible Dictionary, Bible Atlas)
These are some suggested areas of study
Identify the main characters, and find out as much as we can about each one of them from the rest of the Bible, and from a Bible Dictionary.
Note the geographical locations and find them on a map in a Bible Atlas. Find out what is known about the location from the Bible Dictionary. Then think of how the geography affects the events in the passage or book.
Find out about every-day life during the period of the book, particularly aspects which are relevant to the passage or book being studied. Interesting areas of study are family life for the ordinary people, education, weddings and marriage, life-expectancy, funerals, clothing, diet and social customs. For example, in the study of the Book of Philemon, some understanding about slavery in the first century can be very useful.
Find out about relevant details of the Jewish religious system, including the different religious groups in the NT, the temple, and the synagogue.
Also relevant is information about the contemporary pagan religions and their effect on God's people or the church. One example is the religious system of the Canaanites.
Find out what is known about the wider historical context. For many of the OT books, this is very important, as many historical events and people are mentioned which sometimes play a prominent role in the Scriptures. The main source of this information is the Bible dictionary or encyclopedia, as well as secular historical records.
When a particular king or political leader is mentioned in the text, find out what is known about them.
For the OT, it is helpful to gain a basic knowledge of the different empires, including the Syrians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Persians.
Knowledge about the inter-testamental period or so-called '400 silent years' is helpful as a background for studying the NT. This includes Alexander the Great, as well as the Ptolemies and Seleucids and particularly Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
For the NT, it is helpful to know about the Roman emperors and the Herods.
False teachers in the churches
Many of the letters address the problem of false teachers in the churches. For these we need to ask these questions:
Who are they?
What did they teach?
What affect did their teaching have on the church?