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Biblical Exegesis: 2. Examine the Historical, Cultural, and Literary Background

Biblical exegesis is the process by which one comes to understand a Biblical text. One begins by identifying key passages, terms, and concepts and uses specialized library resources during the research process.

Resources: Books

The Five Gospels Parallels

Books on Topics

Use keywords in LibrarySearch and examine results. There are thousands of subjects but here is a list of common ones and how they are "formed." Note the N T and O T and quotation marks. 

Patterns to follow: 

  • bible n t matthew feminist criticism 
  • bible n t john
  • palestine social conditions
  • bible o t psalms
  • ethics in the bible
  • "women in the bible" 
  • bible contemporary events
  • marriage biblical teaching 
  • "slavery in the bible"
  • healing in the bible
  • jesus christ passion
  • lord's supper bible
  • messiah n t 
  • dead sea scrolls
  • judaism history post-exilic
  • history inter-testamental
  • temple jerusalem
  • bible canon
  • adam biblical figure
  • mary blessed virgin
  • sarah biblical matriarch 

Resources: Books

Web Resources for Biblical Studies

Schools of Bible Criticism

Use LibrarySearch to explore critical schools of Bible scholarship.  Use a keyword approach as much as possible.

Guides to Biblical Scholarship series

  • General series
  • New Testament series
  • Old Testament series

Examples of critical schools:

  • Redaction Criticism
  • Feminist criticism
  • Socio-rhetorical criticism
  • Rhetorical criticism 
  • Narrative Criticism
  • Reader-response criticism
  • Social scientific criticism

Common topics for critical schools:

  • narration in the bible
  • bible canon
  • bible social conditions
  • bible comparative studies
  • bible and literature
  • bible as literature
  • bible language style
  • bible criticism interpretation 16th century
  • exodus hermeneutics
  • islamic interpretations
  • synoptic problem
  • two source hypothesis synoptics 
  • q hypothesis synoptics

Examine the Historical, Cultural, and Literary Background of the Passage

After you have chosen a passage, you need to learn about the world of the text. What can be known of the historical situation prior to and during the time the biblical book was written? How did society function at that time, e.g., what was the status of women, children, or slaves in the culture, what religions existed at the time of writing, or what were the main cultural values in society? What other texts might be like the book that contains your passage from the same time period? Are there other texts that might help you understand your passage? The Bible did not float down from heaven untouched by human hands. Rather, it was written over a long period of time, by real people. who lived in real homes, with real families in real cultures. While there is overlap between these categories, they may be conveniently divided into:

  • Historical Background
  • Cultural Background
  • Literary Background

Historical Background


"Herod the Great"

Our example passage, Luke 1:26-38, takes place at a specific time and a specific place. It happens during the reign of Herod the Great (Luke 1:5), who reigned 37-4 B.C. It takes place in Nazareth, a town in Galilee. In order to understand this story better, you need to learn about Herod the Great (as opposed to the other Herods who appear in the New Testament), Galilee, and Nazareth.

The best tool for this general information would be a Bible dictionary or encyclopedia. Ask at Ireland Library for suggestions.

As a rule, the more recent a work is, the better the information in it, if it is of comparable size to other works. Using such a work will enable you to get a sense of the historical situation of the time. For example, the full significance of what Luke wrote becomes apparent only when you understand the status of Nazareth and of young, unmarried Jewish women in Galilee in this period.


Cultural Background

Like our world, the world of the New Testament authors involved many competing cultural values. Given that the New Testament writers, and the people about whom they wrote, lived in a world where multiple cultures met, Jewish, Roman, and Greek, at least, it is important to understand those cultural values because even if they are not directly stated in the text, they do still have relevance to the meaning of the text.

You can approach this two ways. First, you can identify a specific cultural or social value or practice and look it up in one of the works listed above, or find a resource that deals with it. For example, if you knew that magic was an important practice in the first-century Graeco-Roman world, which was used to protect oneself from evil spirits, and you were writing an exegetical paper on Ephesians, you would probably want to consult Ephesians, Power, and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians in Light of Its Historical Setting by Clinton Arnold (Call Number  BS2695.2 .A76 1989  )

The second approach is to consult a tool that talks about cultural values that may or may not talk about your passage specifically. One very helpful book is The New Testament world : insights from cultural anthropology by Bruce J. Malina (Call number:  BS2545.S55 M34 2001  )

Or, having observed that Luke 1:26-38 focuses upon a woman, you could look at one of the many works on women in the Bible and Luke-Acts specifically. Spiritually faithful women are one focus of Luke-Acts and many books consider their role in Luke's narrative. See, for example, Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity: Models from Luke-Acts by James Arlandson (Call Number:  BS2589.6.W65 A75 1997 ), or Women in the Ministry of Jesus: A Study of Jesus' Attitudes to Women and Their Roles as Reflected in His Earthly Life by Ben Witherington, III (Call Number: BT590.W6 W57 1984  )

Of course, your passage might not focus upon women, so you would look in the online catalog and do an "Advanced Boolean" search for the words you think would be relevant, such as "Luke blind poor," which would return a book related to the blind and the poor in Luke's Gospel, The Blind, the Lame, and the Poor: Character Types in Luke-Acts by John Roth (Call Number:.  BS2589 .R684 1997 ) Each of these would help you understand how women, or the poor, or the blind, or other marginalized individuals were perceived in first-century Palestine.



Literary Background

Documents, including each book in the Bible, have a given genre, or category, to which they belong. Literary works without an identifiable genre would be incomprehensible because you would not know how to read or interpret them. So identifying the literary genre of the book that your passage is in, and considering similar documents from the same period, may help you in understanding your passage. This can become fairly complicated but at its most basic level, you want to be able to distinguish an account that seeks to describe an event in Jesus' life from a parable that Jesus told (which is not meant to tell about an actual event) from an argument in Romans that is not about history but concepts.

One easy way to get to the genre of a book or passage is to look at How to read the Bible : a guide to Scripture, then and now by James L. Kugel. (Call Number:  BS1171.3 .K84 2007) or How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Call Number:  BS600.2 .F43 1982 ), both by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. For much more details that will give you a good idea of how others in the first century would have read and understood particular New Testament books, see David Aune's book, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Call Number:  BS2361.2 A9.6 1987). Some genres, like parables (such as the parable of the Lost Coin), or apocalyptic (the books of Daniel and Revelation) have many books devoted to understanding these genres and those can be found in the online catalog by an Advanced Boolean or Subject search.

All of this reading should enable you to write a 1-2 page section on the historical, cultural, and literary background of your passage. There is no guarantee that a specific passage will have important elements in each of these categories, but there will definitely be at least general historical, cultural, or literary aspects to your passage. Research on our example passage would show that Luke's Gospel is almost certainly an example of Hellenistic historiography, or, less likely, biography, but clearly not fiction. The story of the annunciation to Mary of Jesus' forthcoming conception and birth has elements of both the announcement of a miraculous birth to a pious, childless couple, and of a "call narrative," such as those of Gideon. This illustrates that a book may have one general genre, while smaller units within it may have a different, more specific genre.

Go to the next tab to learn how to perform exegesis of your passage.

Literary History

Ancient Near East

Church Fathers