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Using Historical Context in Studying the Gospels


Joseph Fantin, “Background Studies” in D. L. Bock and B. M. Fanning

(eds.), Interpreting the New Testament Text: Introduction to the Art and
Science of Exegesis (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 167-196
Samuel Sandmel, “Parallelomania,” Journal of Biblical Literature 81
(1962): 1-13
T. L. Donaldson, “Parallels: Use, Misuse and Limitations,” Evangelical
Quarterly 55 (1983): 193-210

• God has revealed himself within history, and therefore it is to history

we must go

o All Christians rely on historical study when they open their

New Testaments

• The dangers of not knowing the historical context are enormous

• The problem of shared context author and reader.

o When Jesus calls Herod a “fox” in Luke 13:32, what does he


o The Samaritan woman in John 4 comes to draw water at

midday. Is there any significance to this?

• How to “learn” historical context

o Learn the primary sources

 Primary sources are sources written roughly

contemporary with the period under investigation.

 For the time of Jesus, this can sometimes mean using

sources between 200 BC to 200 AD (or even wider in the
case of the Old Testament)
 When we are reading primary sources, we must
constantly ask – how is this relevant to understanding
the background of Jesus?

Responsibly using primary sources

• The issue of bias – no primary source should be regarded as neutral.

Just because it is ancient doesn’t mean it has no agenda.

o Is Josephus infallible

o Bias comes in lots of forms:

 Socio-economic bias – most history is written by the
elites (papyri as a counter-example)
 Gender bias – most history is written by males
 Political bias – people will misrepresent their opponents
 Etc

• The problem of knowing the sender’s mind, but not the audience

o So an emperor puts up an inscription – but did people buy into


• Considering the date of a source

o The most important sources for background to the Gospels are

likely written before or contemporaneous with the Gospels

 But would Jesus or his contemporaries have read them?

 Could their culture have somehow been influenced,
even indirectly, by the ideas?
 Does it explain institutions, events, geography that are
relevant to Palestine.

o Sources written late that the NT can still reflect a shared

experience with NT writers, or contain traditions dating back
to before or during the NT era. But this must be justified.

How to do Background Study

1. Gain a good general knowledge of NT history and culture

a. Ben Witherington, New Testament History

b. F.F. Bruce, New Testament History

c. Anthony Tomasino, Judaism Before Jesus
d. Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity
e. N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (very

2. Use specific dictionary and encyclopedia resources as a starting


a. Bible background commentaries (can look up backgrounds to

specific verses)
i. Craig Keener, Bible Background Commentary
ii. Clinton Arnold, Illustrated Bible Backgrounds
Commentary (4 vols)
b. Bible dictionaries
i. Stanley Porter and Craig Evans (eds), Dictionary of New
Testament Background
ii. D. N. Freedman, Anchor Bible Dictionary (6 vols)
iii. For Gospels specifically – J. B Green, et al., Dictionary of
Jesus and the Gospels
c. These all should only be used as launch points for further
investigation. And the opinions of scholars can differ!!! Don’t
just read one.

3. Determining the Relevance of Background Information

a. Even scholars suffer from parallelomania (seeing parallels
where none exist)
b. Ask yourself these questions
i. How does the background material impact the message
of the passage?
ii. Does it expose our misunderstandings, or simply
provide nuance?