What do I need to know about the people, practices, and places of this time period to help me understand this text?
Historical Context Instructions On Luke 1:26-38
When you analyze the historical context of a text, your goal is to answer the question, “What do I need to know about the people, practices, and places of this time period to help me understand this text?” The best way to go about doing a historical context analysis is to frame it as asking and answering a series of questions.
For example, let’s take the passage of 1 Kings 17:1-16. Use the following as a guide for your own historical analysis of your New Testament text. This is the story of the prophet Elijah and the Widow of Zeraphath. To conduct a historical analysis of the text, we first read the text carefully and write down all of the questions that come up. Topics that may provoke questions would likely include the following:
- Places: Elijah is said to be from Tisbhe, and the widow is said to be from Zeraphath; where were these places? What do we know about them from the historical record? Have we uncovered their ruins in archaeology? What is the geography like around these places? Are there other biblical texts that make reference to them? Are there other ancient Near Eastern texts outside of the Bible that make references to them?
- Names: Elijah and Ahab are both mentioned in here. What do we know about them from the historical record? Are there other ancient Near Eastern texts that refer to them?
- Roles: This text records an interaction between a prophet and a king and then a prophet and a widow. What was the role of prophet all about in the ancient Near East? What about the role of king? Did they typically interact with prophets – and if so, how? What do we know about widows from the historical record? Did they typically interact with prophets – and if so, how?
- Significant Nouns: The text starts with a curse from Elijah around the issue of rain. What did rain symbolize in the Bible? What did it symbolize in the ancient Near East?
- Rituals/Practices: What practices or rituals does the text describe? What do we know about them?
- Religions: We know from the immediate literary context that this interaction involves other religious deities of the ANE, namely, Ba’al. What do we know about him and about the religion that revolved around him?
Other Good Questions to Ask:
- Date: Where and when does it seem likely that the text written and/or edited? What evidence suggests this date? (Do not spend more than a paragraph on this question; for the vast majority of texts, the answer will be, “We just don’t know.”)
- Historical Events: Can you identify any historical events to which the text seems to refer? What was going on in the religious communit(ies) that the text seems to be addressing?
- Similar Genres: Can you identify some similar genres of texts from other surrounding cultures?
- Cultural Norms: What cultural, religious/moral, or economic norms does the text assume?
- Relationship to Cultural Values: In what way does this text seem to promote its cultural, religious, economic, and/or moral values? How does it seem to challenge them?
Where to start answering these questions:
- Bible Dictionaries and Encyclopedias: When studying historical context, one’s best bet is always to begin with Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias. There are many dictionaries and encyclopedias out there. Stick with the following for now:
a. Harper Collins Bible Dictionary
b. Eerdmans Bible Dictionary
c. Anchor Bible Dictionary
d. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible
e. Dictionary of Deities and Demons
f. Dictionary of Bible Personal Names
g. Dictionary of Bible Place Names
h. Baker Encyclopedia of Bible Places: Towns and Cities, Countries and States, Archaeology and Topography
- Commentaries: Any commentary worth its salt will have done its due diligence on historical context. Check out their introductions to the book as a whole, as well as their specific sections on the pericope that you are studying.
- Books about the History Context: For example:
a. The Oxford History of the Biblical World (accessible online through Hamma)
b. A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Architecture
c. Dictionary of Ancient Deities
- Journal Articles: These can be hit or miss depending on their topic, but they will often include a good amount of historical context in their analysis as well.
- Do not cite Study Bibles. No matter how good they are, they do not contain enough information for you to judge their argument. Use them as a jumping off point to find other sources that address the same issue. Citing Study Bibles will correspond to a decrease in the project’s grade.
Write this paper as an essay, with complete sentences and paragraphs. You may use headings for each of your sections if you’d like, but they are not necessary. There should not be a “thesis statement” for this project. Instead, your goal is to describe the historical context of this pericope as fully as possible in 5-7 pages.
You should consult at least 5 sources for this project, and at least 2 of them must be commentaries. (They can all be commentaries if you’d like, but need not be.) Conclude your paper reflecting on how learning about the historical context helped you understand the text
February 2, 2023
February 2, 2023