Scripture 101 – Placing things in Context

If a realtor’s cry is: “Location, Location, Location”, the Biblical scholar’s might well be: “Context, Context, Context.”  God can and does speak to us through scripture no matter what background knowledge we bring with us.  We don’t have to be experts to catch the story of God which draws us to a living relationship with Jesus!

At the same time; understanding that the Bible was first written to people in a specific time, culture and situation will help us more accurately interpret it, avoiding errors and invisible assumptions we bring to our reading of scripture.

First step – When did things happen?

One starting point when we come to the Bible is to realize that while some books follow a mostly chronological order (Genesis through Nehemiah), the books of the Writings and Prophets in the Old Testament are connected to various points in time throughout Israel’s history.

Likewise, in the New Testament, the Gospels are not in chronological order (Mark probably was written first and John last), with Luke and Acts being connected.  The letters (most of which were probably written before the Gospels), are also largely arranged by length, not order in which they were written.

So, when we read a book of the Bible (and sometimes certain sections within a book), we might start by asking:

  • When was this written?
  • Who wrote it, and to whom?
  • What was going on in the world at that time?

A good study Bible will offer some help with these questions; giving their best scholarly perspective on those questions.

A Timeline of History and Scripture:

Scripture Timeline
Graphical timeline of scripture and history – Click to enlarge

As we ask those questions, it’s also helpful to have a basic idea of the major historical events going on as scripture was being written – it provides a framework to get a better sense of how that individual book of the Bible fits the big story of God in history.  


Primeval History:

1750-1600 BC – Ancestral History  (Genesis 12-50)

1400-1250 BC – Exodus and the Laws of Moses (Exodus – Deuteronomy)

1250-1200 BC – Conquest of Canaan ( Joshua)

1200 – c.1030 BC – Time of the Judges ( Judges)

1030 – 931 BC – The United Monarchy (1 Samuel – 1 Kings 11)

1030-1010 BC – Saul’s Reign (1 Samuel)

1010-970 BC – David’s Reign (2 Samuel)

970-931 BC – Solomon’s Reign (1 Kings 1-11)

931 – 586 BC The Divided Kingdoms of Judah and Israel (1 Kings 12-2 Kings)

* 722 BC – the Assyrian Conquest

              – Isaiah 1-39, Hosea, Amos, Micah (address these events before and after Assryia’s destruction of Israel)

597-539 BC – Babylonian Rule

* This is a critical time for Jewish scholarship, reflecting on the events of the Assyrian destruction and the Babylonian triumph over Judah.  Shift from temple to torah: disciplines they can practice while in exile: almsgiving, fasting and prayer. 

         key prophet: Ezekiel

597 BC – Babylon conquers Assyria, subjugates Judah (establishing a puppet king)

Jeremiah predicts the destruction of Jerusalem

586 BC – Babylon destroys Jerusalem after the puppet king Zedekiah rebels.  Many more are deported

539 -333 BC Persian/Post-Exilic period

Isaiah 40-66 dates from this period (44:28, 45:1 referring to Cyrus of Persia)

538 BC (Ezra-Nehemiah) – Return from Exile

516 BC (Ezra – Nehemiah)  -Second Temple

445 BC (Ezra – Nehemiah) – Jerusalem Restored (rebuilding the wall)  Jerusalem exists as a vassal state to Persia and the Jewish high priest functions as a tax collector for the Persians

333-63 BC (1-2 Maccabees)  Hellenistic / Greek Empire

333-323 BC – Alexander the Great conquers Persia, captures Jerusalem in 332 BC

323 BC – Alexander the Great dies, his kingdom is divided among his four top generals

320-198 BC – Ptolemy (one of Alexanders generals) reigns over Egypt; he and his descendants rule over Israel until 198 BC

c. 250 BC – beginning of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint), including books known as the Apocrypha which were written in Greek, not in Hebrew.

198-164 BC – Syrian Domination.  Antiochus 3 (whose capitals is in Syria) defeats the Ptolemies and gains control of Judah.

175-163 Antiochus Epiphanes IV convers the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem into a temple for Zeus and sacrifices pigs there.  1 Maccabees 1:54 calls this action a “desolating sacrilege”, and Daniel 12:11 calls it “the abomination that desolates”.  Antiochus IV attempts to outlaw Judaism as a faith, and sparks the Maccabean Rebellion in 167

167-164 BC – Maccabean Rebellion.  Judas Maccabeus recaptures Jerusalem and purifies the temple in 164 BC.

164- 63 BC – Hasmonean Rule.  Maccabean rulers control Judah.  Eventually their style of rule provokes dissention among factions within the Jewish people

63 BC – 95 AD – Roman Empire

37-4 BC – Herodian Period.  Herod the Great rules over Palestine for 33 years.  He enlarges the temple mount and rebuilds the temple in Jerusalem to exceed the majesty even of Solomon’s temple

6 BC – Birth of Jesus

4 BC – Death of Herod

27-30 AD – Ministry of Jesus

30 AD – Crucifixion / Resurrection / Ascension of Jesus

50-95 AD – composition of New Testament Documents

66-70 AD – Jewish Rebellion against Rome.

70 AD – Jerusalem and the temple destroyed.  Pharisees become the main surviving sect of Judaism.

– the Dead Sea Scrolls come from this range of time and illustrate  differences in Judaism between the Essenes, Scribes, Pharisees, Temple community.  This is reflected in both interpretation of scripture and the diversity of texts found preserved by the Dead Sea Scroll community.  Fragments of all books of the Hebrew Bible (except Esther) are present, but so are parts of apocryphal texts and other documents relating to the Dead Sea Scroll community itself.  There is no evidence as yet that the DSS community had any way of distinguishing which of these works functioned as ‘Scripture’ in the sense that we think of in terms of a list of canonized books.

90 AD The council of Jamnia works to settle the Hebrew canon of scriptures

Later events relating to the formation of the canon (list of books in the Bible)

Irenaeus quoted and cited 21 books of the NT except (Philemon, Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude)

By the early 200’s Origen was using the 27 books we recognize as canonical, though some were still disputed (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation)

325 AD – Council of Nicea came up with a creed that described the heart of the faith.   The NT canon had not been finalized (yet) but they were coming close.

By the end of the 4th century, we have documentary evidence that multiple councils and core figures had come together on which NT books were to be regarded as canonical

c. 400 AD – Jerome begins work on the Latin translation of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. He initially started work using the Greek Septuagint, which included what we call the Apocrypha. However, he later changed his mind and worked from the Hebrew texts, which do not include them.

500-1000 AD – the Masoretic Text adds vowel markings to the Hebrew Scriptures


Interpreting Biblical Literature, Michael R. Cosby

The Making of the New Testament, Arthur G. Patzia