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Exegetical Papers: 2. Historical, Cultural, and Literary Background

Online Bible Dictionary

Resources: Books



Schools of Bible Criticism

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


Examples of critical schools:

  • Redaction Criticism"In the study of biblical literature," the redaction "method of criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the New Testament that examines the way the various pieces of the tradition have been assembled into the final literary composition by an author or editor. The arrangement and modification of these pieces, according to this method’s proponents, can reveal something of the author’s intentions and the means by which he hoped to achieve them." Britannica Online Academic Edition. Dr. Margaret Aymer, formerly of the Interdenominational Theological Center, has a great video explaining Redaction and Source Criticism located here
  • Feminist Criticism : "like feminism itself, comes in many types of packaging, each of which when opened reveals different ideas about the Bible, its authority, and its relevance. To interpret the Bible from any feminist lens, one must ask certain questions: what does the text say – or not say – about women; what do the characters – both male and female, human and divine – say about women; do these answers portray women as fully human (as the above quote advocates) or as subordinate to men; if the latter (which is more common), what is the appropriate response? This last question is the one that distinguishes the various feminist approaches to biblical interpretation." Reading Glasses: Feminist Criticism  -SBL Teaching the Bible
  • Socio-Rhetorical Criticism :"is an approach to literature that focuses on values, convictions, and beliefs both in the texts we read and in the world in which we live. The approach invites detailed attention to the text itself. In addition, it moves interactively into the world of the people who wrote the texts and into our present world."  From Exploring the Texture of Texts: A Guide to Socio-Rhetorical Interpretations by Vernon K. Robbins BS2380.R62 1996
  • Rhetorical Criticism: is concerned with the "determination of the rhetorical unit to be studied," e.g. parable, pericope, etc, "examination of the rhetorical situation and problem, consideration of the rhetorical arrangement of the text, analysis of the devices of style," and "review of the whole unit as a response to the rhetorical situation." Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation - SCM Press - Ref BS 500 D5 1990
  • Narrative Criticism: is concerned with "two aspects: story and discourse.Story refers to the content of the narrative, what it is about... [consisting] of such elements as events, characters, and settings, and the interaction of these elements comprises [a plot]. Discourse refers to the rhetoric of the narrative, how the story is told." The "central question [of narrative criticism] is How does the implied author guide the implied reader in understanding the story? Narrative critics tend to think that the reader is guided through devices intrinsic to the process of storytelling." What is Narrative Criticism by Mark Allen Powell. BS521.7 .P68 1990 
  • Reader-Response Criticism: "emphasizes the role the reader in determining meaning. Reader-response critics study the dynamics of the reading process in order to discover how readers perceive literature and on what bases they produce or create a meaning for any given work." The reader can be over the text, with the text, or in the text. What is Narrative Criticism by Mark Allen Powell. BS521.7 .P68 1990 
  • Social Scientific Criticism: "analyzes the social and cultural dimensions of the text and of its environmental context through the utilization of the perspectives, theory, models, and research of the social sciences." This includes the study of "the manner in which [the] textual communication was both a reflection of and response to a specific social and cultural context, the correlation of the text's linguistic, literary, theological (ideological), and social dimensions, and the conditioning factors and intended consequences of the communication process." What is Social-Scientific Criticism by John H Elliott. BS2361.2 .E55 1993
  • Literary Criticism: "Literary Criticism is primarily concerned with the Bible's literary forms, structures and themes. How does it function to accomplish its purpose? This involves identifying the type and use of the various literary genre such as narrative, poetic, apocalyptic, oratorical, wisdom, epistolary, etc. It includes evaluating the language of a text, looking at the words and their various meanings or shades of meaning and the patterns of meaning ranging from phrases to sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and sections. To analyze these, it is often necessary to examine the grammar of the original language, which includes the arrangement of words and how their forms are changed (inflection or accidence)." Genre, symbolism, metaphor and simile are among the elements examined.
  • Historical Criticism: historical criticism, literary criticism in the light of historical evidence or based on the context in which a work was written, including facts about the author’s life and the historical and social circumstances of the time. This is in contrast to other types of criticism, such as textual and formal, in which emphasis is placed on examining the text itself while outside influences on the text are disregarded. New Historicism is a particular form of historical criticism." Britannica Online Academic Edition.
  • Source Criticism: "One aspect of historical criticism, source criticism is particularly concerned with identifying potential sources and precursors of the text we have now. An example of the use of source criticism is the famous Pentateuch division between source J and E. They are supposedly distinguishable by the use of the terms Yahweh and Elohim. Two additional sources were later proposed as P for priestly, and D for Deuteronomic. Hence the JEDP theory of authorship advocated by German scholar, Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). "
  • Documentary Hypothesis: - "This view believes that the Pentateuch represents the conflation of four different sources rather than the work of primarily one author, traditionally Moses. The results of Source Criticism first proposed two authors (or sources) for the Pentateuch supposedly distinguishable by the use of the terms Yahweh and Elohim. Two additional sources were later proposed as P for Priestly, and D for Deuteronomic resulting in the JEDP theory of authorship, most notably associated with German scholar Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). JEDP are initials representing the four hypothetical sources as follows:
    • Jawist (or Yahwist, from Yahweh) - describes God as Yahweh, starting in Gen 2:4, it includes much of Genesis and parts of Exodus and Numbers. It is dated around 850 B.C. - Library Reference source - The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Volume 6, Si-Z - Ref BS440 A54 1992 v.6
    • Elohist (from Elohim) - primarily describes God as El or Elohim. Starting with Gen 15, it covers material similar to "J". It is dated around 750 B.C. (J and E are said to be difficult to distinguish). - Library Reference source - The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Volume 2, D-G - Ref BS440 A54 1992 v.2
    • Deuteronomist - a different source (or author) is associated with Deuteronomy alone, and is usually dated around 621 B.C.- Library Reference source - The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Volume 2, D-G - Ref BS440 A54 1992 v.2
    • Priestly - this encompasses writings scattered from Gen 1 through the notice of Moses' death at the end of Deuteronomy. It is supposedly dated around 500 B.C." - Library Reference source - The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Volume 5, O-Sh - Ref BS440 A54 1992 v.5   - General library reference source for Documentary Hypothesis -  The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible - D-H, Vol. 2 - Ref BS440 N445 2006 v.2

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

You have now chosen a passage. Now 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" by is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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 the Robert W. Woodruff Library, AUC 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  BT745.A75 1992  )

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:  BS2361.2.M15  )

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 .R67 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). 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 A96 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

Synopsis of the Four Gospels

Matthew, Mark, Luke & John by Fergal of Claddagh is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

New Testament Greek

Resources: Books

Web Resources for Biblical Studies

Documentary Hypothesis Sourse

The Blackwell Companion to the Bible in English Literature (NetLibrary)

A Book I Can Read! by mtsofan is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Church Fathers

Patristic Sources