The best resources for Bible study are those which help one understand the physical, historical, and cultural contexts of the biblical world. To understand the words of the Bible, we must understand the world of the Bible. The world of the Bible provides the contexts to its words.
To study the physical settings of the Bible, one needs good maps of the lands of the Bible, maps which show the topography and ancient roadways. Locations often have significance within the Bible due to their proximity to roadways; therefore, when looking at a map, it is not simply the locations, but their connection to roads which make them significant. So too, good Bible atlases offer geographic information, including regional dynamics, and maps, as well as geographic realities at specific periods of time. This enables us to understand the evolving geo-political realities of the world of the Bible which often stand in the background of the biblical narratives and prophecies.
In addition to maps and atlases, Bible dictionaries are important. These help you look up terms, places, people, flora, fauna, and other details about the biblical world. This provides background and contextual information enabling us to interpret the Bible better. Bible dictionaries often provide information on the spatial, historical, and cultural world of the Bible, as well as bibliographies for further and deeper study.
Recently several publishers have issued study Bibles focused on the cultural world of the Bible. These Bibles provide notes on passages from the aspect of the cultural contexts of the Bible. To study the cultural world of the Bible, one needs to consider the ancient written sources, contemporary with the Bible, yet outside of the Bible, and the material culture uncovered through archaeological excavations. Like with any study Bible, the value of the notes depends upon the ability and knowledge of the commentator responsible for compiling the notes.
It is important to keep in mind: the Bible is inspired, but our interpretations of the Bible are not. This also extends to the interpretations of Bible teachers and scholars. That said, as we gain greater ability to study the Bible within its physical, historical, and cultural settings, we gain a better sense of what the Bible meant within its world, and this helps us understand what it should mean in ours. It also means that we should approach our study excited by the journey and willing to learn new things as we enter the world of the Bible, and the humility to correct, change, and grow from ideas and interpretations we previously held dear.
Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.