As we start studying through the scriptures, we will start with a very broad scope and then narrow it down. The first thing that you must consider when you are looking at a particular book or passage is the historical context. This includes where it falls in the division of Bible books and the specific historical context of each book. Both things will help us determine how to understand a particular passage. For instance, you wouldn’t interpret a Shakespearean play in the same way you would the Sunday morning newspaper. In the same way, when we look at one of the gospel accounts, we won’t see it the same way as a Psalm.


When we read through the Bible, it is important for us to understand what we are reading. The basic Biblical divisions go a long way in helping us accomplish this. The Bible, as we have it today, is not in chronological order. Knowing these divisions will not only help us understand where the book falls in world history but also help us understand what type of writing it is. We will go through a basic outline of the Biblical divisions, but this course is not designed to be a survey of the Bible, so we won’t go into as much detail as we can. I encourage you to study and learn more about each of these divisions and their implications. The more you learn, the better equipped you will be in your Bible study.

Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These books contain the earliest Jewish history and the law of the old covenant. It is important to note that while these books teach us much about the nature of God and God’s plan and promise for us, they are part of the old covenant, which we are no longer bound by. We should not use these books as the sole support for doctrinal issues. These books begin with the beginning of the earth and end with the Jews about to enter the Promised Land. If something is contained within these scriptures, based on historical inferences, we can assume with some certainty that it took place before around 1400 B.C.

Books of History: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 &2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. These books are the historical narrative of the Jewish nation from the entry into Canaan (around 1400 B.C.) until Jewish captivity (around 450 B.C.) These books are in chronological order for the most part; however, there are some exceptions. Ruth, for instance, takes place during the time of the judges, and 1 & 2 Chronicles overlap 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings.

Books of Poetry: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon. The books of poetry are not in chronological order. As an example, Job was probably written before any other book of the Bible. One must understand when reading these books that they rely heavily on poetic symbolism (which we will discuss in depth in future articles). There are some historical aspects to these books that are literal; however, we must be conscious of the symbolic nature of the poetry.

Major/Minor Prophets: Major Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel. Minor Prophets-Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. The difference between the major and minor prophets is simple; the major prophets tend to be longer, and the minor prophets are shorter. The terms “major” and “minor” in no way speak to the importance of the books. This section of the book covers the time period before the divided Jewish nation fell into captivity. Some of the books are written to the northern tribes, and some to the southern tribes. They contain warnings from God to the nations and prophecies about the future (including many about the coming of the Messiah). It is important to understand that some rely on figurative language, and some, especially Daniel, utilize apocalyptic language (which we will discuss in a future article).

Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. These are the accounts of Jesus’ ministry on earth. Each is written from a unique perspective and has a distinct purpose. For instance, Matthew was written to convince the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. When you read each of them carefully, their purpose will become apparent. The historical events that occurred in these books are from about 4 B.C. until around 28 A.D. These books should carry much weight when studying doctrinal issues as they contain the words of Christ himself. While the people in the gospels were still under the old covenant, Jesus began introducing and teaching about the new covenant.

Church History: Acts. The Book of Acts contains the history of the early church. We learn much about the different apostles throughout this book. This is the period when the apostles were introducing the new covenant to the world.

Pauline Epistles: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews. With the exception of Hebrews, Paul wrote these Epistles. While possibly written by Paul, the author of Hebrews is unknown. The common link between these epistles is that they are addressed to a specific audience, as indicated by their title. Galatians was written to the church at Galatia, Philippians was written to the church at Philippi, and so on. It is important to understand the history and culture of the people to truly understand the specific problems addressed in these epistles. Because these epistles were written under the new covenant, they are a primary source for the basis of many of our doctrines.

General Epistles: James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2 & 3 John, Jude. Instead of being entitled on the basis of the audience, these letters are written to a more general audience and bear the name of their author. Also written under the new covenant, these epistles are another basis for many of our doctrines.

Prophecy: Revelation. The Book of Revelation is the sole book of prophecy in the New Testament. It does begin with a few short letters to some of the churches of the time. We can learn much from these letters. The rest of the book is written in the apocalyptic style and requires careful study. It was addressed to the Christians around 70 A.D. and warned them of their impending persecution.


While understanding where a book falls in the general breakdown of the Bible helps us understand some historical context, there is much more we can learn from the specific historical context of each book. Sometimes, learning where a book falls in a historical context is very simple, and sometimes, it gets a little more complicated.

This is one of the few times when opening a commentary may save you time. Because the nature of the material you will be discovering will be historical, it will be less likely that an author will put his “spin” on it. Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias are also very helpful in discerning the historical background of a book. This is also a time when it is appropriate to use a regular encyclopedia or world history book. Always remember, the events that occur in the Bible are actual historical events and the world history you learned about in school is occurring simultaneously. Many of the names of kings and nations you read about throughout scripture are easily found in secular, historical writing. Also, the more you learn about Biblical and Jewish history as you study scriptures, the easier this will get.

To determine the historical context, you need to read and pay specific attention to the names of kings, nations, historical events, and cultural situations. Many books will state with exactness when the events took place. For example, Esther 1:1-3 states that these events are happening in the third year of the reign of King Xerxes. We know by historical documentation that the third year of Xerxes’ reign of the Persian Empire was 483 B.C. Not all the books will be that easy; you will have to determine some by battles or specific historically documented events, such as the building of the temple. Don’t get caught up in coming up with a specific exact date. It will suffice to know the general time period and what is going on historically and culturally at the time.

Once we have what period of time a book covers, what do we do with that information? Let’s use our example of Esther. We know the exact time period and a king’s name.

First, let’s discover what is happening in Jewish history at the time. If you look up Persia in various Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias, you will find out that Xerxes’ father, Darius, allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. This is a significant fact because we can imply that the Jews who decided to stay were not necessarily the most pious of Jews. This gives an entirely new meaning to the struggle Esther faced when she decided to intervene on behalf of her people.

Next, let’s do a character study of King Xerxes himself. If you look up all Biblical references to him, you will find that he was a very proud king and very dependent on his advisers. Looking his name up in an Encyclopedia, you will find that he was very intent on conquering and showing his power over others. Knowing these things, we can then ask questions such as: What would it have been like for young Esther to be married to such a man? Exactly what kind of risk was she taking going before him in the throne room without being summoned?

As you can see, understanding this historical context of the cultures and the people of the time can give us great insight into what exactly is going on in a specific passage of scripture. This helps to turn what sometimes are simply words on a page into a true, living, breathing story.

Kristy Huntsman
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Kristy Huntsman is the editor-in-chief for Come Fill Your Cup and the author of three books in the Finer Grounds Bible Study series published by Kaio Publications. She and her husband Lance attend the Stonewall Church of Christ where Lance is the minister. She is a homeschooling mom of two sweet girls, Taylor (14) and Makayla (11). Kristy has a master’s degree in biblical studies from the Bear Valley Bible Institute as well as Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Music Performance. She continues her education by pursuing specialized certifications in biblical languages from the Biblical Mastery Academy.