Historical Context

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Links to study helps for historical context

Sample historical context study by Steve Buchanan

Importance:  “Knowledge of the historical context allows us to reenter the world of the Bible – its customs, language, and ways of thinking.”  (Doriani, p. 46)  By “traveling” into the world of the Bible, we can gain a better understanding of the communication that occurred between the author and the readers.

Definition:  The historical context is the sum of the circumstances, customs, and events relevant to a particular text.  This includes the time contemporary with the text as well as the history that relates to them, all of which is in the past for us now.  This study can include other passages of Scripture as well as knowledge from secular history.

Doriani lists three goals of studying the historical context (p. 44):

1)      to retrieve, as best we can, the world of the Bible

2)      to discover the circumstances involved in the writing & the reading of particular books

3)      to understand the individuals and groups who play roles in the biblical drama

Some examples of areas of knowledge that can shed light on the historical context:

Agriculture                  Architecture                Clothing                                  Economics

Family structures         Gender roles                Geography                              Methods of warfare

Politics                        Religious customs       Social customs                        Technology                            

Principles for studying historical context (Doriani, pp. 45-53):

  • PRINCIPLE 1:  The more we know about the world of the Bible, the better we understand the Bible itself. (Tools such as study Bibles, Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias, books on manners and customs, history books, and exegetical commentaries[1] can be especially helpful in this part of the study.)
  • PRINCIPLE 2: To evaluate the relationship between a writer and his readers, look for pointed questions and objections, sharp rebukes, and terms of endearment.
  • PRINCIPLE 3:  In historical books we need to understand the cultures of the people who acted out the dramas of the Bible. (asking who, what, when, where, why, and how)


Author: ______________________________________    Date: __________________________

Other Biblical references relevant to the book of Philippians (look up terms such as “Philippi,” “Macedonia,” etc.): _____________________________________________________________


Historical Background of Philippi

  • What significance did Philippi have geographically? _____________________________
  • Why is the city called Philippi? ______________________________________________
  • What important battle took place at Philippi? ___________________________________

(Note: Paul would later die under the authority of a Roman emperor because of this.)

  • What special status did the city of Philippi hold? ________________________________
  • What continent is Philippi on? _______________________________________________

Philippi in Acts

  • What missionary journey was Paul on when he first came to Philippi? _______________
  • Name the members of the missionary journey known to have been in Philippi in Acts 16 (give references) __________________________________________________________
  • Since Paul normally preached in synagogues as he went to new cities, what can we infer from his experience of meeting the women at prayer by the river? ______________ ________________________________________________________________________

Possible Old Testament allusions in Philippians

(including references that would require some understanding of Jewish background)

Subject Philippians reference Possible OT reference
Deliverance through adversity 1:19 Job 13:16
Every knee bow, tongue confess 2:10-11 Is. 45:23
Children; crooked/twisted generation 2:15 Deut. 32:5
Poured out (drink offering) 2:17 Gen. 35:14; Ex. 29:40-41
Circumcision 3:3, 5 Genesis 17
Paul’s Jewish pedigree 3:5-6 Gen. 17:12, others
Righteousness “from the law” 3:9 ? Lev. 18:5, others
Knowing the Lord; pressing on 3:10-14 Hos. 6:3
Rejoice in the Lord 4:4 Hab. 3:18
Sweet smelling aroma 4:18 Ex. 29:18

The Origin and Date of the Epistle

Suggested origin of epistle Pros Cons
Rome (61/62 AD)
  • Traditional view that has survived centuries
  • Is consistent with the book
  • Acts 28:16, 30-31 indicate that Paul’s house arrest allowed _____________
  • The initial two year Roman imprisonment of Paul would have allowed plenty of time for the necessary trips for Epaphroditus (4-6 months)
  • Phil. 1:20-26 indicate the possibility of execution
  • Phil. 4:23’s mention of greetings from Caesar’s household seems to support this view
  • Some allege that the distance for travel (probably 740 miles) was too far to account for the number of contacts between Paul and the saints at Philippi (however, all 3 necessary trips could have been made in 4-6 months, so this is not really a credible objection – unless there was a significantly larger number of trips involved)
Ephesus (late 50s AD)
  • If written from here on 3rd missionary journey, no objections for travel distance (only a few days away)
  • There is no positive evidence that Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus (conjecture)
  • There is no positive evidence for a praetorian guard in Ephesus (conjecture)
Caesarea (mid 50s AD)
  • Paul was imprisoned here
  • There was an imperial guard in Caesarea
  • Does not solve the so-called objection from distance since it is no closer than Rome
  • This view goes back to the 1700s

Summarized from Silva, Philippians, pgs. 5-7, & The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, pg. 1290.

  • According to Acts 28:16, 30-31, what did Paul’s first Roman imprisonment allow that at least makes Rome a possibility for the origin of the letter? ________________________
  • Who was the Roman emperor (Caesar) at the time this epistle was written? ___________

What do you know about his character? _______________________________________

  • Based on the dating of the book, how old was the church when Paul wrote? ___________

Internal Clues for Historical context (based on the epistle to the Philippians itself)

  • According to Philippians 1:7, 1:13, and 4:22, where is Paul as he is writing? ________________________________________________________________________
  • According to the following passages, what are some reasons Paul wrote this letter?
    • Philippians 1:12-13__________________________________________________
    • Philippians 1:27-28__________________________________________________
    • Philippians 3:1-2____________________________________________________
    • Philippians 4:10 ____________________________________________________
    • What other passages give a reason? _____________________________________
  • How does Paul feel toward the Philippians? (Give references) ______________________


  • Does Paul write to the Philippians as if they are accepting, ambivalent, or antagonistic? ________________________________________________________________________

Other Historical and Cultural References within the Epistle

  • Who (possibly) were the false teachers Paul warns about in Philippians 1:15-16, 28; 3:2, 18-19?  (Give references to other passages.) ____________________________________
  • Paul indicates that he is reminding the Philippians in 3:1.  On what occasions had he previously had contact with them (give references)? _____________________________
  • What kind of cultural imagery does Paul use in Philippians 3:13-14? _______________
  • How does Acts 16 (and its context) relate to Philippians 1:5 and Philippians 4:15-16? ________________________________________________________________________
  • What are some things the Philippians could recall when Paul spoke of his example before them (Philippians 3:17 and 4:9)?  What do we know from Acts 16? ______________________________________________________________________________________
  • Based on the history and Acts 16:12, 16:37 what facts shed light on Paul’s mention of “citizenship” (“conversation” in the KJV) in Philippians 3:20? _____________________
  • How would Paul’s teaching about the resurrection of the body (Philippians 3:21) have been received by those who held beliefs about the afterlife based on Greek philosophy? ___________________________________________________________(cf. Acts 17:32)
  • Do you see any connection between the historical account in Acts 16 and anything you observed in Philippians 4:2-3? _______________________________________________
  • What ancient philosophy may be in view when Paul mentions being “content” (4:11)? _________ How does it differ from Paul on the point he makes there? _______________


  • Remember not to dispense all the historical information you collect.  Stick to what is relevant.  Ask if it helps explain, illustrate, or apply the text.  Some historical information is helpful and some is not necessary.
  • Remember that historical context is not everything.  You have to actually get to the text!
  • Remember that historical context is something. Where we have references to historical context, we can often be closer to the understanding the original recipients of the book had.  There is a gap of time and culture, but historical context helps us build a bridge.

[1] A good exegetical commentary on Philippians is Moisés Silva, Philippians, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005).

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