Tool 3: Bible Introduction

Lesson ▪ 1997
Tags: Biblical introduction
Excerpted from Bridging the Gap: Developing Tools for Better Bible Understanding

Most modern readers are accustomed to finding a few paragraphs (or even pages) of introductory material inserted before the text of a non-fictional book or article. Such material may be written by the author or by someone else, and may come under the label of introduction, prologue, foreword, or preface. The introduction serves to orient the reader, providing such information as the purpose of the book, the occasion for its writing, and an outline of its content.

Historically speaking, the inclusion of formal introductory material is a relatively new literary phenomenon. As might be supposed, neither the Bible as a whole nor its individual books include introductions. From the perspective of the modern reader, the lack of prefatory content is a barrier to understanding. Readers who are accustomed to reading introductions before proceeding to content find themselves challenged when they are faced with a lengthy ancient text such as the Bible.

Fortunately, many Bible scholars have recognized this problem and have attempted to remedy it. In fact, there is a whole class of literature known as “Bible introduction,” made up of books which attempt to do for the Scriptures (as a whole or in various parts) what prefaces and introductions do for modern non-fiction books. Therefore, the field of Bible introduction offers modern readers a tool to bridge a gap which otherwise may hinder them from understanding and applying the Scriptures.

Discussions of authorship attempt to establish with certainty who wrote a given book of the Bible. Many Bible books do not name their authors (e.g., Acts, Hebrews), and there have been debates about the authorship of those that do (e.g., James).

Bible introductions often attempt to pinpoint a date of authorship (whether precise or approximate), particularly as this relates to the circumstances under which the writer penned the document. For example, it is traditionally held that Paul wrote his letter to the Romans from the city of Corinth, which was known in its day for its immorality. Paul’s discussion of the depravity of man in Romans 1.18-32 makes more sense in the light of his circumstances.

God did not allow any book to creep into the canon by accident. Every document that makes up the Scriptures was given with a specific divine purpose which was usually obvious to the human author as well. Most often, Bible books were written for the purpose of edifying God’s people in a particular way. Bible introductions commonly try to discover the purpose of the writing.

Introductions often discuss the book’s intended audience, including a description of both the original recipients and the destination of the writing. For example, Paul’s harsh criticism of the Corinthian church in the first epistle do not appear unreasonable given its members’ spiritual immaturity. Conversely, the mellowed tone of 2 Corinthians makes sense in the light of their repentance and restoration.

Many Bible introductions provide a summary or survey of the message of a Bible book. This can prove very helpful to the reader. Sometimes this overview may take the form of an outline which reveals the structure of the document.

Some Bible introductions cover other features of the biblical documents, including the following:
  • sources on which the biblical authors may have relied for parts of their writing;
  • the literary form or forms which make up a Bible book; and
  • other key concepts which impact the proper interpretation of a Bible book.