One of the most important set of resources in which students of the Bible and pastors can invest is New Testament backgrounds and context. We will divide up our discussion into four categories.
For the personal library, it is helpful to have a few resources to access for quick consultation and reference.
Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post-Biblical Antiquity (Hendrickson). This four-volume set covers just about every element of “daily life” under the sun: alcoholic beverages, aqueducts, hair, marriage, widows, etc.
Dictionary of NT Background (IVP Academic). Part of the famous “black dictionaries” from IVP, the DNTB covers a lot of material. It is probably one of the first resources I consult on “background”-type questions and needs. The downside is that the dictionary is nearly two decades old and in need of some updating. But it’s still a resource worth owning.
IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (IVP Academic). You can count on the prolific Craig Keener to offer accurate information on the context and background of numerous NT texts.
Jewish Annotated New Testament (OUP, 2nd ed.). Using the NRSV text, this study Bible offers notes written by Jewish scholars and a back-of-volume set of short essays on Jewish history and literature. I don’t find myself always agreeing with the study notes, but overall the work is insightful. Perhaps the greatest strength is debunking false assumptions and impressions about early Judaism.
Bird, M. F. and N. T. Wright, The New Testament in Its World (Zondervan). This new textbook from N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird offers lots of information that is helpful for putting the NT texts in context. Bonus: it looks pretty = bookshelf eye candy.
Green, J.B. and L.M. McDonald, ed., The World of the New Testament (Baker Academic). While not comprehensive, this handy book covers areas like Jewish heritage and Jewish writings, Greco-Roman religion and philosophy, slavery, economics, and major sites and cities mentioned in the New Testament.
Digging Deeper into Jewish Background and Context
The above resources treat a breadth of background matters briefly or in a more cursory way. For those who want more detailed discussions of Jewish background and context in particular, the following are highly recommended.
Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism (Eerdmans). Written by experts and up-to-date with great bibliographies to chase up “further reading.” I trust these scholars to offer the most accurate information on early Judaism.
Skarsaune, Oskar. In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity (IVP Academic). This book was formative for me in my early career as I developed my lectures on NT backgrounds and context.
Wright, N. T. The New Testament and the People of God (Fortress). This has become something of a modern classic. Wright is often at his best when he is interpreting a sweep of history in context.
Own It: EDEJ, but really you should own them all
Greco-Roman Background and Context
Elliott, Neil and Mark Reasoner, Documents and Images for the Study of Paul (Fortress Press). Elliott and Reasoner offer commentary and snippets of source material to illuminate the ancient world around Paul. There is a mix of Jewish and Greco-Roman material, but a good amount of the latter.
Longenecker, Bruce W. In Stone and Story: Early Christianity in the Greco-Roman World (Baker Academic). This new work offers a tour through the Greco-Roman world with the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum as the main sites of study. In a remarkably concise manner, Longenecker sheds light on nearly every area of life in the ancient world.
Reasoner, Mark. Roman Imperial Texts: A Sourcebook (Fortress Press). As the title suggests, this book offers original source information about the Roman emperors. Sourcebooks are so important for reading directly about the ancient Roman world.
Sampley, P. J., ed. Paul in the Greco-Roman World (T&T Clark, 2nd ed.). Now expanded into two volumes (2nd ed.), this is an incredibly rich and insightful set. I have used this over and over again and honestly there is nothing else like this out there. Unfortunately it is very expensive. But make sure to track this down in the reference section of a theological library near you!
Own It: Longenecker
Here I recommend big and expensive sets that an individual probably can’t afford. But you will want to utilize these at the library.
Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (de Gruyter; aka ANRW). This massive 37-volume set covers The Rise and Decline of the Roman World. It functions much like an encyclopedia and is divided into six sections: Political History, Law, Religion, Language and Literature, Philosophy and the Sciences, and The Arts. Individual essays are written in various modern languages including German and English.
Gurtner, D. M. and L. T. Stuckenbruck, ed., T&T Clark Encyclopedia of Second Temple Judaism Volumes I and II (T&T Clark). This new set “provides a comprehensive reference resource of over 600 scholarly articles aimed at those studying Judaism in the Second Temple Period, and the numerous texts and artefacts related to to it.”
Oxford Biblical Studies Online. If you are a student, check to see if your institution has a subscription to OBSO. Here, in one place, you get access to the Oxford collection of dictionaries, handbooks, study Bibles, etc. There are loads of great historical resources in OBSO.