All serious students of the scriptures should make a habit of regular reading of good books about the Bible. It is of particular importance to read books about the world in which the scriptures were written. If we are to understand the Bible, then we need to understand the Bible's world. This means spending a little time learning about the history, culture, and social structures of the ancient world. The task may sound daunting to some. However, there are numerous books now available which introduce the characteristics of the biblical world in an easily accessible style. Most would be surprised by how much they can learn by simply reading one or two books. You will be amazed at how much more understandable the scriptures are when you understand a little bit about the ancient world. Here are three books to get you started. I plan to add to these over time and will categorize them under the label NT Bibliographies. Each of these books are written at an introductory level and highly recommended.
deSilva, David A. Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000.
deSilva provides an introductory look at the four major concepts which identified in the title of the book. I have found the first section on ancient systems of honor and shame to be particularly helpful. deSilva's writing is clear, and he gives a number of examples to show how the cultural concepts aid in our understanding and interpretation of the New Testament.
Jeffers, James S. The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity. Downer's Grove: InterVarsity, 1999.
As the title suggests, this book looks particularly at the Greco-Roman culture of the first century world. Among other topics, Jeffers includes chapters on Greco-Roman religion, cities, history, and governance. I have found the chapter on slavery in the ancient world to be very helpful as I prepared a Bible study on Paul's letter to Philemon.
Longenecker, Bruce W. The Lost Letters of Pergamum: A Story From the New Testament World. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003.
This book is a work of historical fiction organized into a series of letters exchanged between Luke (the author of Luke and Acts) and Antipas, a man devoted to the advancement of Rome and her ideals. The story is well done and gripping. When I first read this book, I couldn't put it down. This book introduces its readers to the New Testament world through the correspondence between Luke and Antipas. The reader will learn about many facets and persons of the first century world including the systems of honor and shame, the Emperor cult, and Josephus to name a few. See my review of this book for more information.