Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts - Lesson 2

Political Backgrounds (Part 2)

A summary of the Jewish political and religious rulers and movements, and the tensions that arose between the Jews and the occupying Roman authorities.

Craig Blomberg
Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts
Lesson 2
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Political Backgrounds (Part 2)


Part 1


A. Key Developments in Persian Period

1. Relative freedom of worship

2. Increased preoccupation with the Law

3. Earliest developments of oral law

4. Concept of synagogue

5. Use of Aramaic language

B. Alexander and his Aftermath

1. Numerous key results all unified under "bane and blessings of Hellenism"

2. Ptolemaic period comparatively peaceful; Seleucid period increasingly turbulent

3. The last straw: Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) desecrates temple

Beginning of Part 2

C. Maccabean Revolt and Hasmonean Dynasty

1. Ideals of revolution increasingly corrupted

2. Emergence of Pharisees vs. Sadducees

3. Key results:

a. Conservative backlash and hatred of foreigners

b. Messianic fervor but largely for political king

D. The Six Herods of the New Testament

1. Herod the Great: the first generation

2. Archelaus, Antipas and Philip: 3 of his sons

3. Agrippa I: a grandson

4. Agrippa II: a great-grandson

5. Tried to kill Jesus as a baby

6. Antipas the key Herod during Jesus' ministry

7. See Acts 12

8. Key ruler for much of 2nd of 1st century Israel (Paul has hearing before him)

E. The Jesus Movement and the Romans

1. Positive Period (AD 30-64)

a. Still viewed as Jews

b. Thus a religio licita

c. Oldest hostility from various other Jews

2. Negative Period (>AD 64)

a. Viewed as new religion

b. Persecution by Rome

c. Refusal to join Jewish rebellion; increased hostility there too

  • Overview of the influences of the Persian, Greek and Roman Empires on the Jewish nation. 

  • A summary of the Jewish political and religious rulers and movements, and the tensions that arose between the Jews and the occupying Roman authorities.

  • Ancient philosophies and religious movements had a significant influence on peoples' beliefs and behavior in the first century. The influence of Rome and Greece was evident throughout the world. 

  • Religious groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees, and teachings of contemporary Judaism about the Messiah affected Jesus' teaching and ministry.


  • One of the major influences in the social structure in Israel during the first century was the relationship and interaction between Jews and Gentiles. Various Jewish groups had differing views on how they should interact among themselves and with Gentiles. (Dr. Blomberg did not provide us with the PowerPoint slides for this lecture.)

  • One of the major influences in the social structure in Israel during the first century was the relationship and interaction between Jews and Gentiles. Various Jewish groups had differing views on how they should interact among themselves and with Gentiles. (Dr. Blomberg did not provide us with the PowerPoint slides for this lecture.)

  • The Gospels are historically reliable documents. Some of the main arguments and pieces of evidence pointing to the historical reliability of the Gospels are given in this lecture.

  • Form criticism, or form history examines how tradition has changed and how it has stayed the same. 

  • The gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke have so many similarities that they are referred to as the "Synoptic Gospels." There is also material in each of these Gospels that make it distinctive from the other two.

  • It can be helpful to examine, from a literary perspective, the passages that record the encounters that Jesus had with Nicodemus, and the Samaritan woman.

  • In order to understand the message of the Gospel of Mark, it is helpful to understand who the author is, the approximate date it was written, the audience to whom it was written, and the major themes of the book. The content of the book can be divided into the first 8 chapters that focus on the life and ministry of Jesus and the last 8 chapters that focus on His death and resurrection.

  • In order to understand the message of the Gospel of Matthew, it is helpful to understand who the author is, the approximate date it was written, the audience to whom it was written, and the possible sources on which Matthew relied when he was writing. Matthew begins by recording genealogy of Jesus and some of the events surrounding his infancy. Jesus' public ministry began with HIs baptism by John the Baptist, temptation in the wilderness and calling of the disciples. His preaching included the Sermon on the Mount and parables which Matthew grouped together in the Gospel.

  • Examining the outline and structure of the Gospel of Luke reveals the main points and the focus of Luke's Gospel and the book of Acts. Luke and Matthew have some similarities as well as some elements that are distinctive.

  • Much of the material of the Gospel of John is unique, compared to the other 3 Gospel accounts. Some of John's account alternates between recording a sign that Jesus performs with a discourse about a certain subject. Chapter 12 to the end of the Gospel covers the final days of Jesus' life on earth.

  • Some scholars belief that historical evidence supports the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life, some think the historical evidence supports the inauthenticity of the Gospel accounts, and some think that the historical evidence is irrelevant. The different conclusions are due mainly to different presuppositions. It is possible to propose a probable time line of Jesus' life.

  • The Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth and early years of life show how He accurately fulfilled specific OT prophecies made hundreds of years earlier, and how His life was intertwined with that of John the Baptist. The beginning of John's Gospel is a testimony to Jesus' nature as being both fully God and fully human.

  • Locations in present day Israel that are related to Jesus' infancy and the beginning of His public ministry.

  • John the Baptist began his ministry before Jesus's public ministry. For a while their public ministries overlapped, then Jesus conducted the remainder of His public ministry without John the Baptist on the scene.

  • Turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana was one of the first miracles Jesus performed in His public ministry. He also had conversations with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, and healed the nobleman's son.

  • The Sermon on the Mount is one of the main passages showing how Jesus defines the "Kingdom of God." He also calls the disciples, redefines the family, performs healings and exorcisms, and uses parables and pronouncements to teach about who God is and how He relates to humans.

  • Images of locations in present day Israel related to Jesus' early Galilean ministry.

  • The Sermon on the Mount shows how the teachings of the Kingdom of God relate to the OT Law. It also includes additional NT teachings and a model prayer.

  • Pictures of places in present day Israel related to Jesus' early Galilean ministry.

  • Understanding parables as a literary form helps us interpret them accurately. Jesus performed miracles in various contexts for specific purposes.

  • Locations in present day Israel related to parables Jesus said and places He performed miracles.

  • Jesus' ministry in Galilee took place in locations like Nazareth, Cana, the Sea of Galilee and other nearby towns and areas. As Jesus was departing from Galilee, he performed miracles and taught at specific places along the way.

  • One of the themes in John chapters 5-11 is how Jesus fulfills the Jewish festivals. He also uses metaphors, saying that he is the, “bread of life,” “light of the world,” “gate for the sheep” and others.

  • In Matthew chapter 18, Jesus gives a sermon on forgiveness and humility. 

  • Locations in present day Israel related to Jesus' ministry.

  • Does the Bible teach that we are to marry or that we are not to marry?

  • Passion Week in the life of Jesus includes his anointing in Bethany, triumphal entry into Jerusalem, cleansing of the temple, celebrating Passover, prayer and arrest in Gethsemane, crucifixion and resurrection.

  • Chronological order of the events of the Passion week of the ministry of Jesus.

  • The death and resurrection of Jesus are significant both historically and theologically.

  • Narration describing slide photographs of locations of events that took place during Passion Week.

  • Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Jewish Messiah. He was both fully God and fully man. Jesus taught about the kingdom of God and showed compassion to the people who were outcasts in society.

  • Acts was written as a continuation of the Gospel of Luke to record what the Holy Spirit was doing through the lives of followers of Christ in the early church. The gospel spread ethnically from Jews to Gentiles, and geographically from Jerusalem to the rest of the world.

  • Stephen challenged the Jewish leaders to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. Paul's conversion was a key event in the history of the early church.

  • The discussion in the Jerusalem council in Acts chapter 15 was how Jews and gentiles could function together as the body of Christ.

  • Narrative describing pictures relating to places that were significant in the early church.

  • The book of Acts records events that happened during Paul's travels as he preached the gospel and established churches throughout Asia Minor and Europe.

In this class, Dr. Blomberg covers the introduction for the four Gospels and Acts, and, using the English New Testament, provides a harmonistic study of the life of Christ with a focus on his essential teachings, the theology of evangelism, and the planting of the church as recorded in Acts.


Dr. Craig Blomberg

Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts


Political Backgrounds (Part 2)

Lesson Transcript


The horrors of the desecration of Antiochus give way to the Maccabean revolt and to the Hasmonean dynasty. Maccabean, because of a family of brothers, the oldest one named Judas, who was given the nickname Judas Maccabeus. In Greek Maccabeus meant hammerer for his fierce, effective, warlike fighting ability. Hasmonean, because of the revered ancestor in this family of brothers whose name was Hasmoneus. This was one of the first recorded instances of what today we would call guerilla warfare in the ancient world, so that although the Maccabean brothers and the rag-tag band of freedom fighters that they gathered around them were greatly outnumbered by the Seleucids, their use of surprise and clandestine attacks on small Syrian outposts coming down from hiding in the Judean hill country, helped also by a period of time when Antiochus was not able to devote his entire army to fight the Jews because of troubles on his northern flank, led to the amazing liberation of the Temple from Seleucid troops in a roughly three-year period of time by the end of 164 B.C., when the Temple was re-purified and rededicated and we know this feast even to this day which Jews celebrate every December as the feast of Hanukkah, meaning the feast that remembers the liberation of the Temple and eventually by 142 B.C., the entire land of Israel from Syrian troops. John 10:22 in the New Testament also refers to this feast by its alternate title, the “Feast of Dedication.” 

As has happened many times throughout history, however, the ideals of a successful revolution over time do often become increasingly corrupted. After several in the Maccabean family ruled in Israel, successors still had the legacy of Greek culture and customs and influence all around them, still had to deal with their own Jewish countrymen, who had become accomodationists with Hellenistic culture in a past era. And as the Seleucid power waned, the century or so of independence in Israel, from 164 to 63 B.C., increasingly also had to deal with the new emerging world power of the ancient Mediterranean, Rome, from the Italian peninsula, whom they kept at bay through a series of increasingly severe taxes, and eventually were no longer able to keep at bay when the period of independence ends in 63 B.C. 

But before we move to the end of this final golden era or century of independence, as it has often been memorialized, we come back again to a reading from the Old Testament apocrypha, as we promised earlier in this lecture to illustrate this issue of cultural compromise. Not the all-out attack on everything central to Judaism, as we saw with Antiochus IV, but in some ways perhaps in the long run was the more insidious, because less obvious carries of compromises with new cultural customs. This reading comes from 2 Maccabees, chapter 4, verses 10-17. Speaking of Jason, one of the appointees to the high priesthood, who was not a legitimate heir to that office:


“When Jason received the king's approval and came into office, he immediately initiated his countrymen into the Greek way of life. He set aside the royal concessions granted to the Jews through the mediation of John, father of Eupolemus; he abrogated the lawful institutions and introduced customs contrary to the law. He quickly established a gymnasium at the very foot of the acropolis.” 


Pause for a moment there to raise the question what’s wrong with good athletic competition? And of course the answer from the Jewish perspective is that Hellenistic introduced the practice of male athletes competing in the nude and for a Jewish man to be seen in public, even if just by other men, in the nude was considered a shameful thing going all the way back to the story of Adam and Eve, who had to cover their private parts after they had sinned because they were naked and now ashamed. Back to the text in 2 Maccabees:


“established a gymnasium where he introduced the noblest young men to wear the Greek hat.”


I’ll stop again and ask, “What’s wrong with a hat?” But again there was religious symbolism. Just as people today may wear certain types of caps as signs of loyalty to gangs or to athletic teams or other forms of dress or apparel that can have religious symbolism. Verse 13:


“The craze for Hellenism and foreign customs reached such a pitch, through the outrageous wickedness of the ungodly pseudo-high-priest Jason, that the priests no longer cared about the service of the altar.”


Again I’ll pause just to insert the comment, notice how what starts as seemingly a comparatively trivial compromise escalates to a series of stages that our author is not describing so that it now impacts the very heart of worship. And we might talk about those who begin by missing church in order to participate in some kind of sporting event but then that becomes so customary that they give up on Christian worship altogether, even today in the 21st century over a period of time. Back to 2 Maccabees:


“Disdaining the Temple and neglecting the sacrifices, they hastened at the signal for the discus throwing, take part in the unlawful exercises on the athletic field”


Again not only because of exercising nude but the Greek games were often dedicated to various Greek gods. Verse 15:


“They despised what their ancestors had regarded as honored, while they highly prized what the Greeks esteemed as glory. Precisely because of this they found themselves in serious trouble with the very people whose manner of life they emulated and whom they desired to imitate in everything became their enemies and oppressors.”


And the writer of 2 Maccabees ends this paragraph in verse 17 with the understandable theological interpretation:


“It is no light matter to flout the laws of God as the following period will show.”


This kind of compromise characterized both the Hellenistic era but also came again to plague portions of Israel under the Hasmonean dynasty as well. And because of this polarization the second bulleted point on our slide labeled “Maccabean revolt and Hasmonean Dynasty”, refers to the emergence of two leadership sects within Israel by the names of the Pharisees and Sadducees, well-known to any reader of the Gospels and the book of Acts. 

The Pharisees, and what must be remembered to interpret them properly even in New Testament times, were those who at the outset were entirely well-intended reformers wanting to purify the nation of its compromise with foreign practices. The Sadducees were those who were willing to accommodate and compromise, first of all by paying tribute to Rome and then later under the Roman period by allowing certain restrictions on their Temple practices for the sake of an uneasy truce with the Roman troops that overlooked them from the nearby Antonia fortress. We will say much more about both of these groups in a later lecture, but it is important to notice that they stem from this Maccabean period and the polarizations and tensions of that time period.

The final main bulleted point on this slide reflects a key result of the Maccabean era. Namely, at least among the reformers and those desiring to keep Israel pure, a conservative backlash against not only foreign practices but against Gentiles themselves- both inside and outside of the land of Israel, and a hatred of foreigners that seems to have grown at times to a fevered pitch, more intense than anything characteristic of previous eras in Israelite history. 

Accompanying this understandably was a Messianic fervor and hope, a longing for that Son of David, a descendant of David, who would fulfill the as yet unfulfilled prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures, about one who would sit on a political throne in Jerusalem and subdue the Gentiles and allow the people of Israel to rule over all of the earth in peace and prosperity. This was not the only concept of a Messiah that either was preserved or developed and we will talk more about this topic in later lectures as well. But in order to understand a good portion of the Jewish hopes into which Christianity was birthed, we must recognize the centrality of the hope for a Messiah-liberator, a Christ, for that is what christos means- Messiah or Anointed One- who would be first of all a political king and a military general.  Jesus of course in His Incarnation was neither of the above, leading to much of the tension and misunderstanding and even hostility that we see in the New Testament.

One interesting illustration of the pervasiveness of this conservative backlash and hatred for foreigners can be found in the book of Acts. Again if we skip ahead to the first century, in Acts 22, Paul has returned to Jerusalem after one of his missionary journeys, and has been falsely charged with bringing an uncircumcised Greek into the Temple, into the area permitted for only Jews, so that a mob is rioting and the Romans must arrest Paul to basically save his life from the mob. But he receives permission to speak to the crowd and speaks to them in Aramaic, chapter 22 verse 1, an illustration of what we spoke of earlier, how Aramaic remained the language within Israel all the way from the Persian Era up to the Roman period in the first century. Not thinking that Paul could speak their own tongue, they are surprised and quiet down and he begins to give what is both a testimony and a defense and an autobiographical narrative of how he had been a most loyal and zealous, conservative Pharisaic Jew but God turned him around when Christ appeared to him on the Damascus Road. It is interesting to observe how the crowd listens with hushed tones to this entire narrative, even as Paul began to talk about Jesus. Today unfortunately, in many Christian-Jewish conversations, the first mention of Jesus brings an end to the conversation. But that was not the sticking point in this context. Rather, it is as Paul continues the story and says in chapter 22 verse 21 of Acts:


“Then the Lord said to me, Go, I will send you far away to the Gentiles to the Greek-speaking people in the Diaspora.” 


This is what the crowd could not fathom. Luke writes in verse 22, “The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, ‘Rid the earth of him, he is not fit to live.’ “

It would be hard to find a better example of the dramatic animosity between Jew and Gentile, and understanding this animosity is crucial for New Testament background. 

We move on to our next slide, and we return to the chronological sketch of major periods. We have referred to the hundred years of Jewish independence, both as the Maccabean period or as the Hasmonean dynasty. Yet a third way of referring to it is as the time of the Hassidim or as a movement, the period of Hassidism. A Hassid was a holy or pious, we might say today ultra-orthodox Jew, valuing the unique relationship of Jews as the one and only chosen people of God, and so this label also reflects a significant component of this hundred year time. 

Someone said all good things must come to an end, and if Hassidism was viewed by many as a good, and independence in Israel likewise, in 63 B.C. the Roman general  Pompei was knocking on the northern doors of Israel. Tribute was no longer enough to keep the Roman expansionist military powers at bay and a deal was bartered whereby Israel would surrender peacefully, though there were a few brief skirmishes that did occur without governmental authorization. But in return for which Rome would grant to Israel a status known in Latin as a religio licita, that is to say a licit or a legal religion, much like the status we mentioned earlier they had had back in the Persian Period. And that will be important for the birth of Christianity because for as long as Christians are viewed by the Romans as just another Jewish sect, they too will have freedom of religion, and like the rest of Judaism be exempt from the requirement to offer an annual sacrifice to the gods on behalf of the emperor, saying that Caesar is Lord and God. By the time that Christianity grows in the 60s of the first century to be sufficiently multi-cultural as to be recognized by Rome as no longer just a Jewish sect, then this freedom from offering the sacrifice will be rescinded, and those Christians who refuse to perform what they believe to be a blasphemous act of emperor worship will begin to be persecuted. More about that at a later time.

There are many things that we could highlight during the Roman period and again our textbook goes into more detail on a number of them, but one issue that often confuses readers of the New Testament, we should take the time to explain in some detail here, and that is illustrated on the PowerPoint slide labeled “The Six Herods of the New Testament.” 

The original man by the name of Herod, whom historians as they did with Alexander, later came to call Herod the Great, both for his exploits in warfare and in building projects, though certainly not for any moral scruples that he had, was the first Herod that we come to in the Gospel of Matthew in the birth narratives, in conjunction with the attempt to kill Jesus as a baby. When that Herod dies, his kingdom is divided among three of his sons. Archaleus, who receives the territories of Judea and Samaria, Antipas, who retains Galilee and Perea, to the east of the Jordan River, and Philip, who has the areas to the northeast including Gallinitus, Trachinitus, parts of Syria, Decapolis, and portions of nearby territories. 

Archaeleus appears by name only once in the Gospels, in Matthew 2 as the tetrarch ruler whom Joseph and Mary want to avoid upon their return from Egypt to Israel, thus returning back to Nazareth rather than staying in Bethlehem in the south, as apparently they had originally planned to do. Antipas is the ruler who appears by name most often as the Herod with whom Jesus has to do during His adult ministry, the man John the Baptist condemns for committing adultery, and literally loses his head over it, and the Herod whom Pilate sends Jesus to during the trial during the last hours of his life, only to have Herod returned back to Pilate without having found Him legally guilty of any crime. 

Philip then is the individual whose wife Herodius leaves him to remarry Antipas, and fall under the Baptist’s condemnation. A fourth son, Aristobolus, becomes the father of Agrippa I, thus now we are into the next generation, a grandson of Herod the Great, who becomes noteworthy because of his appearance throughout Acts 12, first as the ruler between 41 and 44 A.D., who imprisons James and Peter. James the son of Zebedee in turn is martyred though Peter miraculously escapes. But in the second half of the chapter, Agrippa receives acclimation from the citizens of Tyre as a god, and therefore is smitten by an angel. Simultaneously we are told he was struck down by worms, some type of intestinal disease apparently and died.  These explanations are by no means mutually exclusive.

And then finally we come to Agrippa’s son, what historians would later call Agrippa II, and thus a great-grandson of Herod the Great, who is a key ruler for most of the second half of first-century Israel and the Herod and the Agrippa before whom Paul has a hearing, with his sister/wife Bernice, just before Paul is sent off to Rome for the appeal that he has requested with the emperor concerning his case there.

Next slide reminds us of where a number of these territories were, and follows the map in your atlas, which will enable you to read the detailed print, probably not otherwise legible on this PowerPoint slide, the entire territories encased by the thick red line reflect what Herod the Great originally ruled over and then the regions that were apportioned to his various sons. 

The next slide contains a much more stylized map, not drawn as closely to scale, but which has the advantage of color-coding, to enable one to view how Herod’s empire was in fact divided up. The brown for Decapolis and neighboring cities, and in fact a slightly larger portion of land that should probably have been included in that area allotted to Herod Philip- Galilee and Perea. In the lighter tan or beigish color to Herod Antipas, and the golden rod, areas of Samaria and Judah, and even parts of Idumaea where Herod the Great originally came from, reflecting the domain that was originally given to Archalaeus, but because of his ruthlessness, was taken away in A.D. 6 and handed over instead to procurators who were directly appointed by Rome. Of a succession of these who ruled in the first century, the three who appear by name in the New Testament are Pontius Pilate, whose territory is outlined here, the procurator at the time of Jesus’ adult life and death and resurrection, and then later in the mid 50s governor Felix, and then at the end of the 50s the governor Festus, both of whom appear in the book of Acts in conjunction with the hearings held at which the apostle Paul was asked to testify. 

The final slide in this lecture sums up how Roman rule was initially, from the crucifixion in 30, until around AD 64, more of a positive force than not, a fact often missed by those whose knowledge of this period is limited to movies like, say, Ben Hur. While Christians were still viewed as just another Jewish sect, they could be labeled a religio licia, or legal religion, and have the same exemption from having to worship and sacrifice to the emperor that Jews had. But as we read the book of Acts and some of the epistles concurrent with the period of time covered in the book of Acts, we see that consistently, the earliest hostility to the fledgling Jesus movement comes from fellow Jews, scandalized by what they view as their fellow co-religionists committing apostasy. It is only with the beginning of A.D. 64 and the great fire of Rome, when Nero already in power for 10 years, perhaps looking for a scapegoat for the start of the fire and the losses incurred in it, begins to unleash persecution against Christians, though limited largely to Rome and the immediate environs in Italy adjacent to it. Nevertheless, it is increasingly clear by the 60s that Christians are more than just another Jewish sect, and the clinching event to demonstrate this is their general refusal, including the refusal by most Jewish Christians to join in the Jewish Rebellion led by the Zealots at the end of the 60s and leading up to the war with Rome in A.D. 70, and the horrible massacre of Jewish freedom fighters, indeed the razing of the Temple and the burning of much of Jerusalem in its wake. 


[Finally we retape for lesson two, the segment that stands approximately two minutes through four minutes and forty two seconds:


Again we can separate the options into those aligned with the Jewish and those aligned with more dreadful Roman backgrounds. The Jewish options will prove far more significant for study of the life of Christ and the birth of Christianity, certainly within Israel but also to a significant extent elsewhere, simply because Christianity was the outgrowth and byproduct of the Jewish religion. We will therefore spend more time on the Jewish backgrounds, but begin by briefly considering the Greco-Roman side of religious life in the first century. It is interesting to ask the question what you or I might have been, what religion and what segment of that religion we would have identified with if we lived in the opening years of the first century before the Jesus movement was a religious option on the landscape. 

The PowerPoint slide labeled “Non-Christian Religious Options in the First Century” begins with a pie chart of the Greco-Roman world and the first reasonably-sized piece of pie refers to devotees of the traditional mythology of Greece and/or Rome. We of course have no censuses that have been preserved with records of numbers or percentages of supporters of the various first-century religious options, and particularly in the Greco-Roman side of things, there would have been many who would have combined two or more potentially separable options, including combinations that were not always true to the genius or core thought of one or more of the options combined, combinations which scholars therefore refer to as syncretism, creating at least a portion of religious belief or practice that would have been heretical by one or more of the earlier religions or worldviews that have been combined together to form the new one.]