Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts - Lesson 4

Religious Backgrounds (Part 2)

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


Craig Blomberg
Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts
Lesson 4
Watching Now
Religious Backgrounds (Part 2)


Part 2


A. The Most Pervasive Philosophies

1. Neo-Platonism

2. Stoics

3. Epicureans

4. Cynics

B. Non-Christian Religious Options in the First Century

1. Mysteries and Magic

2. Gnosticism

3. Philosophies

4. Imperial Cults

5. Mythology

C. A Gnostic Creation Myth

D. Languages and Bibles in Israel and Beyond

1. Persian Period - Aramaic lingua franca

2. Hellenistic Period - Koine Greek Lingua franca

3. Roman Period

E. Non-Christian Religious Options in the First Century

1. Jewish World

2. Greco-Roman World

F. Solutions to the Problem of "Exile"

1. Pharisees: Obey God's Law better and help others to do so as well ("fence around Torah")

2. Sadducees: Accommodate to Rome

3. Essenes: Even stricter obedience than that of Pharisees needed. Thus:

4. Zealots: Revolt! Remember the Maccabees!

5. Am-ha-Aretz: Too busy staying alive to join in

6. Jesus: The exile is over!

G. Trends in Judaism in Jesus' Day

1. Three "Badges of National Righteousness"

a. Dietary laws

b. Sabbath

c. Circumcision

2. Three Symbols of National Identify

a. Torah

b. Land

c. Temple

3. The Theological Framework: Covenantal Nomism

4. The Common Narrative and the Problem

H. Sadducees, Pharisees, etc.

1. Sadducees in world and of world

2. Pharisees in world but not of world

3. Zealots not in world but of world

4. Essenes not in world not of world

I. Jesus vs. Judaism

1. God involving Jesus and Spirit

2. God's people = Jesus' followers

3. Salvation more spiritual than political

4. Messiah must die

5. Two stages to Messianic era

  • 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.

This class studies issues of 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


Religious Background (Part 2)

Lesson Transcript


This is the fourth lecture in the online series of lectures for understanding the Gospels and Acts, in complement with the textbook by Craig Blomberg’s Jesus and The Gospels: an Introduction and Survey


We begin with information on Languages and the Bible in Israel and beyond. As so often happens in the history of religious, cultural and ideological differences, it all begins simply as the by-product of different language groups participating in a common religion and by the first century, Jews had been dispersed or voluntarily chose to settle other places in the Roman Empire. We saw in our first lecture, way back in the Persian period, in the beginning of the inter-testament period, Aramaic had become the lingua franca or common language of the ancient Mediterranean world, Middle East and even a bit further into Central Asia. We noted there as the centuries went by, Aramaic died-out outside of Israel but remained the lingua franca in Israel. 


During the Hellenistic period as Alexander and his successors spread the Greek language and culture throughout the same territory, the Greek language became the lingua franca. It was not the elevated exalted prose and poetic language of the classic poets and playwrights in Athens in the fourth and fifth centuries BC: so-called classical Greek, but was instead called Koine Greek or common Greek. It was a much simpler, less grammatically precise common language of the ordinary person. Because of its success throughout the Empire, in the Diaspora, that is to say where Jews settled outside of Israel, all but a handful of people lost the facility not only to speak Aramaic but also with Hebrew that had preceded it. Hebrew was still the language of the vast majority of the Sacred Scriptures which had already been written by 200 BC. During this time, a need developed for a brief translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek for the Jews of the Diaspora; this was to become known as the Septuagint and it was represented much later in Latin by the LXX. 


So, seventy rabbis and scholars, who knew Greek, were commissioned to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek and thus the Septuagint came into being. When they compared their copies, they were identical. However, there is textual variance among ancient copies of the Septuagint as we have in the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. But this explains the name and abbreviation. In Israel, the Hebrew Scriptures were still preserved and young boys were taught to read from the Torah scroll so that knowledge of Hebrew for the sake of reading Scripture. However Aramaic still remained the lingua franca. As we move into the Roman period, one might expect in an empire as vast as the Roman that Latin would supplant Greek as the lingua franca and in fact in the western half of the empire it gradually did. The western half being Italy, Gaul (modern day France), Spain and the Iberian Peninsula, but in the eastern half, Greece and the lands to the east, including Israel and well beyond it; the tribute to the pervasiveness of the influence of Hellenism was that Koine Greek remained the lingua franca. 


Thus, even in the Diaspora, there was no need in the first century for the Latin text for the Old or emerging New Testament. These would appear in later times long after the Septuagint, which remained the Bible that was most commonly appealed to and cited; and still in Israel, the Septuagint would have been available and used for multilingual groups when they gathered, especially when the Diaspora Jews came to the Holy Land during times of festivals. However, the Hebrew Scriptures would still be used as well and an emerging body of literature known as the Targum began to develop, written in Aramaic. This was part translation, part paraphrase with the occasional short or long explanatory insertion. This enabled those whose language was Aramaic, to gain both a translation and interpretation of the Scriptures. 


In the pie chart, we can combine the Greco-Roman world pie-chart already examined with one for Jewish options in the first century, prior to or apart from the coming of the Christian Gospel. To complement the textbook treatment of these various Jewish groups and for the sake of some variety in format, we follow Wright's New Testament and the People of God / Christian Origins and the Question of God on what may be called the common narrative and the problem every observant first century Jew knew; that the exile in which God's people had been repeatedly sent was still not entirely over. Even Jews living in the Holy Land given in perpetuity as they understood it, their people lived under Roman subjugation and often under Roman oppression. And of course there may have been nine or ten times as many Jews living outside of Israel. Yet, the Hebrew Scriptures promised the land to the descendants of Abraham and therefore what psychologists might call cognitive dissidence was created. What was to be done about this situation? 


One way to compare and contrast the various Jewish groups was in terms of how they answered this question. For the Pharisees might have said, 'we must do better in obeying God's laws and teaching others the same.’ Thus, the Pharisees thought to extend the highest levels of holiness, incumbent on the elite few of Israel, more widely; first among themselves and eventually among others as well. It was the Pharisee, therefore, who began to dramatically expand the oral laws which were introduced at the beginning of the last lecture in surveying the Persian period. The Pharisees wanted to create a defense around the Torah so that people would know the meaning of obedience and disobedience, as to make obedience possible in every area of life. Key concerns of this obedience and disobedience involved ritually pure foods and tithing, vows, as well as the various badges of national righteousness, crucial to all Jews, plus circumcision, occupying the land, worshiping in the Temple and providing the right sacrifices. To correctly understand the Pharisees, you must first understand that they didn't start out to establish what Christian’s term, legalism, setting up long lists of do's and don’ts as requirements of salvation. Nevertheless, there are a few notorious examples of legalistic Pharisees in the Gospel but we must also recall such comparatively positive references to Pharisees such as in John's reference to Nicodemus and Mark's reference to Joseph of Arimathea. There was also a warning in Luke 13 by friendly Pharisees in reference to Herod, etc.  One of the most difficult problems for the theologically trained Christian today in helping people both inside and outside the church to understand the original meaning and term for Pharisees, since it has now become synonymous with the word, hypocrite.


The Sadducees were polar opposite to the Pharisees on many items, much as the Epicureans and Stoics were in the Greco-Roman world. But, if we imagine how they might answer the question of Israel’s plight and its remedy, they might have said, 'we simply accommodate to the current reality of the Roman occupation’; after all, they had the most to gain by it. They were primarily the wealthy priestly classes whose influence dominated the Temple, their people and also the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court and the high council based in Jerusalem. Even later rabbinic sources acknowledged that the Sadducee wing of the Sanhedrin had become particularly corrupt during the days of Caiaphas, the high priest. The Temple trafficking was a recent innovation by Caiaphas for the convenience of the money changers and the vendors and priests, where until recently such commerce had taken place in the Kidron Ravine just to the east in the valley below the temple itself. This Temple trading had become an offense to many, and this probably accounts for the reason Jesus was tolerated when he cleared the Temple of them. 


The third group, the Essenes, was particularly famous because of their monastic community at Qumran, located on the Shores of the Dead Sea. The infamous Dead Sea Scrolls produced from there are an intriguing group of documents. To understand them; they were in many ways like the Pharisees but only more separatist. They would have answered the questions to better obey God's laws but with the conviction that all the rest of the world, including Judaism, had become so corrupt that their only hope was to huddle together in ghettos or in rural conclaves to start over again. They were very conservative in respect to Scripture, not adding oral laws to it as the Pharisees did, nor rejecting non-legal sections of the Hebrew Scriptures not binding for doctrine. Their innovation was characterized by interpretations of Scripture, particularly the prophetic books which became to be known by the Hebrew word, pesher; translated to be 'this is that which.' They anticipated God's apocalyptic intervention with a war between the sons of light and the sons of darkness. The sons of light represented fellow Essenes while the sons of darkness represented everyone else in the world. Their community was founded by an anonymous leader known as the Teacher of Righteousness. He would, one day, give way to both priestly and kingly Messiahs. Their communities were a corporate preparation and saw themselves much as John the Baptist saw himself as fulfilment of Isaiah 40; the prophecy of a voice crying in a wilderness preparing the way of the Lord. Their own monastic living was a sacrifice replacing the temple sacrifices which they believed were too corrupt. 


Finally, we come to the Zealots. They were different still to the earlier groups. Less organized that the other groups, the Zealot’s answer to the question of their occupation was, 'we must take matters into our own hands,' trusting God to re-enact the Maccabean miracle. They strove to overthrow their oppressors by military might. They were dubbed by Richard Barnsley, as a band of Prophets and Messiahs. By the 60s they became somewhat organized and finally led the Jewish rebellion, caused by heavy forms of taxation and oppression. But as was noted at the end of the previous lecture, they were horribly massacred and defeated. God, for whatever reason, did not intervene in this instance to bring about their salvation like during the time of the Maccabees. 


What is important to understand here, however, is to avoid the misconception that all or almost all Jews fell into one of these four groups, sometimes referred to as leadership sects. Whatever the nomenclature, the vast majority of Jews were simply made up of ordinary farmers and fisher people, housewives, craftsmen, carpenters, small artisans who were, somewhat discouragingly, defined by the Pharisees as the Am-ha-Aretz, or the ‘people of the land’. They were easily swayed by others and were just busy earning enough to feed themselves on a daily basis, staying barely above the poverty line, hoping for help to continue working. They tried obeying the main laws of the Hebrew Scriptures, hoping for a Messiah but for the most part without inclination to join up with any particular group who claimed to have more stringent solutions to the blight their nation faced. 


Moving on in regards to trends in Judaism in Jesus' day, we look at some of the commonalities that cut across the various sects. What James Dunn has dubbed ‘badges of national righteousness’, particularly in regards to the life of Jesus in his recent book, 'Jesus Remembered' .  These involved the dietary or kosher laws, clean and unclean food, worshiping on the Sabbath and all of the various other laws developed to determine what did or did not constitute work on the day of rest, and the circumcision of male babies and adult male converts to the Jewish religion. Along with those badges were three symbols of national identity: their unique law or Scripture, the Torah; their uniquely promised land of Israel and the temple worship and the call for the forgiveness of sin in Jerusalem. The overarching theological framework for this has become known as ‘covenantal nomism’; the Law was given to be obeyed as a response to the covenant God established with Moses. As already mentioned, Pharisaic beginnings were not predominantly legalist in the classical sense of doing certain good deeds in order to become saved. It was more in terms of staying saved in a religion that did not have any strong sense of what centuries later, Christian Reformers would dub as the perseverance of the saints. 


It has been already noted in some common narratives, the problem involving the tension between God's promises and Roman occupation. We can summarize these narratives as to the solution to the promise of the Exile; to obey God's law better and to help others to do so as well, building a defense around the Torah, the rise of the Sadducees and their accommodating the occupation of Rome, the Essenes' stricter obedience in forming monastic communities and rejecting the temple sacrifices as being corrupt and creating their own sacred literature as found in the many of the scrolls discovered at Qumran. The scrolls also contained all but Esther from the Hebrew Scriptures, so there is no question that Essenes acknowledged the classical Hebrew Scriptures. The other large portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls contained literature predominantly, it is believed, to be followed by the Essenes, themselves. There were also manuals of discipline included amongst these documents, regimenting the nature of behavior and policies of communal meals and living at Qumran. They also included hymn books and apocalyptic literature and other liturgies and forms of worship and historical narratives. But the variety of genres of the scrolls focused primarily on the Hebrew Bible.


N.T. Wright in his second big book on the topic of Christian origins, Jesus and the Victory of God, summed up the message of Jesus as metaphorically announcing the claim that the problem these other groups were trying to address or not being able to address, was in fact no longer a problem; 'for Jesus,' Wright says, 'can be summarized in the implicit claim that the Exile was over. How can this be? Not one Roman soldier had left his outpost. But to summarize the four leadership sects of Judaism is explicitly stated by Jesus in his farewell discourse and high priestly prayer in Psalm 14 to 17 and also in John Chapter 17 where he prays that his disciples though not taken out of the world but might be protected from the world. If we use this language, ‘in the world’ as being mixed up in society of human beings but closely mingling with them; yet not in the world, to mean the creation of a separate community. Then if we take of the ‘world’ to mean, being characterized by the world's sins and then ‘not of the world’, preserving Godly life styles; then in a very real sense we can speak of the Sadducees being in the world and of it, and the Pharisees being in the world but not of it, and then the Zealots as not in the world but of it, and finally, the Essenes as being not in the world and not of it, then we have all four logical options covered. With this kind of taxonomy and no real logical alternatives, Jesus did not come along and provide a new and distinct option but in essence our position was aligned with the Pharisees, as shocking as this may sound. Numerous observers have commented that of these four groups; in many respects, the Pharisees might be akin today to more fundamentalist thinking; not inherently, legalistic, but always with a tendency of temptation to move in that direction. Jesus, on the other hand, while agreeing with the Pharisees that high standards of morality needed to be observed without physical or geographical separation from the world's sinners. This takes in what Tom Wright terms as the five radical re-definitions of the central tenets of Jewish theology enabling him to make sense of his implicit claim that the Exile was in fact, over. 


Next, in Jesus verses Judaism, Wright argues that the two most central theological tenets for second temple Judaism were monotheism, one God and election, God having chosen one people through Abraham and Isaac and others related by conversion to Judaism through those descendants by which to work out his purposes for the world. Jesus begins with these two most central doctrines and thus through these doctrines, redefined God in ways that led his followers increasingly more explicitly in the first century to link God with Jesus. This was done so closely that many orthodox Jews felt a line separating reverence from blasphemy had been transgressed. He had also associated the Spirit of God known from countless Old Testament references with himself. The second redefinition involved referring to the elect or chosen people of God, no longer as all Israel but as Jesus' followers including Gentiles that will be included as well, not necessarily through conversion into Judaism. The third central redefinition was to see the people's plight, the salvation that they needed as more spiritual than of a political nature, freedom from Satan rather than Rome. The next redefinition included a dying Messiah rather than one reigning as king and military general from Jerusalem.  The prophecies would be fulfilled but only at a later date. And thus the finial redefinition with two stages to the Messianic era: a period in which the kingdom had arrived but was not yet fully present and a later date ushered in by the coming Son of Man. This would conclude all of the fulfillments of the Old Testament to God's people.