Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts - Lesson 7

Socioeconomical Background

This lesson reviews everyday life in New Testament times, discussing topics like geography, daily activities, and social norms. It emphasizes understanding this era's cultural nuances. Two Gospel passages are highlighted: Luke 11:5-8, where Jesus shares a parable about persistence in faith, and Matthew 8:1-17, illustrating various societal interactions and challenges. These stories highlight faith that overcomes barriers, societal expectations, and the deeper meanings of healing, suggesting relevance even in modern contexts.

Craig Blomberg
Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts
Lesson 7
Watching Now
Socioeconomical Background

I. Introduction

A. Connection to Textbook Chapter 3

B. Approach to Understanding First Century Culture

II. Analysis of Luke 11:5-8

A. Interpretation of the Parable

B. Cultural Implications

III. Analysis of Matthew 8:1-17

A. The Healing of the Leper

B. The Faith of the Centurion

C. Healing of Simon's Mother-in-law

D. Isaiah 53:4 and Spiritual Healing

E. Debate on Physical Healing in Atonement

F. Ritual Purity and Societal Exclusion

IV. Conclusion

A. Revisiting Ritual Healing

B. Contemporary Application

C. Embracing a Stigma-Free Society

  • 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


Socioeconomical Background

Lesson Transcript


This is the seventh 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


Chapter 3 of the textbook, entitled: Socioeconomic Background: Everyday Life in New Testament Times, surveys a vast array of information and topics and customs including geography, population, transportation and communication, homes, meals, daily schedules, clothes styles, social classes, family, work etc. But, in the classroom version of this course, we want to present questions on areas of student interest because the number of topics in the textbook is almost endless. In starting off, I suggest that students look at two passages from the Gospels, reading them with the view of the first century cultural standing, if possible. This requires some visualization apart from our own cultural awareness and more than a simple understanding of the background surrounding the two passages. In Luke 11:5-8, one of the less well known parables of Jesus says, 'And he said unto them, Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and say to him, Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine is come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him; and he from within shall answer and say, trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give you anything? I say unto you, though he will not rise and give him because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will arise and give him as many as the person needs.' This word, 'importunity' refers to a boldness or perseverance. In Hebrew, the word is, 'Khuzba' referring to audacity, and so because of this importunity, he will get up and give the man as much as he needs. And following this parable, it goes on to say, ‘ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asks receives; and he that seeks will find; and to him that knocks, it shall be opened.’ Thus Jesus is applying this parable to the believer, asking or presenting God with his request as well. But what type of picture or visualization do we get from this? What’s the dynamic involved here? If I heard a knock on my door in the middle of the night, I might not immediately jump up and expect to find a friend arriving from a journey unannounced. I might think that a neighbor may have some kind of emergency or that someone wondering the street randomly chose my house because of a perceived dire need or a person wanted to do mischief or a practical joker. I wouldn't imagine the picture presented in this parable.


From Chapter 3 of the textbook, there are a number of things:  One such picture presented in the associated slide is that of a simple Galilean house, partially restored. It’s a split level home with steps for the second level. It is very small. The house is made out of stone and some wooden bracing. (Note: these kinds of houses are still built today in places like Yemen with as many as three to four floors. Further north of the country where the rain fall is less, mud packed houses are built to the same standards.) The house pictured in the slide in a smaller version with perhaps three rooms. Often they would have kept their goats, sheep or cattle on the ground floor.  Sleeping quarters would have been in one room on the second or top floor. Doors were made of thick planks with a barred plank to lock it or perhaps a bolt of some kind. Windows are usually located on the second floor because of security. More often than not, a wall would have surrounded the property for further protection, depending on whether the house was in the city or countryside. At ground level, the floors would have been rough dirt whereas in the living quarters and bedroom, the floors would have been small logs smoothed over with packed mud and perhaps a material of some sorts such as a mat or even a woven rug. 


Let’s look at the second passage in Mathew 8:1-17. And when he came down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him. And behold, there came to him a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if you will, you can make me clean. And Jesus stretched forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou made clean. And straightway his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, tell no one about this; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them. And when he entered Capernaum, there came to him a centurion, beseeching him, and saying, Lord, my servant lays in the house sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And Jesus said to him, I will come and heal him. But the centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having under myself soldiers: and I say to this one, go, and he goes; and to another, come, and he comes; and to my servant, do this, and he does it. And when Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you, that many shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven: but the sons of the kingdom shall be cast forth into the outer darkness: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth. And Jesus said to the centurion, Go; as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And the servant was healed in that hour. And when Jesus had come into Peter’s house, he saw his wife’s mother lying sick of a fever. And Jesus touched her hand, and the fever left her; and she arose, and ministered unto him. And when evening had come, they brought him many that were possessed with demons: and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all that were sick: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying: He took our infirmities, and bare our diseases.


This passage contains many illustrations of ancient Mediterranean sociology and social dynamics. Students may want to stop the sound file for some reflection before proceeding…. 


With respect to the leper, there would have been severe ostracism of this individual, certainly for the sake of his disease not spreading. There would also have been social stigmatizing of him and perhaps in the eyes of some, a theological assumption that he was being punished for some kind of sin. The tentativeness of his approach is thus very understandable. He cannot presume that Jesus, a pure upstanding Jewish rabbi would consider him, nor have any reason to want to look in his direction. In contrast, Jesus was completely willing to heal the man and going out of his way to touch him. Any other person of Jesus’ world would not risk incurring such uncleanliness, but Jesus passes on his own gave cleanness, his wholeness, his healing to the man. It was Jesus’ healing power that was contagious or catching and not the man’s leprosy. 


What about the centurion? Obviously, he was a representative of the hated armies of the Roman occupying forces, the oppressive imperial troops. Whether the centurion was ethnically Roman or not, he was certainly a gentile.  Thus, he too would have been viewed as a second class resident, dramatically so in Israel. But notice the man’s remarkable faith; and in speaking he recognizes the sociology of the militaries’ unchanged world for the past two thousand years. Commanding officers must give orders and expect them to be followed without question. But Jesus marvelled at the faith of such a gentile transferring such confidence to Jesus, not only crossing over ethnic boundaries and coming to the trust a Jewish rabbi, but also trusting him for the supernatural miracle working ability that the centurion heard of by word of mouth from others. And the centurion went beyond anything he could have heard from others to the extent which the Gospels had recorded of the miracles of Jesus. This centurion didn’t even believe that Jesus had to be in the proximity of his servant in order to provide healing. Little wonder then that Jesus praised the man as highly as he does. But what a shocking thing to say in a primarily Jewish context, ‘that he had not seen anyone in all of Israel with such great faith.’ 


So many (gentiles) will come from around the world and join with the Jewish patriarchs in the eschatological banquet at the end times. At the same time, some of those who are counting on their own Jewish ethnicity will not be allowed to enter, but will be thrown into darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth; a reference that is seen regularly in the New Testament in regards to Hell. This is not a secret sensitive language or language designed to win friends and influence people, but one which could have turned a sympathetic crowd into an angry mob.


And then there is the third and shortest story, often ignored, of a fever ridden woman, who turns out to be Peters’ mother-in-law. It was a straight forward simple healing but the conventions of the day dictating that the mother of the family and setting if she was well enough to do so, to serve her guests. The expected hospitality included a meal; so we are probably meant to visualize this in our minds. But you will notice that the PowerPoint shows three examples: the leper, the centurion and Simon’s mother-in-law. Of course the obvious focus point of the three examples is the healing, but of what kind? The Scripture quotation of Matthew closes this passage as this was to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah 53:4. 


And speaking of the suffering servant, he took up our infirmities and carried our diseases. A text in the context of Isaiah goes on to speak about forgiveness of sin that is made available by the death of the suffering servant, Jesus and the atonement providing by his crucifixion. But in the context of Mathew, there is nothing about sins being forgiven in regards to these healing miracles. There are occasions elsewhere in Gospels but not here. So in Matthew’s context, the answer is three examples of physical healing while Isaiah demonstrates spiritual healing. Is Matthew misapplying the text of Isaiah or did Isaiah originally have both types of healing in mind? Some listeners will be familiar with the debate that, at times, divides the charismatic and non-charismatic world of Christianity. Charismatics will point to this collection of 17 verses and stress that there is physical healing in the atonement. Therefore, believers who are sick should realize that God wants them to be well and that he has made provision for them to be physically whole not merely spiritually forgiven. Therefore, they should pray and when appropriate be anointed with oil or visit one who is believed to have the gift of healing, a so called faith healer. They claim that physical healing is in the atonement.  


On the other hand, when such attempts fail to provide physical healing, this leads non charismatics to go back to Isaiah’s original context and stress that the only guaranteed benefit of Christ’s crucifixion is the forgiveness of sin for those who follow him. Is it possible that both sides have missed what Matthew is saying here because they have not immersed themselves in the first century social role? In western society, we no longer think much, if at all, about the concept of ritual purity; unlike the ancient world where Israel and other cultures and their religions had their different laws of clean and unclean well established. This would have been a pervasive concept no matter how much these three individuals were physically suffering. 


The greatest affliction over the long term for a person, who had a long term sickness, was considered physical unclean by society. They would be excluded from any assembly or gathering of people. Lepers were meant to declare themselves unclean as they approached anyone in public. A gentile or one who worked for the oppressive Romans would also have been outcasts, as no respectable Jewish person would have anything to do with them. And the fever of Simon’s mother-in-law, since we don’t know how serious it was, could have been no more than annoying, forcing her to stay in bed for a while. However, it would have still have meant a period of impurity, after which the appropriate sacrifices made for forgiveness of potential related sins. Then there would be the washing and ritual bath and declaration of cleanliness by the priest; just what Jesus commanded the Leper to do in verses 1-4 would have made the affliction a much bigger deal than we would typical think in our own world. Without the modern medicines and doctors that we have today, it would make these afflictions long and difficult to bare. 


Although it is the least commonly suggested answer as to the earlier question, we should perhaps consider three examples of ritual: uncleanliness followed by cleanliness or ritual healing which Jesus provides, a marvellous gift for his world and a marvellous gift for parts of the modern world, such as for the untouchable cast in India, for example. Such stigma still exists in many parts of the world. Perhaps the closest western equivalent is the stigma associated with HIV patients today among Christian conservatives. Are we prepared to abolish such sigma, without condoning the sins that may have been involved, precisely because we are loyal followers of the Christ?