Social Background

Course: Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts

Lecture: Social Background


I. Opening Remarks

Dr Blomberg starts off by explaining that the books of the New Testament were not books as we are accustomed to reading, but was page-less, long rolls, known as scrolls. These were made by sheets of a dried weed known as papyrus which were laid out and glued together. Some were made of leather while a few were made of copper. The oldest known portion of the New Testament from perhaps 140 AD known as papyrus 52, also called the John Rylands papyrus, contained portions of John 18:31-33, 37-38 written forty years after the original was first composed. The subject covers Pilate's famous question to Jesus, 'What is truth?' This document is held at the University of Manchester in England. Another such document, from the Bodmer II Papyrus, contains an almost complete copy of John from about AD 200. The Bodmer II Papyrus is one of the oldest well-preserved New Testament manuscripts known to exist. The text was originally written in all Greek capitals with no word spacing nor punctuation and no paragraph breaks. Then there is the Codex Sinaiticus written in the 4th century, one of the best Greek texts of the New Testament. The lower case texts or ‘miniscule’ came about in the 9th century with occasional extra spacing and punctuation marks, as well as sections and divisions which were also beginning to be marked off.

II. Combined Jewish and Gentile Cultures

As we study the Gospels, it is be important to study the maps (located in the back of most Bibles or easily found on the internet), such as those showing the four distinct regents of Israel: the coastal plains with its fertile lands, not far above sea level and known for growing citrus fruits. Toward the east, the second major segment is the large central ridge mountains or hill country with small towns and occasional Roman outposts. A few steps or terraced farms could be seen but otherwise it was a less inhabited and rougher terrain. The third demarcation typographically is the Jordan Valley which includes the Sea of Galilee in the North, and then the Jordan River flowing into the Dead Sea in the south, This Sea is 900 feet below sea level with no outlet. It became filled with salt deposits from the land nearby and therefore no longer contains any fresh water. Neither is there any form of life in the Dead Sea. Finally, there is the Jezreel Valley to the south and west of the Sea of Galilee. This valley was Israel's bread basket where many different crops of grain were grown as well as olive trees and vineyards.

The appearance of first century Jerusalem included the Temple area, right next to the second quarter where the Antonia fortress was located. The city was walled with various gates leading into it. Then the upper city contained Herod Antipas's Palace and the Essene Quarter with the High Priest's House could be seen. The Lower city was possibly part of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus with the ancient city of David nearby and the Kidron Valley. The Temple and the fortress dominated the skyline. The Antonia Fortress showed the political reality of the Roman occupation. The Temple consisted of the Court of Gentiles on the very outside with the Women's Court just through the Beautiful Gate and then into the Court of Israel and then the Temple itself with the Holy place and Holy of Holies.

Herod, the Great had many Architectural achievements throughout the land of Israel such as the ampa-threatre by Caesarea Maritma on the Sea of Galilee. Near this, Caesarea Maritima was also built and named in honor of Augustus Caesar with the city becoming the seat of the Roman Prefect and thus eventually the administrative capital. Another one of Herod’s projects was the famous aqueduct to Caesarea. It brought running water to the old city, along a raised aqueduct from the springs of Shummi, 10 km away. This was built and then later expanded by the Romans in 2nd Century. It reaches the town of Jiser e-Zarka, and then turns eastwards to Mt Carmel. An inscription of Pilate is seen on the Aqueduct showing proof of his reign during the time of Tiberius Caesar.

The Romans were also known for their road construction abilities all over the Empire. Herod built roads such as the one between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Another construction, included a summer palace built at Heriodium, a mountain in the wilderness where he won a battle with the Parthian army in 40 BC. The fortress was 63 meters in diameter and seven stories high with salons, banquet rooms, courtyards and a luxurious bathhouse. The most important ancient site in Jerusalem today is the western or Wailing Wall that surrounded the temple precincts in the time of Jesus. Near to that today is the Dome of the Rock, a holy site of Islam. Jews go to the wall to pray and meditate. Jewish men and women are segregated at the wall as they pray. Israeli orthodox Jews wear the traditional prayer shawl over their heads or shoulders during morning prayers. Within the cracks of the wall, small pieces of paper representing prayer requests are seen. Six times during one particular week, the young Jewish boys celebrate their Bar Mitzvah, reading a scroll. The ceremony and celebration takes place on the 13th birthday when they take on the religious duties and responsibilities of an adult. Situated in modern western Jerusalem is an older traditional neighborhood called Mash Sharim where ultra-orthodox Jews still practice many of the ancient traditions and oral laws that was added to the written Scriptures of Israel.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was made some time during the winter of 1946/47. Bedouins sold them to the Jordanian Department of Antiquities at approximately one pound per square centimetre. There were various problems concerning the actual search for the scrolls, one of them being the war in Palestine in 1948 which was the same year that news of the Dead Sea Scrolls became known. In regards to their location, there was a shallow depression known as El-buqei'a. This was cut by a river and the place where it comes down through the cliffs is known as Wadi Qumran. There is a plateau at the base of the cliffs and it is here that archaeologists found the remains of the buildings of the Qumran Community. When the ruins were excavated, identical pottery types to the ones found in the caves were discovered. Coins were also found which "correspond with the period the palaeographers were assigning the manuscripts". As more and more evidence was unearthed, it became clear that Qumran was, after all, the home of the community which had written the scrolls.

There were documents written in both Phoenician, Hebrew and Aramaic script, and a small amount in Greek. Included in the find, was every book in the Hebrew Bible except Esther, some commentaries, apocryphal works and various other non-Biblical works, many of them previously unknown. There are two Isaiah scrolls, one of which contains all sixty-six chapters of Isaiah dating from 150 BC. This scroll was made of sewn leather strips sewn approximately 24 feet long. There are places where mistakes in the copying had been erased or crossed out with omission noted in the margins. Some points differ from the Masoretic Text of Isaiah, but by and large it is essentially the same. The manuscript is approximately a thousand years older than the oldest manuscript available before 1947 and it isn’t split into three parts like others are. They also gave serious thought to the study of the book of Daniel.

The Qumran text of Daniel is very close to the 10th century CE Masoretic text. Comparisons between the Aramaic in Daniel and the Aramaic of the Genesis Apocryphon show that the language of Daniel is several centuries older. The same with the Psalms, they show an earlier date in Israel's history. Some finds, such as those pieces from the book of Leviticus, which are some of the oldest fragments of Biblical books that are available, agree almost entirely with the Masoretic Text of Leviticus, and support the authority of the MT. The book of Micah can be dated over two hundred years earlier than the birth of Christ which totally refutes claims that it was written after His birth. This find is one of the greatest manuscript discoveries of all time. No work dealing with the Bible, generally, can now be regarded with any seriousness, if it fails to take into account the significance of the Qumran discoveries. Phillip Davies says, "...the story of the scrolls is even now not quite over. Numerous fragments remain to be sorted, identified and published though it is unlikely that they will provide us with any more surprises."

There is also Masada, an ancient fortification in the Southern District of Israel situated on top of an isolated rock plateau on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea. Herod the Great built a palace for himself on the mountain and fortified Masada between 37 and 31 BC. The Siege of Masada by the Roman Empire towards the end of the First Jewish - Roman War ended in the mass suicide of the 960 Sicarii rebels and their families hiding there. This could have been as late as AD 73 after the Jewish war of AD 70. The Romans used the slave labor of the conquered Jews to build a ramp up to the fortress. A final site is seen in the Northwestern shore of Galilee, the cliffs of Arbel, also a deep roughed terrain; at the bottom of these cliffs are located many caves, where freedom fighters often held out against Romans, as late as AD 71 and AD 72.

Another archaeological site included the bath house with cool and hot tubs, exercise room, library and chapel at the city of Scythopolis, part of the ten cities both East and South of the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. The other cities of Decapolis (ten) as they were called were Damascus, Opoton, Philadelphia, Raphana, Gadara, Hippondion, Pella, Galasa and Canatha as described in Mark 5:20. It was the old site of Arabeth-Shayon, where Saul's head was taken after he was defeated in battle.

A part of archaeology and visual artefacts found from the ancient world; Dr Blomberg asks the question of where this information was gathered. In answering this, he comments that the most significant literature sources come from three areas: inter-testamental time and second temple Judaism containing the apocryphal books, which the Roman Catholics have canonized; the seudoapigraphy, a must larger collection of inter-testamental Jewish works that no religious group has canonized and also the Dead Sea Scrolls and in-addition, the works of Philo. The Jewish historian, Josephus is another source of information, even though he wrote in the later third of the first century. But one must cautiously approach the Encyclopedia Collection of the Rabbinic Literature from roughly AD 200 extending another six or seven centuries beyond. There are some ways of making informed guesses as to which of these traditions go back to the older period. But unless we actually have reference to accustomed practice or teachings in one of the already mentioned sources, a lot of this later information is not pre-Christian. However, Jews have been taught that this goes back to pre-Christian times and thus discussing this information with them can be confusing.


III. Understanding Different Jewish Groups

In thinking further regarding the combination of Jewish and Gentile backgrounds, which has been surveyed thus far; an interesting question emerges for discussion and application. For example, where can we find the closest contemporary equivalents to all of these various religious options today? This can’t be answered just by reading and re-reading the text as there are no defined right answers. However, we do have some examples which might be considered; there are myths and legends both secular and religious around the world that to this day gives credence by different people and groups to these equivalents. For example, there may be little formal emperor worship apart from enforced in a culture like North Korea. However, there certainly are parts of the world where many think God's will is done through the government. Even Christians put too much emphasis in God's will being enacted through government rather than seeing his church as the primary locus of demonstrating a counter cultural ethic to a fallen world. Gnosticism finds its counterpart in difference aspects of the so-called New Age Movement, where it is anything but new. The New Age Movement is an amalgamation of ancient ideas such as ancient paganism or mother earth or goddess worship of various kinds. Mysteries and magic find some of their closest parallels in so called occult practices. And of course we have a plethora of philosophies and world views not strictly limited to the secular realm today such as the Greco-Roman world of the first century.

Parallels to the four Jewish leadership sects, which we have already discussed, may prove even more intriguing. For example, liberation theology on one extreme and then violence in the name of the religious right at the other end of the spectrum which may be similar to that of the ancient Zealots. The Essenes can be reflected in modern day monastic groups or other smaller sects and utopian organizations that believe that the only hope left for humanity is to join together apart from the rest of the world. The Sadducees made their compromises with political powers even when God's laws were broken. These can be found in every culture as we have already commented on some of the parallels between the more conservative wing and the ancient Pharisees. Both are born out of the entrenched desire to apply the Bible to every aspect of contemporary life but in so doing, risking the threat of legalism or at least of covenantal nomism or nationalism or an ethnocentrism of some kind, seeing themselves explicitly or implicitly and the nations or cultures or denomination or brand of Christianity which represent as the best and truest, if not the only proper and true way. Needless to say when one studies all of these different options and then goes on to explore ways which Christianity was able to appeal to, one can learn much about evangelism and outreach impacting our modern cultures as well.

Understanding the different Jewish groups also helps us to make sense of comments in the Gospels which the average reader simply passes over. Consider if you will, the string of episodes found in the synoptic Gospels; for example, in Mark 11 where Jesus is teaching in the Temple, the last week of his life; he has cleared the Temple and created a spectacle in Mark 15 so that when he returns again to the Temple in verse 37, not surprisingly, his authority to behave in such a way is questioned. But notice the individuals who raised the question in Mark 11:27, where the chief priests, teachers of the Law, Scribes and others came to him. The three groups who would have been the most empowered; the Temple authorities and probably dominate though not exclusively so by the Sadducees, those who were pre-occupied by political authorities. In chapter 12 - 13, the next group who comes, represent some of the Pharisees and Herodias trying to trap Jesus in regards to taxes.

But, as already mentioned, the Pharisees were trying to purify the nation of Israel and teach better obedience to the Law; they would have resented paying taxes to Rome and would have preferred Jesus to resist such taxation. While the Herodias, supporters of the political status quo, would have endorsed taxation. Jesus simple gave his famous and clever response of giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God's. Then another group of Sadducees return, asking questions about the Resurrection, mocking it because there is not any clear unambiguous text in the teachings of Moses about the Resurrection and its doctrine. This account as well for Jesus' enigmatic appeal to detect out of the Torah Exodus 3:6 and Mark 12:26 in order to demonstrate the Resurrection. In 12:28, another Lawyer or Scribe comes, asking the question about the greatest commandment and when Jesus turns the tables and ask questions of the crowds and its interrogators, ‘how can they minimize the Messiah to merely a human descendent of David?’

IV. Initiation of the High Priest

There is not enough time or space to illustrate all of the Greco-Roman options, but there is one graphic and entertaining story found among the early Christian writers who describe a cultish high priest of a Greek mystery cult or religion that worshipped the goddess 'Cybele'. This cult was established back near 600 BC and continued even down to first century AD. It describes, among other things that a trench was dug and the high priest plunged deep underground to be sanctified. He wears a curious headband fashioned around his temple for the occasion and fixes his hair with gold and wears a robe of silk. Over his head there are crisscrossed planks fixed so that the wood is open, along with this setup was a slatted wood floor. There was a large bowl of flowers that went with him. There's an animal sacrifice (an oxen) attached to this festival with the flood of the animal flowing over the plank work and floor. The priest in the pit catches the drops of blood by using his body and clothes simplifying the idea of becoming covered in corruption. Afterwards, the high priest displays himself with the dripping blood off himself. As everyone watches, they honor this scene and the high priest. The question, here; why would this be attractive to anyone? Such mysterious religions of the ancient world offered, for a time, the gathering of cults that gave complete equality with one another. Intriguingly, this equality was also found in Christianity which was attractive in the first century Mediterranean world.

V. Sample Text From Jewish Sources

Finally, we turn to four sample texts from the non-canonical Jewish sources in order to give us a better feel for thoughts and details of this literature and to help students to think about the many different ways that such literature could be relevant for interpreting the New Testament and more specificity the Gospels and Acts. The first example comes from the Mishnah and appears in the third division of Nashim, section 9, subsection 10. The school of Shammai says that a man may not divorce his wife unless he has found un-chastity in her, for it is written because he has found in her indecency in anything. In the school of Selah, it says that he may divorce her even if she spoils a dish for him, for it is written, because he has found in her indecency in anything. Rabbi Tiffa says even if he found another fairer as she, for it is written, if she finds no favor in his eyes... The Biblical record in Deuteronomy 24, the debate is between the two leading schools of Shammai and Hillel, two rabbis cotemporary with Jesus but perhaps twenty years older. Hillel, known in general for being more liberal and Shammia was known for being more conservative. It doesn’t take much to see the relevance of this debate for the question posed to Jesus in Mathew 19:1 about the issue of divorce.

In considering another text from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the commentary on the book of Habakkuk in chapter 1:5 which reads, 'Behold ye among the heathen, and regard and wonder marvelously: for I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told.' The commentary then goes on with Pesher interpreting his concerns to those who were unfaithful, together with the liar as they did not listen to the word received by the Teacher of Righteousness (spoken of in many Qumran texts) from the mouth of God. It concerns the unfaithful of the New Covenant in that they have not believed in the Covenant of God and profaned his holy name. Like-wise, this saying is to be interpreted as concerning those who will be unfaithful at the end of days. They, the men of violence and breakers of the Covenant will not believe when they hear all that it is to happen to the final generation from the priests in whose heart God set an understanding that they might interpret all the words of his servants and prophets to whom he foretold all that was to happen to his people in the land.

Also from Habakkuk 1:6a: For, lo, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and nasty nation, that march through the breadth of the earth, to possess dwelling-places that are not theirs. Pesher interpreted this to concern the Kasidim, Island dwellers to the west, which are quick and valiant in war causing many to perish. All the world shall fall to the dominion of the Kasidim and the wicked... They shall not believe in the laws of God. The text continues alternating with Hebrew Scripture up to the time of the Essenes. This is very simpler to many prophetic handbooks in the modern age that confidently align the teachings of Jesus like the eschatological discourse in Matthew 24 and 25 as well as other portions of the Bible with current events. Of course, the writers at Qumran turned out to be wrong as has every generation of people making such correlations since the End has not yet come. This should inspire a greater amount of humility in making such correlations.

In a third text, from the apocryphal work of Book of the All-Virtuous Wisdom of Joshua ben Sira, also known as the Wisdom of Sirach or just Sirach. In chapter 24; it reads, Wisdom will praise herself and will glory in the mist of her people, in the assembly of the most high, she will open her mouth and in the presence of her host, she will glory. I came forth from the most high and covered the earth like a mist. I dwelt in high places and my thrown was in a pillar of clouds. Alone, I have made the circuit of the vault of heaven and have walked in the deeps of the abyss in the way of the sea and the whole earth and every people and nation. Among all of these I have sought a resting place where I might lodge. Then the creator of all things gave me a commandment and the one who created me, assigned a place for my tent. He said, make your dwelling in Jacob and in Israel and receive your inheritance. So in eternity in the beginning, he created me and for eternity I shall not cease to exist. In the holy tabernacle, I ministered before him, and so I was established in Zion. In the beloved city of Zion, he gave me a resting place and in Jerusalem was my dominion. So I set root in an honored people and a portion of the Lord who is their inheritance...... Verse 19: Come to me, you who desire me and eat your fill of my produce. The remembrance of me is sweeter than honey and my inheritance is sweeter than the honeycomb. Those who eat of me will hunger for more and those who drink me will thirst for more. Whoever obeys me will not be put to shame and those who work with my, my help will not end. All this is the book of the covenant, the law which Moses commanded us. We have talked about this in terms of Gnosticism and this Hebrew proverb of wisdom personified not a woman, but a quasi, divine being. In summary: a creator created me in the beginning from eternity. He ministered with him in the holy tabernacle. He found his resting place in Jerusalem. She invites all those who desire to come and metaphorically eat of her wisdom that is sweeter than honey causing more hunger and desire for more. But all of this in the Jewish document is found through the Law of Moses.

Jesus will like-wise be personified in ways that makes him akin to wisdom. In Mathew 11:27 and following: people who come to him and take his yoke and learn of him. And then in John 4: to take up living water and in chapter 6: to recognize him as the Bread of Life, but bread that will satisfy, leaving no further hunger and life giving water that will fill, leaving no thirst. And all of this is coming into discipleship with Jesus and through Jesus and not through the Laws of Moses.

Studying this Jewish literature and the mass of Greco-Roman literature available along with the apocryphal and pseudo-epigraphically literature of the Second Temple Judaism and cognitive along with the huge diversity of Greco-Roman literature of this time period pays rich dividends for the would be students of the New Testament. Students should avail themselves of opportunities to dip into representative samples of these various bodies of literature first hand. But because of its vast size will be dependent on those more detailed commentaries that regularly explain the most important back ground texts and themes as well as more specialized reference work such as Intervarsity Press background commentaries which exists for both Old and the New Testament and literature that focus more strictly relevant background text for specific parts of Scripture. Students sometimes worry that because these texts are not canonical that somehow they should shy away from them but that is not what distinguishes canonical from non-canonical texts. For the most part they contain historical and cultural information, even if they cannot be trusted to be inerrant in the way that Christians have traditionally understood the inspired text to be.