Understanding the Background of the New Testament

Lecture 2: Historical and Religious Backgrounds for NT Study

Dr. Craig Blomberg

Understanding the New Testament

This is the second lecture in the series New Testament Survey. In our first lecture we asked a number of introductory questions that formed the foundation for the whole series. In this lecture we want to introduce the historical and religious backgrounds for New Testament study. In the ancient world there was, of course, no separation of church and state as in some countries in the modern world, so it is somewhat artificial to separate the two concepts from one another, but it is customarily done for the sake of a clear introduction to certain important background concepts that need to be kept in mind whenever interpreting the New Testament.

So we begin with the historical and what might also, in many cases, be called political issues that form the most important backdrop to the life of Jesus and to the movement that came to be known as Christianity, which he birthed. There was, of course, no earth-shattering event that marked the end of the Old Testament period. The last writing, profit Malachi, whose ministry probably came to an end with about one-quarter of the fifth century B.C. left to go, that is roughly around 425 B.C., wrote during the period of Persian occupation and rule over the nation of Israel. That period would continue all the way through the late fourth century B.C., that is to say until the time of the 330’s B.C., when the power of Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander in that part of Eastern Europe that we know of as Greece, began to grow immensely, so that Alexander eventually conquered more territory  – spanning the regions from southeastern Greece all the way to India – than any ruler had previously held in that part of the world. Israel came under Alexander’s power in 331 B.C., and although he died a scant eight years later, his territories were divided among his generals since he left no living heir, and two of them, Ptolemy and Seleucus, eventually came to hold the southern and northern halves of Alexander’s kingdom, respectively.

This brought in an era of more than a century and a half of Greek power and cultural influence throughout the Middle East and throughout Israel, more particularly. Greek language spread everywhere and became the common second language of any people or peoples who needed to do business or travel or speak, for whatever reason, with anyone other than their native neighbors and kinspeople who spoke their same language. In Israel the typical first language of Jews was a Semitic tongue called Aramaic, very similar to but not identical with the Hebrew in which their Scriptures, the Christian Old Testament, had been written. But with the coming of Greek some Jews would have become at least minimally trilingual, knowing enough Hebrew to understand the Scriptures when they were read weekly in the synagogue, speaking Aramaic among themselves, and for those who needed to converse with outsiders learning at least some Greek on top of all that. This state of affairs continued even down into the first century and New Testament times, even after Rome conquered that portion of the ancient Mediterranean world, because Romans were content to utilize the benefits of a common language existing particularly in the eastern half of their empire with the Greek language, even though Romans by birth would have naturally spoken Latin.

The upshot of Greek language and culture spreading throughout the ancient Middle East also meant that the Greek forms of religion spread offering a challenge to any people who believed that theirs was an exclusive religion not to be blended together or compromised in any way by combining it with foreign views. Judaism, when it was true to its roots, was precisely such an exclusive religion, and so the era of Greek influence and culture beginning in the 330s and lasting all the way up to the 160s B.C. became a time of increasing turmoil as some Jews were happy to accommodate the new Greek ways of life including religious customs, and others recoiled and rejected the same developments.

In the second century B.C., in the decades at the beginning of the 100s B.C., the Seleucid rulers ruling from the north, and more particularly from Syria over the nation of Israel, increasingly demanded that the more exclusive Jewish practices that set them off from their neighbors and from their Greek overlords be abandoned. Needless to say this caused even greater concern and upset and finally led to what we might today have called guerrilla warfare. Though considerably outnumbered, a group of Jewish rebels took up arms led by an individual by the name of Judas Maccabeus, the second name being a nickname that meant the hammerer for his fierce abilities in warfare, and hiding in the Judean hillside and in caves and using the covering of night to surprise the occupying soldiers over a three-year period, fought a war of independence from 167 to 164 B.C. and ultimately succeeded in ridding the city of Jerusalem, and its holy temple, and eventually by 142 B.C. the entire land of Israel from the Seleucid power.

This then produced nearly a century of independence for the Jewish people in the land of Israel, a period that is sometimes called the Hasmonean dynasty, after the name of Judas’s great grandfather, an important family name for that tribe and kin. And here all the way until 63 B.C. we begin to see a strong conservative Jewish backlash against the most offensive Greek practices of the day such as not keeping Sabbath, not observing the dietary laws according to the book of Leviticus, not believing in Yahweh the one God of Israel as the God of the universe, or recognizing Israel as a distinct promised land and the temple as a distinctive holy place and similar customs. Indeed, to this day Jews celebrate the liberating of their land and the century or so of independence that it ushered in with the festival known as Hanukkah. A key result from this tension between Greeks and Jews can be seen on virtually all of the pages of the New Testament, namely the tension between what the New Testament writers regularly refer to as Jews and Gentiles, that is to say anyone who is not a Jewish person. When we read the letter to the Ephesians we will see how much Paul makes of the importance of Jewish and Gentile unity in the church. We have already eluded in our first lecture to the Jerusalem counsel in Acts 15 where it had to be decided if non-Jews becoming Christians had to obey all the laws of Judaism first. One can read in Acts 22:21 after Paul has been able to quiet the crowd that was trying to hurt him and tell his story of his conversion to believing in Jesus as Messiah they listened patiently, but it is when he speaks of his God-given commission to take the message of this Jesus to the Gentiles that they then reply, “Rid the earth, he is not fit to live.” This tension unfortunately has often continued throughout history and even to the present day.

The final major era of historical and political background to set the stage for the New Testament, a period that would continue all the way through the first century or New Testament era and indeed into the early fifth century A.D. was the period of Roman rule. Although Jews lived free from occupying forces from the mid-second century to the mid-first century B.C. they were having to come to grips with a growing power from the west, a power that occupied much of the Greek rulers’ attention as well, namely Rome from the peninsula of Italy. Slowing advancing eastward Rome gobbled up more and more territories and did not enter into other territories only because those countries were willing to pay heavy taxes to Rome to keep their forces out. Eventually even this was not enough and the Roman General Pompey entered Israel and into the holy city of Jerusalem in 63 B.C. To understand the claims of the New Testament for who Jesus was one must understand that in many instances the Roman Emperors were making the identical claims and therefore to say that Jesus was Lord, God, and Master was to say that Caesar the Emperor was not. Notwithstanding this conflict until the mid 60s A.D. the fact that Rome was the leading power in the region was more of a positive benefit for Jesus and the first generation of his followers than it was a problem. As we have already mentioned a common language, Greek, remained in place enabling the message, or for that matter any message, to be spread widely without it having to be translated into a dozen or more languages as it would have in a previous era and in many ever since. The Roman transportation and communication systems were state-of-the-art by the standards of the ancient world and they granted to the Jews special favors in allowing them limited self-government, so that they were not forced to worship the emperor acknowledging him as Lord and God. As long as the first Christians were viewed just as another Jewish sect or group Christianity received these same benefits and, of course, the famous Roman peace and its judicial system, neither perfect by a long shot by modern standards but still the best that part of the world had ever known, also proved advantageous to Christians on more than one occasion as one can read in the book of Acts.

With the Emperor Nero in A.D. 64, however, things took a substantial turn for the worse and it is fair to say that from that period on, certainly for as long as the Roman Empire remained, Roman rule often was more negative than positive as far as Christians were concerned. Persecution broke out largely limited to Rome and nearby areas in Italy from 64 to 68 and it would break out again in more widespread fashion under the Emperor Domitian from approximately 94 to 96 and then beyond the New Testament period into the second century and beyond with even greater intensity. For understanding the New Testament, however, we need not go beyond the first century, but we do need in addition to note during this period of Roman rule the significance of A.D. 70. From a historical or political perspective, that is taking religious matters out of consideration for a moment, A.D. 70 was probably the most significant date for the ancient Mediterranean world. This was the date at which the Jewish zealot rebellion, an attempt to once again gain independence for Israel, was decisively put down, the leading citizens and soldiers of Jerusalem deported, exiled from their country, and never again until the 20th Century in the events after World War II that led to the formation of the state of Israel would Jewish people live in independence in the territory that in Old Testament times had been promised to them as their Promised Land. This then becomes for Christians the decisive moment at which it is clear that Christianity is no longer just another Jewish sect. They refused to participate in the revolt against Rome, even Jews who had become followers of the Messiah for the most part failed to participate, and from this point onward the sizable majority of people becoming Christians are not even Jews at all but Gentiles from all of the other nations and people groups of that region.

Let us turn now to a brief religious introduction to the New Testament era using the divisions we have just talked about between Jew and Gentile, between Jew and what can be called the Greco-Roman world, that area that came under Roman rule from Spain to nearly India and had experienced successive waves of either Greek and/or Roman culture significantly changing the way people lived and thought. Indeed, if we begin with the Greco-Roman world and ask the question to what religion might you have belonged, what religious practices or beliefs might you have held if you were anyone other than a Jew in the first century in the Roman Empire, we may broadly categorize our answers under five main headings.

The oldest religious options are represented in the classic myths about the various gods and goddesses in Greek thought that lived atop Mt. Olympus with Zeus as the king or head of the pantheon of gods there, later called Jupiter by the Romans. Here we see elements of nature, different portions of the universe deified with elaborate stories explaining how they came to be: Apollo the sun god who drove his fiery chariot across the sky from east to west everyday, Dionysus or Bacchus the god of wine and the god who then could be honored as people enjoyed wine even to the point of excess, and many more. In an early era such myths appealed to individuals because they seemed to explain the unknown and the seemingly random or erratic parts of the universe, they provided rituals and ceremonies to appease, to placate, to curry favor with the gods, they gave explanations for why tragedies occurred when the gods and goddesses were upset. But by first century times these myths were dramatically diminishing because the science of the day had already come to realize, in many cases, that these explanations were not the true ones for the heavenly bodies or for the forces of nature. The exploits of several of the emperors already had surpassed those attributed to some of the gods. Perhaps the most important thing to remember from dependence on and belief in ancient mythology for interpreting the New Testament is that, apart from Jews and Christians, people in the ancient Mediterranean world were almost all polytheists, that is to say they worshiped many gods, not monotheists, believers in one god. And this will be a significant point that Judaism and Christianity challenge and try to correct.

A second religious option, by no means ruling out any other options in the Greco-Roman world at least, was emperor worship – the belief that the emperor becomes a god initially upon his death. But as the first century unfolded increasingly, particularly in the eastern half of the Roman empire, various people came to believe that he was a god even during his lifetime and some emperors, not all of them, actually encouraged this viewpoint, which then, as we have already noted, lead to tension particularly with Christians, particularly as it became clear they were not just another group of Jews and thus exempt from the requirement annually to offer a pinch of incense and sacrifice to the emperor and acclaim him as Lord and God. The appeal of such a view was to the stability of the government and of the empire and the security of having an infallible or perfect authority in charge of making decisions for all the people. But it became clear to many that several emperors were cruel tyrants, all of them were mortal, and thus while many people went through the motions of the annual sacrifices to say that they truly believed and served the emperor as god in a way that made a dramatic difference in daily life would be to misunderstand the way life operated.

A third option in the Greco-Roman world were a collection of religions or sects known as the mystery religions or cults often worshiping foreign gods, some imported from Egypt. These were small, elitist cults of various kinds open only to those willing to go through a rigorous, sometimes eccentric process of joining, becoming members, for example, being baptized in the blood of a sacrificed bull or having a special meal in which one believed that one was eating with the gods, or even to have sexual relationships in a temple with a priest or priestess who was in fact little more than a prostitute, believing that during the sexual act one was achieving union with the god or goddess of that temple. In addition, to the appeal of that which was new and unique and novel and exclusive, one feature of most mystery religions that Christianity also shared was the belief that no matter how different one was from another in ones normal walk of life one was a complete equal with a fellow member of a cult. Slaves, senators, men, women, native-born Romans, and ill-bred barbarians all could see each other as equals and peers at least when the cults came together, often at night under the cloak of darkness.

A fourth option comprised the various philosophies: Epicureans whose slogan “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you may die” is still known in today’s world, Stoics who were the exact opposite of the Epicureans in most of their beliefs of accepting ones predetermined fate courageously, Cynics and Skeptics the most pessimistic and countercultural of the various philosophers, and others. These lifestyles appealed to those usually in the upper classes who alone had enough free time to study with an existing philosopher at length and so, a certain elitism prevailed in these circles as well. Some philosophical terms appear to have influenced the New Testament writers’ usage as they compare and contrast Christian views with those of the various philosophers. One can read about Stoics and Epicureans in Acts 17 as Paul dialogues with the philosophers in Athens. Stoics believing that God was so close to the world that He, in fact, was a part of it, Epicureans believing that He was so distant as to be unknowable and Paul affirms elements of both of these perspectives while rejecting elements of both of them in Acts 17. The wandering nature of the cynic beggar living on handouts from others show some points of similarity with Jesus’ disciples when they go out two by two and rely on others hospitality, but there are noticeable differences. They proclaim an optimistic message whereas the cynics proved far more pessimistic.

Finally, we may mention the Gnostics, perhaps the group most on the rise, most frequently combated, at least as the seeds of its philosophy were growing during the first century, going all the way back to the pre-Christian Greek philosophers who often held that the material and immaterial worlds were quite separate and different from one another, that matter was by nature evil and only spirit good. It became common to think only in terms of redeeming the spirit or soul and not to look for the resurrection of the body as Jews and Christians did. Ironically such beliefs could lead to two quite different kinds of lifestyle. Some realizing, or believing that they realized, that there was no hope for the body tried to deny the body normal appetites, fasting, abstaining from all alcohol, leading a celibate lifestyle without having any sexual partners, and so forth. Whereas a minority from the same conviction that nothing could be done to keep the material part of a person from evil believed in simply indulging it as long as one was trapped in this material body. Gnostics believed that there was a divine spark inside many human beings waiting to be fanned into flame through secret knowledge and particularly as we go through the Epistles we will see that Christianity denies these claims.

But what if you were a Jew? There certainly were many Jewish beliefs common to Jews no matter what sect or party they affiliated with. But there were four leadership groups particularly prominent about whom we need to explore more than we can learn simply by familiarizing ourselves with the Old Testament and with Jewish laws and beliefs and practices there. In the period in between the Testaments, that more than four-hundred year, intertestamental period, Pharisees and Sadducees grew up, during the Hasmonean Dynasty, during the period of Jewish independence. Pharisees who often also frequently overlapped with that group known from the pages of the New Testament as scribes, those who copied the Scriptures, were expert students of the law, both the written laws of Moses in the Old Testament and also the oral interpretations and additions that had begun centuries earlier and would continue for centuries until they were written down well after the time of Christ. They offered the Jewish people a detailed knowledge of right and wrong helping people believe that they truly were keeping the law and pleasing God in just about every context that they might find themselves in in life and thus worthy of God’s blessing. Some of these laws, however, overlooked genuine human need and some Pharisees tended toward an attitude of self-righteousness both issues of which will become prominent on the pages of the Gospels. Pharisaic worship practice led to the model of early Christian church services with their patterns of prayers, hymns, and preaching of God’s Word. On the other hand, Sadducees denied most of what Pharisees affirmed much like the debates between Stoics and Epicureans in the Greek world. The closest one comes to finding pure atheism in the ancient world is in a tiny handful of Greek philosophers and in the Jewish world among the Sadducees. They did not explicitly deny God, by any means, but questioned seriously belief in an afterlife or any resurrection of the dead, thus making it possible in good conscience for them to compromise with Greek culture, as the Romans grew intolerant to pay tribute to them, and once Rome had invaded Israel, to make their peace with the new occupying forces. They tended to part of the aristocratic wealthy class often overlapping with priests who ministered in the temple and they rejected the oral laws that the Pharisees had added to the written scriptures and rejected doctrines that could not be taught from the first five books of those scriptures, the five books of Moses. They often held the majority of power in the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme high court, and because of their tie-in so closely with the political authorities, were not able to survive after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. Whereas the Pharisees believed that when one was deported from the land and could not offer literal animal sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins in the temple in Jerusalem it was acceptable to replace prayer, repentance, and good works for those sacrifices. Sadducees did not agree and without a temple they could not have forgiveness of sins and so died out. Ironically Christianity agreed with the Sadducees on this last point, but believed that Jesus himself had offered his body in his crucifixion as the once-for-all sacrifice for the sins of humanity.

A third group was known as the Essenes. These were the separatists, the ascetics, the monks, if you like it, of that day. The most famous group that we know of now lived at a site on the shores of the Dead Sea called Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered just after World War II including copies of Old Testament books dating one-thousand years earlier to pre-Christian times than anything that had previously been preserved, along with a veritable library of documents describing the beliefs and practices of the Essene community. They looked for two messiahs, one who would be a king, another a priest. They removed themselves from what they believed to be the corrupt world, even of the rest of Judaism around them and occupied themselves with the daily ritual, a regimen, and a disciplined communal lifestyle. They thought the solution to Israel’s ills and occupation by Rome was to simply obey the law better than anyone had before and await God’s spectacular intervention into history to throw off the yoke of the oppressor.

Finally, we may mention Zealots again; those who hoped to repeat the Maccabean miracle but who were brutally slaughtered in a revolt beginning in A.D. 67 and culminating in A.D. 70. These were those who believed that God helps those who help themselves and if they would but take up arms and rebel against Rome that He would then intervene and bring them independence once again.

It is interesting to reflect on each of these options. Though we don’t see them by name in our world today, most cultures have equivalents to most of them. One way to think of the four main leadership groups among the Jews, borrowing language similar to that which we find Jesus using in the Gospel of John, is to think of the Sadducees as being both in the world and of it, of the Pharisees as in the world but not of it, of the Zealots as not in the world but of it, and of the Essenes as not in the world and not of it. It is also important to remember that 80% to 90% of all Jews were not members of one of these groups. They were ordinary, devout people following the faith of their ancestors, farmers, fisherman, craftsmen, merchants, housewives, most rather poor compared to the small minority of wealthy and middle class of the day, busy enough just eking out a living, not to be caught up in the various leadership philosophies. And not surprisingly most of the first Christians came from this majority of people, which the Pharisees called somewhat disparagingly the people of the land or the am ha’arets in Hebrew. These then are a few key historical developments, political events, religious options, and movements that form the backdrop for the New Testament world and for its contents.