Galatians 4:4-5 NIV
"But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law…"
Romans 5:6-8 NIV
"You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
Today we're going to begin our study by looking at the background of the New Testament. We're going to look at the situation in the world in which the gospels and letters were written. After all, the NT world was a place where people tear at their clothing and throw dust on their heads in morning, they marry their brothers' wives if their brother dies, they beat their breasts, speak in tongues and wash each other's feet, they lie on the floor to eat, there is an occasional raising from the dead, and people walk on water. Strange world indeed!
As we begin, turn to your neighbor (not your spouse) and tell them what you think the world might have been like in 1st century Palestine…
Okay… what were some of your observations? Well, here are a few of mine…
The World of the NT Definitely Shaped Its Message
My point in starting this way is simply to say that the book we call the NT did not suddenly appear in a vacuum. Like any literature, or art or science - the historical, cultural, socio-economic, political and…yes, religious setting that the NT emerged from definitely shaped its message. Not only is the language the book was originally written foreign to our ears, and not only did it come from a culture and land very foreign, even today, to our own, it was written 2000 years ago. I think of this sometimes when I'm sitting at home in my warm house early in the morning, sipping on Starbucks coffee by the light of a bright lamp as I read one of Paul's letters on my iPad. All the writers of the NT books were Christians, but in order to better understand the writings it helps to know what these earliest Christians thought, believed, valued, and how they lived.
The Importance of the OT to the NT
A second thing that jumps out at me when I consider the origins of the NT is the fact that the Hebrew Bible, which we call the OT, is indispensable in understanding the NT. Think with me for a moment. The whole idea of a blood sacrifice - Christ shed his blood for our sins - would be fairly incomprehensible to most cultures - especially ours. Imagine asking someone today if they would sacrifice their son or daughter for the sins of the world. What kind of response would you get? Back when I was in seminary a movement arose to try to reframe the notion of blood sacrifice because according to the group trying to start this movement they said it made God look like a child abuser and promoted violence. But…if you read the OT and understand what God instituted through Moses - animal sacrifice - and holy places and a holy God, and dietary regulations and other odd things to us - then these are seen for what they are, a "shadow of things to come" Col. 2:17. They point the what Christ was to be and do. When we open the NT we join a story already in progress.
Jesus (and the NT) Came About at God's Appointed Time
A third point is related to this - and that is that when Jesus came, and subsequently when the NT was written, was not some random point in time. God had a plan all along. Throughout the OT God showed how He interacts with historical events and eras. He sent Joseph to Egypt shortly before a great famine, resulting in the Israelites going through an incubation period and growing into a mighty, populous nation. He arranged things so that the natural animosity and belligerence of foreign nations corresponded to times that the Israelites needed to be judged. He caused a Jewish girl to become queen to save her people from genocide (Esther). Even though God lives outside of time, God used time and orchestrated events to have the desired effect on His plan—the spread of salvation to the world just when the time was right.
So let's look for a moment at what was going in the historical, social, cultural, political and religious times the NT emerged from. This is where our study of the NT begins, not in a manger in Bethlehem on cold starry night long, long ago.
Fall of Jerusalem and Diaspora (Persian Period)
As you may remember from your OT study, Israel was a divided kingdom. The northern kingdom was actually called Israel, the southern kingdom was called Judah. In 722 BC the Assyrians conquered the Israel and its Hebrew inhabitants were scattered all over the Middle East; these people tended to get absorbed into whatever culture they landed in and virtually disappeared from the pages of history. Thus, in my opinion our study actually begins on July 10, 586 B.C. because that's the day, after a long siege of the city, that the Babylonian forces of king Nebuchadnezzar broke through the northern wall of Jerusalem. Eventually they would sack the city and raze the Temple and ship off many of its inhabitants to Babylon.
With the Babylonian Captivity, Judah ceased to be an independent nation and became basically a battleground fought over by successive larger empires. The people who once lived in this land were scattered, not only to Babylon, but all over the Mediterranean world, and as they went, many of them took their religion with them. They let it be known that they were worshippers of the one true God, Yahweh. Two emphasis, in particular, stood out in the midst of the pagan societies they settled in. One was their monotheism, their belief in only one God. The other was the Torah, the Law of God with its emphasis on holiness and strict moral code. This scattering, called the diaspora, began what is known as the time between the testaments - the intertestamental period, which is sometimes called the "silent" years because God didn't speak like he had through the prophets. But it was anything but a silent time in the world. With the fall of Jerusalem the stage was being set. In later years, when Christ was born and the Good News went forth, when it got to foreign lands it made much more sense because the people of those lands had already heard of Yahweh and his plan to send a Messiah.
Alexander the Great and Hellenization (Hellenistic Period - c 330 - 166)
Another important piece of the puzzle of the intertestamental period occurred about 250 years later in 332 BC. That's the year Alexander of Macedon, more commonly known as Alexander the Great, conquered Palestine. Under Persian rule Jews were allowed to run their lives under their own laws and religion. But Alexander was committed to the creation of a world united by Greek language and culture. This policy, known as Hellenization, had a dramatic effect on the NT world. Alexander soon conquered much of the ancient world and established Greek language and thought as the language of commerce and trade. This had far-reaching effects on the New Testament, which was written in Greek. Related to my first point about the spreading of the message to the known world - not only now had they heard the message, they could read it because the first translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek was actually done in the city of Alexandria in Egypt. Called the Septuagint, this made the OT teachings accessible to more and more people.
After Alexander died prematurely, his "world" was divided up among his generals. Two of them formed dynasties, the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria and Mesopotamia. These guys fought back and forth for control of the land but eventually a bad Seleucid leader came along (Antiochus) who turned up the heat on Hellenization and tried to eradicate Jewish practices. He eventually erected a statue of Zeus and sacrificed a pig in the Jerusalem Temple itself.
Maccabean Rule (Hasmonean Period - c 166 BC - 63 BC)
Antiochus' desecration of the Temple led to a rebellion called the Maccabean revolt - a 24 year war that resulted in the independence of Judea from 166 BC - 63 BC. This brief period of self-rule ended in 63 BC when the Roman General Pompey rode into Jerusalem and conquered it. Unfortunately civil war among the Hasmoneans left them ripe for the picking by the Romans, who took over the territory with little struggle.
Roman Rule (Roman Period - c 63 BC - 70 AD)
The Romans took control and Judea became a protectorate of Rome. Judea was even allowed a King (Herod) appointed by the Romans. The "king's" main business was to regulate trade and maximize tax revenue. While the Jews despised the Greeks, the Romans were a nightmare. Governorships were bought at high prices, and the governors would then attempt to squeeze as much revenue as possible from the people using dreaded and corrupt Jewish tax collectors to collect unfair taxes.
In addition to these political restraints imposed by Rome, the Jews were also ruled directly by their own high priest and his cohorts in the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. The religious life of the Jews at the time of NT centered in the temple in Jerusalem, this structure, called Herod's Temple, was actually the second temple. You may recall Solomon's Temple was built by David's son - that's the temple that was desecrated by the Seleucids. Herod's Temple was still under construction in Jesus' day. From near and far people came to worship, offer sacrifices, and observe the religious festivals of Judaism.
Because of the diaspora and the fact that so many could not travel easily to the Temple in Jerusalem, the synagogue emerged. The synagogue was a substitute for the Temple. There were a number of synagogues, even in Jerusalem. They were primarily places of instruction and prayer for the Jewish and Gentile adherents of the Jewish faith. The Scripture was read, commented on, and prayers were prayed.
Bottom line, these were mostly unhappy years of political oppression and internal strife for the Jewish people. Despite that, there was an air of expectancy that God would intervene and save his people. People longed for Messiah, when would he appear?
Talk About It - Discussion Questions
1. How might a better understanding what was actually going on in the intertestamental period affect or influence your reading of the New Testament
2. Despite what has been said this morning, do you really think the OT is important to one's understanding of the NT? Why?
3. Did the Holy Spirit really need all these players in the scenario that resulted in the NT being written? If not, why do you think God did it that way?
4. Can you think of other literature that is a "product of its times?"
For Next Week - we will look at the composition of the NT
Source Material: NIV Study Bible (Zondervan), ESV Study Bible (Crossway), Handbook of the New Testament by Claus Westermann, Exploring the New Testament by Walter M. Dunnett, Introducing the New Testament by Mark Allan Powell.