Editor’s Note: This series is designed for those who would like to learn more about the historical and cultural background in which the New Testament was written, but aren’t sure where to start.
We know that the Bible was written in real time and space and that it records events that happened in real time and space. Unlike some other religions, Christians fully and unashamedly embrace the fact that the Bible has a historical-cultural context.
But unfortunately, many Christians remain frustratingly unaware as to what that historical-cultural context is. After teaching a 12 week Bible interpretation class at my church, I began to see the need to help provide a starting point for believers who desperately want to know more about the biblical world, but who don’t have the time to spend hours wading through pages of material in order to sketch that world out in their own mind. So in this series, we will go over some of the basic contours of New Testament backgrounds (I hope to do another series dealing with Old Testament backgrounds in the future). During the next few weeks we’ll discuss major people groups, the basic story line of the history between the end of the Old Testament period and the beginning of the New, how scholars gather their sources, and take a look at some good books to get you started. This series is not meant to be an exhaustive treatment of the subject. Instead, I hope to give you a basic frame of reference and introduce you to some important terminology so that you can begin to do more independent reading on your own without having to waste time trying to understand these more basic features. Rather, you’ll be able to dive right in!
So, are you ready? Let’s get started.
First, let’s begin with the obvious; dates. The time in which the New Testament was written extends from approximately A.D. 40-100, with most books being completed before A.D. 70. These years form part of the 1st century A.D. (The 2nd century extends from A.D. 100-199, the 3rd from 200-299, and so on). Now in order for us to get a better feel for the broader historical context and to understand the key players and circumstances which brought about the unique culture of the 1st century, we’ll have to zoom out a bit more.
In the broadest possible terms we could say that the historical context for the New Testament begins with the return of the Jews to Judea in 538 B.C. after roughly 70 years in Babylonian exile. Unfortunately, few resources remain for scholars to reconstruct an account of this period. There are only bits and pieces.
However, the historical record really begins to pick back up around the time of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.). Beginning with his era, we will want to sketch out the historical development all the way to the Edict of Milan (issued by Emperor Constantine), which gave Christianity legal status for the first time in the Roman empire (A.D. 313). To put this in simpler terms, we want to have a good understanding of important events from the 4th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D. It may be helpful to imagine the following timeline when placing the New Testament in its larger historical context:
Alexander the Great: 356 B.C.———-NT ———Edict of Milan: A.D. 313
As a side note, when you begin reading more specialized books on New Testament backgrounds, you’ll sometimes hear scholars refer to “Second Temple Judaism”. This refers to the beliefs and practices of Judaism as it existed in the time between the completion of the second temple (516 B.C.; the first was built by Solomon and later destroyed by the Babylonians) to the destruction of that same temple which was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70.
Now that we have our dates firmly in place, there’s one more item I want to cover in this post. Within this time span, there are three major people groups you’ll want to be familiar with: the Romans, the Greeks, and the Jews. These three groups converged in many different ways and the New Testament cultural background emerged from their interactions. When reading New Testament background books, the Greeks and Romans are commonly put together because of the former’s incredible influence on the latter. Thus, the cultural background of the New Testament has two layers: there is the Greco-Roman background on the one hand and the Jewish background on the other.
Well, I think that’s enough info for this post, so let’s take a second and briefly summarize what we covered:
1. The New Testament was written from approximately A.D. 40-100, with most books being completed before A.D. 70.
2. The historical context for the New Testament ranges from Alexander the Great (356 B.C.) to the Edict of Milan (A.D. 313).
3. The three major people groups from this context are the Romans, Greeks, and Jews.
4. The cultural background of the New Testament has two layers: the Greco-Roman background and the Jewish background.
In the next post we’ll try to cover the major events within this time frame and seek to understand how they contributed to the cultural milieu in which the New Testament was written.
The image above was borrowed from fusion-of-horizons and was resized for this post. You can find the original image and the copyright information here.