New Testament Background

A. Mediterranean Location
The Mediterranean region was the civilized world of the day. Palestine was a corridor by land from South to North, and the whole Mediterranean was accessible by sea. Palestine is often termed “a land bridge,” and was a coveted strip of land.
B. Roman Rule
1. The Empire
After the Persian conquest of Babylonia and the concomitant fall of the old empires, a series of great empires unified the Mediterranean to a large extent. This period can be broken down with references to the empires.
Persian Period (538-332 BC).
Alexandrian Period (332-301 BC)
Ptolemaic Period (301-198 BC)
Seleucid Period (198-167 BC)
Maccabean Period (167-63 BC)
Roman Period (63 BC and following)
2. Government
Rome was fascinated by power and used remarkable efficiency in obtaining it. Once it had obtained it through military prowess, it maintained it through a complex system of government. It ruled relatively peaceful areas, such as Africa and Asia, as provinces through a governor, who was responsible to the Roman senate. Areas disposed to rebellion, such as Palestine, were governed by military leaders called prefects or procurators, of whom Pilate is the most famous. Military colonies, strategically positioned throughout the empire, were poised to crush disturbance, when they would arise. Rome was quite generous in granting the right of Roman citizenship, especially to members of its military colonies, but also to local residents in provincial cities. Rome used its territories to bring wealth to Rome and laid heavy taxation on the provinces. People who were uprooted by the wars tended to join the large force of slaves which was at the disposal of the more well-to-do. The Roman Empire is particularly famed for its system of roads, which fostered communication and commerce, as well as aqueducts, which provided for and controlled the fresh water supply to urban centers. The system of roads and post, as well as navigation, played a large and amenable role in the missions of Paul and the spread of Christianity. One scholar writes: “Everyday life in the empire could be harsh. Away from the wide public space – and for those not enjoying aristocratic privileges – life even in the capital was hard. Streets were narrow, crowded, and dirty; food was simple when not scarce, with meat considered a luxury item. The security offered by the totalitarian state, moreover, exacted a price in freedom. On the balance, the Roman Empire was of particular and positive importance for the spread of the Christian movement … Rapid, safe, and frequent travel and letter writing were available. All of these were enabled by the freedom from war and internal danger that marked the Pax Romana.”
C. Hellenistic Culture
The term Hellenism is used to describe the culture which emerged in the Mediterranean upon Alexander’s conquests and lasted through the Roman period. Alexander considered the Greek way superior to any other and sought to create a “Pan-Hellenic” world. Alexander’s successors, especially the Seleucids, were committed to the Hellenistic project. The chief characteristics of Hellenism were
1. The Polis
The cornerstone of Hellenism was the Greek polis (city-state). It was the symbol of Greek culture with its gymnasium for development of the mind and body, and its training of a grand military. Each city organized rituals and liturgies to give people a communal identity. The Hellenistic world was chiefly an urban world. Conquered cities were turned into such Greek city-states and new cities were established at strategic locations.
2. The Greek Language
The second characteristic of Hellenism was the spread of the Greek language. The Greek which became common in the Mediterranean from Alexander on is referred to as koine. Even under Rome, Greek remained the lingua franca, the language of commerce, education, and religion, though Latin came to be used in official imperial documents. By the mid-second century BC, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, and called the Septuagint. It became the version of choice among the Hellenistic Jews and many of the first Christians. Local languages, such as Aramaic and Coptic, were still spoken, but any widespread communication, even refutation of Greek ways, had to be done in the Greek language.
3. Religious Syncretism
The third characteristic of Hellenism was religious syncretism. Local deities were identified and renamed according to the Greek Pantheon. For example, Baal was identified with Zeus. One scholar comments: “The idea was to reduce local allegiances in favor of more universal ones. Here we recognize a classic case of using religion as societal glue. The results were various and multiple. The old Greek pantheon was not strengthened by being so violently stretched, and the Greek myths seemed to lose their credibility by being universalized. On the one hand, this possibly, in some circles, hastened a movement toward monotheism. It is not a big step from equating divine powers to decide there is one divine power diversely manifested. So philosophers could use the language of polytheism, but also speak of a single divine providence. Less happily, the loss of prestige suffered by the traditional gods together with the alienation fostered by the empire helped create a perception of the world as governed alternatively by fickle chance (tyche) or inexorable fate (heimarmene). Such perception gave impetus to the search for religious experiences more profound and personal than were available in the official cults.”
Magic and astrology were widely popular. Many would go around as self-acclaimed sophists or philosophers or priests and use people’s superstition for monetary gain. Many looked to prophecy, both of the official kind, such as the Delphi oracle, as well as mantic prophecy by priests of foreign mystery cults. The mystery cults had existed since early times, but their appeal grew during the Roman Empire. Eastern goddesses such as Isis from Egypt were considered exotic, and the initiates sought refuge from evil cults from evil powers. Similar was the appeal of later Gnosticism, in which esoteric knowledge and ritual was seen as a way of escape from the evil power of matter and fate.
Hellenistic philosophy is not to be equated with Plato and Aristotle. One scholar writes: “There was a definite shift from theory to therapy.” . Hellenistic philosophy was as syncretistic as its religion. Theoretical differences were minimized and practical results were emphasized. Cynicism was especially popular, for it dismissed doctrine and embraced “free speech,” individual standards.
D. Judaism
1. Judaism and Hellenism
Greek culture and language spread also in Palestine and was supreme in many places. Especially, the wealthy and aristocrats absorbed Hellenism. The more strict adherents of Judaism recognized its threat to biblical religion and sought to hold more strenuously to the tradition. These were called Hasidim. The issue of Hellenism was at the center of the Maccabean struggle surrounding the syncretistic impositions of the Syrian king, Antiochus IV (Epiphanes). In the year 168 BC he commanded that the temple in Jerusalem should be dedicated to Jupiter and forbade the observance of the Sabbath and circumcision. Many accommodated while others suffered and died as martyrs. In 167 BC a priest, Mattathias, began a movement of resistance, assisted by his sons referred to as the Hasmoneans, or Maccabees. His son Judas freed Jerusalem from the Syrians and rededicated the temple. When he died in battle in 161 BC, his brother, Jonathan used largely administrative rather than military means to achieve the independence of the whole country. He assumed both secular and priestly power and was succeeded by his brother Simon. The Hasmoneans, especially under the son of Simon, John Hyrcanus (135-106 BC), lost the confidence of the Hasidim because he embraced many Hellenistic practices himself. The rule of the land later fell into the hands of Herod, a tyrant of Idumean origin, who was supported by the Romans. From 37 BC Herod the Great was the recognized king of Judah. We have a lot of information about Herod from the record of Josephus. Many have diagnosed his problem as paranoid schizophrenia. He killed many whom he first loved, many of his wives and children. Augustus, after the death of Mariamne’s sons (7 BC), is said to have exclaimed: “I would rather be Herod’s hog (hus) than his son (huios).” By the final testament of Herod, as ratified by Rome, the kingdom was divided as follows: Archelaus received one-half of the kingdom, with the title of king, really “ethnarch,” governing Judea, Samaria and Idumaea; Antipas was appointed “tetrarch” of Galilee and Peraea; Philip, “tetrarch of Trachonitis, Gaulonitis and Paneas. Since Herod died in 4 BC, we have a clue to the approximate fixing of the true date of Christ’s birth.
2. Judaism and Rome
No one in Palestine had been such an ambitious builder as Herod. He built strategic hilltop fortresses, including Masada, Herodium, and Alexandrium. He rebuilt the temple into an incredibly large institution. He built the city of Caesarea on the coast with many administrative officers and entertainment possibilities, a large harbor, and prisons later occupied by men such as Peter and Paul. The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD marked the end of an era for the Jews in Palestine. The radical party of the Zealots had prompted a lot of violence which led to sharp retribution. The Romans, under the leadership of Vespasian, advanced with considerable power and first conquered Galilee (67 AD). In Jerusalem, in the meanwhile, different parties of the Jews were still fighting each other. Titus, the son of Vespasian, took the chief command after Vespasian became emperor. Titus completely surrounded the city a few days before the Passover festival in the year 70. On the northern side the Romans first broke through the first and newest city wall, and after that the second. The third offered a longer resistance, and at the same time famine wrought havoc in Jerusalem. At last the battle raged about the temple, during which this structure went up in flames. A few fortified places yet maintained themselves after the fall of Jerusalem, e.g. Masada, a strong-hold of the Zealots.
3. Jewish Institutions
a. Temple
Herod expanded the temple considerably in order to ingratiate the Jews. The Temple buildings themselves were increased to twice the height of those of Solomon and Zerubbabel. The courtyard was extended southward to include the sit of the old palace builds and was surrounded by massive, pillared porches. The courtyards were paved with marble and parts of the building were overlaid with gold. There was a Court of the Gentiles, a Men’s Court, a Court of the Women, a Court for the Priests. The main platform of the Temple was bounded by walls that provided the rear walls for the four porches. The eastern porch, or colonnade, was known as Solomon’s Porch. It was pierced by the Golden Gate, which was an exit from the city to the Mount of Olives (Ezek 44:1-2). The porch itself provided the Pinnacle (Matt 4:5) with a drop of more than four hundred feet (one hundred and thirty meters) into the Kidron Valley. The Court of the Gentiles was at once a thoroughfare, a marketplace, and a place for exchange of money to purchase sacrificial animals (Matt 21:12-13).
b. Synagogue
Synagogue meetings during the exile seem attested to by Ezek 14:1; 20:1. After the exile the synagogue remained. It is interesting that it remained somewhat in tension with the temple and its sacrificial system. It is as if the inability of the sacrificial system was felt while at the same time the requirement of the sacrifice was still necessary. The synagogue was at first only meant for the exposition of the Law. It was natural that in the course of time prayers and preaching should be added to the service. Thus these meetings, which at first were only held on Sabbaths and feast days, came also to be held on other days, and at the same hours with the services in the temple. The essential aim, however, of the synagogue was not prayer, but instruction in the Law for all classes of the people. Philo calls the synagogues “houses of instruction, where the philosophy of the fathers and all manner of virtues were taught.”
In Palestine the synagogues were scattered all over the country, all the larger towns having one or more (e.g. Nazareth, Matt 13:54; Capernaum, Matt 12:9). In Jerusalem, in spite of the fact that the Temple was there, there were many synagogues, and all parts of the Diaspora were represented by particular synagogues (Acts 6:9). Also in heathen lands, wherever there was a certain number of Jews, they had their own synagogue: e.g. Damascus (Acts 9:2), Salamis (Acts 13:5), Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:14), Thessalonica (Acts 17:1), Corinth (Acts 18:4), Alexandria, and Rome.
c. Sanhedrin
The Sanhedrin is the name used for the council which operated under the leadership of the high priest. Sometimes its power was quite limited, e.g., under Herod. But during the days of Christ, it was again very powerful. It was allowed to administer Jewish affairs without interference.
4. Parties
a. Pharisees
The Pharisees were groups committed to the faithful observance of the Law from the tradition of their fathers and can perhaps be traced back to the Hasidim of the Maccabean periods. Pharisee means “separate.” They were helped by scribes who interpreted the law and accommodated it the changing circumstances of society and life. For a long time they were apolitical, unlike the Sadducees, and controlled only synagogues; however, in the course of the first century AD, they saw value and possibilities in influencing politics and even occupied seats on the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:34).
b. The Sadducees
The Sadducees were a party of wealthier, aristocratic, and political-involved members. They had a lot of power in the temple and the Sanhedrin. They rejected all tradition other than the Mosaic Pentateuch, and quite readily compromised with the Romans.
c. The Zealots
This party professed great zeal for the law and was dedicated to overthrowing the Romans, and readily turned to military means to do so. At their instigation, the final Jewish war with the Rome developed and Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. Their devotees held out for some years at the fortress at Masada, where most committed suicide to avoid capture by the Romans.
d. The Samaritans
The Samaritans were the people of mixed origin, the descendants of intermarriages between remnants of ancients Israel and people from other nations who were brought in. A type of YHWH worship continued, for the immigrants recognized that they should fear the god of the land (2 Kings 17:24 ff). Yet, undoubtedly, the religion became syncretistic. A hostility developed between the Samaritans and the returning Jews in Judah, and is evident in the NT. The Samaritans still continue to this day and worship on Mt. Gerizim in the belief that it was the mountain where God provided a lamb (cf. Gen 22). They claim to have the authentic copy of the Mosaic Torah.
e. The Essenes
The findings around Qumran (the Dead Sea scrolls) have shed a lot of light on this group, of which Josephus gives some information. The Essenes withdrew from the world to the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord (Isa. 40). Their scrolls tell of a teacher of righteousness who caused the community to withdraw from the wicked High Priest. They formed various communities, styled somewhat like those of the later ascetics in the Middle Ages. People who wanted to withdraw from them were admitted as novices. The Essenes believed that God would bring the evil age to an end in response to their good lives and their prayers and that the longed-for end would be marked by the appearance of a prince of Aaron’s line, a warrior prince who would defeat all the forces of evil, a prophet who would reveal God’s will. The community in Qumran at the edge of the Dead Sea was likely an Essene community. They preserved old texts, biblical books, pseudepigraphal texts, and commentaries on biblical books, treatises on life in their communities, etc. Their concern for purity is evident in the many lavers and pools they have. Cleansing could only come from running water, not stagnant water; for that reason, they brought the water from a spring in the hills via an aqueduct to their community where they have an elaborate system of clean and unclean rooms.
E. Conclusion
The following should be noted in conclusion.
1. The geographical setting was an excellent launch pad for Christianity.
2. The empire afforded many opportunities for the spread of Christianity.
3. The royal, priestly, prophetic, and scribal institutions had so deviated from their intended significance that the true fulfillment of these institutions was not recognized by them.
4. The royal, priestly, prophetic, and scribal institutions were so bound up with a this worldly religion that the destruction of Jerusalem and the depopulation of the land brought the end to all of them, except for Rabbinic Judaism, and was instrumental in the growth of Christianity.