A lot of us approach the New Testament unlike we approach the Old. We approach the Old Testament with the attitude of, ‘it was written to them for us’ which is correct and the New Testament with the attitude of ‘it was written to us for us’ which is wrong. We can’t get much out of the New Testament with such approach. It is therefore good that we have a background understanding of the world which includes people, history, ideologies, geographical location and systems that made up the New Testament to be able to interpret it properly. I hope this little study will aid your understanding. 

There were important developments which formed the political, religious and cultural background of the New Testament. The political history of that time falls into several periods of governmental dominion by foreign powers and it is therefore essential that we gain knowledge of these developments to accurately understand the New Testament.

The Political History: In 332B.C, the Persians governed the Jews from the time of the return of the Babylonian captivity having triumphed over the Babylonian Empire. 

In 301 BC, the Grecians brought the Jews under domination with the conquest of the Persians by Alexander the great. This then opened up Palestine, the dwelling place of the Jews to the effects of Greek culture (hellenization). The Greek language became generally accepted and was the common tongue among that world at large.

In 63 B.C, Rome conquered Palestine and ruled the land by procurators or rulers such as Herodias. During the Roman period, great power was concentrated in the hands of the high priest who for all practical purposes was the political leader of the Jews. 

 ‘‘And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the entire world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David :) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. Luke 2:1-6

‘‘IN THE fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign--when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene--In the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the Word of God [concerning the attainment through Christ of salvation in the kingdom of God] came to John son of Zachariah in the wilderness (desert).’’ Luke 3:1-2  

At the time of the birth of Jesus Christ, God's Providence had prepared the world for His coming, and this was the fittest time in all its history: the entire civilized world was subject to one government, and was at peace, travelling was easy, and there was a common language: the news about the message of his death and resurrection could spread quickly through the vast Roman Empire. The world including the Israelites was under the influence of the Roman Empire, which took over the lands by military campaigns, and was the world power at that time due to its conquest.

In that time, was Herod king over the Province of Galilee and a subject under the Roman authority, and Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor that oversaw the lands. There was also the religious Jewish sects who claimed to uphold the laws of Moses and carried out the worship of God in the temple but were mere hypocrites who were political and were only after their belly. And lastly, the social-vocational sect whose duty was to collect taxes for the Roman government. 

The Roman world of Jesus is a fascinating one, but unfortunately more often than not, it is largely ignored by many. It is important to become familiar with the political, social, cultural and religious ideas and realities in that world and to understand Jesus as a Jew in Palestine and also a subject of the mighty Roman Empire.
In that world, there was an economic point of view that examines a vast system of business and finance dominated by international trade, and enforced system of taxation, and large bodies of slave labour. There is also the sociological approach that looks at the pluralistic assortment of peoples, high government officials, merchants, small business people, slaves and minorities. This world has its literature, philosophy, art and architecture and it is important to gain some knowledge of the civilization in order to bring the New Testament to light in Christ, and to understand His coming at that time.

The Religious Development: This began by the translation of the Jewish scriptures into Greek (Septuagint), the temple worship and the establishment of the various Jewish religious sects. The religious Jewish sects which comprised of the Scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees, and these made up the Sanhedrin (which is the highest council of elders and tribunal of the Jews) which also operated under Roman authority. These religious leaders did more harm than good to the people; for they crushed the people with unbearable religious demands and they themselves never lifted a finger to ease the burden on the people.

                                          THE SCRIBES
These were lawyers and where primarily trained in writing or copying the scriptures; the books of the Law of Moses and thus influential as interpreters and teachers of the law and agents of the rulers. They did not form their own party, but could belong to any group either as scribes of the Pharisees or Sadducees.

Luke 11:46:52 ‘‘And he said, woe unto you also, ye lawyers! For ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourself touch not the burden with one of your fingers. Woe unto you, lawyers! For ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves and them that were entering ye hindered.

Acts 23:9 ‘‘And there arose a great cry: and the scribes that were of the Pharisees’ part arose and strove, saying, we find no evil in this man: but if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him, let’s not fight against God. 

To be continued…

Grace to you!

About Jemine James


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