GREENVILLE PRESBYTERIAN THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
THE BACKGROUND AND ENVIRONMENT OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
In Galatians 4:4-5 Paul tells us that God sent Christ His Son to redeem and adopt His people “when the fullness of time had come”. It was no accident that our Lord and Savior came when He did. It was part of God’s perfect plan for Christ to come in the 1st century; He was orchestrating all of history prior to that time to make way for the incarnation of the God-Man. Because of this, it is necessary that serious students of God’s Word know the setting in which Christ came. The historical setting did not produce the thought and teaching of the New Testament, but it did serve as the molding in which the gospel entered into history. The centuries leading up to the coming of Christ provide us with reasons for the patterns of thought and life in the New Testament. While God was inspiring the writers of His Word, He also was crafting a historical situation suitable to inaugurate His kingdom.
There are four main arenas to explore in order to better understand the scene of the New Testament. An examination of the historical background and an investigation of the New Testament’s social, political, and religious environment is in order.
Christianity developed in a multicultural land composed of the Oriental, Greeks, and Romans. These three had mixed with each other but retained certain distinctives. The Oriental contributed philosophy and religion while the Greek language was widely used, and the Romans retained political control of Rome to the shores of the Mediterranean through Africa to Gaul, boasting one of the greatest civilizations in human history.
Christianity is Oriental because the Jews were an Oriental race and possessed an Oriental mindset. Since Oriental thought also permeated the Gentiles, they were open to the religious psychology of Christianity as it spread. Judaism possessed Oriental thought, especially during the Captivity and Restoration which helped develop and define many Jewish religious ideas, and these ideas contained much of the content of Christianity. Concepts such as the immortality of the soul, the existence of the spirit-world, the eternal rewards of human conduct, and the resurrection of the dead were common teachings the Jews had with those around them.
The Babylonians influenced Judaism, particularly during the Captivity, but the greater influence likely came from the Persians. The Persians shaped Judaism’s eschatology and provided clear notions of heaven and hell along with the resurrection and triumph of the righteous. The words “paradise” and “Satan” originated with the Persians. This is not to say that Judaism lost its unique doctrine due to the Babylonians and Persians, they did not. They did alter the terminology and concepts of Judaism, however. In fact, the Oriental influence was largely anti-thetical, separating religion from morality, possessing a dualistic conception of the universe, and misunderstanding the powers of the spirit world. From the 2nd century onward the Oriental teaching disturbed the Christian message, but Christianity has remained the least Oriental of the great religions.
Judaism, though Oriental at root, remained unique, and Christianity grew from Judaism. The New Testament adopts or presupposes concepts of Judaism, and the conditions of life in Palestine are in the background of all of the Gospels. Judaism rejected Christianity, and as Christianity necessarily branched out across the Graeco-Roman world it also became more Hellenistic, growing in the Greek civilization introduced by Alexander the Great. Alexander’s greatest contribution to Christianity was Greek thought and the Greek language, which together best interprets and expresses Christianity. Latin was the official language of the Roman conquerors, of which the Jews would have known very little. The Jews’ mother tongue was now Aramaic, Hebrew becoming something of a dead language due to the exile in the 6th century B.C. By the beginning of the Christian era, the synagogues of Palestine and Babylon read the Old Testament not only in Hebrew but also in Aramaic paraphrase (called a Targum) to allow those Jews who knew little Hebrew to understand the passage. It is likely that Jesus used Aramaic as his mother tongue and later learned to speak Greek and read Hebrew. He would have taught in Aramaic to the common people and may have debated scribes in Hebrew. Whenever He spoke with non-Jewish people, it is likely that he used Greek.
Though Rome had conquered and restructured the Graeco-Oriental world, its influence on the New Testament was mainly political, providing an organized land in which Christ would come. The Roman Empire managed to merge many nationalities and form a large degree of unity, producing a stable civil order for almost half a millennium. A variety of local supervision was utilized in order to efficiently manage newly conquered territories and kingdoms. In 27 B.C. Emperor Augustus divided his thirty-two existing provinces into either senatorial provinces, which ex-consuls and ex-praetors governed, or imperial provinces, which the emperor controlled directly. The senatorial provinces were usually older, richer, and more peaceful, whereas the imperial provinces were frontier areas that required closer supervision and greater care. The emperor sent a legate to guard the larger of these senatorial provinces, and the smaller ones were ruled by a governor called a praefectus.
Rome displayed its savvy by allowing, when it could, the native leaders to continue to rule over their people, though they had to ultimately answer to Rome. They would call these rulers by the lesser titles of tetrarch, which could be promoted to ethnarch (meaning anything from “chief” to “governor”) and finally one could achieve the title of “king,” provided he brought in a high enough quantity of revenue for Rome.
The Political and Social Background of Palestinian Judaism
Jesus Christ’s first followers were Palestinian Jews, and all of the authors of the New Testament except for Luke (perhaps) were Jews. Palestine itself is a fairly small land mass of about 12,000 to 14,000 square miles, making it smaller than Switzerland and not half as large as Scotland. It is about the size of the state of Maryland. It boasts a varied and healthy climate, with fertile soil that can bear a harvest in the colder north or the tropical south. God providentially placed Palestine at the junction of three continents, and yet it was isolated from other countries by the desert, mountains, and the sea. It was the ideal place for Judaism as well as Christianity to develop.
In 586 B.C. the beautiful land of Palestine was sacked by Nebuchadnezzar’s armies and destroyed. The majority of the Jews were taken to Babylon, but half a century later they were allowed to return to their land because the Medes and Persians had defeated the Babylonians and claimed the land as a Persian province. Isaiah 44:28-45:1, perhaps writing to God’s people who would live some 150 years in the future, prophesies that Cyrus the Persian would do the Lord’s bidding and have the temple rebuilt. Cyrus took a tolerant stance towards his subjected people, including the Jews, and allowed them to retain cultural autonomy and decreed that the temple be rebuilt in Jerusalem. The Jewish people began to rebuild the temple, but not without the urgings of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. The task was completed in 515 B.C. and the walls of Jerusalem were restored under the guidance of Nehemiah around 445 B.C.
Possession of the land would change again in 334 B.C., as the aforementioned Alexander the Great of Macedon extended his vast empire, championing Hellinism and overthrowing the Persian monarch Darius a few years later. He would die from a fever in 323 B.C., at the young age of thirty-two. Having not appointed a successor, four of his generals divided the conquered land into four empires, including the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt and the Seleucid dynasty in Syria. These two would be important for the history of Palestine.
Palestine lay halfway between Syria and Egypt, and was finally annexed to Egypt by Ptolemy I in 320 B.C. For the next 122 years the Jews were governed by their high priests and enjoyed peace and security, but this came to an end in 198 B.C., when Palestine was taken from Egyptian control by Antiochus III of the Seleucid dynasty. The Seleucids promoted the use of the Greek language and customs across their land and to the governing high priests in Palestine, and the result was the Hellenization of the Jews. A large group of Jews called the Hasideans resisted this shift toward paganism and retained the ways and traditions of their fathers.
Antiochus Epiphanes became ruler in 175 B.C. and destroyed the city of Jerusalem in 169 B.C. He burned it, plundered the temple, and killed many of the inhabitants, hoping to break the faith of the Hasideans on pain of death. The observance of the Sabbath, the rite of circumcision, and the possession of the Hebrew Scriptures were all crimes punishable by death, and pagan altars replaced Jewish worship in many of the cities of Judea.
The Hasideans did not respond for several months, but once they were told to offer pagan sacrifices, they revolted. The leader of the revolt was an elderly priest named Mattathias who fled to the hills and began an armed resistance in the style of guerilla warfare. He and his followers attacked at night, toppling pagan altars and even circumcising children, striving to secure safety in following the Mosaic Law. After a year he died and passed the torch to his sons, exhorting them to “show zeal for the law, and give your lives for the covenant of our fathers” (1 Macc. 2:50). In 165 B.C. the Syrian general Lysias reached a compromise with the revolters, allowing for the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem and granting the Jews religious freedom. The temple was dedicated in December 164 and a winter feast of Dedication was held to celebrate the moment, alluded to in John 10:22. The Jews still celebrate this festival, known today as Hanukkah.
Judas Maccabeus, one of the sons of Mattathias and said to be unsurpassed in selflessness, was not satisfied with this compromise, and began his own conquests which led to complete independence for the Jewish people. In time the favor of the Jews was actually sought and in 142 B.C. Demetrius II, king of Syria, granted the Jews complete political independence. The national freedom lasted until 63 B.C., their only period of independence from 586 B.C. until the mid-twentieth century A.D.
The Jews lacked strong leaders however, and two factions emerged. The Maccabeans continued to pursue political prowess, and became known as the Sadducees. Against them were those who had supported Judas Maccabeus until the rededication of the temple in 164 but then departed, claiming they only needed religious freedom. This group of Hasideans became known as the Pharisees. The Sadducees retained political control and soon conquests emerged which forced the Idemeans east of the Jordan, Samaria to the north, and Galilee north of Samaria to convert to Judaism. Civil war between the Sadducees and Pharisees resulted, and Judea became weak and susceptible to foreign control. In 63 B.C. Pompey, the leader of the Romans, took possession of Jerusalem and required them to pay tribute. It is also said that he enraged the Jews by entering the holy of holies.
It was not until 40 B.C. that the Jews were actually ruled by their captors. Herod the Great was appointed king, but it took him three years to capture Jerusalem and enforce his authority. He did rebuild and expand the temple to twice its former size, though he taxed the people heavily. After he died his kingdom was split between his three sons, Archelaus, Philip, and Herod Antipas. Archelaus possessed southern Palestine, encompassing Samaria, Judea, and Idumea. He gained an evil reputation, slaughtering around three thousand people during the Passover season to quash a rebellion. In A.D. 6 Archelaus was deposed and Roman governors replaced him, one of which was Pontius Pilate who would condemn Jesus to be crucified.
Philip ruled in the northern and northeastern parts of Palestine and led a mild and peaceful campaign. Scripture only records one journey of Jesus into his domain (Matt. 16:13). Much of Jesus’ life was spent in Herod Antipas’s jurisdiction, who was tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. Desiring Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Herod Philip, he divorced his own wife to take Herodias. She expressed animosity toward John the Baptist, who rebuked Herod for his unlawful marriage, leading to the account of Mark 6:17-29 where her daughter Salome dances before Herod and results in the beheading of John.
Herod Antipas would be banished to Gaul in A.D. 39, and Herod Agrippa I, the son of Aristobulus, would replace him. Herod Agrippa I was king over the land of Palestine which his late half-uncle Philip ruled, and added Galilee, Perea, Judea, and Samaria to his domain, encompassing all of Palestine as his grandfather Herod the Great had done. The book of Acts tells us Herod Agrippa I killed James the brother of John and arrested Peter (12:1-3), but he himself died soon afterward in A.D. 44. When Herod Agrippa II came of age he ruled in his father’s stead, and it was before him and his sister Bernice along with governor Festus that Paul pled his cause (Acts 25:13-26:32).
Fighting between Jew and Gentile broke out during this time. The Jewish people gained some victories and hoped to put an end to emperor worship, but in A.D. 67 Galilee was subdued by Vespasian and by next year all of Judea was conquered. For five months in A.D. 70 Jerusalem was assaulted until the Romans seized control in September, A.D. 70. They looted the temple and razed it, taking captives to Rome while only a remnant remained in Judea. To symbolize the extinction of the Jewish nation, the name of the land was changed to Palaestina (land of the Philistines). Temple worship no longer occurred and greater importance fell to the Jews of the Dispersion, where the Gentile character of the Christian church increased.
The Cultural and Religious Background of Palestinian Judaism
Between the close of the Old Testament period and the beginning of the New, Jews continued producing religious writings which impacted both their culture and religion. While none of the literature was considered as authoritative as the Old Testament, they were widely read and produced an enduring influence on Jewish life and thought. These were the apocryphal books, meaning “hidden, concealed” and were included in the Roman Catholic Vulgate. They fell into several categories: historical; legendary or novelistic; didactic or sapiential; and apocalyptic.
Under the historical category falls I and II Maccabees. The first covers 175 to 134 B.C., the second 175 to 160 B.C. I Maccabees is a serious and straightforward recollection of events and is valuable for details regarding the Maccabean uprising and is a valuable source of Jewish history. II Maccabees is written in a flowery and ornate style which was popular in Alexandria during that time. While it was less reliable historically, it did honor the temple and emphasized the feast of Dedication. The book also displays the development of doctrine among the Palestinian Jews during their struggle with the Seleucid dynasty. Among the doctrines are a full bodied understanding of Providence, retributive justice, and the resurrection of the body. There is also an account of persecution and martyrdom of a Jewish mother and her seven sons, whose steadfast faith became a source of inspiration for Jewish and Christian readers.
The writings which were regarded strictly as legend and read like a novel included Tobit and Judith. Tobit was an entertaining tale of morality in which Tobit exhorts his son not to do to anyone that which he hates, an inversion of the Golden Rule. The story contains travel, love, adventure, drama, and a happy ending, all of which made it quite popular. The book of Judith taught that God will provide for his people if they obey His law, but if they do not, their enemies will overtake them. The protagonist is a Jewess who obeys the law and is courageous enough to overcome the general of the Assyrian forces, Holofernes. Judith is likely named after Judas Maccabeus. Another example is the well written work entitled Susanna, which promotes holy virtue and trust in God through the tale of one falsely accused of adultery.
The Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus comprise the sapiential or wisdom literature. These authors were nearly as influential as the priest and the prophet in their day. The author takes on the character of King Solomon and praises wisdom as the true path to life and decries the materialistic. Ecclesiasticus is similar to the book of Proverbs as it relates wisdom to practical ethics and general conduct.
The apocalyptic writings were the most distinctive within Judaism, which believed that the Messianic age would bring the end to the present world order. Among them is II Esdras, written in the 1st century A.D. It is attributed to Ezra and the author attempts to explain how God is righteous in allowing the Jews to endure devastation. Included are many symbols of numbers, strange beasts, and truth revealed by angels. There were other pseudipigraphical writings like I Enoch, the Assumption of Moses, the Book of Jubilees, and the Ascension of Isaiah.
The great contribution of these various writings is the information it provides regarding Jewish thought and life prior to the coming of Christ. They uncover the political fortunes of the Jews from the time of the Maccabean uprising forward, display the birth of the religion of the Pharisees, describe the growing belief in angelic and demonic activity, reveal a keen interest in the doctrine of original sin and its relation to man’s evil disposition, specify a growing expectation of the coming Messiah, and show that many believed in the resurrection of the body and the vindication of the righteous.
Palestine in the 1st century A.D. held between 1.5 to 2 million people, and about 500,000 to 600,000 were Jews. They lived in Judea, the southern part of Palestine, where the capital of the country, Jerusalem, was located. Galilee in the northern part of the country is where Jesus spent much of his time and was largely non-Jewish. According to Josephus (A.D. 37-100) the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes comprised the three main religious groups. During the reign of Herod the Great around 6,000 male Jews belonged to the sect of the Pharisees, many of whom lived in Jerusalem or nearby.
Pharisees were the most scrupulous religious leaders of the day, adhering to the law with unparalleled fervor. They formed closed communities (which were not easy to gain entrance into) and “were members of religious associations” where they practiced charity to pursue works of supererogation. They prided themselves in rightly interpreting the law and butted heads with the Sadducees over various doctrines. For instance, the Pharisees believed that foreordination and man’s free will were compatible, but the Sadducees rejected the Providence of God over history and said man determined fate. The Pharisees also believed in the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body, and that men would either be rewarded or face punishment based on how they lived in this life. These teachings the Sadducees mocked. The Sadducees also rejected the notion of good and evil spirits (see acts 23:8) but the Pharisees firmly believed in such things. Despite this, the Pharisees believed that the Hebrew scriptures and oral tradition of Jewish teachers through the years were supremely authoritative, but the Sadducees accepted scripture alone and repudiated anything not taught in the law of Moses.
At the heart of the Pharisees was legalism, the belief that God’s grace only comes to those who meticulously follow His law. The Pharisees were not always hypocrites; they began when it was dangerous to oppose Hellenism, but men of less bravery soon came to join them. In fact the Jewish Talmud recognizes seven types of Pharisees that emerged, with five receiving some type of ridicule.
While it is easy to assume from Scripture that Jesus denounced all Pharisees, this is not the case. He intended his “woes” on the bad kinds of Pharisees who did not follow their Hasidean forefathers. In fact, the Pharisee Simon made a banquet for Jesus (Luke 7:37) and seemed to be on good terms with him. Later some Pharisees warned him that Herod was seeking his life (Luke 13:31). Of course, it was the Pharisees whose outward conformity to the law was devoid of genuine heart affection for God that plotted Christ’s death (Mark 3:6; John 11:47-57).
The word “Sadducee” is likely taken from the name Zadok, who was a high priest that officiated in David’s reign, and the high priesthood remained in his family until the Maccabean period. As mentioned before, the Sadducean high priests came into contact with the Seleucid rulers who were hellinizing Palestine. While they grew politically, the high priests religious fervor diminished, and the author of I Maccabees considered them to be traitors and unfaithful to their religious fathers (I Macc. 1:15). In Jesus’ day the Sadducees comprised the majority party in the Sanhedrin and held prominent positions, representing the erudite urban class in Jerusalem. They were educated men and still held sway in the realms of politics and religion, though the common folk sympathized with the Pharisees in the main.
The Essenes are not mentioned in the New Testament but are believed to have numbered about 4,000 and led a simple and ascetic life, devoting themselves to agriculture and sharing their goods. To become an Essene you had to go through a three year process. The most strict Essenes refrained from marriage, and they all held to the Sabbath more strictly than even the Pharisees. They held stated periods of prayer, ritual washings and baptisms, and constantly read and studied the Old Testament. They were convinced that God’s promises as told by the prophets were being fulfilled in their community and were strict predestinarians. They did not participate in animal sacrifices because they thought the temple worship had been defiled, and they wore white robes to symbolize inward purity. They could be found scattered across Judea, but usually located in the wilderness west of the Dead Sea, perhaps in Khirbet Qumran. Some of their writings were found in the middle of the 20th century along with the Dead Sea Scrolls. A few have argued that John the Baptist was brought up by Essenes in Qumran after his parents died, reflected by his message of repentance, baptism, and looking for the Messiah.
Another group is the Herodians. They seemed to be Jews of high rank and influence who supported the Herodian and Roman rule. Scripture calls them enemies of Jesus in Galilee (Mark 3:6) and Jerusalem (Matt. 22:16; Mark 12:13). They, with the Pharisees, attempt to trap Jesus on the question of paying taxes to Caesar. Their purpose was to force Jesus to either support nationalism or submit to the foreign power.
The Zealots were founded by Judas the Galilean, who provoked a rebellion in A.D. 6 (Acts 5:37). Religiously they were akin to the Pharisees, and in spirit they rivaled Mattathias of the Maccabean uprising. When Judas died his family kept the movement alive. The Zealots were active in the war from A.D. 66-70 which ended in the fall of Jerusalem. Josephus blames the Zealots for much of what befalls the Jewish people following the war, and argues that they also despised the aristocrats and fought for the common people (though Josephus, being a privileged aristocrat himself, was biased). Jesus Himself had Simon the Zealot (Acts 1:13) with him.
Despite the many sects of this time, over 90 percent of Palestinian Jews were not associated with any of them. They were considered the common people, but after returning from exile the more strident Jews forbade marrying them and questioned their faith. The Pharisees express contempt for the common people in John 7:49, referring to them as “this crowd” due to their ignorance of the law. They could not be summoned as witnesses nor could their testimony be used in court. Pharisees would not eat with them and their women were considered unclean, but Jesus openly interacted with them, calling them “sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). This of course only increased the Pharisees disdain for Him.
The emergence of these various sects and groups was the result of the struggle between Judaism and Hellenism, the greatest hazard for the Mosaic Law. This struggle was two-pronged, religious and political. The Pharisees were the extremists in religion, rigorously following the letter of the law. Politically the Zealots were the extremists, who said God alone was King and sought total independence. The Sadducees embodied religious moderation and concession and the Herodians did the same politically.
Scribes were popular figures with the common people, being experts in teaching the Mosaic Law, and to study the law was the highest aspiration for one from Israel. Scribes were often called and referred to as Rabbi, meaning “my great one.” They would require high esteem and respect from their pupils, exceeding that of a parent. They reasoned that while a parent merely brings you into this world, the teacher brings one into the world to come. The scribes did not charge for their services, meaning they had to find other means for income. Paul was a tentmaker (Acts 18:3), and other rabbis would be stonemasons, leatherworkers, and carpenters. While many scribes were Pharisees, not all of them were (and not all Pharisees were scribes). There were likely Sadducean scribes as well.
The scribes would focus on the theoretical development of the law, teaching the law to their pupils, and practically administrating the law in pronouncing legal decisions. They would go far beyond the letter of the law in their legislation, particularly regarding the Sabbath. For instance, it was deemed permissible to walk through a grain field that was ankle-high, but not if it were knee-high, since one might knock off some of the grain seeds and thus be “threshing.” This tradition of legal pronouncements was referred to in Scripture as the “traditions of the elders” (Matt. 15:2; Mark 7:3, 5) and was passed along orally until about A.D. 200 at which point it was written down and called the Mishnah. Jesus Himself regarded the traditions as largely at odds with God’s original intentions.
The aim of Pharasaic Judaism was to ensure that as many Israelites as possible would achieve a professional level of familiarity with the law. Toward this end, children were taught to read from the Hebrew Scriptures. They also learned to read and write. Further instruction came from notable scribes who gathered “disciples” who literally followed a few feet behind their teacher as they would walk down the road. Lectures also took place in a room in the synagogue or in the outer court of the temple (Luke 2:46), and some scribes taught from their homes. It was imperative that the disciple memorize the precise details of the law and oral tradition, which required the rabbi to repeat himself many times. The student was to master even the phraseology and manner in which doctrine was expressed to him, so that he could pass that along to the succeeding generation. Jesus Himself taught like a scribe in many ways, and his disciples called him Rabbi (John 1:38; 4:31; 9:2). Yet Jesus did not teach as one who had only derived His authority from other scribes, but rather “as one who had authority” himself (Matt. 7:28). He also prefaced His teaching with the word amen (translated verily), something which no other Jewish teacher before or after has done.
The scribes applied the law, utilizing the terms “binding” or “loosing” in order to deem something unlawful (bind) or lawful (loose), but only after you had first become an “unordained scribe” and then reached the age of forty and became an “ordained scribe.” Local courts in Judea tried cases with at least three judges, and capital punishment was decided by twenty-three or more judges. The Sanhedrin (great council) of Jerusalem had 70 persons, with the high priest presiding, and contained three groups: the present high priest and those who had been high priest; family representatives of the aristocracy, known as elders; and scribes, mostly of the Pharisaic party. The Sanhedrin had authority under the Roman governors (though not under Herod the Great). They were the chief governing body over religious matters and took civil matters within the limits set by Rome. They had police that could make arrests (Matt. 26:47; Mark 14:43) but did have to have the Roman governor agree on cases of capital punishment (John 18:31). In order to acquit someone, a simple majority was required; to condemn someone required a two-thirds majority. In capital cases arguments for acquittal were first presented, then those for condemnation. One could not change his vote if he first chose to exonerate someone, but could change his vote if he chose to condemn them. This was how Jesus was tried (Matt. 26:59; John 11:47) and Paul later made his defense before the Sanhedrin (Acts 22:30; 23:15). The Sanhedrin was abolished at the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Jewish scribes did continue to develop the law, and in addition to the Mishnah, a commentary on it called the Gemarah was produced separately in Palestine and Babylonia. The Gemarah together with the Mishnah is called the Jerusalem Talmud.
The Temple and Its Rituals
The temple was first built by Solomon (1 Kings 6:1) a millennium before the time of Christ but was destroyed in 586 B.C. during the Babylonian captivity. The outer court of the Gentiles was about 26 acres and open to Jew and Gentile. Inside this was a smaller court that only those of Israel could enter. The temple was located within the smaller court, placed on the highest ground, mounted on large white stone blocks. It was the length and breadth of Solomon’s temple (I Kings 6:2) but was sixty feet high. The altar of burnt-offering lay in front of the temple entrance, and the sacrificial animals were slaughtered and prepared to the north. To the west was a laver for the priests, and within the temple the furnishings included the altar of incense, the seven-branched golden lampstand, and the table for the bread of the Presence (Num. 4:7).
There were daily burnt offerings for all the people of Israel, one around 9:00 A.M. and another around 3:00 P.M. The priests who would perform various duties for preparation of the sacrifices were chosen by lots. There were also many temple workers who were employed and paid handsomely. The jobs often became hereditary. The gates of the temple opened at dawn and men from Jerusalem and Jews from farther away would gather on three sides of the temple. Women had their own separate court which was on a lower level and further from the temple. After a brief devotional the priests would sacrifice the lamb and the people would prostrate themselves and pray. After leaving the temple the priest would give a benediction from the steps of the porch and the drink-offering would be poured, signaling a choir of Levites to chant or sing the appointed psalm of the day (I Chron. 6:31 ff.) accompanied by musical instruments like the harp and lyre. The public service closed at the end of the singing, and Jews then made private offerings at their own cost. The same pattern was followed for the afternoon service except that the incense was offered after the burning of the sacrificial animal instead of before, and the seven-branched golden lampstand was lit.
The Synagogue and Its Worship
Despite not knowing its origin, the synagogue was an integral part of the progress of Judaism. Scholars generally believe that they first appeared during the Babylonian exile following the destruction of the temple in 586 B.C. Jews likely felt the need to have a place to assemble and pray on the Sabbath. After they returned from exile, they maintained this practice and built synagogues in addition to rebuilding the temple. The synagogue was used primarily as a place to study the Law. By the beginning of the Christian era there were synagogues in nearly all Palestinian towns and in many locations beyond Palestine. Within the synagogue in a chest called the “ark” were scrolls containing the Old Testament scriptures. A body of elders supervised the local synagogue, and a layman would be appointed to serve as the ruler of the synagogue (Luke 8:41; Acts 18:8, 17). This person would maintain order and determine who would read the scriptures and who would participate in the service. One called the hazzan would clean and light the synagogue as well as bring the scrolls to the reader, blow a trumpet on Friday evenings to announce the beginning of the Sabbath, and flog criminals. The service would open with prayer which consisted of praising God as almighty Creator of the world and also called on God to forgive the people for their sins. A recitation of the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9) would follow. Then an individual would pray, and the congregation would respond by saying “Amen.” The early church practiced this, evidenced by I Cor. 14:16. Following the liturgy came a lesson from the Mosaic Law, and the whole Pentateuch would be read through in about three to three and a half years. At least seven people would read no less than three verses, and a translation in Aramaic was given after each verse was read for the common people. Then a lesson from one of the Old Testament prophets was given and translated into Aramaic. If a stranger was present the ruler of the synagogue would customarily ask him to give a word of exhortation (Acts 13:15). The service would close with the Aaronic benediction (Num. 6:24-26).
Jesus and his disciples were educated as children at a synagogue school, and when they turned thirteen they would have become worshipers in the regular service. It is from the synagogues that they learned God’s Word. The synagogue affected the Gentiles that turned from paganism as well. Such Gentiles heeded the words of the first Christian missionaries (Acts 13:42-48; 14:1-2). Thus Judaism laid the groundwork for the form of Christian worship, along with many of the prayers and liturgies used. One can think of worship in the NT church as that of the synagogue Christianized, and Jesus associated more with synagogal type of worship than Temple worship. Synagogues were great locations to spread the gospel and grow the church.
The Philosophies of Graeco-Roman Paganism
As Christianity spread, it naturally came into conflict with the pagan philosophies and religions of the day. Paul addressed Epicureans and Stoics, and in Ephesus he tangled with supporters of the religion of Artemis (Acts 19:23-41). By this time many had become agnostic and ridiculed the belief in the gods and goddesses of mythology, believing they were originally men who had simply distinguished themselves as warriors or benefactors and were given divine honors by their people. Scientific understanding was developing which led many to cease ascribing the status of deity to objects like the sun and moon. However, skepticism and materialism did lead to superstition and astrology, where horoscopes were used along with amulets and charms. Divine honors were placed on deceased Roman emperors, and toward the end of the 1st century Domitian would require sacrifices and demand he be addressed as “Lord and God.” Gods were brought in from the mystery religions of the East. So while many in the Mediterranean world were skeptical, they still wanted to believe in something. The result was that many invested in multiple religions hoping that by doing so they would cover all their bases.
Various philosophies in the Graeco-Roman world included Platonism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism. Platonism, formed by Plato (427-347 B.C.), was given the highest place and taught that reality is found in the ideals of the spirit world, not in the perceptible things of the earth. The things that are seen are but shadows of the “platonic ideal” which exists in the higher world, where the soul belongs. The body is the prisonhouse and grave of the soul, and man only fulfills his destiny by escaping the material world and discovering the good, true, and beautiful ideals in the higher world, becoming absorbed into the divine.
Epicureanism, founded by Epicurus (342-270 B.C.), was a winsome person of high character who had gathered followers about him in his garden. They were known as Epicureans and did not like the metaphysical teachings of Plato. Instead of seeking the ideal, they focused on the sense perceptions and internal feelings, deeming them trustworthy. Pleasure, in the sense of happiness, was the highest aim, which meant that excesses of all kinds must be avoided. Life ended with death and if the gods existed they were not concerned with human affairs.
Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium in Cyprus (336-263 B.C.). In contrast to Epicureanism, Stoics sought religion and morality. Zeno taught that the universe contained meaning and purpose that was not determined by blind fate. The whole of material order was infused with divine Reason, a natural law which man was to abide by. In fact the soul is a divine spark of the universal Reason that the body has imprisoned. Yet the soul enables man to rise above his circumstances and remain levelheaded and at peace. There were popular Stoics in Paul’s day such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, and their works contain excellent examples of moral maxims. Paul was familiar with the Stoics and picked up on some of their teachings and sentiments in Acts 17:28. Philippians 4:11 also possesses a Stoic tone. Yet Paul appeals to a personal God with whom He has a relationship as the underpinning of all his teaching, while the Stoics had no such relationship to a personal God.
The Cynics brought philosophy to the common man, saying the good life was a simple one of frugality combined with a carefree spirit. They, as well as the Stoics, would preach on street corners and helped prepare the masses for the coming missionaries of Christ. They also contributed the literary form known as the diatribe. This was like a lively homily or sermon that had a conversational tone. Paul does something similar in his letters when going through a series of questions and answers (e.g. Rom. 3:1-4:12).
Other philosophies of the day included the Skeptics, who said that one could not come to true knowledge or a genuine conviction because of contradictions in perceptions and thought. Eclectics gathered what they valued most from each philosophy and molded it into their own unique system. Pythagoreanism, straddling the line of philosophy and religion, emerged in the sixth century B.C. from Pythagoras of Samos. He applied numbers to weights, measures, and the theory of music (the octave). He gathered followers and taught his belief in the transmigration of the soul. They practiced vegetarianism and saw the body as the source of impure desires. They meticulously examined what they had done through the day to make sure they did what they should and did not do what they should not have. Gnostics adopted some of this teaching in the early Christian period, which maintained an antithesis between the material and the spiritual universe. The spiritual part of man could be redeemed through revelation from God and spiritual enlightenment. The teaching of Gnosticism ranged from philosophical speculation to strange mythological, astrological, and magical teachings gathered from all over the world.
The Religions of Graeco-Roman Paganism
As previously mentioned, the mystery cults filled the void left by many who had grown agnostic toward the ancient mythical gods. The Eleusian cult was most highly regarded, even by Plato. The religion exists around the story where Demeter, the giver of good crops, lost her daughter to Pluto of the underworld. She then refused to allow crops to grow, but Zeus later interjects and demands she have her daughter for eight months of the year, during which Demeter would let crops grow. This explained the crop cycle and changing seasons. Eleusinian rites involved being baptized in the sea and sprinkled with the blood of a sacrificial pig. The cult of Cybele, where participants would gash their arms and the priests would emasculate themselves, also believed that their rituals depicted the dying and rebirth of vegetation. There was also the Dionysiac cult, where devotees would drink wine until they were inebriated and could feel the presence of Dionysus, the god of wine and animal life. They would also eat raw flesh after participating in a wild, whirling dance.
The cult of Mithraism has more archaeological findings than any other mystery cult. Mithra was a god worshipped by the Indo-Iranians who became mediator between man and the god of light. The Persian military and later the Romans expanded the Methraic cult. Statues depict Mithra slaying a bull with a dagger where three grains of stalk flow from the wound. The precise meaning is not known but the image likely connotes overcoming evil and the provision of vegetation for man. The early church fathers indicate that Mithraism involved a complex, seven stage initiation rite which included an initiate standing in a pit covered by a grate. A bull dressed in flowers would be slaughtered over the grate, and as the blood ran down the initiate would drink it, believing he had been reborn for twenty years and in some instances for eternity.
The Isiac cult was very popular and taught that Osiris, a good and wise king, was torn into fourteen pieces by his brother. The pieces were dispersed across Egypt. Isis, who was Osiris’ wife and sister, found all but one piece of the body and reassembled it. After a ceremony with magical rites, Osiris was revived and became “Lord of the Underworld and Ruler of the Dead.” Chapels dedicated to Osiris would perform rites over a dead person’s body, and the belief was that that person was spiritually reborn. Ptolomy Soter (323-283 B.C.) adjusted the tale by replacing Osiris with a syncretistic god named Serapis, and the religion spread around the Mediterranean world in that rendition. Roman coins have been found that bear images and inscriptions honoring Isis and Serapis as late as the 4th century A.D.
After surveying the historical background, the culture, and the social, political, and religious landscape, it may not seem like this was in fact the ideal time for God to send His Son after all. Yet, despite all the challenges, the foolishness of the cross prevailed. The Holy Spirit applied the truth of the Word to the hearts of the elect, and they believed. Consider that the Roman government had provided a road system with guards at the main roads. Julius Caesar had eliminated piracy from the Mediterranean Sea, and communications through letters was possible. These developments allowed the gospel to spread more rapidly and easily than it could have before. And though there were competing religions and skepticism, the message of Christianity was capable of engaging with the world religions and could challenge the skeptics’ agnosticism. The eyewitnesses of the risen Christ would testify of the empty tomb and take the gospel to the ends of the earth, where many would die for their devotion to the one true God and the risen Savior. May we draw strength from the apostles and Christ Himself. He was sent at the appointed time to provide the way of salvation, and they were sent to proclaim what He had done. Let us learn from them and teach one another, until He returns or calls us home.
Blomberg, Craig. Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 1997.
Bruce, F. F. New Testament History. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971.
Dana, H. E. The New Testament World: A Brief Sketch of the History and Conditions Which Composed the Background of the New Testament. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1937.
Fairweather, William. The Background of the Epistles,. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1935.
Gower, Ralph, and Fred Wight. The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times. Chicago: Moody Press, 1987.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus: An Investigation into Economic and Social Conditions during the New Testament Period. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969.
Lietzmann, Hans. A History of the Early Church. Guildford; London: Lutterworth, 1961.
Metzger, Bruce M. The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content. New York: Abingdon Press, 1965.
Oswalt, John. “Who Were the Addressees of Isaiah 40-66?” Bibliotheca Sacra 169, no. 673 (January-March 2012): 34-47.
Tenney, Merrill. Volume 3- The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, VOLUME 3 H-L. Zondervan, n.d.
 H. E Dana, The New Testament World: A Brief Sketch of the History and Conditions Which Composed the Background of the New Testament (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1937), 10.
 Ibid., 13
 Ibid., 17
 Dana, New Testament, 18
 Ibid., 19
 Ibid., 20
 Ibid., 21
 Dana, New Testament, 22
 Bruce M Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1965), 33.
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 30
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 31
 In Luke 9:7 we see that Herod was a tetrarch
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 31-32
 Ibid., 17
 Dana, New Testament, 29
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 17
 John Oswalt, “Who Were the Addressees of Isaiah 40-66?” Bibliotheca Sacra 169, no. 673 (January-March 2012): 34-47.
 Merrill Tenney, Volume 3- The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, VOLUME 3 H-L (Zondervan, n.d.), 346.
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 18
 Ibid., 18
 Ibid., 19
 Hans Lietzmann, A History of the Early Church (Guildford; London: Lutterworth, 1961), 18.
 Metzger, 20
 Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 1997), 15.
 Dana, New Testament, 82
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 21
 Ibid., 22
 Lietzmann, The Early Church, 19
 Ibid., 20
 Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus: An Investigation into Economic and Social Conditions during the New Testament Period (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 124.
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 24
 Ibid., 25
 Lietzmann, The Early Church, 22
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 26
 Lietzmann, The Early Church, 179-80
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 28
 One last revolt was attempted in A.D. 132, but to no avail. Emperor Hadrian broke the rebellion in 135 and the city of Jerusalem was rebuilt under a Roman plan, where a pagan temple erected to the Roman god Jupiter replaced the ancient Jewish temple. All Jews were forbidden to set foot within Jerusalem.
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 28
 Ibid., 34-35.
 Dana, New Testament, 45
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 35
 Dana, New Testament, 54
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 36
 Ibid., 37
 Ibid., 38
 Dana, New Testament, 58
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 38-39
 Ibid., 39
 Ibid., 40
 Jeremias, Jerusalem,. 247, 250
 Dana, New Testament, 119
 Ralph Gower and Fred Wight, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987), 255.
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 41
 Lietzmann, The Early Church, 29-30
 The first type always came up with reasons to delay doing good deeds. The second would close his eyes and stumble into walls in order to avoid lusting after a woman. The third displays all his good deeds so everyone can see them. The fourth bends over in false humility. The fifth always weighs his good deeds over against his bad deeds. The sixth stands in awe and dread of God. The seventh is a “God-loving” or “born” Pharisee and a true son of Abraham, the ideal Pharisee
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 42
 Gower, Customs of Bible Times, 256
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 43
 F. F Bruce, New Testament History (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971), 86.
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 43
 Bruce, New Testament History, 86
 Ibid., 84
 Gower, Customs of Bible Times, 259-60
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 44
 Ibid., 45
 Bruce, New Testament History, 95; 100
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 45
 Ibid., 46
 Dana, New Testament, 76
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 46
 William Fairweather, The Background of the Epistles, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1935), 107.
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 47-8
 Ibid., 48
 Ibid., 49
 Ibid., 50
 Fairweather, Epistles, 108
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 51
 Jeremias, Jerusalem, 235-6
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 52
 Lietzmann, The Early Church, 31
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 54
 Jeremias, Jerusalem, 26-7
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 55
 Ibid., 56
 Dana, New Testament, 108
 Fairweather, Epistles, 109
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 57
 Lietzmann, The Early Church, 101
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 59
 Fairweather, Epistles, 111
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 61
 Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 29
 Dana, New Testament, 241
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 62-63
 Ibid., 63
 Ibid., 64
 Dana, New Testament, 242-243
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 65
 Ibid., 65
 Ibid., 66
 Dana, New Testament, 245
 Ibid., 244
 Metzger, New Testament Background, 68
 Ibid., 69
 Dana, New Testament, 34-45