The New Testament

The Setting for the New Testament (Grant R. Osborne)

The Setting for the New Testament

Grant R. Osborne

The New Testament cannot be understood deeply without knowing the political, social, and religious world into which it was sent. Galatians 4:4 says, “When the time had fully come, God sent his Son.” The purpose here is to describe “the fullness of times” God chose—the actual political, social, and religious setting in which the New Testament came into existence.


The Political Setting

The Political Setting

The Jewish Political Setting

The Jewish Political Setting

The Old Testament period ended with the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles and the return from exile in the sixth to the fifth centuries bc. The intertestamental period (see “The History between the Old and New Testaments” in this volume) changed Judaism from a temple-centered, hierarchical religion to a more democratic religion with synagogues for worship and teaching (developed during the Persian period to stand for the temple that had been destroyed). The synagogues had lay leaders who taught Torah and developed the “oral tradition,” a set of rules meant to “build a fence around the law” and help the people to obey the Torah in the vastly different culture of 400 bc to ad 70. The primary leaders became the scribes and Pharisees (who developed from the Hasidim of the intertestamental period) and the Sadducees (who developed from the Hasmoneans or aristocrats of that period).

At the top of the political ladder under the Romans was the Herodian family. Herod the Great was the son of Antipater, an Idumean Arab made procurator by the Romans. Herod brought peace to the land and began rebuilding the incredible Jerusalem temple in 46 bc, but he also built Roman temples and entire Roman cities in Palestine (e.g., Caesarea Maritima) and brought a new level of Hellenistic culture to Palestine, a process that had begun under the Ptolemies in the third century bc. When King Herod died in 4 bc his kingdom was divided between three surviving sons: Archelaus (ethnarch of Judea, Samaria, Idumea), Antipas (tetrarch of Galilee, Perea), and Philip (tetrarch of Iturea, Trachonitis). Archelaus was a brutal ruler who was deposed and replaced by prefects (like Pilate). Antipas was a better ruler and is known for the execution of John the Baptist and for taking part in the trial of Jesus (Luke 23:7-12). Herod Agrippa II, a grandson, took part in Paul’s trial before Festus in Acts 25-26.

The high priest by this time had become the religious and civic leader of the Jews. He presided over the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, a council of seventy-one members that was both the congress and the supreme court of the people. The major groups were the Sadducees (among whom were the “chief priests” or priestly aristocracy), the scribes (trained experts in Torah, many of whom were Pharisees), and elders (the lay nobility). They decided religious, civic, and political issues that concerned the Jewish people (the Romans allowed them that authority). Legally, they had little authority in Galilee, a separate administrative region, but within Judaism they had influence even in diasporate lands (e.g., in Acts 9:1-2 when they authorized Paul to take the persecution of Christians into Syria).

At the local level the synagogues had great influence. The “ruler of the synagogue” was the head official, though he tended to be a patron given an honorary position. The presiding officer was the “attendant” who would do the administrative work and train the children. It was governed by three “elders” or lay leaders from the congregation. The synagogue was not only the center of instruction but was the core of the civic life of the community and the judicial center where discipline was ministered in civil affairs. Offenders were disciplined by flogging (Acts 5:40) and by excommunication (John 9:34).

The Greco-Roman Political Setting

The Greco-Roman Political Setting

While Rome dominated the first-century world politically, Greek ideas and mores dominated culturally. So we call this the Greco-Roman world. It dominated the region from Spain to the Euphrates and from Gaul (and Britain) to Northern Africa. Still, the Pax Romana (Roman peace) was guaranteed by the sword, and ius gladii (the law of the sword) controlled the lands. From the time of Augustus (Julius Caesar’s nephew, Octavian, who destroyed the Roman Republic in honor of his assassinated uncle), Rome divided its lands into two kinds of provinces: senatorial (nonmilitary, ruled by a proconsul under the senate) and imperial (military, ruled by a procurator, answerable to the emperor). The emperor controlled the military and foreign policy; the Roman senate established the civic laws and had judicial authority.

Rome was the center of western government, Antioch the center of eastern rule. Each province was led by a governor of senatorial rank, with local officials in each small district responsible for taxation and civil affairs. Roman direct taxes were of two types—a land tax centered on the size and produce of the land (often with ten magistrates appointed to oversee its collection), and a poll tax of usually 1 percent for all subject peoples outside Italy. In addition, there were indirect taxes on transported goods, on goods sold, or on inheritances. As in the New Testament, they normally chose nationals who were called “publicans” for collecting taxes. These publicans would frequently misuse their authority to defraud people, and thus were extremely unpopular.

The Social Setting

The Social Setting

The Jewish Social Setting

The Jewish Social Setting

There was not as much social stratification in the Jewish world as in the Roman world. At the top were the chief priests and their families, the aristocratic elders, and the wealthy landowners. There was no middle class in the Roman world, but still some were better off than others, such as merchants and even fishermen. The Sadducees mainly belonged to the upper class, the Pharisees either the upper portion of the lower class or (if there was one) the middle class. Most others—small farmers, tenant farmers, day laborers, freedmen—formed the lower class. There were actually more Jewish people outside Palestine (called the Diaspora) than inside the land. Jews had been deported at several different junctures—millions during the two exiles, many more conscripted into the armies of both the Ptolemies and the Saleucids during the Greek period of rule, thousands deported by Pompey the Great when Rome took over in 63 bc, and many others moving simply because of the poverty of Judea and the economic advantages elsewhere. In these foreign lands some Jews remained thoroughly Jewish, with little interaction outside their communities, but many others like Philo of Alexandria or Josephus participated in Hellenistic culture and wrote to commend Judaism to the Greco-Roman world. In those communities, the synagogues became the social as well as religious centers of Jewish life, and the laws of purity, food, and Sabbath kept most of the people thoroughly Jewish.

The Greco-Roman Social Setting

The Greco-Roman Social Setting

Roman society was stratified, but not totally rigid. A small amount of social mobility was possible, say within the military, through the amalgamation of huge fortunes, or through marriage. For the most part, however, it was a settled way of life. At the top, of course, was the emperor and his family, and under him there were three upper classes. First was the senatorial order, with six hundred families in the first century, with wealth determined primarily by ownership of land in the form of large estates outside Rome, worked by slaves. The Romans believed only agriculture was truly honorable; commerce/trade was disreputable (but so profitable that many took part on the sly). To be in this class, one’s total property had to be worth at least two hundred and fifty thousand denarii (one denarius was a single day’s wage for a laborer). People in this class formed the magistrates of the empire, were tribunes in the legions, and held the highest offices in the empire (praetors, provincial governors, judges). Second, the equestrian order (so named originally because they could ride to war on a horse) was the knights who owned land worth at least one hundred thousand denarii. They mostly differed from the class above them in that they were wealthy but had not engaged directly in military or political office. For the most part their wealth was also centered in large estates, and they held smaller administrative posts. Third, decurions were the aristocrats of the provinces (worth twenty-five thousand denarii) who received their wealth from land, commerce, manufacturing, or also inheritance. They served as the highest magistrates under Roman governors and formed a council of leaders in a province. The lower classes were far below these three groups. It is agreed there was no middle class as we know it, although there was a fair distinction between small landowners, general merchants (e.g., bakers, butchers, clothiers, etc.), soldiers, or craftsmen (like Paul) and the truly poor. The freedmen (called “plebs” if they were Roman citizens) were the poorest of the lot because they had no money and had to work as day laborers. Slaves often had a more comfortable life than freedmen.

The Roman social setting was ruled by two major social constructions. First, it was a patron-client society, as noted by Jesus when he said those with authority call themselves “Benefactors” (Luke 22:25). Phoebe in Romans 16:2 may well have been a patroness of Paul (see also Pilate as “Caesar’s friend” in John 19:12). The patron was an upper-class person who became a sponsor and performed favors for those under him or her, giving them assistance when they needed it. Their clients owed them loyalty and service, showing gratitude and respect in many small ways. Patrons’ reputations would be somewhat based on how many clients they had, the status these clients held in society, and how many praised their names in public. Second, the first-century world was an honor-shame society, which was at all times tied to the public regard for a person’s actions and status in society. From birth the child was led to seek in all things a reputation that embodied the cultural values held high within the Roman world. This was a major source of problems in the early church, due somewhat to the differing standards within the Jewish and Hellenistic worlds, but due even more to the Christian worldview. For instance, Paul was mocked by the Corinthian leaders because he lacked the rhetorical skill (sophistry) they thought honorable; Paul’s rejoinder was that he preferred the “foolishness” of the cross to all the “wisdom” of this world (1 Cor. 1:20-25). This is a powerful reminder that the honor of the world is shame to God.

The Religious Setting

The Religious Setting

The Jewish Religious Setting

The Jewish Religious Setting

There are two distinguishing aspects that separated the Jewish religion from all other religions of the ancient world: they worshiped the one and only God (monotheism versus polytheism), and the God they worshiped was the covenant God who had chosen, called, and loved them out of all the other nations. Moreover, he had given them a Promised Land and had returned them to that land after punishing them in the exile for their idolatry. God’s faithfulness in spite of their unfaithfulness had led to the first period of time in their history (the four hundred years after returning from exile) in which they as a people had remained faithful to the Torah regulations and refused to go after other gods. They had become a people of the written law, and God’s supreme gift was his revealed Word. The scribes and the Pharisees devoted themselves to its study and to developing a set of principles (the oral Torah) that would allow the common person to keep it. The people worshiped God every Sabbath in the temple (if they could) or the synagogue, a rectangular building with scrolls in recesses in the front and stone benches (or chairs) for the congregation. Speakers stood to read from the scrolls and sat to preach, and services consisted of reciting the Shema, prayer, the singing of psalms, readings, the sermon, and the benediction. Christian worship tended to follow this pattern. In addition, there were the religious festivals, with the religious calendar starting in March–April with Passover/Unleavened Bread followed by Pentecost (Festival of Weeks) fifty days later. In the month of Tishri (September–October) there were three festivals—Trumpets, Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and Tabernacles. In December came the one nonbiblical festival, Lights (Hanukkah, on the rededication of the temple in 164 bc), and in February–March there was Purim. The three main pilgrim festivals (with people coming from many diasporate lands) were Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.

There were four primary religious groups: The Pharisees descended from the Hasidim of Maccabean times and were the lay teachers (“rabbis”) from before Jesus’s era who developed the oral tradition. They were deeply concerned about Sabbath observance, the food laws, and ritual purity in general. They believed the “oral Torah” originated alongside the written Torah and was binding. The Sadducees descended from the Hasmonean (Maccabean) aristocrats and counted most of the high priestly families among their numbers. They considered only the Torah as truly canonical, and they denied angels and the afterlife (often debating the Pharisees, as in Acts 23:6-10). They did not survive the destruction of the temple in ad 70. The Essenes are best known for their community at Qumran in the Dead Sea area where they produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. This was a monastic sect (though some followers were allowed to live in the towns) who sought to follow the Torah perfectly and believed mainstream Judaism was an apostate movement. Adherents had a one-year novice period followed by two years of probation and were expected to surrender all their belongings and live in the community. They believed God had predestined them to be the sole depositors of truth; they were the “children of light” while the rest of Judaism and the gentiles were “the children of darkness.” Finally, the Zealots existed as a movement only in the years leading up to the revolt in ad 66 but had roots much further back (e.g., Simon the Zealot, Mark 3:18). Their zeal to overthrow the Romans was part of their “zeal” for the law and to free the Jews from pagan influence.

The Greco-Roman Religious Setting

The Greco-Roman Religious Setting

The Greco-Roman religion was in many ways animistic, with the gods representing natural forces (e.g., Jupiter, the heavens; Juno, women; Apollo, music or youth; Diana, woods and the hunt). At the same time, it was mainly communal and corporate, as the cultic rituals were intended to hold society together. Unlike American religion, the stress was not on individual choice but on group participation in the sacred rites. Religious participation brought together the family, the polis, and national identity. There was no separation between church and state; religion permeated and united every aspect of life. Religion was also a contract between the deity and the person, with obligations on both sides. The rules for cultic life (how to pray, how to perform the sacrifices, etc.) ensured that both sides would do their part. The purpose was to influence the gods to work on behalf of the people. In all things they sought peace with the gods, and whenever troubles came they thought that the harmony had been somehow broken. The system of vows, prayers, and sacrifices was to maintain that proper relationship or to re-establish it if disaster had taken place.

The Greek pantheon was numerous and diverse, with detailed mythology to support the pantheon of the gods. The Roman gods were not as complex as the Greek deities; they had no marriage or offspring, no set of genealogical relationships, and no developed mythology. Therefore, when the Romans conquered the Greeks, they simply took over the Greek gods and identified their gods directly with the Greek gods. At the head of the gods was a supreme council of twelve: Jupiter/Zeus, Juno/Hera, Vesta/Hestia, Minerva/Athena, Ceres/Demeter, Diana/Artemis, Venus/Aphrodite, Mars/Ares, Mercury/ Hermes, Neptune/Poseidon, Vulcan/Hephaestus, and Apollo (in both). Then there were earth gods and heroes. Prayers and sacrifices were intended to maintain relationships with the gods, who acted similar to patrons with clients in Greco-Roman Society. The philosophers had long doubted the existence of the gods, but at the same time the sense of civic and familial duty kept the allegiances alive.

In addition, both families and trades would have patron deities, so there arose the Roman cults, where groups would worship a single deity who then became their sponsor in life. The Romans were also open to new deities and new religious ideas, for example, the number who became “God-fearers” and embraced the Jewish religion. Also influential were the growing number of “mystery religions” (e.g., the cults of Isis, Demeter, Cybele, Mithra), which began in the New Testament times and became huge by the third century. Central was the view that the cycle of growth in the harvest represented the cycle of life, death, and especially the afterlife. Secret initiation rites (= mysteries) allowed adherents to rise above the earthly, unite with the deity, and achieve immortality. Some scholars have considered Christianity one of the mystery religions, but the differences are greater than the similarities.