To best understand the New Testament one should know something of the historical and cultural contexts in which it was written. This assists exegesis and avoids misinterpretation.
The New Testament was composed by writers who were a part of their respective societies and cultures. It is by entering into the mindset of the writers that one can better understand their situations.
In this entry, we want to understand something of the history running up to the New Testament period when the gospels were written. This requires a brief analysis of the developments in the Jewish faith from the time of the exile onward, the impact of Hellenism, and the Roman rule over Palestine.
The Babylonian Exile
The Babylonian Exile was likely the lowest point in Jewish history. In 586 BCE, Jerusalem was attacked by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar and the Jewish temple was destroyed (2 Kings 24:10-17). Roughly 150 years earlier, the northern kingdom had fallen to the Assyrians in 722 BCE (2 Kings 17). The exile would have to the Jews felt like God had forgotten them.
This perception would have been further entrenched by the fact that the Solomonic temple, which housed the holy of holies and symbolic of the presence of God with Israel, had been destroyed and its treasures carried off to Babylon. A Psalm, reflecting on these events, provides readers with a sense of the hopelessness and despair that came over the exiled people: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion… How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:1, 4). Those exiled to Babylon were from the upper strata of society—the artisans, the wealthy, the educated— whereas the poor were allowed to remain in the land. It was with the Persians and Cyrus’s conquest of the Babylonians in 539 BCE that the captured people were allowed to return to Palestine (see Ezra 1:2-4) and rebuild their temple. This second temple was, however, a far cry from the previous Solomonic temple (see Ezra 3:12–13).
The exile had an impact on the psyche of the people and its influence continued over the following centuries, including into the period of the New Testament. It came to be seen as the result of Israel’s sin, which led the Jews to shun idolatry and pursue righteousness (Ezra 9:10-15; Neh. 8-9).
Alexander the Great and Hellenism
In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) conquered Palestine and with this conquest came foreign rule, the Greek language, and the influence of Hellenistic culture. The Greek language became the lingua franca of the Mediterranean world and this had a significant influence centuries later, as partly seen in the Septuagint. The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Old Testament and the main translation quoted in the New Testament. The Greek language was also used for the New Testament writings and missionary work of the church.
When Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, the territories he conquered were split among his generals. Syria, to the north of Palestine, was the domain of the Seleucids and Egypt of the Ptolemies. The Seleucids and the Ptolemies fought over the following centuries for the control of Palestine. Church historian Justo Gonzales explains that following Alexander’s death, “his vast empire was dismembered. For a long time, two of the resulting dynasties, one in Egypt and one in Syria, fought for possession of Palestine. The result was another period of unrest and political instability”.
Palestine was first controlled by the Ptolemies but around 200 BCE came under the control of the Seleucids. It remained under Seleucid control until the Hasmoneans. However, despite this conflict, the Jews, although taxed, benefited from a degree of self-rule and freedom of religious worship. This did not necessarily mean that they were entirely happy with their situation as despite being God’s chosen people they were still under foreign rule in the land God had given them.
Antiochus IV and the Maccabean Revolt
The Seleucid king Antiochus IV (d. 164) is famous for having desecrated the Jewish temple and trying to impose Hellenism on Palestine. He stole the treasures from the temple and desecrated it by entering the holy of holies and setting an idol on the altar of sacrifice. Antiochus banned the Jewish faith and the observance of the law, including circumcision and the dietary laws, and forced the people to sacrifice to pagan gods. Anyone who refused was killed.
The Maccabees responded to this persecution as the priest Mattathias and his five sons refused to obey the commands. They refused to forsake their faith (see 1 Macc. 2) and, with others, formed a guerrilla resistance movement. This movement, under Judas Maccabeus, a son of Mattathias, managed a victory over the Seleucid military. Within a short time in 164 BCE the temple had been cleansed and reconsecrated. The Maccabees had won against the Seleucids despite being outnumbered, an outcome that was seen to be the result of being loyal to God and belief in his power to deliver.
Independence and the House of Hasmon
The Jews managed to regain political sovereignty for a time. The Syrians were pushed out of Palestine in 142 BCE and the territory came under the rule of Simon, the last of the Maccabee brothers. A little later in 134 BCE, Simon’s son, John Hyrcanus I, ruled as high priest, followed by his son Aristobulus in 104 BCE. From this time the Hasmonean kings (the family name of the Maccabees), although in constant conflict with each other, ruled until the invasion of the Romans in 63 BCE by Pompey.
Pompey’s army invaded Jerusalem. Israel and Palestine then came under Roman rule. In 37 BCE Herod the Great, son of the Idumean Antipater II, became the king of Judea and he issued various building projects, including the enlargement of the temple in Jerusalem. Also during this time emperor Augustus (30 BCE – 14 CE) ushered in an era of peace and stability known as the pax Romana.
But Roman rule over the Jews was hated and considered incompatible with what God had repeatedly promised to Israel. The Jews waged two wars against Rome. The first was the Jewish revolt that occurred in 66-72 CE and that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the second temple in 70 CE. There was another Jewish revolt in 132-135 CE that was also ruthlessly put down by the Romans. It was with this that the story of Jews in the land came to an end until the establishment of a Jewish state in 1948.
Hagner, Donald. 2012. The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction. Baker Books.
González, Justo. 2010. Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation. HarperOne.