Historical context for the New Testament

I keep making the point that the New Testament is a situated theological engagement with the historical narrative of the people of God. As such it is a work both of memory and of imagination: it addresses the present in the light of what has happened and what will happen.

It seems a good idea, therefore, to set out a rough outline of the relevant period—basically, in my view, the period from the decree of Cyrus permitting the Jews to return to Jerusalem to Constantine’s Edict of Milan, by which Christianity was legalized. Modern evangelicalism has a very poor sense of history. We have somehow persuaded ourselves that the New Testament can be read perfectly well in more or less complete isolation from the historical substrate which it presupposes at every point. That is because we are only really interested in theology. I want to challenge that bias. What follows is very incomplete and is not very exciting in itself—I’ve made little attempt to work the Jesus story into it. But it should not be read merely as optional background material. It shares the same narrative foreground space as the New Testament itself.

Beasts from the sea

The Jews returned from exile after Babylon was conquered by the Persian king Cyrus in 539 BC. The temple was rebuilt and consecrated in 516 BC and remained the centre of Jewish political and religious life for nearly 600 years, but Israel’s world had changed irrevocably. The Davidic monarchy was gone. Any illusions of invincibility had been shattered. Second temple Judaism had to reconstruct itself in the long depressing shadow of exile, never free from the fear of violent repression by one imperializing power or another. Much of the literature of the period is preoccupied with the need both to account for failure and suffering and to construct resilient narratives of eventual victory and vindication.

Following the conquests of Alexander the Great, Israel came under the rule of Hellenistic kings—first, the Ptolemies in Egypt, then the Seleucids in Syria. In 167 BC the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes embarked on a brutal campaign—in collusion, it has to be said, with a modernising faction in Jerusalem—to suppress Jewish religion and impose Hellenistic culture and practice on the people of Judea. The story is told, for the most part symbolically, in the second half of the book of Daniel and more realistically in the books of the Maccabees. The Jews rebelled successfully under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus. It was to be a defining crisis, imprinting on the Jewish consciousness both the redemptive power of martyrdom and the possibility of freedom through revolt. The Hasmonean dynasty that emerged from the conflict lasted roughly 100 years.

Pompey the Great invaded Judea in 63 BC at the end of the Third Mithridatic War, vacuuming it into the bloated dust bag of Roman hegemony along with the Seleucid and Egyptian empires. The last Hasmonean ruler was ousted in 37 BC, and the Romans installed the compliant Idumean Herod, who became known as Herod the Great, as a client king. Much of his greatness can be attributed to the fact that he rebuilt the temple on an extravagant scale, but he was otherwise not greatly loved by a population which deeply resented his foreignness, his predilection for Greek novelties, and his viciousness. After his death his territories were divided amongst his sons, but the arrangement was not a success, and in 6 AD Judea was brought under a system of direct rule through prefects and procurators.

Back in Rome, meanwhile, Pompey had lost out to Julius Caesar, who crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC, cast the die, won the civil war, and—cutting a long story short—was proclaimed “dictator in perpetuity”. Perpetuity came to an abrupt end, however, on the Ides of March 44 BC when Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators led by Junius Brutus. More civil wars ensued until eventually, after the defeat of Mark Anthony at the battle of Actium in 31 BC, Octavius, the adopted heir of Caesar, became the first Roman emperor. There followed a golden age of peace and prosperity for the world known as the Pax Romana. The Senate gave Octavius the honorific title “Augustus” while he was alive and declared him a god after his death. Later emperors would decide that it was unnecessary to die in order to qualify for divine status.

The broad road leading to destruction

If the Romans were unsure how best to govern Judea, the Jews were equally confused about how to deal with their unclean and ungodly but immensely powerful overlords. The aristocratic Sadducees, who ran the temple system, had worked themselves into a position where they had more to lose than gain by opposition to Rome. The Pharisees had withdrawn into a hermetically sealed container of fastidious but highly pragmatic Law-observance. The Essenes had taken religious isolationism a step further by withdrawing from public life altogether, sequestering themselves for the most part in scattered communities throughout Israel, including probably Qumran. So it was left to the Zealots to uphold the noble Maccabean tradition of messy, bloody armed insurgency; and in the end they brought the world crashing down around their heads.

In AD 40, following rioting in Alexandria between Jews and Greeks, Caligula ordered a statue of himself to be placed in the temple in Jerusalem. The governor of Syria managed to delay the implementation of the order long enough for Herod Agrippa to talk his friend Caligula out of this extremely provocative course of action. Around AD 45 Theudas persuaded a crowd that he would re-enact the Exodus and part the Jordan river. He was killed by the Romans along with a large number of his followers. Jews found themselves expelled from Rome on more than one occasion, most notably by Claudius in AD 49. According to Josephus 20–30,000 Jews were killed in the Passover riot in Jerusalem in AD 50.

The first Jewish War broke out in AD 66. It culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70, and ended with the fall of Masada three years later. A second rebellion occurred in AD 115, known as the Kitos War. The Bar Kokhba revolt in AD 132 resulted in the establishment of an independent state of Israel for two years, until it was crushed by the Roman armies. The reaction of the emperor Hadrian was to attempt to eradicate Judaism, which had been a persistent thorn in the Roman flesh for 200 years. He prohibited Torah observance, executed leading members of the Sanhedrin, placed statues of himself and Jupiter where the temple sanctuary had once stood, renamed Judea Syria Palaestina, refounded Jerusalem as a Roman polis with the name Aelia Capitolina with a new temple of Jupiter, permitting Jews to enter the city only on the day of Tisha B’Av to commemorate the destruction of the temple.

The narrow road leading to life

It is traditionally believed that the Christian community in Judea fled to Pella in the Jordan valley at the time of the war, but little of Jewish Christianity survived for very long. Missionaries travelled into Persia and India, but it is the development of Christianity to the West that dominates the narrative. There were Christian communities in Rome by the middle of the first century. A 100 years later the movement had reached the Rhône valley, and another 100 years after that it had made it as far as Britain. In the process the story of Jesus was assimilated into a very different cultural world. Hammered this way and that by novel intellectual forces—Gnosticism, anti-Semitism, Stoicism, Platonism—orthodoxy was bound to assume new forms.

No less than in the case of the Jews in the preceding period, the history of the early church quickly came to be one of sporadic but intense conflict with Rome and its pervasive imperial cult. In AD 64, less than a decade after Paul had warned the Roman churches that a day of conflict was approaching (Rom. 13:11-12), Nero blamed the Great Fire of Rome on “a class hated for their abominations, called Christians” (Tacitus) and had large numbers of them tortured and savagely executed, including perhaps the apostles Paul and Peter. There were further outbreaks of localized persecution under Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, and Septimius Severus.

The first empire-wide persecution was initiated in 250 by Decius, who demanded that all citizens should make sacrifice to the emperor and obtain a certificate to prove that they had done so. A few years later Valerian threatened Christian clergy who refused to participate in pagan sacrifice first with exile and then with death. Diocletian came to power in 284, troubled by the deteriorating condition of the empire and anxious to appease the gods. In 303, urged on by his junior Caesar Galerius, he set about a program of sustained persecution of Christians. His “Edict against the Christians” ordered the destruction of churches and Christian scriptures across the empire; further edicts compelled Christians to perform pagan sacrifices. But the policy proved ineffectual, and Galerius rescinded the edict in 311.

The prospects for Christianity changed dramatically with the “conversion” of Constantine at the battle of Milvian Bridge, when he defeated the usurper Maxentius under the sign of the cross. Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which affirmed the official toleration of Christians, their release from prison, and the restoration of confiscated property. Constantine went on to unite the eastern and western empires, and actively promoted the church, though it was not until Theodosius I that paganism was outlawed and “Catholic Christianity” was made the official religion of the empire, representing the official victory of Christ over the old gods.

Wesman | Fri, 09/30/2011 - 03:57 | Permalink

Thanks for the condensed overview. While you recount a large span of history here, what books do you consider must-reads in this area? Also, what are your thoughts on Rodney Stark’s influential The Rise of Christianity, if you’ve read it?

Kevin | Sat, 10/15/2011 - 19:13 | Permalink

No one article could encompass the depth of history in the Christian Church. An excellent source of early Christian literature can be found at Concilliar Press if you’re serious about learning more. http://www.conciliarpress.com/books.html 

Read time: 8 minutes