Introducing the New Testament in its Context


721 BCE – Assyrian Deportation of the Northern Kingdom of Israel

586 BCE – second deportation of Southern Kingdom of Judah to Babylon

539/8 BCE – Cyrus the Great (rule 550-530 BCE) conquers Babylon

520-515 BCE – Zerubabbel governor of Persian state of Yehud, Joshua the high priest, re-establishment of temple cult

333/2 BCE – conquest of Persian Empire by Alexander the Great (reign 356 -323 BCE)

300-198 BCE – Palestine under control of Ptolemies of Egypt

250 BCE – Greek translation of Jewish Scripture known as the Septuagint (LXX). The legend is that Ptolemy II Philadelphus asked 72 elders to translate the Law for the library of Alexandria (cf. The Letter to Aristeas)

198 BCE – Palestine under control of Seleucids of Syria

175 BCE – Antiochus IV “Epiphanies” (manifest) comes to power and enforces the spread of Greek culture (Hellenization), transforming Jerusalem into a Hellenistic city named “Antiochia” with its own gymnasium (check out Daniel 7 and 2 Maccabees 7 [below])

167 BCE –  the attempted profanation of the temple under Antiochus IV precipitated the revolt under Matthias and his five sons John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar, and Jonathan

164 BCE – re-dedication of the Temple under Judas Maccabeus (the hammer)

160-63 BCE – the leadership and high priesthood of Jonathan (died ca. 143 BCE). The leadership and high priesthood of Simon (died ca. 134 BCE) was the beginning of autonomous Hasmonean rule and the expansion of borders (e.g., conquests of Samaria, Idumea, etc.). A number of sectarian groups emerge during this period including:

  • The aristocratic and priestly Sadducees who accepted only the Pentateuch of Moses as authoritative and denied the resurrection of the dead. They are known to us from Josephus and the Gospels.
  • The Pharisees (etymologically linked to perushim or separate ones) may have been originally linked to the Hasidim. They were a lay scribal group that commanded popular support. They endeavored to keep the whole Law as interpreted through their oral traditions (=compiled in the Mishnah in the late second century CE) and live life in a priestly state of purity, especially during their table fellowship. Two major schools go back to Shammai and Hillel and they accepted a wider canon of Scripture than the Sadducees as well as the beliefs in immortality and angels.
  • The”Teacher of Righteousness” is remembered as a major figure by the sectarian community at Khirbet Qumran behind the Dead Sea Scrolls and was persecuted by the “wicked priest” (Jonathan or Simon Maccabeus?). They practiced a strict interpretation of the Torah, celibacy and communal living and are often identified with the Essenes.

63 BCE – Roman conquest by Pompey

44 BCE – assassination of Julius Caesar

37-4 BCE –Herod the Great

31 BCE – Marc Antony defeated by Octavian at the battle of Actium and afterwards Antony/Cleopatra killed themselves

27 BCE – 14 CE – Octavian “Augustus” (revered), the adopted great-nephew of Caesar and divi filius (son of god), leads transition from the Roman Republic to the Empire and starts Julio-Claudian dynasty (ends with Nero in 68 CE)

4 BCE – 6 CE – Herod’s son Archelaus named ethnarch, ruling Judea, Samaria and Idumea until it came under direct Roman rule.  This led to the census of Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, appointed governor of Syria, for taxation of the provinces of Syria and Judea under the new political arrangement.  In reaction, Judas the Galilee led an uprising and is named as the alleged founder of the “fourth philosophy” or zealot party by Josephus.

4 BCE – 39 CE – Herod’s son Antipas appointed tetrarch, ruling Galilee and Peraea.  Rebuilt Sephorris before building his capital at Tiberius on a cemetery in 17 CE and had John the Baptist executed on political charges (Josephus, Ant. 18.5.2; cf. Mark 6:22-28)

5/4 BCE – birth of Jesus of Nazareth

6-41 CE, 44-66 CE – Roman prefects and procurators in Palestine

29-34 CE – crucifixion of Jesus

30-early 60s CE – earliest Jewish Jesus associations including the Jerusalem Pillars (Jesus’ brother James, Cephas and the Twelve), missionary activity of the Apostle Paul

66-74 CE – the Jewish War, fall of Jerusalem and temple in 70 CE

69-96 CE – the Flavian Dynasty

96-192 CE – the Nerva-Antonine dynasty

132-135 CE – the Bar Kochba revolt, banishment of Jews from the city of Jerusalem renamed Aelia Capitolina

Study Questions

  1. Why do you think it is important to study the New Testament  (NT) writings in their historical and literary contexts?
  2. The New Testament was not written in a historical vacuum! Can you spot some parallels to the NT in the Jewish or Greco-Roman writings below.

The gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 1:3-4)

  • “Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus,  whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a  savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and  arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving  to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the  god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by  reason of him, which Asia resolved in Smyrna. (Priene Calendar Inscription, ca 9 BCE; cf. Craig Evans, “Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription: From Jewish Gospel to Greco-Roman GospelJournal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 1 (2000): 67)
  • Roman Coin calls the emperor Octavian “divi filius” or “son of (a) god” (
  • The [son of the] G[reat Master] shall he be called, and by His name he will be called. He will be said (to be) the son of God, and they will call him the son of the Most High. (Aramaic Apocalypse I 9–II 1)

He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. (Colossians 1:15)… In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:1, 14)

  • Now the image of God is the Word, by which all the world was made. (Philo, On the Special Laws 1.81)
  • For she [Wisdom] is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty… For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. (Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-27)

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

  • ‘What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.’ – attributed to Rabbi Hillel (Shabbat 31a)

‘When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. (Luke 7:12)

  • Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire house of Israel, speedily and soon (Kaddish)

Those who passed by derided him [Jesus], shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days,save yourself, and come down from the cross!’  In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ (Mark 15:29-31)

  • Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training.  He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord.  He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange.  We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father.  Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God’s son, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.  Let us test him with insult and torture, that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance.  Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.” (Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-20)

For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)…  Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

  • It happened also that seven brothers and their mother were arrested and were being compelled by the king, under torture with whips and cords, to partake of unlawful swine’s flesh. One of them, acting as their spokesman, said, “What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our fathers.” … And when he [one of the sons about to be killed] was near death, he said, “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of men and to cherish the hope that God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life… [the last son to be killed said] “I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our fathers, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by afflictions and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty which has justly fallen on our whole nation.” (2 Maccabees 7)
  • These, then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honored, not only with this honor, but also by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified — they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation.  And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an xpiation, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been afflicted. (4 Macc 17:20-22)
  • Shall countless warriors, armed with shields, those myriads sitting at the oar, find courage to attack the foe and die for Hellas, because their fatherland is wronged, and my one life prevent all this?… I give my body to Hellas [Greece] (Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis 1390)

‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ (Acts 7:56)

  • And all the kings and the mighty and the exalted and those who rule the earth Shall fall down before him on their faces, And worship and set their hope upon that Son of Man, And petition him and supplicate for mercy at his hands. (1 Enoch 62:9)

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