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The New Testament in Antiquity
A Survey of the New Testament within Its Cultural Context
By Gary M. Burge Lynn H. Cohick Gene L. Green
Copyright © 2009
Gary M. Burge, Lynn H. Cohick, and Gene L. Green
All right reserved.
Chapter One STUDYING THE NEW TESTAMENT
The New Testament consists of twenty-seven individual "books" written in Greek almost two thousand years ago, and some or all of the New Testament has been translated into 1168 languages, something characteristic of no other book. Today about 2000 new translations are underway or completed. But it is not mere curiosity that inspires this study. It is the story contained in these books, a story about a Jewish messiah and his followers that has led millions in every era to join the ranks of his disciples.
The New Testament is first and foremost about Jesus of Nazareth, a man called "Messiah" by his followers, who was killed in Jerusalem and who rose from the grave. His followers were transformed by what they saw and experienced, and they carried faith in Jesus to the entire Mediterranean world. The New Testament contains four Gospels outlining Jesus' life, a brief history of the early church, and a collection of letters from many of early Christianity's most prominent leaders. They were penned during the fifty years or so following Jesus' death and resurrection.
Today many Christians know the basic elements of this story and enjoy an intimate, deeply personal love for many passages of the New Testament. However, few understand the breadth of this story, much less how to interpret each book. Many of us gravitate to familiar texts but feel unconfident interpreting more difficult chapters. Some know the major characters such as Jesus, Peter, and Paul, but we are vague about the details of their lives or the more complex elements in their teachings.
The aims of the book are simple: to assist students to become alert, capable readers of the New Testament-to guide them through its many books, giving not only essential background information, but also a digest of the New Testament's most important teachings.
All authors come to the task of writing with presuppositions. For instance, historical optimism- or skepticism-will unwittingly surface in every study of the New Testament. The same is true of this book. Its goals are the same as many other surveys of the New Testament, but some crucial differences will stand out in our approach to reading the New Testament.
Scripture and Study
As Christians we are eager to affirm our commitment that the New Testament is Scripture. These words are not like other words; God has employed them-indeed, he still employs them-through the work of his Spirit in his church to reveal himself to the world. Therefore, we do not hold merely a historical or theological interest in the New Testament. Rather, God is at work in and through these chapters to bring life and transformation to all who seek him there. Thus, it is appropriate for us to refer to the New Testament (as well as the entire Bible) as Scripture, or the divinely inspired Word of God.
However, this high affirmation of the Bible does not mean that readers in the twenty-first century are capable of understanding the New Testament as if by magic. The message of the Bible may be timeless, but the form of that message is not. In order to accomplish his self-revelation in history, God necessarily had to embed that revelation in the historical and cultural context of its original readers. When Jesus told a parable, he framed it in ways that made sense to first-century farmers and fishermen. When Paul wrote a letter, he used not only his own personal cultural preferences, but he wrote to be understood, using words and ideas meaningful to a first-century audience. Today we may understand a great deal of that message, but probing its depths requires effort.
A Reader's Bias
Meaning can be missed not only by our ignorance of things presupposed by the New Testament's original audience, but also by the cultural framework we ourselves bring to the task of study. Without realizing it, we bring the cultural values and the historical framework of our own world to the text of the New Testament. This is understandable. We only make sense of something we read when the concepts we encounter register with something in our own experience. When we read about the "church" of Corinth, our own images of "church" leap quickly to mind. When Jesus refers to a "sower," our Western notions of farming and seed distribution fill in the picture. Readers bring their own understanding-sometimes called preunderstanding-to any text they encounter.
How do we cope with this? First, we work hard to understand our own context. That is, as interpreters of the New Testament we must become increasingly suspicious of our own preferences. For example, if we come from a highly individualistic culture (so common in the West) in which the church emphasizes private salvation, we may have difficulty understanding the biblical notion of corporate sin. Or we may be unprepared to see how Jesus' proclamation of "the kingdom of God" had social and economic implications. If we come from a society where religion and government are strictly separated, it may be impossible to see how Jesus' kingdom was bearing down on the political structures of his day.
Second, we must embrace the cultural context of the biblical world. If we do not share some of the reflexes of Paul's first readers, if we cannot appreciate the difficulties of Gentiles and Jews living side by side in first-century churches, it will be impossible to understand much of the New Testament.
Context, Context, Context
Words have a certain indeterminacy of meaning. That is, they gain meaning only when they are set firmly in a context. If a modern politician is referred to as "green," it could mean a variety of things: she could be "new" to the field; she could be deeply jealous; she could be an environmentalist; or she could belong to a party that wears green uniforms. Perhaps she is Irish. We have no idea. In other words, "green" has little meaning unless it is tied to a context. The meaning of the word itself is not "determined" without a context. It must fit its range of meanings, its semantic range.
In order for us to understand the New Testament effectively, therefore, we must rebuild the context of its words as carefully as possible. When John the Baptist introduces Jesus as the "Lamb of God" (John 1:36), does he mean that Jesus is meek? Or helpless? Or does it refer to lambs that are sacrificed at Jerusalem's temple? If this refers to sacrifice, what sacrificial ceremony does John have in mind? The daily sacrifices of temple worship? Or the great annual Passover sacrifices each spring? Knowing the context is the key. But without the context, the phrase "Lamb of God" has little usefulness or meaning. The job of interpretation thus requires humility of the first order because we are admitting that we are reading this story as foreigners and outsiders, not as readers who share its original context.
The title of this book is deliberate: The New Testament in Antiquity. Our primary responsibility is to gain the meaning of our Scriptures by understanding not only our own interpretative contexts, but also the original context of the New Testament. The context of antiquity should control how we understand the New Testament today.
RECREATING THE CONTEXT
What basic elements are a necessary if we are going to be diligent in building this "context of antiquity?" Three important elements contribute to rebuilding the New Testament context. Every interpreter of the New Testament must have some mastery of each.
Knowing the Land
When Jesus moved through Galilee or traveled to Judea, he knew where he was. He knew the landscape, the roads, Hellenistic cities such as Scythopolis, and Jewish fishing villages like Capernaum. When Paul organized his missionary journeys, he had a good sense which cities would be strategic for the growth of the church. Such knowledge of geography-landscape, geology, climate, water resources, roads, settlement patterns, and political boundaries-is common among all societies. Most literature simply presupposes that its audience will know these things naturally. The Gospels refer to the Sea of Galilee without telling us its location. They also mention places such as Bethsaida and Cana as if they are familiar to us.
Our acquaintance with the specifics of biblical geography will play an important role in how we understand the story. When Jesus moves from Judea to Samaria, we must not only know where Samaria is but understand the ethnic differences between Jews and Samaritans. The far north was called "Galilee of the Gentiles" because of the rapid Hellenization going on. When Jesus moves around the landscape, sometimes he is in Greek regions; in other cases, in Jewish regions. His teaching and his activity are shaped by this setting. Therefore, if we cannot locate the city of Tyre or identify the Decapolis (a region known to every Galilean), we will be at a loss.
Geographical questions also follow any reconstruction of Paul's life and work. Famous cities such as Antioch on the Orontes, Ephesus, Troas, and Philippi were known intimately by Paul. The settlement pattern of Asia Minor played significantly in his plans and likely kept him from traveling north along the rim of the Black Sea. He spent eighteen months in Corinth founding a strategic church, yet it was this city's location as a maritime trading center and transit point that gave the city such value.
Knowing the History
Every culture likewise knows its history, so that allusions to people and events can happen in the most subtle manner. When a student announces he is from Richmond, Virginia, and he is a Southerner, he is saying more than providing geographical information. He is making a comment about history, the Civil War, and cultural orientation.
The New Testament period also had a history that everyone knew. The coming of Hellenistic culture behind the armies of Alexander the Great impacted Jewish life far more than we could imagine. This was followed by a series of regional Greek kings who sometimes encouraged assimilation but at other times brutally oppressed the Jews. Judaism's successful revolt against the Greeks and the subsequent Jewish nation formed in the second century BC inspired stories and writings current in Jesus' day.
No doubt the most important event for the average Jew was the conquest of Israel by Rome in 63 BC. The massive armies of Pompey quickly placed it under a Roman administration. The reality of this occupation-its tax burden, its Jewish collaborators, its Jewish resistors-shaped the world of Jesus and Paul. Of course participation in the empire had its benefits. Pompey had also cleansed the Mediterranean of pirates (Plutarch, Life of Pompey, 28:2). Suddenly trade, travel, and communication facilitated and protected by Rome was possible. The early church took advantage of these benefits as it moved its missionaries around the empire.
Therefore the parameters of our historical enquiry should begin in about 333 BC (Alexander's major defeat of a Persian army at Issus) and end with the second Jewish war with Rome in AD 132-135. Hellenism was changing the cultural landscape while the Roman occupation inspired collaborators like the Herodians as well as fighters like the Zealots. Jewish self-identity was in crisis, and many were asking if the successful revolts of the second century BC should serve as a model for how to treat the Romans.
Knowing history thus builds the context in which present events can be understood. In John 10, for example, Jesus attends the Festival of Hanukkah. This celebration was popular since it retold the story of Judaism's guerrilla war against the Greeks and the rededication of the temple. When Paul writes a letter to Philippi, it helps to know something of the history of Macedonia and how Roman soldiers retired in the region. When Mary, Joseph, and the young Jesus return to Judea from Egypt, they bypass Bethlehem and slip into Galilee because a vicious son of Herod the Great is ruling the south (see Matt. 2:19-23). Without a strong grasp of the historical context, we may misunderstand or even misrepresent what is happening in a New Testament passage.
Knowing the Culture
Every society orchestrates its life with predictable reflexes and rituals. Social habits, religious traditions, political interests, even music and art contribute to values shared by generations. Rarely do they need to be defined overtly since we inherit them. One of the biggest hurdles for foreigners visiting another country is to understand what is going on. They may think they know, but they gradually sense they are missing a great deal. Humor, irony, and sarcasm presuppose much that is unsaid; what may be funny to one person may mean nothing to another. Try watching a film in a foreign theater. Americans will tell you that the British laugh at all the "wrong" places. (The British will say the same about Americans.)
Of course, the New Testament world shared many values that were understood but unspoken. Today these values are being studied. The advent of modern anthropology gave birth to an interdisciplinary effort to bring these academic skills to the study of the New Testament. Scholars look at the literature of the period, the archaeological remains, and even the evidence of village cultures for clues to how to understand the social reflexes presupposed in the Bible. For example, women were responsible for the transport and management of well or cistern water. Both the Old and New Testaments attest to this, but so does the culture of Middle East village life where it has been least disturbed by Western influences.
When we look at particular New Testament passages, asking questions about culture may lead us to entirely new levels of understanding. When a young son comes to his father and asks for his inheritance (Luke 15:11-12), what is the expected response? What will his older brother think? What happens when a neighbor awakens a man in the middle of the night asking for bread (Luke 11:5-6)? What leads the sleeping man to arise and share? Or what cultural assumptions drive a shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep alone in search of one that is lost (Luke 15:4)? We dare not complete the picture with our own cultural assumptions since our culture is foreign to the story.
One key cultural value in the New Testament is the place given to shame and honor. Life was organized around the accumulation of honor and the avoidance of shame. For example, Jesus was once sitting in the home of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50), having dinner with the village's religious and intellectual elite. When a woman interrupted the party by clutching Jesus' feet, wetting them with tears, kissing them, and drying them with her loosed hair, Simon discredited Jesus because he had violated principles of male/female contact by defending rather than rejecting the woman. Simon concluded that Jesus was a man who had no honor. But in addition, cultural values cascade over each other in dizzying swiftness: How did the woman get in? What did she intend? How was Jesus sitting so that his feet were accessible to her? Who was there at the meal? Why did Simon see the woman's deeds as sexually inappropriate? Why did Simon not wash Jesus' feet when he greeted him or anoint his head? What did Simon mean by his treatment of Jesus?
The interpreter will always bring cultural values to a story such as this. But the key is to limit the intrusion of our own cultural preconceptions and rebuild the context of the story using first-century values. For example, every culture has "greeting rituals." In the Luke 7 story, Simon has omitted these before other guests, shaming Jesus publicly. Without a clear understanding of "public shaming" and "greeting rituals," we are at a loss to understand what energizes this story.
The New Testament, however, represents more than one culture, and we must reconstruct each context accurately. Rural village life in Judea was different from urban life in Ephesus. Hellenistic Jews living throughout the Mediterranean often experienced clashes of culture that made them uncomfortable. Greeks and Romans had different assumptions about culture. We will discuss many of these in the pages that follow.
Sidebars. Throughout this book, sidebars provide illustrations for how the first-century context can be understood. These notes form illustrations of some of the ideas inherent in the New Testament passages under discussion. Other sidebars explain how to interpret troublesome passages and apply them responsibly to our own setting.
Notes from Antiquity. These notes provide background data such as archaeological research, anthropological insights, historical notes, or even citations of ancient texts to help us gain greater understanding of the New Testament.
Illustrations. Each chapter also uses a wide array of graphics and photographs, carefully chosen to aid us in reconstructing the world of the New Testament. Museum pieces, landscapes, maps, aerial photos, archaeological sites, and artist reconstructions each contribute to contextual material that will help our interpretation. Note especially the study of coins (numismatics). Coins served a much different purpose in the ancient world. Its value was directly related to its weight (a shekel, for instance, is a measurement of weight).
The image on the coin was "struck" by a government mint that authorized the coin's value. Thus, ancient coins served political purposes. They also distributed propaganda for the emperor-or they became an opportunity for dissenting peoples to resist any apparent participation with an occupier. The question given to Jesus in Matthew 22:15-17 about taxes is hardly innocent. It is about politics.
Excerpted from The New Testament in Antiquity by Gary M. Burge Lynn H. Cohick Gene L. Green Copyright © 2009 by Gary M. Burge, Lynn H. Cohick, and Gene L. Green. Excerpted by permission.
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