From Crisis to Christ: A Contextual Introduction to the New Testament

From Crisis to Christ: A Contextual Introduction to the New Testament

by Paul N. Anderson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781426751042
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 08/19/2014
Pages: 408
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Author of nearly 200 published essays and several books, Paul N. Anderson is Professor of Biblical and Quaker Studies at George Fox University, where he has taught an annual introduction to the New Testament course for more than 20 years. Anderson also serves as Director of the George Fox University Congregational Discernment Project. His PhD is from the University of Glasgow, Scotland; andM.Div. from Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana.

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From Crisis to Christ

A Contextual Introduction to the New Testament

By Paul N. Anderson

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-5115-8


Introducing the New Testament—The Writings and Their Contexts

How did the New Testament become God's word for the church, and what did it mean to its original writers and audiences? As a collection of diverse writings, the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are gathered into four main groups as distinctive types of literature. The four Gospels tell the story of Jesus, and the Acts of the Apostles continues the story into the history of early Christianity. The next section includes thirteen epistles attributed to Paul and eight other letters attributed to other authors, while Revelation ("the Apocalypse of John") assures believers within the context of a hostile Roman Empire that God and the faithful will triumph in the end. These works are of unequal length, but together they form the most authoritative collection of early Christian writings—the canonical New Testament.

While finalized later than most of the epistles, Matthew begins the gospel record with a genealogy and a birth narrative, connecting the story of Jesus with the Old Testament. John, being the most different and theological among the Gospels, is placed fourth, as it also includes perspectives and reports that the others do not. Acts narrates the rise and progress of the Jesus movement, including the ministries of Peter and Paul, setting the stage for Paul's letters. Among them, Romans represents Paul's fullest articulation of the gospel message, and the Corinthian correspondence represents Paul's fullest engagement with a particular church, followed by shorter letters to congregations. Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon reflect correspondence with individuals, and a general collection of other epistles follows. The authorship of Hebrews is unknown, but it represents a universal understanding of Jewish values that are seen typologically as fulfilled by Christ Jesus. Letters attributed to James, Peter, John, and Jude offer a rich range of contextual perspectives on the emerging Christian movement. Revelation, of course, makes a fitting conclusion, as it calls for faithfulness until the end of the age.

In addition to understanding the contexts in which these writings were produced, appreciating their literary features and forms helps the interpreter understand what is being said by first considering how it is said. One cannot apprehend the literal meaning of a text without determining first its literary form. Therefore, literary analyses will accompany historical inquiry in seeking to discern the writings' literary functions and thus their interpretive implications. These are important aspects of understanding the content of any piece of literature, especially the Bible. Matters of authorship and date will also be considered, but not much weight can be sustained by most claims, whether arguing a traditional view or challenging it. More robust are analyses of the literary features themselves, whoever the authors might have been.

It is fair to say, however, that all the books of the New Testament were written by Jewish believers in Jesus, even though some are crafted for Gentile audiences, such as the writings of Luke and Paul. This also makes it difficult to describe the New Testament's authors as "Christians" because most of them wrote before the Jesus movement separated from Judaism, within a generation or two of the ministry of Jesus. Therefore, it is important for invested readers not to read later Christian developments and views into the more primitive Jewish-Christian situation. After all, Jesus was a Jew, and so were all of his first followers. It was only decades later, and in some cases into the next century, that the Jesus movement fully individuated away from Judaism, and even then many connections remained close. In terms of second criticality, just as New Testament themes should not be confused with later orthodox confessions of Christian theologians (a problematic tendency of some traditionalistic interpretations), writers' adversaries should not be taken simplistically for later Gnostics and heretics (a tendency of some historical-critical interpretations).

Religious Institutions and Groups in Israel—Diverse Messianic Expectations Then and Now

Within the Judaism of Jesus's time two primary institutions provided the backbone of societal structure: the temple and the synagogue. The temple, located in Jerusalem, was the center of Jewish religious life. Originally constructed on the traditional site of Mount Moriah, where Abraham is thought to have nearly sacrificed Isaac and where David had built an altar (Gen 22:2; 2 Chron 3:1), Solomon's temple stood for four hundred years until it was plundered by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. Its rebuilding was completed in 515 BCE, just over two decades after the first wave of Jews returned from Babylon. Other than the desecration by Antiochus IV (167–164 BCE), it continued to be in use until destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. The temple featured several areas with distinctive functions. Around the perimeter was the Court of the Gentiles, in which sacrificial animals and other goods were bought and sold. Further inside was the Court of the Women, leading to the Court of Israel (excluding women), and inside that, on the altar, priests would offer animal sacrifices. Beyond the altar and the sanctuary, the holy of holies was only entered once a year by the high priest on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), when the high priest would make sacrifices on behalf of his household and the nation (Lev 16). Observant Jews were expected to travel to Jerusalem at least three times a year to participate in the three pilgrimage festivals (Deut 16:16): Passover (Pesach, remembering the exodus from Egypt), Weeks (Shavuot, remembering God's giving of the Law to Moses), and Booths (Sukkot, following the Day of Atonement, remembering Israel's wandering in the wilderness). The temple and its festivities were managed by the priests and the Sadducees.

Conversely, the synagogue provided a gathering place for weekly worship within local cities and villages where Jews lived (synagoge in Greek means "meeting") throughout the Mediterranean world. Sabbath worship included such features as reading scripture, preaching and teaching, and corporate prayers. Within their order of worship the "eighteen benedictions" were recited, affirming Jewish values and faith-related commitments. During the week, synagogues served important functions as schools for Jewish children and as community centers—of special significance for maintaining Jewish identity in settings outside of Palestine. The first synagogues were organized during the Jewish exile in Babylon, and they became increasingly important in discerning and advocating how to keep the Law of Moses. In that sense, the synagogue was more text oriented in contrast to the temple, which was more cultic, or ritual oriented. During this time, synagogues tended to be organized and managed by local Jewish leaders, called the Pharisees. While synagogues became more established after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, references in literature and archaeological remains show that they were nonetheless in existence before that, albeit in more modest forms.

The Pharisees (those who are "separated"—Ezra 6:21; 9:1) embraced the Torah (the five books of Moses) and other Jewish scriptures, and they also developed rich histories of interpretation (the oral Torah—later preserved along with other writings in the Talmud). They were especially concerned with purity laws and scripture interpretation, often engaged corporately in local synagogues. Unlike the priests in Jerusalem, they received no monetary support but made their livings in conventional ways. Going back to the days of the Babylonian captivity (587 BCE and following), the Pharisees built a "hedge" around the Law (Pirkei Avot 1:1). In seeking to define the devout keeping of the Sabbath, what was adultery, what was idolatry, and so on, they became what Josephus described as the most accurate and expert interpreters of Mosaic Law, numbering around six thousand in Palestine during the first century CE (Antiquities of the Jews 17.2.4). As a result, the Pharisees would have enjoyed local popular support in most Jewish towns and villages. When Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE, accompanied by the killing of the high priest and the abolition of temple sacrifice and worship, the Pharisaic movement gained the ascendency in both Palestinian and diaspora Judaism.

The Sadducees (named after Zadok, the priest who anointed Solomon king) managed the temple and its various affairs in Jerusalem, and they were the closest thing to nobility and a religious aristocracy in Second-Temple Judaism (538 BCE and following). As the wealthier members of Jewish society and owners of land that was passed down within family lines, they were the cultured class within Jewish society. Sadducees were thus invested in maintaining the status quo in Jerusalem and its environs, and it was they whom the Romans engaged in negotiating terms of occupation. As a result, they were resented by other members of Jewish society—by the poor because of their wielding of power and by the religiously devout because they were perceived to have sold out the nation. While theologically conservative (they held the five books of Moses alone to be authoritative), they were politically more open to cooperating with the Roman authorities, which brought on resentment and further distrust from other devout Jews. They were predominant leaders in the Sanhedrin, the high council of Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, and the high priest and other members of the Jewish priesthood would have been associated with this prestigious group.

The Essenes are described by Josephus (a Jewish historian who wrote a history of the Jews around the end of the first century CE) as numbering around four thousand adherents in Judea and Syria, populating small towns rather than major cities (Antiquities 18.20). Their initiation codes were strict, requiring giving all their possessions to the community and going through a preparatory period before being accepted into membership. Some members of these communities were celibate, though not all; and it is thought that Qumran, on the west side of the Dead Sea, was one of these communities. The Essenes believed in ritual bathing for purification, and they shared sacred meals together. At Qumran several mikva'ot (ritual-cleansing baths) can still be seen, the largest of which has four staircases—one for descending into the water, separated by a rail from the others. If impurity was transferred by touch, one who had undergone a purification cleansing would not want to be touched by another coming into the water, and the different staircases might have reflected varying degrees of purity depending on the individual's social status and the type of bathing performed. The Qumran Community is thought to have fled to the wilderness some time during the Hasmonean Period, claiming to be followers of "the Teacher of Righteousness," who had apparently been spurned by "the wicked priest" in Jerusalem. Their Community Rule and the War Scroll show a strong dualistic thrust, portraying them as "children of light" versus "children of darkness." Qumran was destroyed by the Romans in 68 CE, but the writings produced and/or stored in nearby caves have been a great help in understanding first-century Judaism—especially showing that dualism could be a feature of Judaism as well as Hellenism. Some wonder if John the Baptist might have been a member of the Qumran community, given his ministry in the Judean wilderness and his challenging of Jewish compromises.

The Zealots wanted to rid Palestine of its Roman occupiers by any means necessary, including violence, in the traditions of Phinehas, son of Eleazar, and the Maccabean Revolt (Num 25; Sir 45:23-26; 1 Macc 2:1-28). Unlike the other groups, Zealots might have been members of other parties as well; they probably had most in common with the Pharisees, and some of them may even have been Pharisees. Nor were they singularly committed to violence; some of them probably occupied respected roles in Jewish society. Josephus refers to the Zealots as the "fourth philosophy" of the Jews and even blames the Roman backlash and the destruction of the nation upon them (Antiquities 18.1-23). One approach they took backfired in particular; the sicarii dagger-men would slip through a crowd, stab a Roman official or collaborator, and then slip back into the crowd undetected (Josephus, Jewish Wars 2.13). The Romans responded with severe retaliation, and the instability created by the Zealots eventually led to the invasion of Judea in between 66 and 73 CE, wherein the Romans sacked most villages and destroyed Jerusalem and its temple (in 70 CE). They chased insurgents to a final stronghold—the winter palace of Herod, Masada—an impenetrable fortress atop a huge rock. Just before the Romans finally breeched the wall, ten men were chosen to pick lots; each would kill all the members of his family and group, and the last would kill the others before committing suicide himself. Rather than be captured by the Romans, this mass-suicide—with ample supplies of food and water present, so as to make it clear they were not in a state of desperation—insured an ending with honor, rather than subjecting themselves to Roman torture and violation (Josephus, Wars 7.9).

Among these groups, a variety of theological disagreements are apparent. Between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Pharisees believed in an afterlife and the resurrection, whereas the Sadducees saw God's blessing as temporal; the Pharisees believed in angels and demons, whereas the Sadducees believed in one power in the heavens—God—whereas the Pharisees saw God's action in human history as somewhat determinative, the Sadducees believed outcomes were of human making. Between the Sadducees and the Essenes, the Essenes felt the priests in Jerusalem had compromised with foreign powers all too readily, and they saw themselves as the children of light versus the children of darkness—the compromised priests in Jerusalem; the Essenes gave up all their possessions for the sake of the community, whereas the Sadducees held onto their wealth and property; the Essenes in Qumran (though not all Essenes) separated themselves from worldliness by living in the wilderness, whereas the Sadducees were centered in Jerusalem and were accused of participating in Hellenizing games and events where prayers were offered to pagan deities. The Zealots disagreed with the other groups (especially the Essenes) primarily in their willingness to use violence to bring about the restoration of Israel's glory. They hoped for a restoration of Israel as effected by the ending of Roman occupation, and they were willing to go to extreme measures in the name of Jewish nationalism. Some among them would have opposed paying taxes to Rome, and they would have seen tax collectors as traitors to the cause. Some of these disputes can be seen in the Gospels and Acts, where debates about the afterlife and taxation, for instance, are featured explicitly.

In addition to these main parties or sects, other groups and members of society in first-century Israel are also apparent. Herodians supported King Herod and the three Herodian rulers that followed him, seeking to work out a compromise with Rome, which included the paying of taxes. Tax collectors were leaders in society whom the Romans chose to do their bidding in collecting taxes from the populace; it was they who also determined the actual amount to be paid, and they were allowed to keep a part of what they gathered—a system susceptible to intimidation and corruption. Hellenistic Jews were often members of Jewish synagogues in the diaspora who still felt loyalty to Judaism while not following all Jewish customs or displaying some outward signs. Scribes and lawyers worked with Pharisees in keeping tabs on the content of the Jewish scriptures, often researching texts and oral traditions to produce authoritative interpretations of the Law of Moses. Apocalyptists believed that God was in control of religious and political events, and they sketched transcendent images of how God would reward the faithful and demolish God's enemies. Samaritans occupied the area between Judea and Galilee, and while they also followed the way of Moses (they had their own rendering of the Torah and anticipated a prophetic Messiah), they were disregarded by the Jews because the Assyrians had resettled conquered peoples from other lands in that region in the eighth century BCE, resulting in intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles. Tensions between Judean hegemony and the Samaritans and Galileans are palpable in the gospel presentations of Jesus's ministry. The am ha-aretz (the people of the land) would have included a strong majority of the populace in Galilee and Judea (as many as 90 percent of the population), and as the poor of the land, they would have worked with subsistence farming or shepherding, striving desperately to make ends meet but with little hope of advancement.


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Table of Contents

Foreword vii

Acknowledgments xv

Chapter 1 Introducing the New Testament-The Writings and Their Contexts 1

Part I The Gospels and Jesus 19

Chapter 2 The Gospel According to Matthew 28

Chapter 3 The Gospel According to Mark 51

Chapter 4 The Gospel According to Luke 75

Excursus I A Bi-Optic Hypothesis-A Theory of Gospel Relations 102

Chapter 5 The Gospel According to John 127

Excursus II The Historical Quest for Jesus 168

Part II The Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of Paul 177

Chapter 6 The Acts of the Apostles 183

Excursus III Paul's Background and Contemporary Religions and Philosophies 208

Chapter 7 Paul's Letter to the Romans 214

Chapter 8 The Corinthian Correspondence 240

Chapter 9 Paul's Shorter Epistles to Churches: Galatians-2 Thessalonians 259

Chapter 10 Paul's Letters to Individuals: The Pastoral Letters and Philemon 276

Part III The General Epistles and Revelation 293

Chapter 11 The Epistle to the Hebrews 299

Excursus IV The Christological Hymns of the New Testament 314

Chapter 12 The General Epistles: James-2 Peter (and Jude) 321

Chapter 13 The Johannine Epistles 339

Chapter 14 The Revelation of John 363

Afterword 386

Resources 388

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