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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

The Background of the New Testament.


So far we have considered the idea of the NT. In terms of introduction, this has been the stage of sizing up the new acquaintance. Another important aspect of introduction lies a little behind the scenes and is often slow to emerge. It concerns the world and the culture from which the new acquaintance comes. Only if we find out about that will the introduction progress and lead to understanding.


As we face this matter, we immediately encounter what can seem a puzzling fact. All the NT books were written in Greek (though just possibly Hebrew sources lie somewhere behind one or two of them), but their culture is chiefly Jewish. There are in these writings only occasional instances of Hebrew or Aramaic (the Semitic vernacular of the area), the words of Jesus from the cross in Mk 15:34 (Aramaic = Mt 27:46 Hebrew) being much the most extensive. In one way this creates an obstacle—when for example we hope to read the very words of Jesus. While (as we shall see) there is a chance that Jesus knew some Greek, the overwhelming probability is that the main vehicle of his teaching was Aramaic. Therefore, at best (i.e. even if no other factors are involved) we have in the gospels renderings of Jesus' words into a foreign tongue—with the distortions that translation cannot but entail.


It is worth noting at this point that, apart from a few words and references to a few military or legal institutions, Latin culture has left little mark on the NT: these writings reflect life in the eastern half of the Mediterranean world, parts of the Roman empire with their own strong and often mixed cultures, with Greek as the dominant force in many areas of life. True, descendants of Roman army veterans with Latin names (e.g. Tertius, Rom 16:22 ) appear in the church at Corinth; Roman officials are not inconspicuous in Acts, Pilate is a key figure in the gospel story, and the empire sometimes broods over the scene, as in Revelation, or is an acknowledged presence, as in 1 Peter and Philippians; but even so, Roman cultural penetration is not deep in the circles from which the NT comes.


Yet the obstacle referred to above is modified once we realize that in the first century there was no impenetrable wall between Greek language and Jewishness, or indeed between Jewish and Greek cultures. It is only fair to say that some aspects of the first-century situation, even quite important ones, remain obscure and contentionus. But two major facts are clear. First, Palestine, at least as far as the towns were concerned, had become deeply affected by Greek culture during the three centuries before the time of Jesus. It showed itself in public matters such as civic architecture (e.g. Herod's Temple in Jerusalem, built just before Jesus' time), leisure provision (amphitheatres, games), commerce and language (Greek inscriptions on buildings and burial urns); in matters of the mind, so that for example the old Jewish tradition of wisdom writing (classically represented in Proverbs) seems to have absorbed elements of Greek thought (e.g. in Job and Eccesiasticus). While politically the area that would later be called Syria Palestina was, in Jesus' day, part of the Roman empire, its Herodian rulers and many aspects of the Jewish life over which they presided were in practice deeply affected by Hellenistic culture especially in the upper reaches of Jewish society. It is much less clear how far the countryside was affected: throughout the Mediterranean world, old indigenous cultures tended to survive intact outside the limits of the towns and cities. The town of Sepphoris, only a few miles from Nazareth, was being rebuilt along Hellenistic lines in the years of Jesus' youth, but it is impossible to be sure how far such a place would radiate its influence and in exactly what respects. Certainly it is never referred to in the gospels. We shall discuss the setting of Jesus' own life later: suffice it to say here that the extent of his exposure to things Greek may have been minimal.


Secondly, in the Diaspora (i.e. among the Jews living in the cities of the Mediterranean world), Greek was the predominant medium—even the Scriptures had been translated (the Septuagint); and it is this more firmly Hellenized Judaism that forms the background for most, perhaps all, the NT writers and their books. That does not imply total cultural homogeneity: there were many styles and grades of the conditioning of Judaism by Hellenistic thought and Greek language, and the early Christians whose outlook is encountered through the books of the NT differ a good deal along these lines. None of them displays more than a perfunctory acquaintance with Greek literature (Acts 17:28; 1 Cor 15:33 ): overwhelmingly their literary formation comes from the Jewish Scriptures, mostly in their Greek form, and often with emphasis on some parts more than others—depending perhaps on the availability of expensive and cumbersome scrolls.

On the other hand, some of them show knowledge of Greek literary forms. Thus, there is a good case for saying that the gospels have affinities with Roman and Greek lives of celebrated figures (Burridge 1992 ). To judge from books of the period, Luke's preface ( 1:1–4 ) indicates that he saw himself as providing a kind of handbook about Jesus, whether for the Christian community or for a wider public (Alexander 1993 ). Mark shows signs of a degree of training in rhetoric as taught in the Greek schools of the period (Beavis 1989 ), and the same may be true of Paul (Betz 1979 ). These writers, for all the Jewishness of their thought and culture, were dependent also on the Greek culture of the setting in which they had been formed—and unselfconsciously so. In their very different ways—and the same variety is found among Jewish writers of the period—they drew upon Greek models. They were part and parcel of their habitat. Partly because of this close interweaving of Judaism and Hellenism by this time, it is not always easy to assign a given feature of a NT book to Jewish or Greek influence. It can still be discussed, for example, whether the prologue of the Gospel of John owes more to the Jewish tradition of ‘wisdom’ writing or to Greek philosophical discourse of a Platonist kind; and though current opinion tends to the former opinion, the matter is immediately complicated by the understanding that the wisdom tradition itself had already been open to strands of Platonist thinking (Hengel 1974; Meyers and Strange 1981 ).


Attempts to produce more exotic sources for central early Christian ways of thinking or behaving have failed to earn a permanent place in our picture of the time. The suggestion is made that Paul's ideas on baptism, seeing it in terms of dying and rising with Christ (Rom 6:3–11 ), and perhaps John's on the eucharist, in terms of eating and drinking Christ's flesh and blood ( 6:51–8 ), have links to supposed beliefs of mystery cults or other esoteric sects, but the chronological difficulties in making some of these connections (especially if gnostic links are introduced) can scarcely be removed and the match of mental worlds is a long way from being exact (Wagner 1967; Wedderburn 1987 ). At points like these, there must be space for real Christian originality. On any showing, Paul and John were figures of great creativity. Equally, whatever the roots and affinities of his teaching, the impact of Jesus and his followers in the years following his lifetime was so great and so novel that it is vain to hope that every aspect of thought about him, every item of Christian observance, can be shown to be derived easily and directly from phenomena already present in one circle or another in the vastly diverse religious scene of the first-century Mediterranean world. Jesus, the new, unique factor, produced new patterns, new ways of looking at the world. In the gospel's own words, it really was a case of new wine even when there might be old bottles to contain it.


Let us look a little more closely at some of the varieties of Hellenized Jewishness, now Christianized, that are visible to us in the NT. With the possible exception of the author of Luke-Acts (and even he was imbued with Jewish lore and culture), every one of the main NT writers was almost certainly Jewish in birth and upbringing. But they exhibit a variety of styles of Jewishness as currently found in various parts of the Jewish world. None of them matches the sophisticated Platonized mentality that Philo of Alexandria was bringing to bear on traditional Jewish themes and biblical texts at precisely the time of Christianity's birth. But Matthew's gospel, for example, with its many scriptural quotations, is the work of someone skilled in the contemporary scribal techniques of biblical interpretation, as abundant examples in the Dead Sea scrolls have demonstrated (Stendahl 1968; Goulder 1974 ). The kind of training to which they testify, in a work written in Greek, comes most naturally from a Syrian context, affected by the methods elaborated in nearby Palestine and by issues (of law observance) that were hotly debated in the sectarian life of the Jewish heartland in the period (Sanders 1992 ). Paul and John show similar expertise in the handling of scriptural texts, and the former tells of his background in Pharisaism (Phil 3:5 ), which operated in a thought-world of such interpretation. John's gospel can be seen as a thoroughgoing reworking of scriptural themes and symbols (light, life, bread, shepherd, lamb), applying them to the determinative figure of Jesus.


Luke's reliance on the traditional Scriptures comes out in an ability to write in a Septuagintal style where the context demands it. So, while the stories of the birth of John Baptist and Jesus (1–2) contain no biblical quotations, their language is biblical from end to end, and the characters they depict evoke familiar scriptural figures, most obviously Hannah (1 Sam 2 ) in the case of Mary, but also couples such as Abraham and Sarah and Manoah and his wife (Jdt 13 ), who serve to create an ethos of profound biblical piety and solid embeddedness in history for the life of Jesus which follows. Luke is deeply imbued with biblical language and the biblical story.


The latter comes out in passages such as Stephen's speech (Acts 7 ), with its survey of Jewish history presented in a manner reminiscent of numerous Jewish writings (most notably and extensively the contemporary historian Josephus), including its mixture of example and warning. In the NT, the same feature appears in Hebrews, most explicitly in ch. 11 .


In the NT it is plain that we are reading the work of people soaked in the stories, images, themes and language of the Jewish Scriptures (chiefly in their Greek translation). This sense of thorough permeation comes across nowhere more strongly than in the Revelation of John, where there are no quotations yet almost everything is owed to a disciplined reflection on the books of Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Daniel in their own symbolic and linguistic terms. To call it pastiche would be to undervalue the degree of ingenuity and visionary creativity displayed in this reminting of old motifs in the light of Jesus and beliefs about his person and significance (Farrer 1949; Sweet 1979 ).


The Jewish background of the NT writings comes out as clearly and distinctively as anywhere in the cosmic framework within which their reflection on Jesus and his achievement is set. It is true that much Jewish religious energy went into the minutiae of the application of the Law to daily living, both in spheres that we should call secular and in matters of plain religious observance: Judaism drew no line between the two as far as the applicability of the Law was concerned. In other words, Judaism was (and is) a faith and a lifestyle that viewed the present with intense seriousness and subjected daily conduct to the closest scrutiny (Sanders 1985, 1992 ).


But alongside this concern with the details of present living, and to our eyes perhaps at variance with it, we find, sometimes (as at Qumran) in the same circles, an equally intense interest in the future destiny of the individual, of Israel, and indeed of the world as a whole. This concern with the future and with the cosmic dimension is part and parcel of the Jewish mentality which the first Christians inherited, and both in many of its characteristics and in its strength it differentiated Judaism from other speculative systems and ‘end-expectations’ of the time. This strength is generally thought to be closely related to the cohesiveness of the Jewish people (despite geographical dispersion) and to the many national catastrophes and disappointments they had endured. These pressures gave rise to extravagant and even desperate hopes of divine intervention and the restoration of Israel. But the power and grandeur of this understanding was enhanced by the strong underlying tradition of monotheism. It was the one God of the universe whose purpose would soon be fulfilled (Rowland 1982 ).


Christian expressions of this world-outlook, centring on the figure of Jesus as God's agent in the hoped-for intervention, are to be found in one form or another in most of the NT books, most notably in the Revelation, a work that is (apart from the letters in chs. 2–3) wholly couched in the idiom of apocalyptic, focused on the heavenly realities and the consummation about to be revealed.


But this perspective is by no means confined to Revelation. Jesus himself is depicted as imbued with it in all the gospels, but especially in the first three (Mk 13; Mt 24; Lk 17, 21 ; but also Jn 5:24–7 ). Not only does it therefore carry his authority, but its presence as an important constituent in these works lends to each of them as a whole an apocalyptic character: if the modern reader is inclined to skip over these passages, that is simply a symptom of the gap between then and now. Moreover, the actual expression of this feature goes well beyond the chapters that are formally labelled ‘apocalyptic’, extending, for example, to parables which look forward to cosmic judgement (eg Mt 13:36–43; 25:1–46; Lk 12:35–40 ). This placing of apocalyptic material cheek by jowl with narrative is already found in Jewish models such as Daniel and serves to place the story as a whole against a cosmic backcloth: we may seem to be reading about events in Galilean villages, but in fact the story is set in the context of the whole universe, heaven and earth and Hades. What is being described has a meaning far beyond that of earthly events and words, however impressive or profound. Further, while the Gospel of John has little explicit apocalyptic material in a formal sense, and its precise literary background is not easily defined, there is a good case for saying that in this work Jesus is seen in his entire career as a manifestation of the divine from heaven—with the consummation of God's purposes both embodied and so concretely anticipated in his life and death. It is a revelatory work par excellence (Meeks in Ashton (ed.) 1986; Ashton 1991 ).


Paul too clearly works within an eschatological frame-work that is apocalyptic or revelatory in character, that is, he sees history, under God's energetic providence, moving rapidly to a climax of judgement and of renewal for his people; and in expressing this conviction he uses the revelatory imagery familiar, in various forms and combinations, in Judaism. There will be judgement according to moral deserts (2 Cor 5:10; Rom 2:16 ); there will be a resurrection seen as the transformation of God's faithful ones into the form of spiritual bodies (1 Cor 15:35–56 ); there will even be what amounts to a new creation (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15 ).


For both Paul and John, especially, this picture is linked strikingly to the coming of Jesus and in effect given a new shape as a result of the conviction that the fulfilment of God's purpose centres on him. This conviction necessitates an intensifying of the apocalyptic sense and a shift in its temporal framework. If Jesus is the decisive revelation of God and agent of his purpose, then the process of cosmic consummation is already under way and those who adhere to him embody the fulfilment of Israel's hope. Here is the essential (and radical) amendment to the Jewish picture of things that makes for Christian distinctiveness. It may have taken some decades to be widely manifest and institutionally plain, but from our earliest source (the letters of Paul) the Christian movement was on its own new path. From a Jewish point of view, this was a fatal distortion of the heritage—especially when, already for Paul, it involved the free inclusion of Gentiles within the new people of God. From the Christian side, it is the goal to which all has tended. No wonder Christians immediately had to set about the appropriation of the old Scriptures—the agreed data—to their picture of things; no wonder the Scriptures were the battleground in the struggle to decide whose right it was to inherit the mantle of Israel's history and God-given privileges.


The attaching of a hitherto future hope to the career of Jesus, now past, and to the life of the church, the people that stemmed from him, was a decisive shift; all the more so when (as we shall see) that career was by no means the obvious match to the terms of that hope. In order to accomplish the shift, the apparatus or imagery of apocalyptic was the most readily available tool. So: Jesus was cast (and had perhaps cast himself) in the role of instigator of the fulfilment of God's purpose; the resurrection process began in his own rising on the third day; the Spirit of God, whose outpouring in a new God-given vitality was associated with the coming consummation, was already experienced in the Christian groups (1 Cor 12:1–13; Rom 8 ); judgement could be seen as linked to the act of adherence to Jesus or the refusal to make that act—to accept the shelter of his gift of overwhelming grace was to come safely to the far side of judgement and into a state of reconciliation with God (Rom 5:1–11; 2 Cor 5:17–21; Jn 5:24 ). It made a breathtaking offer and no wonder it was put in the most audacious terms.


Paul and John saw the implications of this reworking of old categories more clearly than others: it is certainly carried through in their work more thoroughly than in any other of the NT writings. For both of them, concentration on the decisiveness of Jesus is combined with a sense of driving on towards an assured end. The Jewish framework of the one God of the universe, the achieving of whose purpose of salvation will assuredly be realized, is preserved intact. What is new is, first, that it centres on Jesus and is seen as visibly guaranteed by his life, death, and resurrection (and that very attachment to an actual human career, capable inevitably of numerous assessments, opened the door immediately to controversy); and, second, that the fulfilment now has both an urgency and an institutional frame (the church). Only the Qumran sect could rival it in Judaism in this sense of urgency and expectancy, and that group lacked universality of vision and missionary drive, so that its failure to survive the Jewish rebellion of 66–73 CE is in no way surprising. By that time, the followers of Jesus, with their openness to all-comers, Jew and Gentile alike, were well established in the main towns and cities of the Mediterranean world.


Only in some of the later books of the NT (1 and 2 Tim, Titus, 2 Pet) do we begin to get a sense of the slackening of the kind of dynamism we have been noticing, a loss of the creative theological vision which had set the people of Jesus on their own distinctive path. The church is here just beginning to be the defender of a system, of both thought and organization, rather than the originator of a novel response to God's action in the world. Sociology teaches us to see such a development as inevitable (von Campenhausen 1969; Holmberg 1990 ). It is a remarkable fact about the Gospel of John that, in these same last years of the first century, it is able to produce a more thoroughly creative reworking of the traditional Jewish pattern of history, in the light of Jesus, than any other early Christian writing. Anyone inclined to think in terms of single-track, linear development should reflect that, with regard to the basic perspectives that we have been discussing, we find an essential community of mind between Paul, the first Christian writer of all, and John, writing towards the end of the period.


Anyone who knows about the ancient world will wish to raise questions about this account of the NT's cultural milieu. The pervasive Hellenizing of the life of the societies around the Mediterranean, especially in the East, must surely point to certain influences on which nothing has been said. Was this not a world in which the great philosophical achievements of Plato and Aristotle, not to speak of Stoics, Cynics, and Pythagoreans, were currents in the prevailing air? It has to be said that the great philosophies have left little trace in these writings. This is not wholly explained by their dominant Jewishness, for, as the case of Philo shows, Judaism was not in itself inimical to the Platonist idiom of thought. It is more a matter of the social strata from which the NT writers came. They were, by definition, not illiterate, but either their education was scriptural or scribal in content and manner or it stopped at a stage on the ladder below that where serious philosophical teaching would have occurred. All we get then is perhaps a few scraps of Stoicism, possibly affecting Paul's teaching on ‘nature’ in Rom 1 and 2:14–15 , and showing itself in the discussion of the divine in Acts 17:22–31 , and in a few other features; and, a subject of much current discussion, Cynic moral wisdom as a factor behind some aspects of Jesus' teaching. It is a disputed question, not so much whether parallels can be identified, as whether, in the circumstances of Jesus' Galilee (or indeed of the evangelists), Cynic influence is at all probable. The day was not far distant, however, when philosophy (chiefly Platonist and Stoic) was to provide a framework of thought in which Christian thinkers sought to operate. Within a few years of the writing of the last books to find a place in the NT (120 CE?), such attempts were beginning to get into their stride.

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