Nijay K. Gupta
Someone once told me: If the biblical text is the “soul” of Scripture, the ancient historical and social context is the “body” of Scripture. God doesn’t communicate to us in spite of the ancient context, but through it. Because of this, it’s our responsibility to learn about the history, culture and values of the people of the Bible.
We need to catch up on what the original readers of Romans or Revelation would have already known. That involves knowing about Jewish history and culture, since Jesus was a Jew and the gospel springs forth from the God of the Jewish people. It also involves knowing the Graeco-Roman world, since Jesus and the New Testament writers lived in the first century AD.
There are three reasons to study the ancient context of the New Testament
- To help make unclear things clear. There are many confusing phrases in the New Testament. For example, the risen Lord tells Paul: “It hurts you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). What’s a goad? A “goad” is a poking stick used to move animals in a particular direction.
- To enrich the reading of texts that are basically clear. You know Jesus stilled the stormy sea (Mark 4:37–39). But did you know that about 175 years before Jesus was born, an arrogant and evil Graeco-Syrian ruler named Antiochus Epiphanes claimed that he was strong enough to “command the waves of the sea” (2 Maccabees 9:8)? Every Jew in the first century ad would have known this, since Antiochus was well-known for his cruelty toward the Jews.
- To understand how the early Christians and Jesus were like—and not like—their contemporaries and neighbors. Have you heard that while the apostle Paul would have agreed with Greek philosophers on the importance of deep friendships (see Philippians), he would have disagreed with these same philosophers on humility being a virtue (see 1 Corinthians)? He, of course, thought it was.
You don’t need to be a scholar to fix the contextual “body” to the “soul” of Scripture. Two books can help you understand the context of Scripture.
First, check out the Dictionary of New Testament Background, which is arranged topically. Have you ever wondered who the Pharisees or Sadducees are? What’s in the Dead Sea Scrolls? Why the New Testament authors wrote in Greek? It’s in there.
Or, you could try The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Take the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. The Samaritan woman brings up the Jewish-Samaritan controversy: whether the temple of God should be in Jerusalem (according to the Jews) or on Mount Gerizim (according to the Samaritans). The Bible Background Commentary tells us that just over a century before this conversation, a Jewish ruler named John Hyrcanus enslaved Samaritans and destroyed their temple. While Jesus talks to this Samaritan woman, her temple still lies in ruins. You can see how this would be a touchy subject! The next time you’re curious about a biblical person, place or event, remember that you need context. And helpful information is just a flip of a page or a click away.
I know how important this is from experience.
How Learning Some History Changed My View of Romans
What is the book of Romans about? It’s about the righteousness of God and the saving work of Christ that destroys the power of sin. It’s about living in the “newness of life” through the Spirit, as we Christians cling to the death and resurrection of Christ. However, my whole view of Romans was shaken when I was told something else: Romans is also about how God views Jews and Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews). In order to really get this, I needed to understand the social and historical context of the letter.
Imagine this: The first church in Rome was founded entirely by Jews who formed their worship community around Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. While they held some reservations about Gentiles joining their church, they ultimately felt that it was acceptable and right to be an inclusive community.
However, the emperor Claudius banished Jews from Rome in 49 AD because he was annoyed at the disturbances among them related to “Chrestos” (probably referring to Jesus Christ). Because of this, the Gentiles were no longer the minority in the Roman church. They naturally took over leadership.
After about seven years, the expelled Jews were allowed to return to Rome and to their church. Who would be in charge? The arguments probably went like this:
Okay. Thanks for holding down the fort while we were away. We are ready to take back the reins of operation here.
Wait a minute. We remained faithful in your absence to the task of running things here. We should stay in control.
Their arguments could easily turn into a battle over whom God favored.
The early parts of Romans, while applicable to many groups and people, seem to address very specific problems going on in Rome. Paul rebukes those who judge, and he tells them to leave it to God (2:1–2). God does not play favorites (2:11).
When I first encountered this background information, it changed how I read Paul’s letters. Using the resources in this article, you can also make these types of connections.
All biblical references are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).