I started a new class this term; Second Temple Jewish Backgrounds which focuses on the environment in which Jesus was raised and ministered, which is considerably different from that of the Old Testament. This culture shift seems obvious when considering the 400 years which passed between the writing of Malachi, the last book of the Protestant canon, and Matthew, the first book of the New Testament. In that time the Jewish people were not in a state of stasis, and neither were the surrounding political powers. So, while Jesus was rooted in the Law and Prophets, he was planted in a world very different. To quote one of our texts:
Jesus did not come as a cultureless, amorphous, genderless human being. He came as a first-century Jewish man, with unique chromosomes and physical features, just as each of the rest of us is unique. His cultural specificity does not mean that he was not for all of us; it means instead that he could better identify with all of us as a particular person (28).
I find this quote to be true, and as you start to read the background information, it becomes clear that it is. In our first discussion board interaction pertaining to the statement that the Old Testament is not the immediate background of Jesus, one of my classmates made an astute observation. He mentioned that as much as the war for American independence is a part of our story, the events September 11, 2001, and the war on terrorism form a more direct role in defining our present setting. Strikingly, the timeframe of these events is only about half that of which passed during the intertestamental period!
Having taken Historical Geography of Ancient Israel as well as Ancient Near Eastern Backgrounds of the Old Testament, I strongly believe studying the background of the Bible is of utmost importance. One area in which this background has been helpful is in understanding how the Jewish people could be so blind to Jesus being the long-awaited Messiah. And why on earth would they choose to release Barabbas, a murderer (English Standard Version, Mk. 15:6-15) and a robber (Jn. 18:40), as opposed to Jesus who never killed anyone? However, understanding that the common messianic expectation was that of a warrior-king who would rebel against Roman oppression and free the Jewish people helps to clarify this scenario. Also of note is the recognition of a variety of forms of anti-government social banditry. The most common term in the Greek sources for this type of active resistance is lestes (Blasi 255). Josephus employs this term to describe a “band of robbers” executed by Herod (Ant. 14.9.2), an action which brought cries of protest from the people which caught the attention of the Hasmonean king of Judea. Josephus writes “Hyrcanus was so moved by these complaints, that he summoned Herod to come to his trial for what was charged upon him” (14.9.4). While this event may be related merely to disdain for Herod, it is also equally likely an indication of popular support for a group opposing foreign rule. The term lestes is used to describe Barabbas in the New Testament (John 18:40). If John’s use of the word lestes carries the indication of social banditry and active government resistance it is understandable how the crowds would choose to release him (Jn. 18:39-40) over Jesus. Barabbas was an active rebel who got immediate results, while Jesus endorsed paying taxes to Rome (Lk. 20:25).
I do believe a person can study the Bible without the background and still come to a saving faith and understanding of the text. However, learning the background lends a further dimension to understanding. It is akin to studying the text in its original language. Because, Of course, culture is a language, and ours is very different to theirs. So, to accurately translate one must have a clear understanding of both languages.
As much as I see the value in studying the background of the Bible, I do have one reservation and one fear. I am a Christian; I see the Bible as authoritative, inspired, and inerrant. My reservation is in using background sources, how much value do I place on them? Are there areas of conflict which would compromise my view of the integrity of the Bible?
My fear can perhaps be related to the effect of raising secondary sources above the Bible. I look at people like Bart Ehrman, and Raza Aslan and am terrified of becoming like them! Now, in full disclosure I have not read Aslan’s work Zealot, but I have read enough critical reviews to understand how his presuppositions have tailored his conclusions. Ehrman, on the other hand, is a different story. He studied the Bible and concluded that there were too many variants for it to be reliable, and is now an agnostic atheist. To top it off he started at Moody Bible Institute! My fear is that I would become like him, again. I was raised without actually knowing Jesus and turned to Wicca with my mom in 1996, and about eight years later I moved into a hostile form of atheism. I know what it is like to live in darkness masquerading as light. A part of me knows that I would never return, but another part of me is terrified that I could. I recognize the fact that I fear it suggests that it will not happen, for if I didn’t have the Spirit, I would probably be ambivalent to the risk, so in that sense it is an irrational fear.
But still, I pray that I keep the word of God first and foremost and not elevate other works above it. I think that as long as I continue to study the Scripture and maintain and open relationship with God through Christ that I truly have nothing to fear.
- Blasi, Anthony J., Paul-André Turcotte, and Jean Duhaime. Handbook of Early Christianity: Social Science Approaches. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2002.
- English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2007.
- Josephus. “Antiquities of the Jews.” Internet Sacred Text Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Apr. 2017.
- Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary New Testament. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2014.