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NT Survey 111 Seminar 1 History Geography Settings

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Andrew Hodge                                                                                                 1st February 2007

NTES 111 New Testament Survey

Seminar 1

History, Geography and Settings of the New Testament

Jensen, Irving L. Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament 1978, Moody Press, Chicago pp15-94; Libronix

Discuss the Historical settings of the New Testament:

            Coming after, and built upon, the Old Testament, the New Testament introduces the promised Messiah Who is God’s Revealer-Redeemer (Hebrews 1:1-2a). In the OT, God spoke through the Prophets; in the NT, through His Only Begotten Son, and through writers (mostly apostles) all of whom were divinely inspired (2 Peter 1:21; 2 Timothy 3:16). The crux of the NT is the atonement provided for humanity by Christ and describes the consequences of this completed work for the saved.

            The NT is therefore the completion of the revelation of the OT - “the peak of its mountain” (Jensen p 15) - fulfilling its prophecy, recording the last words and work of Christ on earth, prophesying of the end times, and clear statements and interpretations of the Christian faith (Jensen p 16).

            The NT does not replace the OT. The NT is not fully appreciable without the OT as a basis (note lists Jensen pp 40, 41) and there are multiple NT references to the OT in the NT script. Nevertheless, fresh revelation from God to new writers occurred  “when the fulness of time was come”  (Galatians 4:4), ~445 years after revelation for the OT was complete. The first NT book - James - is thought to have been completed around 45 AD (Jensen Chart 1 p 20 and Chart 7 p 39). The OT was written over ~1100 years and the NT ~50 years with the 400 ‘silent’ years between.

            God’s revelation (Gk apocalypsis “uncovering” or “making clear”) in His written word is in addition to His God-given consciences, the general revelation of His creation, and when He spoke in direct conversation to individuals eg the patriarchs, Moses, etc. The written record is permanent, explicit and contains a large volume of revealed truth (Jensen p 17).

In exactly the same way as the OT, the NT is infallible in truth and final in authority in the original autographs. What we have in our hands today is not less so although the originals are no longer extant (a likely blessing in that they would be would be idolatrously worshipped. Nevertheless, having them would clear up a few minor controversies in interpretation although that too has been reduced by continuing scholarship and the discovery of early copies). No differences between the early copies and the original language text currently used for translation into any modern language make any difference to Christian doctrine or practice.

The historical development of the canon of Scripture has been dealt with in other Units. It is important to remember that the canon was not prescribed by a resolution of man at some Council, but the Canon gradually declared itself long before this by acceptance and usage within the early Church ie by divine direction (Jensen Chart 3 p26).

In Church usage, the 27 books were used as one Testament from the middle of the 4thC AD. Athanasius presented this list to the Council of Hippo in 393 AD where it was “ratified”, agreed to by Jerome and Augustine, and subsequently by the 3rd and 4th Councils of Carthage (397 AD and 419 AD). The delay (about 300 years) between the completion of the last book (Revelation) in 96 AD and these councils was not due to doubt about whether or not the 27 deserved inclusion - which was obvious, but whether the Antilegomena deserved inclusion. These additional books were products of men, largely influenced by Satan who is able to closely mimic Godly things. (Explain? 2 Corinthians 11:13-15).

The languages available to the NT writers were ordained by the Lord (“in the fullness of time”). The OT scriptures were available in Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek (the Septuagint, which was started ~280 BC and finished ~180 BC). This latter was important in that the Greek vocabulary of the OT was established in NT usage so that the use of koine Greek for the NT did not require any change in the meaning of the words. The vernacular koine of the NT generally uses quotes from the Septuagint OT rather than the Hebrew/Aramaic originals.1

The initial Greek of the NT was translated into Syriac for the races east of Palestine and occurred as early as the second century (Jensen p 29 - the Gospels and Acts - Map A) and a simple version of the whole scripture (Peshitta) was used by these Christians from 425 AD. Multiple other eastern versions followed (Jensen Map B p 30), but all the NT versions used in the West were based on the Latin Vulgate (Jerome 383-4 AD). Jerome completed the whole Bible in Latin by 405 AD and the Word was translated into some of the European languages after this.

Scriptures in English were made as the language itself developed - the KJV in ‘modern’ English by 1611 - an interesting study in itself. (Expound? Eg Jensen pp 32, 34).

The Historical settings of the NT are conveniently illustrated by considering the settings of the three main early NT cultures - Hebrew, Greek and Roman (Jensen pp 43-63).

Hebrew background

This is primarily religious because of God’s selection of the Jew as His chosen nation. They were the people to whom the Gospel was first sent (Romans 1:16). Matthew - the Gospel to the Jew - is placed first in the NT canon for their immediate attention.

As a consequence of the Babylonian exile (586 BC), by the time of Christ every major city in the known world had its large colony of Jews, there being thousands more in the towns and villages (diaspora). The missionary journeys of Paul went well out toward “the uttermost part of the earth” and Jews were among the first to be contacted (eg Acts 13:5).

The destruction of the Temple with the Exile forced changes in Jewish worship. The local meeting place - synagogue - developed and ceremonial sacrifice was replaced with prayer. The Levitical lineage and priesthood was kept up but its duties were necessarily far removed from the original Temple service. The offices of Rabbi and scribe developed in Exile (pp 43, 45).

1The International Bible Encyclopedia  Fully Revised 1956 - 1988  Geoffrey W. Bromiley General Editor, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan IV, 400

The purpose of God to expunge idolatry was certainly achieved and the returnees to Israel in 536 BC were - initially at least - monotheistic. The Exile also spawned  two layers of additional Rabbinical writings around the Torah - the Mishna (‘rules of living’) and Haggada (Rabbinical theology and commentary) - together termed the Talmud. Subsequent rigid adherence to these ‘traditions’ and formalism in worship and thinking made the Levitical Jews of Jesus’ time anti-spiritual and anti-God despite their protestation to the contrary. They were blind to the God behind their Scripture.

Large numbers of Jews migrated to Alexandria in Egypt at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem 2, becoming almost a half of the population of this city by 332 BC. Because of these large numbers, Alexandria became the capital of the Diaspora, and what happened here was to influence the Jewish nation for centuries to come. (How?) One of the spin-offs was the Septuagint.

During the ‘silent’ years the Jews multiplied in Egypt to about one half of the number who took part in the Exodus (ie ~1 million) and contact with the remnant Jews in Jerusalem was apparently ‘very close’ (p 45).

About 50,000 Jews had migrated back to Jerusalem from Exile in 536 BC under Zerubbabel and eventually the majority surrendered faith for works (as told in Malachi). There remained a small faithful remnant by the time of our Lord (eg Luke 2:25-38). Two ruling Jewish classes evolved in the silent years running up to the first Advent - the Pharisees and Sadducees (comparison table Jensen p 46). There being no Jewish separation of religion and State, these two groups became both religious and political opponents.

Another change in the order of worship occurred during the Exile.  J.I.Packer notes:” But following the Exile, all those who claimed to be priests had to prove their descent from Aaron before they were admitted (Ezra 2:61–63; Neh. 7:63–65)” 3 ie he believes that all Levites were priests prior to the destruction of the Temple in 586 BC. (Is this actually true? eg Judges).

The Sadducees were a relatively unpopular party of the aristocratic priesthood who denied physical resurrection and future punishment and the existence of angels and spirits.

The Pharisees were the larger party of religious leaders often identified with the scribes (p 46). Their doctrine was frequently sound (possibly one of the reasons why they were more popular than the Sadducees) but they were rigid legalists and by the time of Jesus their religion was spiritually empty (eg Luke 11:37-54).

During the Maccabean Period Palestine was geographically divided into three regions - Judea, Samaria and Galilee.

In 63 BC the Roman General Pompey conquered Palestine for Rome. Judea, containing Jerusalem, was the most powerful region by default, and Pompey established the league of ten cities (Decapolis) to the SE of the Sea of Galilee to restore a balance of power (why was this really needed - unless the Maccabees were still troublesome and Rome was expecting peaceful self rule?).

Rome appointed rulers, beginning with Antipater - a Jew of Idumea - in 47 BC, who was succeeded by Herod (the ‘Great’) in 37 BC, reigning through to 4 BC.

2Booth, H. K. The Background of the Bible  New York: Scribner’s 1930 p 130 quoted in Jensen, Irving L. Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament 1978, Moody Press, Chicago footnote 8 p 45

3 J.I. Packer, Merrill Chapin Tenney and William White, Nelson's Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible, 407 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1995).

He styled himself as the King of the Jews, demonstrating rapid opposition to the news of the coming Messiah. He was therefore the king responsible for the slaughter of all Hebrew male children under two years at the time of Christ’s birth. He also

wished to ingratiate himself with the Palestinian ‘real’ Jews and between 20 and 10 BC he had Jewish craftsmen build the majority of a Temple on the site of Solomon’s and the post-Exilic Temples. Work continued on this building almost up to the time it was destroyed in 70 AD.

Greek background

            The Greek contribution to the “fullness of time” is largely cultural - in particular language and philosophy. At the time of Christ there were several dominant cultures in the known world but the lingua franca was Greek, the political power of Rome being  a ‘reservoir’ for the repository of Greek culture which had always ‘conquered’ Roman culture.

Hence the proclamation of the Gospel in this language could indeed go to the uttermost part of the earth. The Septuagint was easily joined to the NT writings because not only were they in the same language, but the words written over 200 years before had come to acquire clear sacred meaning. Greek being a relatively precise language, God’s whole Law and counsel could be understood as a complete package for the first time.

            Apparently Jesus and the early evangelists also spoke Aramaic (Why? Was it actually useful in preaching the Gospel? Why not Hebrew?).

            The Greek philosophers whose thinking influenced those living at the time of Christ were Plato (427-347 BC), Aristotle (384-322 BC), Zeno (c. 300 BC) and Epicurus (c. 300 BC) Jensen p 52.

Roman background

            The Romans complete the spectrum of conditions which made the world ready to receive its Messiah. Their contribution was political and social. Law and order - pax Romana - had resulted in a world that was at peace. It would be several hundred years before this peace would be disturbed in the events leading up to the fall of the Roman Empire. The unifier of the peace was the Roman Emperor who inevitably came to be worshipped, along with a confused and confusing mixture of gods. The more spiritually-aware middle classes sought meaning in life and imported deities from Egypt (Isis and Osiris), Persia (Mithras) and Asia Minor (Cybele) Jensen p 53. There was therefore an unavoidable clash with Christianity.

            World communication under Rome was complete and expedited mail and travel eg Paul’s missionary journeys.


Examine the Political settings of the New Testament:

                        Apart from the influence of the Maccabees (165-63 BC), Jewish history was dominated by other nations - Persian, Alexandrian, Egyptian, Syrian, (Maccabean) and Roman in that order. Rome was in power in Palestine from 63 BC having gradually risen as a world power from 400 BC (Jensen Chart 8 p 47) as the other powers had declined. Christ was born ~5 BC (explain - see footnote 10 p 47) in the reign of the first Roman Caesar, Augustus (30 BC-14 AD), and His ministry was undertaken during the reign of the next Caesar, Tiberius (14-37 AD. Jensen Chart 12 pp 60-61).

            During the silent years the Jewish nation was favoured by Alexander (why?) and many became thoroughly Hellenised in ways, customs and language, discarding their Hebrew heritage. There was a period of self-rule during the Egyptian ascendancy (324-204 BC), followed by a period of savage persecution during the dominance of the Syrians (204-165 BC) until ‘rescued’ by the Maccabeans. In addition to the external conflict, there was an internal struggle within Jewry between Hellenised Jews and Hasidic Jews. The latter resisted all forms of dilution of Jewish heritage and the Pharisees came largely from this group.

            Under the Herods (see above), there was little interference from Rome. The Jews paid taxes and were subject in their secular lives to their Roman governors. However, underneath the surface, all was not well. James Stalker describes the Jewish world to which Jesus came: “A nation enslaved; the upper classes devoting themselves to selfishness, courtiership, and scepticism; the teachers and chief professors of religion lost in mere shows of ceremonialism, and boasting themselves the favorites of God, while their souls were honeycombed with self deception and vice; the body of the people misled by false ideals; and seething at the bottom of society, a neglected mass of unblushing and unrestrained sin”.4 The right time indeed for spiritual and social revolution.

            The action of the NT takes place entirely within the Roman Empire which was largely the whole of the known world at the time. Palestine, although small, still remained important because of its strategic and economic location as the corridor between the northern and southern portions of the Empire, and its location on the fertile crescent.

            Jensen makes a point of describing the functions of the various levels of Roman Government in order to dispel confusion regarding Biblical terms used to describe them eg Emperor/Caesar in Rome eg Tiberius; King eg Herod and his successors who ruled Palestine in various parts at various times, sometimes concurrently; Governor/Procurator - a ruler directly responsible to Rome for taxation and administering law eg Pilate, Felix, Festus; other titles eg Roman Proconsuls - appointed for limited time but with complete power eg Sergius Paulus and Gallio.

            Each local Jewish community had religious leaders who moulded the personal and religious lives of the citizens. This was especially so in Jerusalem where the Temple was served and ruled by the High Priest and the Sanhedrin which acted as the highest court in the land, in spite of what the Romans may have preferred. When the matter was of extreme importance, the Jews used the Romans to achieve what they could not legally accomplish eg the crucifixion of Christ.

Contrast the Religious Groupings of the New Testament:

            See above.

            Note Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, lawyers who have forgotten God in the law they represent; faithful Jewish remnant; large middle class seeking for meaning; lower class in open sin.

            Note also widespread idolatry in Jew (Hellenised and Romanised) and Gentile (pagan).



Evaluate the Topography and Geography of the Middle East in NT times:

            The Gospels, Acts and the missionary journeys of Paul remind us that history involves real people and therefore occurs in real places in real past time.

            Maps of the NT world (Jensen Map E p 64), Palestine during Jesus’ ministry (Map F p 65), Jerusalem in New Testament Times (Map G p 67), the plan of Herod’s Temple (Jensen p 68) and Palestine’s topography (Jensen Map H p 70 and others) are included in the Appendix with notes.





4James Stalker  The Life of Jesus Christ  Revised Edition  Westwood, N.J.: Revell 1891 pp 35-36 quoted in Jensen, Irving L. Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament 1978, Moody Press, Chicago footnote 15 p 49


Share the reasons for the timing of the writing of the New Testament:

            See above.



Compare and contrast the impact of the various Religious and Political groups of the New Testament period:

            See above.

            If the synagogue developed during the Exile, why did it not disappear with the post-Exilic Temple and why was it a prominent feature of Jewish worship in Jesus’ time when Herod’s Temple was available?






Jensen, Irving L. Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament 1978, Moody Press, Chicago Map E p 64

Jensen, Irving L. Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament 1978, Moody Press, Chicago

Palestinian topography:

New Bible Atlas  J.J.Bimson et al  InterVarsity Press  Lion Publishing  Leicester  England 1985  p 9

New Bible Atlas  J.J.Bimson Ed. et al  InterVarsity Press  Lion Publishing  Leicester  England 1985  p 8. Section through line Tel Aviv - Jerusalem as in map above

Jensen, Irving L. Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament 1978, Moody Press, Chicago

1. Coastal Plain: few cities because no navigable harbours

2. Shephelah (Lowlands): many cities because of fertile soil

3. Judean (Cis-Jordan) Hills: average elevation 2000 feet (700 meters). The two major north-south trade routes were either through these hills or along the Jordan valley. Many cities built in the Judean Hills because of the natural fortifications.

4. Rift Valley: Average width 10 miles (16 km). Toward the northern end is the fresh water, pleasant and fertile Sea of Galilee which supported large populations. It lies 140 meters below sea level and descends a further 330 meters in the Jordan River to the Dead Sea. South of the Sea lies the Arabah - a hot dry unpopulated desert,

5. Trans Jordan Hills: rugged, few settlements

6. Plateau: used for grazing livestock. Not much NT action here.

Jensen, Irving L. Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament 1978, Moody Press, Chicago p 67

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