THE BLOG
06/08/2013 11:48 pm ET Updated Aug 08, 2013

The New Testament in Historical Context

When I'm invited to teach in churches, I often invite questions from the group before I begin my planned presentation. I call this "building an agenda," a process that helps me understand where people are coming from and helps the audience pursue the questions they care about.

The overwhelming majority of questions I receive involve historical matters.

Moreover, in churches, in academic classrooms, and in private conversations I'm still amazed at how many popular misconceptions shape people's approaches to the New Testament. Many posit that Jesus "liberated" people from Judaism, as if Jesus himself were not Jewish and as if his teaching did not emerge from the rich soil of popular Jewish wisdom. Many assume the Bible was created by a bunch of bishops during the third century, presumably in a smoke-filled room. Many just "know" that "Women were only property in the ancient world." And don't get me started about the Pharisees. They get blamed for everything.

Misconceptions like these skew our understanding of the New Testament, often in ways that hinder our faith development and our ability to engage the world in constructive ways. If you really care about understanding the New Testament in its historical context, I'd like to recommend three new publications that offer lots of specific help.

My first recommendation is "The Annotated Jewish New Testament," edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. This study Bible is so valuable I may require my seminary students to purchase it. It includes introductory essays to each NT book, explanatory footnotes that accompany the text, and incredibly helpful essays, all contributed by leading scholars in the field. Wonder about Jewish family life in the first century? Ross Kraemer can help you with that. Want to know understand the Pharisees from their own point of view? Daniel Schwartz is on the case. How did Jews really relate to the Law? Jonathan Klawans will open your eyes. Levine's piece, "Bearing False Witness: Common Errors Made about Early Judaism," is worth the price of the book. Now that I've written this paragraph, I've realized: I will require this book for future courses.

Lots of the questions I receive relate to the major historical developments that shaped the New Testament and should inform our interpretation of it. Warren Carter's "Seven Events That Shaped the New Testament World" reflects the instincts of an expect teacher. If we want fully to understand why matters of diet, Sabbath, and circumcision marked Jewish identity in the first century CE, Carter's chapter on the Maccabean Revolt and the rededication of the temple in 164 B.C.E. spells that out. Carter's other chapters include the death of Alexander the Great (why is the entire NT in Greek?), the translation of the Jewish Bible into Greek (what Bible did the early Christians use?), the Roman occupation of Judea (how did the Roman presence affect Jewish daily life, and how did Jews and Jesus followers relate to the empire?), Jesus' crucifixion (why did Romans crucify people, and how did Jesus followers interpret Jesus' fate?), the writing of the New Testament texts and the "closing" of the New Testament canon (how did we get our New Testament?). Clearly written and helpfully organized, Carter's book will prove valuable to lots of readers. I might assign it too.

Finally, many readers assume that the New Testament is a "Christian" book and not a "Jewish" one. David A. deSilva's "The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Early Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha" reveals the profound influence of popular Jewish literature for major parts of the New Testament and how fundamentally Jewish was Jesus' teaching. Simply, many parts of the New Testament are thoroughly Jewish, albeit shaped by devotion to Jesus and his teaching. (The term "Christian" is exceedingly rare in the New Testament.)

Moreover, many people ask about the literature that did not make it into our Bible, and deSilva shows how wisdom literature like Ben Sira, apocalypses like Enoch, legends like Tobit, and other apocryphal and noncanonical texts relate to Jesus' ministry and influence the teaching in James and Jude. I'm not persuaded (yet) that James and Jude, the actual brothers of Jesus, wrote the books that bear their names, but deSilva shows us how thoroughly Jewish those books are. I will not assign this book for introductory classes. David DeSilva, an excellent teacher himself, writes clearly and accessibly, but this is a more academic book with more than 60 pages of footnotes and bibliography. If you wonder about the Jewishness of early "Christianity" or about those important books that didn't find their way into Protestant Bibles, read this book.