Absent from the Old Testament but prolific in the New Testament are various Jewish traditions, synagogues, sects, political leaders, and the Romans. Why was the New Testament originally written in Greek, and why did Jesus speak Aramaic? Was Herod a Jew or a Roman, how did he become so politically powerful, and why does his name appear in different historical periods? Why was there so much hostility in Jesus’ day? Why were scribes so prominent, and who were they? How is it that the Romans had so much control? Without a basic understanding of historical context, much of the New Testament is obscure if not virtually inexplicable.
Aramaic. The Aramaic language was the lingua franca of the East. While Hebrew was the traditional language of the Hebrew people, during and after the Babylonian exile Aramaic was adopted as their everyday vernacular. Jesus spoke Aramaic (cf. Mark 5:41; 7:34; 15:34). The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John employ Aramaic expressions (Matt. 5:22; 6:24; 16:17; 27:33, 46; Mark 3:17; 5:41; 7:34; 14:36; 15:22, 34; John 1:42; 20:16). The apostle Paul was fluent in Aramaic (Acts 21:40; 22:2; cf. 26:14), and in his extant writings Aramaic expressions are occasionally employed (Rom. 8:15; 1 Cor. 16:22; Gal. 4:6).1
Hellenism. The Greek language and culture increased in significance from the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. Koinē Greek developed and spread throughout most of the Mediterranean world, recognized as the lingua franca of the Roman Empire. It was the language of post-classical Greek literature, the Septuagint version of the Old Testament,2 the New Testament, and most early ecclesiastical writers. The world of Christ and the early church was markedly Hellenized.3
The Diaspora. Jewish dispersion began in 722 BC with the deportation of northern-kingdom Jews by the Assyrians, and further in 597 BC when the Jewish state was destroyed by the Babylonians. While multitudes of captives were taken to Babylon, many took refuge in Egypt (2 Kings 25:26; Jer. 41:17; 44:1). After the Babylonian exile, only a minority of Jews returned to Palestine. When Alexander the Great founded the city of Alexandria in Egypt, there was a sizeable population of Jews there (Josephus, Ant. 19.5; Ag. Ap. 2.4). Ptolemy I (322-285 BC) reportedly transferred 120,000 Jews from Judea to Egypt, with other Jewish immigrants later settling particularly around Alexandria (cf. Acts 6:9; 18:24). By the early 1st century AD, Jews were scattered throughout the Roman Empire, as far east as Parthia and as far west as Rome (cf. Acts 2:5, 9-11; 6:9).4 J. H. Kane observes: “The dispersion of the Jewish people was the greatest single factor in preparing the world for the coming of the Messiah and the preaching of the gospel” (A Concise History of the Christian World Mission 6).
Synagogues. In exile the Jewish people were separated from their temple and its rituals and sacrifices, so their religion had to be maintained through prayer and the study of their sacred writings. The synagogues provided meeting places for praying, scripture reading, and worship (cf. Acts 15:21), also functioning as courts, community centers, and schools. In Nazareth, where Jesus was raised, it was customary [eíōtha] for him to attend the local synagogue (Luke 4:16). He made frequent use of these gatherings in his earthly ministry.5 Paul’s customary evangelistic approach was to first target the synagogues of the Jews.6
Oral Tradition. The Jews in exile desired to make practical application of the Torah (Law) in their less-than-ideal circumstances, so “a body of oral tradition—interpretation and application—began to develop around the written Law of Moses to explain how to implement its commandments in new times and places” (C. L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels 10-11). While the written law was conveyed through copyists, according to some the oral law was transmitted by word of mouth all the way back to Moses (F. F. Bruce, NT History 73). During the Lord’s earthly ministry he clashed with certain ones elevating these traditions to the stature of divine precept (Matt. 15:2-6; Mark 7:3-13; cf. Gal. 1:14; Col. 2:8).
The Sanhedrin. The Old Testament prescribed courts of judges to rule in the affairs of the people (Ex. 18:21-22; Deut. 1:15-18; 17:9-12). When Judea was a temple-state under Hellenistic rule, the high priest had an advisory council for making judgments. During the Hasmonean era, John Hyrcanus’ son Alexander Jannaeus, king of Judea from 103 to 76 BC, presided over the Hasmonean court called “Sanhedrin.” Although Herod the Great deprived this council of most of its authority, when Judea became a Roman province in AD 6 the Sanhedrin regained control of Jewish internal affairs. The Greek sunédrion (“council”) can refer to a judicial assembly of 23 leading Jews (Matt. 5:22; 10:17; Mark 13:9) but is mostly used in the New Testament with reference to the Jewish Supreme Court in Jerusalem comprised of 71 members, including the high priest, representatives of Sadducean priestly families, learned Pharisees (scribes), and elders (Acts 4:5-6, 15; 22:30–23:7).7
--Kevin L. Moore
1 See Aramaic. When Hebraistí (the “Hebrew” language) is mentioned in the NT, it most likely refers to Aramaic as the spoken language of the Hebrew people at this time (John 5:2; 19:13, 17, 20; Acts 21:40; 22:2; 26:14; Rev. 9:11; 16:16). Sections of Ezra (4:8–6:18; 7:12-26) and Daniel (2:4b–7:28) were penned in Aramaic.
2 Produced in Alexandria, Egypt in the 3rd–2nd centuries BC, this would have been the scriptures of most early Christians. E. Ferguson notes, “The Septuagint was the most important literary event, perhaps the most important single development of any kind in the Hellenistic period, for the background of early Christianity” (Backgrounds of Early Christianity [3rd ed.] 436). Technically, the LXX was the Greek Pentateuch, with other documents translated and added later, although the label “Septuagint” is typically applied to the entire Greek OT (see K. H. Jobes and M. Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000]).
3 See Did Jesus Speak Greek?
4 Aquila was a Jew born in Pontus, who lived in Rome and then in Achaia (Acts 18:2); later he and his wife moved to Asia (Acts 18:18-19; 1 Cor. 16:19), then back to Rome (Rom. 16:3).
5 Matt. 4:23; 9:35; 12:9; 13:54; Mark 1:21, 39; 3:1; 6:2; Luke 4:15-44; 6:6; 13:10; John 6:59; 18:20.
6 Acts 9:20; 13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:1-2, 10, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8.
7 Matt. 26:57-59; Mark 14:53-55; 15:1; Luke 22:66; John 11:47; Acts 4:5-6, 15; 5:21, 27-41; 6:12-15; 22:30–23:10; 23:14-15, 20, 28; 24:20.
Image credit: https://southviewchurch.com/event/adult-christian-education-repeat/2017-09-17/