Every culture has been shaped by historical influences. The initial reading audience of each New Testament document would have been familiar with its own history, as well as current events. Assumptions and subtle allusions did not have to be explained to them. Because modern readers are otherwise groping in the dark, knowledge of the New Testament’s historical context is indispensable.
Our focused investigation begins in the 4th century BC with the Hellenistic Age. From Alexander the Great (336 BC) to the Roman emperor Augustus (27 BC), Grecian influence was the predominant political and cultural force. This leads into the New Testament era, during and after which Rome is the controlling world power. The immediate foreground of the New Testament would extend at least to the second Jewish war with Rome in AD 132-135,1 and even further into the 4th century to the time of Constantine, reportedly the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity.2
While the entirety of Hebrew scripture provides much of the New Testament’s historical background, there is a gap of over three centuries separating the respective eras of the Old and New Testaments. At the end of Old Testament history the Persian Empire is dominating the world scene,3 whereas New Testament history opens (and closes) with the dominion of the Roman Empire. In between these two periods – the Intertestamental Period4 – the immediate background of the New Testament develops, “an understanding of which is essential to a correct interpretation of the situation of the Jews in the time of Jesus. Religiously, Judaism was transformed into a set of beliefs and practices often quite different from Old Testament religion…. numerous events occurred that prepared the way for the first-century world to be more receptive to the message of the gospel than in many other periods in history” (C. L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels 10).
Brief Historical Synopsis
“But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth his Son, having been born of woman, having been born under [the] law” (Gal. 4:4, author’s own translation). When New Testament history opens, the world scene in general and Judaism in particular are considerably different than where the Old Testament record leaves off. The nation of Israel had reached the height of its glory when David ruled as king (1010-970 BC) and on into the reign of his son Solomon (970-931 BC). Israel’s downfall ensued as the nation divided (931 BC), the northern kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians (722 BC), the southern kingdom was conquered by the Babylonians (597 BC), followed by seven decades of exile.5
The Persian Period
Also known as the Post-Exilic Period, concurrent with the end of Daniel’s life6 and the lives of Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Esther, Ezra, and Nehemiah, this segment of history covers about two centuries, from 539 to 331 BC. The dating in later Jewish writings coincides with the reigns of Persian kings (e.g. Dan. 1:21; Hag. 1:1; Zech. 1:1; Ezra 1:1; Neh. 2:1).
Having conquered the Babylonians in 539 BC, Cyrus the Great permitted the Jews to return to their homeland (2 Chron. 36:20-23). Darius I came to the throne around 521 BC, and in his sixth year the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple was completed (Ezra 6:15). His son Xerxes I (ca. 486-465 BC) is believed to have been the Ahasuerus [Persian title] in the book of Esther (cf. Ezra 4:6; Dan. 11:2). After the failed attempt of his father to conquer Greece in 492-490 BC (ending at the Battle of Marathon), Xerxes I ordered the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC, during which the famous Battle of Thermopylae occurred where King Leonidas’ 300 Spartan soldiers fought to the death. The following year Grecian troops forced the retreat of the Persians.
Artaxerxes I, the son of Xerxes I, ruled ca. 465-425 BC, and in his seventh year Ezra and other Jews moved from Babylon to Jerusalem to reform the Jewish state (Ezra 7:7). Nehemiah followed in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes’ reign to oversee the rebuilding of the city’s walls, and after a brief return to Babylon twelve years later, he moved back to Jerusalem to live out the rest of his days (Neh. 13:6). The last Persian king mentioned by name in the Hebrew scriptures is “Darius the Persian” (Neh. 12:22), which may refer to Artaxerxes’ successor Darius II (ca. 424-405 BC) or perhaps his great-grandson Darius III (ca. 336-330 BC),7 the last king of Persia, defeated by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, inaugurating a new age.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 This was the third Jewish-Roman war if the revolt of 115-117 (Kitos War) is counted. Following the last rebellion, the Romans banned the Jews from Jerusalem.
2 Galerius (305-311) continued his predecessors’ persecution of Christians for a time, but came to realize it accomplished no useful purpose and he issued the Edict of Toleration in 311. Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus (a.k.a. Constantine I) was recognized as emperor of the western regions as early as 306 and reigned over the entire Empire from 324 to 337. He issued the Edict of Milan in 313, granting toleration to all religions and allowing Christianity the right to exist with provisions for restitution. “In the first twenty years of the fourth century the whole situation changed, as the Emperor Constantine (274-337) progressively showed himself favourable to the new religion, accepted it as the religion of the state, and as the last act of his life accepted Christian baptism at the hands of his friend Eusebius of Nicomedia” (S. Neill, History of Christian Missions 39). It has been estimated that the number of Christians in the Roman Empire at least quadrupled in the century following Constantine.
3 See 2 Chron. 36:20-23; Neh. 12:22. Cyrus the Great established the Persian Empire in 550 BC and it continued until Alexander the Great defeated Darius III around 331 BC.
4 The description “Intertestamental” is a Christian designation based on the understanding of the New Testament as a collection of divinely inspired writings corresponding to the ancient Hebrew scriptures. Also called the Second Temple era – the period beginning with the rebuilding of the Jewish temple in the late 6th century BC and ending with its destruction in AD 70.
5 There were three major deportations into Babylonian exile: 597, 587, and 582 BC.
6 While Daniel’s prophetic career spanned the entire Babylonian exile (ca. 605-536 BC), he outlived the Babylonian Empire (Dan. 1:21; 10:1).
7 His original name appears to have been Artashata, but the Greeks called him Codomannus. He was the son of Arsames, son of Ostanes, son of Darius II.
Related Posts: Study of Ancient History, Historical Background NT Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6
Image credit: https://www.saatchiart.com/art/Painting-Old-books/299445/3396996/view