Historical and Socio-Cultural Background of New Testament


The New Testament is the shorter and second part of the Bible. It covers a few decades unlike the Old Testament, which covers many hundreds of years.It is a compendium of the religious beliefs and teachings of Christianity.

The New Testamentis not a single composition by a person but a collection of 27 books composed in Greek by various persons from different locations. The New Testament can be interpreted in many ways. Several millions of persons view the New Testament as Holy Scripture and accept its teachings for their systems of belief.

Some scholars regard it as fine literature that presents religious ideas in a form of beautiful poetry. Some others focus on its philosophical and ethical ideas, which are a guide to the right way of living.

The New Testament books were composed in Palestine of the first or second century while it was still under the Roman Empire. Much of its content is sourced from Jewish beliefs and rituals as Jesus, and his followers were mostly of Jewish origin.

Therefore, Jewish and Greco-Roman culture influences the economic, social and political background of the New Testament. Even Judaism was not a single system of beliefs or traditions but contained deep divisions. These divisions are apparent in The New Testament stories.

The Jewish population was divided into four main groups: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots. Pharisees and Sadducees emerged during the period of Jewish independence under the Hasmonean dynasty.Their beliefs often overlap those of New Testament scribes.

The Pharisees were experts in the Old Testament and prescribed to the Jews what was right and wrong. They stressed on the belief that to be worthy of God’s blessings; one must keep the Laws of Moses and please God in every way possible. They were similar to early Christians in that they practiced preaching of God’s word, singing hymns and offering prayers. They also believed in the resurrection of the dead.

The Sadducees, on the other hand, denied all the beliefs of the Pharisees just like the conflict between Epicureans and Stoics in Ancient Greece. The Sadducees did not deny God per se but denied the belief in the resurrection of the dead or afterlife. They belonged mostly to the aristocratic class and rejected the oral laws added to the written scriptures by the Pharisees. They dominated the Sanhedrin (the Supreme high court of the Jews). But because of such strong political ties, they could not survive the Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

The Pharisees believed in the forgiveness of sins by good works in this life while the Sadducees believed in the forgiveness of sins through the Holy Temple. Hence, with the destruction of the Temple, the Sadducees disappeared from history.

The Essenes were the monks, the separatists or the ascetics. Evidence of their beliefs comesfrom the Dead Sea scrolls discovered after World War II. They were waiting for two Messiahs: one, priest and other, a king. They stayed away from the corrupt world andfollowed daily rituals and a community lifestyle. They believed in bowing down to Roman authority but to wait for a historical intervention by God.

The final group was the Zealots. This group of Jews, who revolted against Roman rule wasslaughtered brutally in a revolt that took place between AD 67 and AD 70. They believed that God would help them if they acted themselves by taking up arms and rebelling against Rome.

The existence of these four groups indicates the rigid social hierarchy in the New Testament times. The New Testament reverses this hierarchy by stipulating that one’s level of purity or closeness to God was not through birth in these social scales but by repentance and following the teachings of Jesus.

The authors of the New Testament never intended to replace the Old Testament. The early Christian writings aimed to be useful documents, responding to the special needs of the nascent Christian church. The term New Testament was first used only after the passing of 100 years after Christ to refer to a sacred, single unit. The New Testament came to be regarded as the fruition of Old Testament prophecies.

To study the New Testament (NT) in its literary form, one needs to understand its historical context. Most authors of the NT speak on issues relevant to their time. The reactions and motivations of characters in the NT can be understood as per the different cultural forces in Biblical times. Even as historical factors influenced the NT, the NT had a crucial impact on history.

The books in the NT can be divided into three broad categories. The first part is the Four Gospels: written by Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John. The meaning of Gospel is “Good News.” The Good News proclaimed in the Gospels are the teachings, life, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The Gospels lead the writings of the NT with Mathew’s Gospel placed first.  This is because the Gospels are not arranged according to chronology but according to importance. The four Gospels were written around 65 to 110 AD with firstwritten being Mark and the last, John.

The second section of the NT is the Letters from Paul. It was written by Paul of Tarsus, an early Christian missionary, who preached the Gospel all over the Roman Empire to Gentiles and Jews alike. Paul has written letters to various communities around the Mediterranean about points of Christian doctrine and guiding new Christians in the path of faith.

By the 2nd century AD, Christians had collected 13 letters attributed to Paul and all letters were identified by the community to which they were addressed: Corinthians (1 and 2), Romans, Ephesians, Galatians, Colossians, Philippians, Timothy (1 and 2), Thessalonians (1 and 2), Philemon and Titus. In 4th century AD, a 14th letter- Hebrews was accepted by the Western as well as Eastern Churches. The origin and authorship of these letters are hotly debated but most regard them as the earliest Christian texts, which Paul wrote around 50 AD.

The next section in the NT is the Acts of the Apostles. It continues on the Gospel according to Luke. The Acts recount the growth of the early Church from Jerusalem to the entire Gentile world. The lead actors in this section are Peter, the leader of the Apostles of Christ and Paul of Tarsus, the first great missionary.

Also, in the NT, are seven letters (1 and 2 Peter, James, Jude and 1, 2 and 3 John). Finally, there is the Book of Revelation written in the end of 100 AD, about the return of Jesus at the end of the world.