Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

Materials available for professors by request only


1. New Testament Background: The Roman World


This chapter should enable the student to

  • offer historical descriptions of four Roman rulers important to the New Testament (Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate, Herod Agrippa I) and describe what life was like for Jews and Christians under Roman rule.
  • describe a number of influential patterns of thought in the Roman world, including the major philosophical schools (Epicureanism, Stoicism, Cynicism), the mystery religions, and popular belief in animism, augury, and supernaturalism.
  • identify major tenets of Gnosticism and explain why this perspective or religious movement is significant for understanding the New Testament and later Christianity.
  • describe how people in the New Testament world tended to think about four social/cultural factors: wealth and poverty, patronage and loyalty, and honor and shame.

Pedagogical Suggestions

1. Ancient Moral Philosophy and Christianity

Have students turn to text page 24 on the major philosophical schools. Then, choose a few of the passages below (as time permits) and ask students to debate whether the figures (from the New Testament writings) would be more at home in one philosophy or another. What is the evidence they are using? What ideas are similar between the New Testament figure and the philosophical school? How are the actions or beliefs and views different?

  • Jesus sends the disciples: Matthew 10:5–15
  • Jesus and woman: Mark 14:3–9
  • Logos: John 1:1–18
  • John the Baptist: Matthew 3
  • Paul’s self-sufficiency: Philippians 1:12–26; 4:10–14
  • Paul’s diatribe: Romans 2:17–3:20
  • The Corinthian “libertines”: 1 Corinthians 5; 9:1–23
  • Peter and Paul in Acts: Acts 17:16–34; 19:1–20
  • Disciples debating: Mark 9:33–37; 10:35–45


The New Testament reflects the culture and time in which it was written. Many of the philosophical, social, and political ideas we find in Roman and Greek writers we also find in Jewish and Gentile Christian writers. Such comparison can help us to better locate and understand the New Testament writers and the figures about whom they write. For example, Paul’s thought is best understood in comparison to Jewish and Stoic frameworks. John the Baptist’s robe of camel skin and eating of locusts and honey sounds very strange, until we read of Crates and the lifestyle followed by other Cynic philosophers. Having students compare New Testament figures and ideas to contemporary philosophical figures and ideas can help students understand the degrees to which Christianity (and Judaism) participated in the cultures around and in them.

2. Group Think Activity

Have students turn to John 1:1–18 and/or 1 Corinthians 6:12–20; 8:1–13. After they read through the passages (this will work in small groups or as a class, with everyone on the same passage or on different passages) review the characteristics of second- through fourth-century gnosticism (text pp. 28–30). Why might scholars look at John 1 and consider this passage to contain some pre- or proto-gnostic ideas? Can you identify the phrases and concepts in John 1 that are most congenial to the gnostic worldview?

Turn to 1 Corinthians. Some scholars believe that there was a group of proto-gnostic thinkers among the Christian believers in Corinth. Paul is countering these proto-gnostic ideas. Can you identify the phrases and concepts that Paul may be confronting and correcting? What kinds of Christian thinking does Paul use to contrast and correct the proto-gnostic views?

Finally, turn to Matthew 24–25. Why might it be important for the author to include this particular story about Jesus’s resurrection appearance?


Although gnosticism did not fully develop until the second and third centuries, when it competed with Christianity for adherents, some scholars find gnostic ideas already circulating in first-century Christian groups. First, this exercise exposes students to gnostic ideas and the ways in which many New Testament texts fit nicely into gnostic frameworks and were later used by gnostic Christians. Second, the exercise asks students to examine specific texts and to think through two worldviews at the same time, that of the New Testament and that of the gnostic, in a compare and contrast analysis.

Discussion Prompts

  1. How does learning about the political situation in Palestine during the first century help in understanding the New Testament?
  2. What specific conflicts or challenges would the various philosophies and religions have presented to faithful adherence to Judaism?
  3. What is meant by “patronage” in this chapter (text pp. 31–32)? How does patronage use honor and shame as a kind of social currency?