Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

Materials available for professors by request only


2. New Testament Background: The Jewish World


This chapter should enable the student to

  • summarize the basic history of the Second Temple Period, which forms the background for the events and writings of the New Testament.
  • identify basic characteristics of five Jewish groups in Palestine during the time of Jesus (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, Herodians) and likewise identify basic characteristics of the Samaritans and gentiles who inhabited Palestine at this time.
  • describe the divergent influences of Hellenism on Jewish people in Palestine and in the Diaspora, with particular reference to the prominence of wisdom theology, dualism, and apocalypticism.

Pedagogical Suggestions

1. Jerusalem Demographics and Ideologies

Create a mock Jerusalem. Divide the class into seven groups (one for each of the seven representative groups of people living in Jerusalem in the first century). Ask the groups to reread the section in the text that corresponds to their assigned group (text pp. 40–47). Next, have the students, as representatives of their social, religious, or political group, write out a declaration of their political and social platform for public presentation. Finally, as time allows, ask these representatives to respond to a set of (imagined or recorded) proposals from the emperor, king, procurator, the Jerusalem Sanhedrin, or Jesus’s teachings. How would their group respond to each of the following proposals?

  • to ban texts containing ideas of resurrection (Sanhedrin)
  • to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Jesus)
  • to tax all Jerusalem Temple sacrifices in the name of Caesar (procurator)
  • to allow the setting up of a bust of Caesar in every person’s home (Herod)
  • to declare a day of sacrificing to the emperor and sharing the food with the poor (procurator)
  • “I didn’t come to destroy the law, but to uphold the law!” (Jesus)
  • to recognize the laws of God’s Torah as binding only in the Temple (Sanhedrin)that whatever enters the body is clean (Jesus)
  • to expand the Jewish Law to include the apocryphal books in Greek (Diaspora Jews)
  • to ban theological debates on God’s coming judgment (Sanhedrin)
  • to outlaw circumcision as an uncivilized practice (emperor)
  • to provide scholarships for those upper class families willing to send their sons to Rome for schooling (emperor)
  • to renew the practice of a mandatory temple tax on all Jews (Sanhedrin)
  • to appoint a new high priest of the temple on Mount Gerazim (Samaritans)
  • to throw a party to inaugurate the new gymnasium in Sephoris (Herod)
  • that faithfulness to God means purifying your hearts, not your dishes (Jesus)
  • to publically recognize the temple on Mount Gerazim as the official place of worship of the God of Abraham (Samaritans)
  • to outlaw marriage to “foreigners” and allow only ethnically pure marriages (Pharisees)
  • to build an addition onto the Jerusalem Temple (Herod)
  • to create a special tax that the middle class (teachers, workers, artisans) must pay annually (Herod)
  • to go after the black market weapons traders in Galilee (procurator)
  • to choose a day to celebrate and recite the psalms of David as part of God’s holy scripture (Jesus’ followers)
  • to love one’s neighbor as the Good Samaritan did (Jesus)
  • to celebrate the wedding of a Jewish collector of taxes hired by Rome (Jesus)
  • to recognize that casting out demons is God’s will (Jesus)
  • to use temple funds to build a Roman aqueduct (Herod)


This exercise aims to help students understand the complexities of first-century Judaism and to debunk the sense that Judaism is a monolithic religion—in any time period. It also encourages students to move from passive learning (absorbing facts) to active application of ideas that may not have clear answers and require them to think logically of an answer that can be defended from textual evidence.

2. A First-Century Mediterranean Village

This exercise is based on a socio-analytical model of the world that presents the world as a village of one hundred people. Students may be familiar with this model (how many people would be literate, have television, cell phones, be Christian or Muslim, live on more than a dollar a day, etc.). In groups of four, ask students to create a representative first-century village using all of the information in this chapter. If the representative first-century Mediterranean world were a village of one hundred people, of what kinds of people would the village consist? How many are poor or rich, how many are Jewish, Roman citizens, gentiles, etc.? How many people work in agriculture, trade, crafts, building, or have the means not to work at all? What percentages of the people are slaves, children, parents? How many are literate, educated, die at birth? What proportions of people live in the cities, or in villages, or on farms?

Students can also do this exercise as a take-home assignment, using Internet sources or library resources to construct a village profile of the Mediterranean world, as well as a bibliography! It is helpful to then have an open class discussion of what information they were able to find, or not, and how they put those statistics into a social construct.


This exercise shifts students from passive absorption of the material to applying the material to a social construction model. They construct the world Jesus lived and moved in, and create a backdrop for themselves against which to understand the congregations, people, and events depicted in the New Testament. Taken one step further, students might compare the contemporary “If the world were a village model” to the first-century village model they have worked on.

Discussion Prompts

  1. What historical events, situations, and conditions might have contributed to the diversity within Judaism in the first century?
  2. What did Jews living in Palestine have in common? What made Jews different from one another, or what might have caused divisions among them? Be sure to consider social and economic conditions, as well as cultural, historical, and geographical differences.
  3. How does this chapter define Hellenism (text p. 47)? Describe the range of ways that Hellenism affected Jews in the first century.
  4. Why do you think that wisdom theology, dualism, and apocalypticism (pp. 49–50) were popular in the first century? Consider sociohistorical factors as well as the connections of these themes to each other.