Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey


1. New Testament Background: The Roman World

Video Introduction


The New Testament writings need to be understood within the historical context of the world in which they were produced: the world of the Roman Empire.

The ruling power of the Roman empire was centralized under Caesar in the capital city (Rome), but certain Roman rulers in Palestine are particularly important for understanding the story of Jesus and the early Christians: Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate, and Herod Agrippa I. Jews and Christians benefitted from a measure of stability under Roman rulers, but they often regarded those rulers as tyrants and experienced life under Roman rule as oppressive.

It would emerge, furthermore, within a pagan Roman context where many people were influenced by philosophical schools (Epicureanism, Stoicism, Cynicism), mystery religions, and such popular notions as animism, augury, and supernaturalism. By the second century of the Christian era, Gnosticism would represent a variety of the Christian faith heavily influenced by Greco-Roman culture in a way that what came to be called “orthodox Christianity” would reject.

Finally, the New Testament world also needs to be understood in light of prevailing social systems and cultural values. The Roman world was characterized by profound economic inequality, and Roman society often functioned via expectations regarding patronage, benefaction, and obligation appropriate to each person’s place on the social scale. Virtually everyone, Jewish or gentile, considered honor and shame to be pivotal social values, such that the attainment of honor and avoidance of shame became closely connected with the purpose or goal of life.

Study Questions

  1. Indicate the role that each of the following Roman rulers plays in writings of the New Testament: Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate, Herod Agrippa I.

  2. Identify the key differences between the following three philosophical schools: Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Cynicism. List at least one feature of each school that would not be true of the other two schools.

  3. What were the mystery religions, and why is it difficult for us to know much about them today?

  4. Define and briefly describe the following spiritual dynamics in the Roman world: animism, augury and divination, supernaturalism.

  5. Describe key tenets of the religious movement known as gnosticism. Indicate why some knowledge of this movement may be important for understanding the New Testament.

  6. Explain how the majority of people in New Testament times would have understood their status or role in the world in terms of one of the following two dynamics: the theory of “limited good” or the concept of “patronage and loyalty.”

  7. Explain the dynamic of honor and shame. How is this social value reflected in the New Testament?

Interactive: The Roman Empire Then and Now

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Click to compare the Roman Empire with the region today.