Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey


2. New Testament Background: The Jewish World

Video Introduction


In terms of Jewish history, the immediate background for the New Testament lies in what is called the Second Temple Period—an era that began with the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple at the end of the Babylonian exile (around 515 BCE) and concluded with destruction of that temple by the Romans in 70 CE. The history of the Second Temple Period spans the time between the Old and New Testaments since, with a few exceptions, most books of the Old Testament were written before this period and most books of the New Testament were written around the end of this period (a decade or two before or after 70 CE). The Second Temple Period may be subdivided into four eras (Persian, Hellenistic, Hasmonean, Roman).

Jesus lived as a Jewish man in Palestine and interacted with different groups of people in that area. The two major Jewish parties with which he had contact were the Pharisees and Sadducees. Other Jewish groups in Palestine at this time included the Essenes, Zealots, and Herodians. The population of Palestine also included Samaritans—whose relations with Jews were strained—and gentiles. The latter become especially important in later portions of the New Testament, where the focus shifts from Palestine to the Mediterranean world.

Throughout the Roman Empire, Jews were inevitably influenced by Hellenism, the spread of Greek culture. Although the degree of influence varied, the effects of Hellenism can be seen in the production of the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) and in the increasing prominence of wisdom theology, dualism, and apocalypticism. The Christian faith reflected in the New Testament would emerge out of this Hellenistic variety of Judaism. Most adherents to Jewish faith held to notions of purity and defilement that set them apart from other peoples of the earth.

Study Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by the Second Temple Period, and outline briefly the history of the Jewish people during that period. Identify four major eras that mark transitions for the Jewish people during this time frame.

  2. Compare and contrast the Pharisees and the Sadducees. List at least half a dozen distinctive characteristics of each group.

  3. Who were the Essenes, Zealots, and Herodians, and what is the relevance of each of these groups for the New Testament?

  4. Who were the Samaritans, and why was there so much hostility between Jews and Samaritans at the time of Jesus?

  5. List five ways in which Jewish religion was affected by Hellenism during the Second Temple Period.

  6. Explain how most of Jesus’s Jewish contemporaries in Palestine would have tried to live in terms of concern for purity and defilement.

Video: Were the NT Authors Christians?

Video: Temple Mount Today with Overlay

(Courtesy of Dr. James C. Martin)

Video: Timeline of New Testament Chronology