Introducing the New Testament

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

Materials available for professors by request only


1. The New Testament World

Discussion Prompts

  1. What historical events, situations, and conditions might account for the diversity within Judaism in the first century?
  2. What do Jews living in Palestine have in common? What made Jews different from one another, or what might cause divisions among them? Be sure to consider social and economic conditions, as well as cultural, historical, and geographical differences.
  3. What is meant by “patronage” in this chapter (text p. 44)? How does patronage use honor and shame as a kind of social currency?

Pedagogical Suggestions

Jerusalem Demographics and Ideologies

1. 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. 19–25). 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’ 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.

Ancient Moral Philosophy and Christianity

2. Have students turn to text page 36 (box 1.4) 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.

Group Think Activity

3. 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. 39–40). 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’ resurrection appearance?


Although Gnosticism does not fully develop until the second and third centuries, when it competes 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.

A First-Century Mediterranean Village

4. 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.