Lesson 1: The Historical Setting of the New Testament

Lesson 1: The Historical Setting of the New Testament

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Jesus did not spend 33 years living in a vacuum. He lived in the real world of the first century Roman Empire. He entered a world of politics, economics, and religion. Without an understanding of that historical context, our study of the Bible will always leave us scratching our heads.


  1. Between the time of the Babylonian conquest to the birth of Jesus, the Jewish people had been under the rule of others (except for the tumultuous Hasmonean period from 165-63 BC).
  2. The Persians, Greeks, Egyptians (Ptolemies), and Syrians (Seleucids) all had their time of domination over the Jews. From 63 BC onward, the Romans dominated.
  3. The two men who would rule the Roman Empire during the earthly life of Jesus were Augustus, who ruled from 30 BC – 14 AD (Luke 2:1), and Tiberius, who ruled from 14-37 AD (Luke 3:1).
  4. The various provinces of the empire were ruled by local officials who answered to Rome. Pontius Pilate was the ruler in Judea in the time of Christ. Herod Antipas was the ruler in Galilee.



  1. The exact origin of these buildings is not fully known, but most historians are agreed that a particularly religious element of Jewish society built these buildings during the Babylonian exile.
  2. The synagogue was designed as a center for instruction in the Law of Moses. These learning centers were found in Palestine (Matt. 4:23) and all over the Mediterranean world of the first century (Acts 9:6; 17:10; 18:7-8, et al.).
  3. A typical service:
    1. Meetings were held every Sabbath and each synagogue appears to have been self-governing.
    2. In a synagogue service there would be the recitation of the Shema (Deut. 6:4ff), prayer, singing (unaccompanied), readings from the Law, and a sermon. Sometimes offerings would be collected for the poor.
    3. When the law was read, the reader stood. Teaching was done from a sitting position (cf. Luke 4:16, 20).
    4. A “ruler of the synagogue” oversaw the services, selecting those who would participate (cf. Mark 5:22-38; Luke 13:14; Acts 13:15; 18:8, 17).
  4. Jesus and the apostles took advantage of the synagogues and taught in them.


  1. The Pharisees were the heirs of the early Hasidic philosophies. The term means “separated ones,” and was so applied because of their strong insistence on separating from the influence of Hellenism. They were “the strictest party” in Judaism (Acts 26:5).
  2. The Sadducees were the rich and powerful. This was the party of the High Priest, controlling the Jerusalem temple. They were the “liberals” in Judaism.
  3. The Essenes, not mentioned in the NT, were a smaller group that took a monastic approach to life, living in and around Qumran (near the Dead Sea). They were slightly to the right of the Pharisees in religious life.
  4. The Zealots had a singular focus – freedom from the tyranny of Rome. They refused to pay taxes. Some of them were known assassins, who carried knives under their robes and would assassinate their enemies while mingling with them in crowds.


  1. The term means “to sit together,” and could be used in reference to any court or legal assembly (cf. Matt. 10:17; Mark 13:9).
  2. Most of the time, however, the term in the NT refers to the highest court – Supreme Court – of the Jews in the time of Christ. It consisted of 70 men plus the High Priest, who presided over it.
  3. It exercised authority in civil matters of the Law of Moses as well as criminal. It had its own police and could order arrests (John 7:32; Acts 4:1-3; 5:17-18; 9:1-2). They could imprison and beat the guilty (Acts 5:40-41) but could not enforce the death penalty without Rome’s approval (John 18:31).