Week Zero: Preview
Starting the New Testament without understanding the historical context is like jumping into a conversation without hearing what people said previously. Often, you may make assumptions about what people are saying that are not true or out of context. There is a lot of history and apocryphal writings between the Old Testament and the New Testament – about 400 years of history between the testaments. Having at least a small understanding of the influences of the Greek and Roman Empire will help put your New Testament study into the right context. Often, wicked, powerful men are used by the Lord to accomplish His purposes.
The Greek empire had become the intellectual dominating power in the New Testament world. The Greek language became the language of commerce in the Roman world, rather than Latin.
At the historical end of the Old Testament, the Medo-Persian Empire was still the world power which dominated the world. Cyrus had allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. They had returned to their Promise Land even though many more Jews were scattered about in other lands. The Diaspora, or scattered tribes of Israel, will play a major role in the spread of Christianity.
In 336 BC, Greece was a series of city-states. When Alexander the Great became king of Macedonia, he brought the Greek kingdom together and brought down the Persian Empire conquering all of Persia and the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Daniel prophesied about Alexander’s conquests in his vision about the kingdoms of the world.2
Alexander would die very young, at the age of 33, 323 BC. Even though the Greek’s political domination was short lived, the Hellenization of these lands are largely attributed to Alexander’s brief reign. In every city Alexander conquered, he would establish schools to teach Greek philosophy and the Greek language. Greek became the predominate language for the lands around the Mediterranean Sea from Egypt to Spain. Originally, the New Testament was written in Greek and the widespread use of the Greek language aided in the spreading of the early Christian religion.
After Alexander’s death, his vast empire was divided up into fourths and given to Alexander’s four generals:
Ptolemy and Seleucus fought over the land of Israel. The Ptolemies were originally nice rulers who allowed the Jews to worship their one God. When the Seleucid Empire took over Palestine, Antiochus tried to stop the Jews worship of one God and forced them to worship the pantheon of the Greek gods. After his death, the Maccabees were allowed to rule during this time bringing back the Jewish religion, but the Hellenization of Palestine was definitely accomplished. Greek became the language of commerce throughout the Mediterranean Sea region.
The Roman Empire had become the dominating political power of the world by the beginning of the New Testament. The Romans allowed the Jews to maintain their religious practices as long as they did not make trouble for Rome. Rome placed the puppet king of Herod’s family and sent military governors to rule and maintain peace in the areas of Palestine.
This was a priority of the Roman Empire – Pax Romana or the peace of Rome. Roman peace meant that the conquered did what they were told or if they rebelled against Rome and broke the peace, the conquered would be massacred. Roads were constructed and Pax Romana guaranteed safe travel throughout the Roman Empire. The use of the common language of Greek broke down communication barriers. These accomplishments of Rome enabled Paul to journey throughout the Roman Empire on Roman roads sharing the gospel to other nations in a language that other people would understand.
Money was needed for roads and to keep the Roman Empire at peace. Taxation of the conquered people kept the Roman machine running. Publicans were the tax collectors in Israel. The tax collectors were hated by the people because they were a visible reminder that Israel was not free to rule itself and their hard-earned money was going to support another nation. At the birth of the Savior, all the Roman world was being taxed through a census that forced people to return to their native city. Thus, Joseph and Mary returned to the city of David or Bethlehem to be counted. The number of people determined the amount of money each person would be taxed.
The Romans allowed the Jewish leaders to maintain their independence in matters of religion. In their councils, they were allowed to make rulings and judgments, except for the death penalty which had to be pronounced by the military governor. That is why Pilate had to give his permission for the Jewish council to crucify Jesus. The Roman Empire had a tremendous impact on the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ life from the beginning to the end.
The Stone Rolls Forth
At the end of Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchaneezzar’s dream, Daniel tells the king about the stone cut out the mountain without hands that smashes the image or the representation of the great kingdoms of the world. In the latter-days, Joseph Smith referred to this prophecy, set in the days of the Medo-Persian Empire, as having significance for us today: “The keys of the kingdom of God are committed unto man on the earth, and from thence shall the gospel roll forth unto the ends of the earth, as the stone which is cut out of the mountain without hands shall roll forth, until it has filled the whole earth.”4 This prophecy is being fulfilled today through missionary work, and temple work throughout the world. The latter-day gospel of Christ is the stone cut out of the mountain. This stone is our rock – our Savior Jesus Christ and His gospel – and the mountain is the House of the Lord or His Holy temples.
The New Testament’s historical context testifies that the Lord’s hand has been in the history of the world throughout the inter-testamentary time, as well as in our day. The Lord is in charge, even though men of power and wealth may think that they are. Often their works are actually destined to help the work of God roll forth. The Greek language became a common language for the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and the Roman Empire brought peace and safe roads to Palestine and the countries nearby. These two empires literally paved the way for the gospel of Jesus Christ to be spread throughout the world.