Ever feel like you’re missing something when you read the New Testament? I’ll never forget feeling that way the first time I read through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. When I arrived at the Gospels, I was immediately confronted by religious and political groups such as the Pharisees and Sadducees. But where did they come from? I didn’t remember reading about them in the Old Testament. Herod the Great was called “king of the Jews,” but how did he obtain that position? The Romans were obviously in charge, but how on earth did Rome come to rule over the Jewish nation? Last I read, the Persian king Cyrus ruled over them, allowing the people to return to the land and rebuild the temple. What on earth occurred on that blank page between Malachi and Matthew?
That’s when I realized that I needed to understand the historical, cultural, and political background of the New Testament. In this article, I want to demonstrate how the background of the text illumines the foreground and that when it comes to understanding the Greco-Roman world of the Jews, one needs to attend to the historical, cultural, and political context of this crucial moment in redemptive history.
The History of the Greco-Roman World
Alexander the Great took control of Israel in 332 BC and imposed the Greek way of life on the Jewish nation—he “hellenized” the Holy Land. He spread Greek culture, founded Greek cities, built Greek structures, introduced Greek coinage, and spread the Greek language. Even though Alexander let the Jews live according to their ancestral law, the Greek way of life became the largest threat to maintaining a distinct Jewish identity.
Some Jews, especially the younger ones, loved this cultural shift in identity. They wore broad-brimmed Greek hats and quickly finished their duties in the temple in order to exercise naked at the gymnasium, just like the Greeks. Some even underwent surgery to reverse their circumcision.