“Why We Put Together The World of the New Testament”
by Joel B. Green
“To the church of God that is in Corinth….”
“(This occurred during Claudius’ rule.)”
“He was a Samaritan.”
Here are three good examples where twenty-first-century readers of the New Testament need some help.
The first comes from the opening of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, and already we are bombarded with questions: What should we expect of a first-century letter? How would the Corinthians have gotten their hands on this letter? Could everyone read? Why does this particular letter name Paul and Sosthenes as its authors? What might they mean by referring to a Corinthian “church?” And where is Corinth, anyway? What kind of place was it? How large was it? What was its economic background? What religions were practiced there?
The second is a narrative aside we find in Acts 11, where Luke is writing about a famine and the need for a collection for the believers in Judea. Where was Judea? What kind of economic help might be available to Judeans in times of shortage? Were collections like this typical in the ancient world? Oh, and who’s Claudius (and when did he rule)?
The third text is another narrative aside, this one from Luke 17. Jesus has cleansed ten lepers, but only one returns to give praise to God. What did “leprosy” involve in the ancient world? How would it be diagnosed? What does it mean that Jesus would interact with lepers? Why are lepers cleansed, not healed? Why is this one singled out as a Samaritan? (Which was worse—being a Samaritan or being a leper?)
Illustrations like these are easy to multiply. People tend to make a lot of assumptions when they communicate. And this works pretty well most of the time—at least, it works pretty well when people know each other and share something of a common history. It’s more difficult when people speak different languages and come from different parts of the world. And it’s even more difficult when people use different languages, come from different parts of the world, and are separated by about two thousand years! But that’s exactly what we face when we read the books of the New Testament.
The history Paul shared with the Corinthians, the cultural values Luke shared with his audience, those experiences of imperial Rome shared between the author and audiences of the book of Revelation: these shaped how words and phrases were heard. Those assumptions could be taken for granted by Paul, Luke, and John, so they don’t write them down on the pages of our New Testaments. Their audiences took them for granted too, so they were able to read between the lines or fill in the blanks. But we don’t always share those assumptions. We can’t always fill in the blanks or read between the lines. In short, we need more than the words on the page. We need some orientation. We need some context.
When it comes to making sense of the New Testament writings, a little background can go a long way. That’s why Lee McDonald and I put together this collection of essays. We wanted to get some basic information about first-century contexts into the hands of as many people as possible. We think of The World of the New Testament as a reference tool on one’s desk or tablet, always within reach. What Scripture did the first Christians read, and how did they read it? What would it have meant to be a slave in the Roman world? Wasn’t an ancient fishing boat discovered at the Sea of Galilee recently? How were ancient synagogues used? When questions like these arise, a reader can turn to the table of contents of The World of the New Testament or refer to the glossary of key terms or the ample indexes. How were children educated in the ancient world? What was Jewish life like outside Palestine? What do I need to know about the Gospel of Judas? We’ve covered questions like those, too.
Altogether, The World of the New Testament has more than forty chapters and dozens of photographs, maps, and diagrams. Every essay concludes with an annotated bibliography for those who want to learn more. Chapters are divided into five sections:
- Setting the Context: Exile and the Jewish Heritage
- Setting the Context: Roman Hellenism
- The Jewish People in the Context of Roman Hellenism
- The Literary Context of Early Christianity
- The Geographical Context of the New Testament
A number of our contributors are members of the Institute for Biblical Research, a community of evangelical biblical scholars from a variety of church backgrounds and theological traditions. We recruited a solid, dependable team of writers, spanning three generations of New Testament specialists, with names like James Charlesworth and Everett Ferguson, Ben Witherington and James Dunn, Lynn Cohick and Mike Bird, David deSilva and Lidija Novakovic, Gene Green and Michelle Lee-Barnewall.
We think this is a must for students and pastors, teachers and small group leaders. In fact, given the sheer breadth of coverage of relevant cultural, social, and historical contexts, it’s not hard to imagine that every reader of the New Testament, however new or experienced, would benefit from this volume.
Joel B. Green (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of New Testament interpretation and associate dean of the Center for Advanced Theological Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including the Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, The World of the New Testament, Introducing the New Testament, and commentaries on Luke and 1 Peter. He is also editor-in-chief of the Journal of Theological Interpretation.
For more information on The World of the New Testament, click here.