Do you want to understand the life and times of Jesus and his followers but realize that you don't know a lot or have forgotten a lot about the Old Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures)? Here's a summary that will be very useful for you as you begin your study of the New Testament (a quick 20-25 minute read!)
Understanding Our Jewish Spiritual Ancestors
I sometimes refer to the New Testament as a kind of “village” in which some of our "spiritual ancestors" (such as Jesus, Peter, Paul, Matthew, John, etc.) continue to live. When we read, study and reflect on different New Testament texts, we can actually encounter the spiritual ancestors who were responsible for starting the beginnings of the Christian tradition—a tradition that became the foundation of civilizations, cultures, and societies in history, among which is the Western civilization in which we are living today.
These spiritual ancestors were all first century common era (CE) Jews (with the exception perhaps of “grand-uncle” Luke). As Jews who were born and lived during the time period that historians call “Second Temple Judaism” (from around 515 BCE to 70 CE. Let us also include the immediate aftermath of the Jerusalem temple’s destruction in the years after 70 CE up to the turn of the century), they themselves were heirs of a long and venerable tradition that was already considered “ancient” at the time and therefore even begrudgingly respected in some way by their Roman conquerors. (The Romans had a deep esteem for “antiquity,” that is, traditions that had a long, venerable history.)
Ancient Jews as a group had several common characteristics that we will have to keep in mind if we are to understand—what can be considered—a common Jewish worldview at the time. How do we do this? By familiarizing ourselves better with some key areas of life as expressed by the following questions:
- What were the stories, laws, poems, and other oral and written traditions that lay at the foundation of their worldview?
- What were the dominant religious-cultural symbols and practices that they valued?
- What were their most cherished hopes and dreams?
Components of the Worldview of Our (New Testament) Spiritual Ancestors
We will be able to answer these questions by studying what Jews call “TaNaK” or “the Hebrew Bible/Scriptures” or what is widely known among Christians as “The Old Testament” (OT). What this means in practice is that, for Christians and Westerners in general, some knowledge of the OT is necessary in order to get to know their spiritual ancestry. That is why the OT is an essential part of the Christian Bible which, as a whole, is composed of two parts: The Old Testament (which is like a Part 1); and the New Testament (which is tantamount to a Part 2).
So here are some of the key points (key words will be in bold letters or italics) to keep in mind regarding this Jewish background for us to understand our New Testament village ancestors which, it should be remembered, even include Jesus (as a historical person).
First of all, ancient Jews were proud that they were part of “Israel” (taken here primarily as a people-nation) which, they believed, had been chosen in a special way by God to be the Creator’s own special people and nation. (Technically, this idea of being chosen is sometimes called divine election.) The people of Israel were bound to God by a special “Covenant,” the primary component of which was the “Law” (Torah) that God had given them through Moses and was, in turn, elaborated upon by the many prophets, sages, and various other teachers throughout Israel’s history. In the Jewish Tradition, it is often said that there are 613 commandments of this “Law” (That number includes the Ten Commandments that are more familiar to Christians).
Ancient Jews also valued immensely the geographical “Land” (also referred to as “Israel”) which, they believed, God had given to them as Abraham’s descendants. The Land (of Israel) was holy but its cultic center, Jerusalem, was especially so because on it stood the Temple where God—they believed—was present in a special way.
Moreover, it is also necessary to know the general plot of an extended “sacred story” that—we can say—was the foundation of how our first century Jewish spiritual ancestors understood history or the story of the world. I often refer to it as the “story-plot” or simply “the story” that was told by parents to their children as an essential part of raising them as Jewish and, hence, every Jewish boy or girl at the time would have learned the gist and main lessons of this storyline as they grew up. This was in turn the basis of the worldview by which ancient Jews viewed, understood, and mentally organized everything: God, the world, life itself and all the other details in their world. Having a grasp of the basic flow of this story found in the OT is, therefore, essential for us to understand the common mindset of our spiritual ancestors whose voices are preserved in the New Testament village.
I divide this extended storyline into several sub-headings using the following key themes. They are: Creation, Nation, Flight, Fight-Settlement, Kingdom(s) and Exile, Return-Rebuilding, Further Struggles with Empires, and Hope. These notions, I think, can summarize well the spirit of the story that parents told their children at the time. This is the same narrative plot that the wider culture expected everyone to know well during what is called Second Temple Judaism.
This then is the main outline of the extended story that all our spiritual ancestors in the New Testament village were familiar with. (Let me use the “historical present” to narrate the extended plot for vividness.)
The Extended Story-Plot from the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament
[Creation] God creates the world and everything in it, culminating in the fashioning of the first humans—male and female— who bear God’s very “image” (Western Christians refer to this as Imago Dei "God’s image"). The seventh day is special because God rested after all the work of creation. That—it is pointed out—is the origin of the all-important Sabbath practice. The humans are entrusted with the care and stewardship of creation. They are put in an idyllic world described as a garden with the proscription, however, that they should not eat of a forbidden “fruit” (Gen 1-2). The first male and female fail in this, giving in to the prodding of a serpent in the garden, and end up partaking of the forbidden fruit. This event has often been described in Christianity as “the Fall.” This act damages the once perfect relationship between God and humans and, thus, the first ancestors (commonly called “Adam” and “Eve”) are driven away from the garden (Gen 3). They and all their descendants after them are burdened with suffering and eventual death as a result of this disobedience. The point of this story for ancient Jews (as well as those who continue to read this story) is arguably to explain the origin of the many unfortunate things that assail humanity and why evil and suffering are so pervasive in human life. The entry of evil into the human story is portrayed eloquently in the stories that follow in quick succession: Cain (Adam and Eve’s son) murders his brother Abel (Gen 4); in time, the world becomes so evil that God decides to destroy everything and, as it were, restart creation with a clean slate through a flood. God spares a limited number of beings from the flood’s destruction. Thus, Noah and his family and a limited number of species of animals survive the destructive waters by riding out the storm in an ark (Gen 6-9); humans build a tower aiming to “reach the sky” but God confounds their plan by mixing up their languages at Babel (Gen 11), and so forth.
[Nation] Sometime later (always in the context of the expansion and multiplication of evil and suffering in the world), God chooses a man who is later given the name “Abraham” (meaning “father of multitudes”). Abraham is destined to be the origin and ancestral father of a nation of people who will be bound to God in a special way and a source of blessing to the whole world (Gen 12-18). Thus, the interactions between God and Abraham become key to the ancient Jewish story as a symbolic story of who the people of Israel should be. Abraham is called to trust in God (this is what “faith” is) through an invitation to leave his homeland and go to an unknown place that God will give to him (the “Land”). Abraham decides to trust in this God, accepts the invitation, and sets out for the “promised land.” God makes a covenant with Abraham and all his descendants who—it is promised—will be as numerous as “the stars in the sky.” The physical sign of the covenant will be the mark of circumcision. Abraham’s descendants after him (Isaac, Jacob and his offspring) multiply and become a clan. They eventually end up in Egypt because of a famine in the land where they were living and are initially welcomed in Egypt as guests because of Jacob’s beloved son Joseph who had meanwhile risen from being a slave to become an important official in that land (Gen 21-49).
[Flight] This phase of the story traditionally falls under the moniker “Exodus,” which is also the title of the second book of the Hebrew Scriptures in its Greek translation. It is a word that means “departure” of a large mass of people (hence, “flight”). After hundreds of years of living in the land of Egypt, the descendants of Jacob are enslaved by a pharaoh who did not know Joseph. The people suffer terribly from oppression and cry out to God. God then chooses Moses as the one who will be God’s agent in freeing the Israelites from slavery and leading them out of Egypt back to the land that was given to the patriarchs (Abraham, his son Isaac, and Jacob also known as “Israel” himself). Inspite of the vehement efforts on the part of Pharaoh to prevent their flight from Egypt, through the power of God, the people cross the Red Sea and pass over from slavery to freedom. In the wilderness, they have different important experiences: On Mt. Sinai, they receive the Law from God through Moses; they experience the power and protection of God at every stage of the journey; they are caught up in a cycle of rebellion and repentance with regard to their covenant with God. In the end, they have to wander the desert for forty years before finally being able to enter into the land that God had promised to their ancestors (See Exodus through Deuteronomy).
[Fight and Settlement] After their long wandering in the desert, the Israelites are finally allowed to enter the Promised Land with Joshua this time as their leader. But it is not an easy task. Although “the Land” has been promised to them and was inhabited by the patriarchs before them, this time, they have to struggle and fight with other groups of people who are already there (such as Canaanites, the Amalekites, the Midianites, etc.) (Consult the book of Joshua). Although the promised land is divided according to the different tribes of Israel and apportioned to them, the Book of Judges gives us the impression that struggles with the other inhabitants of the common area continue for a while even after the initial settlement. The Israelites are led for a while by a diverse and ad hoc group of leaders called “Judges” who are raised by God when there is a need for decisive leadership during times of crisis. (See the Book of Judges.)
[Kingdom(s) and Exile] After a while, the Israelites ask for a king to rule over them. Thus, God, through the prophet Samuel, appoints Saul for this role. When Saul goes against God’s directives, the shepherd boy, David, is anointed in his place to be the future ruler. David displays his mettle particularly against the Philistine “giant” Goliath whom he defeats in the battlefield. In time, after many struggles, David finally becomes king of Israel. He unites the different tribes and solidifies the kingdom with the capital in Jerusalem. His son, Solomon, follows him as king of a united kingdom. Solomon starts out as a good and wise king. He builds the first temple in Jerusalem. However, later on in life, he displays some fatal flaws such as idolatry and the imposition of oppressive measures against his people. After his death, the once united kingdom is divided into two. Ten tribes separate from Solomon’s line to make up the “northern” kingdom called “Israel” and two tribes dominated by the tribe of Judah make up the “southern” kingdom known as Judah. These two kingdoms are led by a succession of mostly evil kings. These unfaithful steward-kings often lead the people of Israel astray in many ways and thus Israel, the nation, is mostly unfaithful to the covenant in a collective way. This long and sorry history is told from a perspective that wants to teach its audience an important lesson: that unfaithfulness to the covenant and its sins are what caused God’s judgment that allowed the many catastrophes to happen to Israel in history. The northern kingdom was finally devastated by the Assyrian empire in 722 BCE and its inhabitants were scattered in many different areas. The southern kingdom was defeated by the Babylonians in 587-86 with Solomon’s temple destroyed and the leading inhabitants of Judah led into exile to Babylon. With the dispersal of the northern tribes of Israel, it was mainly the people of the southern kingdom (composed mainly of people from the tribe of “Judah,” which is where the term “Jews” ultimately come from) that carried on the legacy of Israel. From this point onwards, the “chosen people” of Yahweh are also commonly referred to as “Jews.” The time that many Jews spent in captivity in Babylon is commonly known as the “Babylonian exile” (585-538 BCE). (This story-plot is found mainly in 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings)
[Prophets] We must not forget the pivotal role that people called “prophets” played particularly in this tumultuous time in ancient Israelite history. The prophets are commonly yet mistakenly thought of mainly as people who could foretell the future. Their primary role instead in the sacred story of Israel is, above all, to “to speak on behalf of God.” They were called by God to be spokespersons of what God’s people needed to hear at any given time, whether that be warning, correction, condemnation, consolation, guidance or encouragement. Among the prophets are names such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and so forth. (See the books of the Bible bearing the names of these different prophets.)
[Return and Rebuilding] Eventually, a new imperial power arises—the Persian empire under Cyrus the Great—and it conquers the Babylonian empire in 539. The Persians allow the Jews to go back to their ancestral homeland. Thus, many Jews return from the Babylonian exile and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. This new temple is called the “Second Temple” and this is why the historical period in which there is a second temple standing in Jerusalem is called “Second Temple Judaism” (until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE). The resettlement of “Palestine” (this is an alternative term to refer to the area that we’ve been calling “Israel” so far) after the Babylonian exile is particularly important for us because it is toward the end of this second temple Judaism era that the people who were going to start the Christian tradition—Jesus and his earliest followers—lived. The last 70 years of this epoch as well as its immediate aftermath are crucially noteworthy for us who are trying to better understand the environment in which our spiritual ancestors lived. (The final years of the divided kingdoms are described in 2 Kings and Second Chronicles. Different events and teachings related to the Persian or Babylonian exilic periods are scattered in various books of the Old Testament such as the prophetic books, Esther, Psalms, and so forth)
[Further Struggles with Empires] The resettled Jews in Palestine enjoy relative peace and stability during the Persian period (539-330 BCE). We can say that there is something like a religious and cultural revival during this time brought about by the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple and the city’s walls (See the books of Ezra and Nehemiah). One can say that the dominant lesson emphasized so far was that fidelity to the covenant between God and Israel is reemphasized as of utmost importance for the land and people of Israel: Obviously, faithfulness guarantees Israel’s flourishing and its opposite, unfaithfulness, brings about disaster. (Scholars often point out that this is the main message of the school of ancient scripture editors called the “Deuteronomistic” school.) But then again, a new imperial power flexes its muscles with the appearance of Alexander the Great of Macedonia (356-323 BCE), whose lightning conquests during his relatively short life extends his Hellenistic empire to an area that comprised one of the largest empires the world had seen up to that point. (“Hellenistic” refers to the Greek language and culture.) His death at the age of thirty-two though cuts short that conquering march and his generals divvy up his Hellenistic empire amongst themselves. Two of these, the Seleucid Empire based in Antioch-on-the-Orontes River in ancient Syria (in modern-day Turkey), and the Ptolemaic Empire based in Egypt, fought for a while amongst themselves for control of certain areas including Palestine. In this way, Palestine at this time was controlled alternatively by one or the other of these two Hellenistic empires. When the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, forced the Jews to adopt Hellenistic practices that violated the tenets of their faith, they revolted against their Seleucid overlords in what is called “the Maccabean Revolt” (because it was initially led by the family of a certain Judas “Maccabeus” [meaning “God’s hammer”]). They were successful in a limited sense with their revolt. That allowed the Jews to be independent for a while (142-63 BCE). (Consult the Books of the Maccabees.) However, that all came crashing down when the Roman general Pompey occupied Palestine in 63 BCE as part of the expansion of the new imperial power—Rome. Thus, the Roman occupation of Palestine begins and goes on until the early seventh century CE when it passes over to the invading Muslim armies.
[Hope for the Coming of God’s New Order or “Reign”] Sometime after the Babylonian exile (around the third century BCE), a type of literature commonly described as “apocalyptic” begins to appear. These apocalyptic writings are filled with mysterious and cryptic language and symbols that express a strong hope that God would directly intervene in history to defeat evil. Evil is of course identified with the empires that conquered and oppressed God’s land and people. Future apocalyptic events are imaged as cosmic and catastrophic events. Throughout their history, the people of God always looked back to the past, particularly, to the foundational event when God freed their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, in order to draw hope that God will deliver them again when they need God’s help. One can say that with their continuing experience of being conquered and oppressed by one empire after another, the Jews had to add an extra way to cope with suffering by envisioning a glorious future when God would act once again in power to defeat Israel’s enemies and restore the chosen people and nation to a glorious state. Many Jews held the belief that God would send a chosen one, a “messiah”-like figure who would be akin to Moses and David of old and be the agent of God’s deliverance and healing. (Consult Daniel and some books that are classified as “intertestamental” or “pseudepigraphal” literature such as the Book of Enoch)
And Here We Are: The Times of Jesus and His Followers
And it is here where we come at last to the particular context in which our New Testament spiritual ancestors lived: Jesus, his immediate followers, and later generations of people (who would eventually come to believe in Jesus as the messiah sent from God and write about him) are located in this late Second Temple Jewish context (and its immediate aftermath). The more we understand it, the more we also come to better grasp their hopes and dreams, the causes that moved them to live as they did, the reasons why they came to trust and have faith that the rabbi-healer from Nazareth named “Jesus” was the long-awaited messiah of God, sent to deliver them and usher in the reign of Israel’s God.