Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Bible and Other Faiths 9

For previous entries, just click on The Bible and Other Faiths label at the end of this post.

Setting the scene: The World behind the text

In this chapter, IG simply wants to introduce us to the socio-cultural world of the New Testament. It’s a short chapter, and I’ll just list her observations here:

  • Like the world of the Old Testament, this is still a world of many gods, peoples, places, political powers, laws, rituals and stories.
  • The Middle East however had been under Greek and now Roman rule, and they obviously brought their own cultural and intellectual influences.
  • The Jews had returned from Babylon, but would still consider themselves in exile as God’s promises of restoration had not been fulfilled. There was expectation that God would work to vindicate himself.
  • In the meantime, the Jews had to work out what it meant to be holy in their context. How do they continue to relate to people of other faiths, especially their oppressors? These created all sorts of tensions, including

    1. Political tensions: Alexander the Great had conquered Israel; after he died, his empire became divided into two parts, the Seleucid and the Ptolemic, who would then proceed to fight over Israel. The Jews gained independence after 25 years of armed struggle (167-142 BC), but by 63BC, internal power struggles were so bad that the competing leaders turned to Rome for help, which led to them taking power. King Herod and his three sons ruled Israel before Pontius Pilate took over. There continued to be armed struggle, and Jerusalem was captured by the Romans in AD70 and the temple was destroyed.
    2. Cultural tensions: Alexander the Great sought to hellenize his vast empire, including things like introducing democratic government and mandating that Greek literature, arts and philosophy were taught in schools. This divided the Jews, some were strongly against this; others, feeling peer pressure, as it were, were ashamed of their identifying marks such as circumcision (which would have been made clear if they participated in athletic competitions, where people ran naked).
    3. Social tensions: The high priest happened to also lead the Sanhedrin, which governed the Jewish community, meaning religious and political power were joined. Not surprisingly factions developed to try to wrest for control, each with different ideologies – let’s co-operate with the Romans! Too much foreign influence – we need to exercise more independence from the Greeks! Etc. Also, it was a world of social inequality, with privileged Roman citizens and non-Roman citizens, masters and slaves etc.

  • Various theological issues came to the fore and were debated, such as the afterlife, the meaning of righteousness, and angels and demons. For eg., what exactly is resurrection and is it physical? Do angels act as our mediators between humans and a God who is too far from us? (These ideas might have been syncretistic, influenced by Persian and Babylonian ideas).
  • The Jews were looking for the “kingdom of God”. For them, this means blessing for righteous people and judgment for unrighteous people, together with transformation of the whole world. Linked to this was the coming of the Messiah, who would bring social, political and religious freedom.
  • Who are the true Jews? How should they relate to other peoples? These questions gave rise to different answers:

    1. The Pharisees believed the exile was the result of disobedience to the law, and sought to keep every aspect of it. They tried to keep separate from unclean people, i.e those who did not keep the law. They tended to be ‘lay’ people, but also had influence amongst the ‘scribes’, the students of the law.
    2. The Sadducees were the priestly party and tended to come from the upper classes. Less strict than the Pharisees, with more emphasis on the written than the oral law, and rejected the notions of physical resurrection, final judgment, and angels and demons.
    3. The Essenes were stricter than even the Pharisees, the ascetics of their day. No pleasure, no wealth etc. They saw themselves as the true Israel. The Qumran community is perhaps the most famous of this group, who went to live in the wilderness in isolation. But some did live in cities, and they supported a different high priest from the Sadducees.
    4. The Zealots chose the way of armed resistance. They are the revolutionaries. Judas Iscariot and Simon the Zealot might have belonged to this group.
    5. The Herodians are another nationalistic group. Little is known about them, except that they supported the kingship of Herod and saw Jesus as a threat to the Jewish nation. (Mark 3:6, 12:13)

  • Separating or fighting the Gentiles…the Jews didn’t look like wanting to bless the nations! Even the Sadducees disliked dealing with the Romans and would not include Gentiles into the nation of Israel. However, the Jews did believe that the restoration of Israel meant that God’s rule would be extended even among the Gentiles. We must also remember that there was a growing Jewish diaspora at this time.
  • There were some Jewish “evangelists”. They invited others to follow the God of Israel and circumcised them, considering them part of God’s people. So there were Jews who desired that the other nations come to know their God, and people of other nations who were receptive to that call. Sadly, some conversions happened through military might, such as the Idumeans towards the end of 2nd century BC.

Those already familiar with the first century world would not find anything new here, but it’s a clear presentation and helpful to have in mind especially in relation to her subject matter.

Reflection questions:
Withdrawal, cooperation, cultural protest, armed resistance…where can you see Christians relating to political powers, and to people of other faiths, in these ways today?

In what ways is the world you live today like the New Testament world? (Bruce Milne suggest in Dynamic Diversity some interesting parallels, such as the local diversities of the worlds of the 1st and 21st century, and what he calls the “imperial skin” of the 1st century and today’s “globalization skin”. He also suggests that in both worlds, the need to belong to a community is strong indeed due to the fragmentation of society).

A New People

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