The New Testament is a collection of writings in which different people set forth their convictions concerning the meaning and significance of the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth. No one of these writings appeared until some years after Jesus' physical death. He left no written records concerning himself, and any information about him must be gleaned from what other people have written. By the end of the first century of the Christian era or thereabouts, several biographies of Jesus had been written, four of which are now part of the New Testament. Before any of these biographies were written, Christian communities — what was later known as churches — had been established, and letters instructing the members about the Christian way of life and telling them how to deal with local problems were sent to them. Some of these letters were written by a man named Paul, who, although raised in the strict traditions of the Jewish religion, had converted to Christianity, and who spent the remainder of his life as a missionary, founding new churches and nurturing members in their newly acquired faith. After Paul's death, other leaders of the movement continued to write letters to churches; in this way, they hoped to strengthen the organization and prepare its followers for any emergencies.
As the number of Christians increased and their influence was felt in various parts of the then-known world, opposition to the movement arose from different quarters. Jews deeply resented the fact that many of their own people were forsaking Judaism and becoming Christians, but the most severe opposition came from the Roman government, which tried in various ways to suppress, if not to annihilate, the whole Christian movement on the grounds that it constituted a danger and a threat to the security of the empire.
When persecution of the Christians became extreme, messages were sent to them by church leaders. These messages, usually in the form of letters or public addresses, encouraged the sufferers and advised them concerning the ways in which they should respond to the demands that were being made upon them. Some of these messages are now part of the New Testament. Other letters, several of which have been preserved, were written to counteract false doctrines that arose within the churches. However, these writings were not intended by their respective authors to be regarded as sacred literature comparable to that of the prophets of the Old Testament. Eventually, Christians did come to think of these writings in this way, but the transition from a collection of writings originally designed to meet certain local problems to the status of sacred Scriptures either replacing or else being added to the Old Testament required a comparatively long period of time.
The twenty-seven writings in the New Testament of today were selected from a larger list of writings, and not until the fourth century of our era was any general agreement reached among the Christian churches as to the exact number and selection of writings that should be included. The Gospels and Paul's letters generally were accepted prior to that time, but other writings' inclusion was a matter of serious controversy.
In view of these facts, an adequate understanding of the books in the New Testament cannot be had without some knowledge of the historical background from which they were written, but just how this knowledge can be obtained presents something of a problem. Our chief source of information is the New Testament itself, but there are some references to Jesus and the Christian movement in Roman history and in Jewish literature pertaining to the period in which he lived. However, these non-Christian sources are very meager, and we have good reasons for believing that they are somewhat biased. Christian sources are no doubt biased too, but in the case of both Christian and non-Christian sources, we know the direction in which each of them is biased, and we can make proper allowances. Because only in the Christian sources do we have any detailed account of the life and teachings of Jesus and the general character of the early Christian movement, we need to center our attention on them.
The New Testament biographies of Jesus, usually referred to as the Gospels, contain the most extensive records of what Jesus did and of what he taught. But it is also in connection with these same biographies that readers of the New Testament encounter difficult problems. How are these records to be evaluated? To what extent do they reveal what actually happened, and to what extent do they merely indicate what the author believed to have happened? Answering these questions by asserting that these are all inspired writings and are therefore infallible in every respect will not do. Divine inspiration is always and necessarily a two-fold process involving both a giving and a receiving. The giving may well be regarded as the divine part, but the receiving or the understanding of whatever it is that has been revealed is the human part, and that which is human is never infallible. Anyone who is at all sympathetic with the meaning and message of the New Testament will not be hesitant about regarding it as a divinely inspired book, but the intellectually honest person will also recognize that a human element is involved in the receiving and the interpreting of that revelation. And the human element must be understood first, for it is the medium through which the divine element is communicated.
The human element present in the Gospels is necessarily conditioned by the circumstances under which the Gospels were written. Because these texts were not written until after the death of Jesus, they must be viewed from the perspective of the conditions that prevailed at the time of their writing. In this connection, it is important to remember that the Christian community was in existence for a considerable period of time and that it came into existence because a group of people believed that the man Jesus who had been crucified was the long-awaited Messiah. The Christian community was convinced that his life had met with divine approval and that his death was not the result of any wrongdoing on his part. He died for a righteous cause and in so doing achieved victory over the forces of evil, for he did not yield to any temptations in order to save himself. He was, in the Christians' judgment, the Messiah about whom the Old Testament prophets had spoken. By the time the Gospels were written, stories preserved orally by those who associated with Jesus were viewed in light of more recent events and interpreted in accordance with the beliefs that had become firmly established in the biographers' minds. Reconstructing the original stories as they existed prior to later interpretations of them has been one of the main tasks of what is known as "form criticism." Although the methods used for this purpose have their limitations, these methods are of value as a means toward understanding the New Testament.
The letters written by the apostle Paul constitute nearly one third of the New Testament. They were written long before any of the Gospels that we now have were in existence. Paul evidently knew something about the life of Jesus, although he never saw him in the flesh. Paul's information, so far as we can determine, must have been obtained from the oral traditions that were passed on to him by those who associated with Jesus. Paul reports very little concerning the teachings of Jesus, but his interpretation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus has had a profound influence on Christian history.
The remaining portions of the New Testament, although concerned primarily with specific problems and situations, nevertheless reflect the generally accepted beliefs concerning Jesus that were current among Christians at that time. Written accounts of what Jesus did during the course of his life were not considered necessary by the earliest Christians, who believed that Jesus would return to earth in the very near future and establish the messianic kingdom. Until that time, the memories of his disciples and friends would be sufficient to preserve his deeds and his teachings. Not until after many of those who associated with him had died was the need for written records recognized. And not until some time after the New Testament texts were written were the manuscripts assembled in their present form and used along with the Old Testament Scriptures in the worship services of Christian churches. Their status as inspired writings that were authoritative for the establishment of doctrines came about in response to a whole series of situations that developed within the Christian movement.
The study of the New Testament may be pursued several different ways, and although benefits may be derived from any one of these ways, no one method is better than the others. For example, reading the books of the New Testament in the order in which they are now assembled means starting with the Gospel of Matthew. However, the Gospel of Matthew was not the first gospel to be written; because Matthew was regarded as the most important of the Gospels, it was placed first in the New Testament. Understanding the contents of this gospel is difficult if not impossible until one relates it to the other Gospels and to the historical situation from which it was produced. One needs to know the sources from which the author obtained his materials and the scheme that he followed in the materials' selection and organization. It is also essential to know the purpose that the author had in mind and the way in which his materials were used for the accomplishment of that purpose. Elements in the Gospels that appear to be in conflict with one another can scarcely be understood until one becomes familiar with the background from which each of them was derived. These difficulties, along with many others, are necessarily involved in the use of this method.
Another way of studying the New Testament consists of putting together all of the material found on a given subject in any of the writings. If this method could be done successfully, one might speak about the New Testament teachings on such subjects as money, divorce, Sabbath observance, spiritual gifts, and many other topics. Aside from the fact that an inquiry of this kind would be practically endless because of the number of topics that are mentioned, a more serious difficulty is fitting together the statements made by different persons under different circumstances and from different points of view. Nor can it be assumed without supporting evidence that different writers thought alike about any given subject.
Studying the books in the chronological order in which they were written does have some advantages in that it enables us to trace more directly the development of Christian thought through the period during which the New Testament was being written. The chief objection to this method lies in the fact that Christianity was an ongoing concern before any portion of the New Testament was written. The literature that the New Testament contains was the product of the Christian movement, not the cause of it. For this reason, an understanding of what was written presupposes a certain familiarity with what had taken place before the writing began. For example, when Paul wrote his letters to the Christian churches of his day, he was writing to people who already knew something about the life of Jesus and the significance of what Jesus had done, which the people must have obtained from oral traditions because the sources from which we derive our information about Jesus had not yet been written. Hence, we must consult the later literature of the New Testament in order to understand what was known earlier. In the case of the Gospels and other portions of the literature, it is quite impossible to comprehend what the respective authors were saying apart from the beliefs that they were trying to establish.
In view of these considerations, it seems wise to begin the study of the New Testament with a survey of the historical background that is implicit in the literature itself. This survey will necessarily include some of the more important elements in the religious life of the Jewish people prior to the beginning of the Christian era, as well as an account of the religious hopes and ideals that were current among the Gentile or non-Jewish parts of the population. Some familiarity with both of these backgrounds is a prerequisite for the study of the New Testament, for while Christianity had its earliest beginnings among the Jews, it was not long until Christianity began to spread among the Gentiles. For each of these groups, Christianity's meaning had to be formulated in terms of the ideas and concepts to which they were accustomed. Knowing something about the religious beliefs and practices of these two groups, together with the more pertinent facts in connection with the life of Jesus as it was understood by the early Christians, prepares one for a more intelligent reading of the literature included in the New Testament.
The Christian churches of the first century drew their membership from both Jews and Gentiles. The first Christians were Jews, and their first missionary activities were directed toward winning members from this group. However, not long thereafter, their activities were extended to include Gentiles, and many of those who had been non-Jews were welcomed into the newly formed Christian communities. The common element shared by both those who had been Jews and those who were Gentiles was loyalty to the person known as Jesus of Nazareth. Both groups recognized Jesus as a man of God and looked forward to a time when the message that he proclaimed would be spread throughout the world, bringing salvation to all those who would receive it.
Although both groups were loyal to Jesus, they did not, as a rule, interpret his life and ministry in the same way, nor could it reasonably be expected that they would. Each group interpreted his teachings in terms of the religious concepts with which they had long been familiar. For those who had been reared in the Jewish faith, he was the Messiah, the anointed one, the chosen of God, about whom the Old Testament prophets had written. He was the one under whose guidance and leadership the kingdom of God would be established, thus bringing about the full realization of the divine purpose in history. But while the Messiahship of Jesus meant a great deal to those whose training had been in Judaism, it meant very little to the non-Jews, or Gentiles, who were accustomed to thinking of religion in terms of the ideas and concepts associated with the mystery religions. To them, Jesus was comparable to the heroic redeemer of the mystery cults, which were numerous in the Greco-Roman world of New Testament times. Members of these cults were concerned primarily with the idea of salvation from physical death, to be followed by participation in the life of another world free of all the trials and hardships so characteristic of earthly life. The chief function of the heroic redeemer was to bring about this salvation. He would be a heavenly being who would descend to earth; after a life of service and self sacrifice, he would rise from the dead. By achieving a mystical union with him, his followers would gain the power to triumph over death. For many of the Christians who had been Gentiles, it seemed perfectly natural to think of Jesus as one who fulfilled the role of the heroic redeemer; on this basis, they accepted him. The different conceptions of Jesus that are found in the various writings of the New Testament can be understood only in relation to the different backgrounds from which they were developed.
The Jewish Background
Christianity began with the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. As far back as the eighth century B.C., the prophets of the Old Testament expressed their conviction that some day a leader would arise in their midst, and under his guidance a kingdom of justice and righteousness would be established on earth. During the centuries that followed, this belief was modified in various ways but was never completely abandoned. Three different stages can be noted in the development of the messianic idea: prophetic messianism, apocalyptic messianism, and revolutionary messianism. All three concern the earthly establishment of the kingdom of God, the ultimate goal of history or the final realization of the divine purpose in regard to the destiny of the human race. The three types of messianism differ from one another in respect to the time and manner of their accomplishments.
Prophetic messianism taught that the earthly kingdom of God would be reached with the coming of the Messiah, or anointed one. He would be an actual king who would reign over the Israelite nation and direct its affairs in such a way that the evils in society would be overcome and peace and happiness would be the lot of all.
When Saul was chosen as the first king of Israel, supposedly he was anointed with oil by the prophet Samuel in the presence of a multitude of people. This important ceremony symbolized the hope that this anointed one would be the Messiah under whose leadership the divine purpose would be realized. Saul's reign was a disappointment, and when things were going rather badly, David was chosen to be king in place of Saul. In many respects, David's reign was more successful. Later generations looked back upon it as a kind of golden age in the history of the Israelite people. The hope for the coming of the Messiah was emphasized more and more in the teachings of the prophets. Because so many of Israel's kings had been disappointing in what they did, the prophets talked about the coming of an ideal king who would appear in the future and do for his people that which other kings had been unable to do. This king, they said, would be like King David. Later, they maintained that he would be a descendant from the line of David, an idea expressed in the writings of the prophet Isaiah.
The course of Hebrew history over the centuries did not fulfill the prophets' hopes. Instead, one disaster after another overtook the nation. After the death of King Solomon, Israel was divided into a northern and a southern kingdom, and each kingdom went through a series of tragic experiences. In 722 B.C., the northern kingdom was taken captive by the Assyrians. A century and a half later, the southern kingdom suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Babylonians. Eventually, a Hebrew state was restored for a time, but conditions were far from ideal. Internal strife was present, and the nation was under a constant threat of destruction from foreign enemies. Under these conditions, prophetic messianism began to wane, and apocalyptic messianism appeared in its place.
The dominant characteristic of apocalyptic messianism was a conviction that the kingdom of God would not come about by a gradual transformation of society under the leadership of a great and good king. Rather, it would be brought about by a sudden supernatural intervention. When the right time arrived, God would act, bringing punishment to all the forces of evil and establishing his kingdom as a dwelling place for the righteous for all time to come. This event, referred to as the coming of the Day of the Lord, what in the Old Testament is referred to as the Day of Yahweh, was described as a great catastrophic event, an end of the world and the ushering in of a new age. Although there are variations in the different apocalyptic texts, some of these writings convey the idea that the Messiah will be a heavenly being who will descend to earth and inaugurate the new era. His appearance will bring destruction to the wicked and deliverance to the righteous. A resurrection of the dead and a judgment of all the people who have lived on the earth will occur. After the wicked have been completely destroyed, a new heaven and a new earth in which only justice and righteousness prevail will exist.
Apocalyptic messianism was especially meaningful in times of crises, which for the Jews meant most of the time. The Book of Daniel in the Old Testament was written primarily for those who were suffering persecution from the Syrians under Antiochus Epiphanes during the period that preceded the Maccabean wars. In New Testament times, the Roman government persecuted the Christians, and the Book of Revelation did for the Christians of that day what the Book of Daniel did for the Jews of an earlier date: assure those who were suffering for their faith that although the evil forces in the world were then in the ascendancy, the time was not far distant when God would intervene and bring an end to the reign of evil by establishing a kingdom of righteousness in which those who had proved faithful through all of their trials and afflictions would dwell forever in peace.
Not all Jews were satisfied with the notion that they should endure suffering and persecution while waiting for God to intervene on their behalf. The revolutionary messianists argued that God would come to their aid only after they had done all that they could for themselves. Accordingly, they believed that the Day of the Lord would be hastened if they took up arms against their enemies and fought for their own freedom and independence. In other words, God would use his own people as the instruments through which he would bring punishment upon unrighteous nations. The belief that God would aid in this task was strengthened by what the people had experienced during the period of the Maccabean wars. When Mattathias and his small band of renegade fighters took up arms against the Syrians, they achieved one remarkable victory after another. Despite being greatly outnumbered by Syrian soldiers, they were able to win back the territory that had been taken from them, including regaining possession of the city of Jerusalem and restoring the worship services of the Temple. All of these successes were interpreted to mean that God would protect them in battle and give them victory over their enemies. What he had done for them in times past he would do again if they would only follow a similar course.
After the Romans conquered the Jewish territory and made the Jews subjects of their dominion, revolutionary messianists continued their efforts by calling upon Jews to launch a revolt against the government of Rome. Not long before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a certain Judas of Galilee, claiming the messianic role for himself, organized a revolt that the Romans put down with unmistakable cruelty. This fear of rebellion made the Romans suspicious whenever it was rumored that a Jewish Messiah had appeared among his people.
Another important characteristic of Judaism can be seen in its conception of the Law and its relation to the conduct of people. According to its tradition, the Law was from God. It was revealed to Moses and through him was communicated to the entire Israelite nation. Because God was the author of the Law, the precepts contained in it were binding for all time to come. The Law, as unchangeable as God himself, included not only the Ten Commandments but all the statutes and ordinances found in the Book of the Law, or what is now recognized as the first five books of the Old Testament — the Pentateuch. Many of these laws were no doubt added to the original codes long after the death of Moses. Nevertheless, tradition attributed all of them to Moses. Taken as a whole, they constituted for the orthodox Jew the standard of righteousness according to which not only the people who were living then but all succeeding generations would be judged.
Obedience with reference to the laws that God commanded was the measure of goodness. This being true, knowing exactly what the requirements of the laws were and how they were to be applied to particular cases were matters of great importance. These concerns were not always easy to determine; instances occurred in which different laws appeared to be in conflict. One of the main tasks of the Scribes was to determine matters of this kind. Their job was to state precisely the conditions under which a given law would be applicable. Frequently, it was necessary for them to state when exceptions should be made to certain laws. Additionally, occasions arose when the Scribes had to make exceptions to these exceptions, a very complicated and confusing process but an important one, for if a person was to be judged solely on the basis of whether he had obeyed the laws, there must be some authoritative way of knowing exactly what the laws required under a given set of circumstances. Remember that throughout the Gospels of the New Testament, the chief accusation brought by the Jews against Jesus is that he is a law-breaker.
Although Judaism is often referred to as a single type of religious belief and practice, complete agreement among all the Jews concerning either doctrine or manner of living did not occur. We can distinguish several sects or parties within Judaism itself. The largest and most influential of these sects was known as the Pharisees, who took their religion most seriously, especially with reference to their attitude toward the Law. The Pharisees believed that Jews were God's chosen people, distinguished from all others because God revealed his standard of goodness to them, and they alone lived in conformity to it. Their zeal for the Law made them appear exclusive and self-righteous to those who did not belong to their group. To avoid contamination with the evil ways of the world, they avoided contact with foreigners and foreign customs so far as it was possible for them to do so, and they were especially antagonistic toward the influences derived from the cultures of the Greeks and the Romans. They believed in a life after death in which the righteous would be rewarded and the sinners punished for the deeds that they had committed. In many parts of the New Testament, the Pharisees are severely criticized, but we must bear in mind that these accounts were written by people who did not belong to their group. Without doubt, the accounts given are accurate with reference to some of the Pharisees, but it would be a mistake to think that they were all alike. Many of them were men of the finest character, representing in some instances Judaism at its very best.
The Sadducees was another sect, smaller in number than the Pharisees but very influential in determining the policies that affected the lives of the people as a whole. In some respects, they were a conservative group that held a strict and literal interpretation of the Law as recorded in the first five books of the Old Testament. They rejected the so-called oral law, which consisted of the comments and interpretations of prominent rabbis made over long periods of time. Neither did they take seriously many of the ideas presented in the later books of the Old Testament — for example, the resurrection of the dead as set forth in the Book of Daniel. But in their attitude toward Hellenic culture and Roman law, they were far more liberal than the Pharisees. The Sadducees believed that although some important truths had been revealed to the Jews, other nations had important contributions to make as well. They advocated an intermingling of the various cultures of their day, thus giving to each group the opportunity to enrich their own lives through contact with others. Because the priesthood was controlled by the Sadducees and appointments had to be confirmed by officials of the civil government, this sect was able to exercise political power. However, sometimes this power was used more to promote selfish interests than to benefit people as a whole.
A third sect was known as the Essenes, the group that produced the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. From these scrolls, much has been learned concerning the history of the period that preceded the writings that constitute the New Testament. The Essenes were a group of Jews who were seriously disturbed by the way things were going in and around the city of Jerusalem. To them, the religion proclaimed by priests and prophets of old ceased to have any meaningful relation to the lives of the people. They saw so much wickedness in the society around them that they felt impelled to live in a secluded colony where they would be sheltered from such evil. In this respect, their attitude was similar to that of the medieval monks of later generations who withdrew from a worldly society in order to live a holier type of life. Initially, the Essenes, like the later monks, advocated celibacy, hoping to maintain their numbers by adding new converts to their order. Later, marriages were permitted, but both sexes were required to conform to a very rigid set of disciplinary rules. They were a communal society, sharing their goods with one another and making spiritual preparations for the end of the world and the establishment of the messianic kingdom that they expected in the near future. Much of their time was spent in study and in copying the manuscripts of the Old Testament writings. In addition to these copied works, the Essenes produced a considerable amount of literature of their own, some of which describes their manner of living and the rites and ceremonies that they observed.
In addition to the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, other smaller and less influential groups existed. One of these was known as the Zealots, revolutionary messianists who believed in the use of violent methods in order to gain freedom from their oppressors. They were feared by the Romans because of their tendency to stir up rebellion against the recognized government. We read in the New Testament that one of the twelve disciples whom Jesus chose was Simon the Zealot. Another sect was the Zadokites, reformed priests who resented the way in which the Sadducees made political offices out of the priesthood. The Zadokites believed in the religious ideals advocated by the great prophets of the Old Testament, and they tried as best they could to make these ideals effective. They produced some of the apocalyptic literature to which Paul makes reference in one of his letters to the Thessalonians. The comparatively large number of people who belonged to the poorer classes were known as the Am'ha'aretz, or people of the land, manual laborers who performed menial tasks. They were, to some extent, held in contempt by the Pharisees and Sadducees, who considered themselves morally superior to these persons whose hard lot they believed was precisely what they deserved because of their laxity in the observance of ritualistic requirements of the Law. From this class of discouraged and oppressed persons, Jesus drew many of his followers. They are referred to in the Gospels as "the common people [who] heard him gladly."
The Non-Jewish Background
Because early Christianity made its appeal to Gentiles as well as to those who had been Jews, the New Testament reflects something of the Gentiles' background, along with that of the Israelite people. Of course, to mention more than a few of the more important influences that have a direct bearing on the literature produced by the early Christians is impossible. However, three major influences on the Gentile version of Christianity are mystery cults, emperor worship, and Greek philosophy.
Mystery cults were secret organizations whose membership was restricted to people who made application for admittance and then passed through a probationary period during which their conduct was carefully observed by qualified officials. Unless they performed the necessary rites and met all of the specified tests, they were not allowed to become members. Many mystery cults existed throughout the Greco-Roman world during New Testament times, including the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Orphic Mysteries, the Attis-Adonis Mysteries, and the Isis-Osiris Mysteries.
The actual ceremonies that took place within any of these cults were supposed to be kept secret. However, certain general characteristics of the mystery religions are fairly well known. All of them were concerned primarily with the means of obtaining salvation. Life in this present world was so infected with evil that no permanent good could be achieved in it. Consequently, salvation meant leaving this world and entering into a new type of existence in a life that comes after physical death.
Each of the mystery cults had its own peculiar mythology describing in some detail the activities of the gods that were involved. Many of the myths appear to have originated in order to explain the change of seasons, which causes the death of vegetation in the fall of the year and its rebirth in the spring. As the mythology developed, the death and resurrection that occur in the vegetable kingdom came to be regarded as appropriate symbols for the lives of human beings. Because vegetation overcomes death through the power of the gods, humankind, through the aid of a supernatural power, might also triumph over death.
The agent through whom this power to overcome death would be made available was known as the heroic redeemer. Unlike the Jewish concept of the Messiah, whose function was that of establishing a kingdom of justice and righteousness on this earth, the heroic redeemer of the mystery cults was a savior able to conquer death not only for himself but for all of his faithful followers. He was a heavenly being who would come to earth in human form and use his miraculous power to perform deeds of mercy and kindness toward human beings. His work would encounter opposition from the forces of evil, and his earthly career would be brought to an end by a sacrificial death. By virtue of his power as a divine being, he would rise from the dead and ascend back to the heaven from whence he came.
The power that was manifest in the experiences of the heroic redeemer could be imparted to the members of the cult who were prepared to receive it. In order to prepare for this experience, the applicants for membership were required to go through certain initiatory rites, which usually included a sprinkling ceremony in which either water or blood was used, thus signifying a purifying process that cleansed the individual of evil. After the applicant became a member, other ceremonies were designed to bring about a mystical union between the believer and the redeemer. In one of these ceremonies, the initiates would sit in front of a stage, where they would witness a dramatic performance that portrayed the life, death, and resurrection of the redeemer. As they saw this drama enacted, they would feel a sense of kinship with the hero. Being united in spirit with him, they, too, would possess the power to overcome the evils of mortal existence, including even death itself.
In another type of ceremony, union with the redeemer was accomplished through participation in a common meal. The members of the cult gathered around a table and partook in a symbol of the body and blood of the redeemer, believing that in this way the life present in the redeemer was imparted to them. Membership in the cult and participation in its many rites and ceremonies were regarded as essential means for transforming the quality of one's living on this earth in preparation for the true salvation achieved in a life to come after death.
Emperor worship was another factor that had an important bearing on the religious life of the Gentile world. Its chief significance lies in the concept of a human being who, over the course of time, is elevated in the minds of his followers to the status of deity. In other words, a person becomes a god. This way of thinking contrasts that of the Jews. Judaism always made a sharp distinction between the human and the divine. Yahweh, the god of the Jewish religion, was regarded as the creator and, in a sense, the father of all humankind. But he was not a father in any physical or biological sense of the term. Human beings were born of two human parents, not of one human parent and one divine parent. However, among some non-Jews of the world, the concept of an individual who has one human parent and one divine parent was fairly common. To be sure, only the exceptional individual's earthly career could be explained in this way, the most frequent example of which was found in the ruler of a country. One way of accounting for the extraordinary achievements of a head of government was to credit him with supernatural ancestry on the grounds that no ordinary human being born in the usual way could have accomplished so much. Having a divine parent was interpreted to mean that the individual belonged to the race of the gods and was therefore not comparable to ordinary mortals.
The so-called deification of a ruler did not always take place during the ruler's lifetime. After his death, later generations might idealize both his reign and his person, thus giving rise to the belief that he was something more than a mere mortal. For example, this process happened in the case of the Greek ruler who came to be known as Alexander the Great. One of the most revered of the Roman emperors was Augustus Caesar, who, after his death, was declared by the Roman Senate to have been a god. Worship of his image was encouraged in various parts of the empire, and not only was he deified in the minds of his admirers of later generations, but legends indicating his supernatural character evolved and were given wide publicity. A heavenly messenger supposedly had foretold his birth, strange phenomena had been observed in the heavens at the time of his birth, miraculous power had been manifested in many of his earthly activities, and he had even triumphed over death. We have the testimony of one Roman historian who claims that eyewitnesses told of Augustus Caesar's resurrection from the dead and his ascension to heaven.
The deification of earthly rulers by their subjects was not confined to the Greeks and the Romans. For centuries, it was a common practice among Egyptians, Babylonians, and other peoples of the ancient world. Nor were the rulers the only ones deified by their followers. Some of the most noted of the Greek philosophers were said to have descended from the gods since their remarkable wisdom could be accounted for in no other way. Among the Gentiles of New Testament times, explanations of this kind were commonly given to account for the activities of a person who accomplished extraordinary things.
By the end of the first century of the Christian era, emperor worship led to a serious conflict between officials of the Roman government and members of Christian communities. Certain Roman emperors, in order to strengthen their prestige and establish further unity among their subjects, decided that their deification should not be postponed until after their deaths. Accordingly, they not only proclaimed their own deity but gave orders that statues in their honor should be erected in the provinces and that worship should be accorded them at specified times and places. Christians were thus placed in a precarious position: To refuse to conform to an emperor's orders would brand them as enemies of the civil government, but obeying these same orders would be an act of disloyalty to the one and only god whom they recognized. Portions of the New Testament are addressed to Christians who faced this dilemma and who needed both advice and encouragement with reference to the course that they should follow.
The influence of Greek philosophy was widespread throughout the Greco-Roman world. The Greek language was used by educated people, Greek-inspired schools of philosophy were established in leading cities of the Roman Empire, and the writings of the Old Testament were translated into Greek by the seventy scholars whose work was known as the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Scriptures. The influence of Greek ideas can be seen in many instances of New Testament writing, especially in those parts of the literature that attempt to interpret the Christian religion of people whose prior experience was in a Gentile rather than a Jewish environment. Such attempts are true to a considerable extent in the Pauline letters and also in the Gospel of John. In both of these instances, the writings were addressed to communities composed of Gentile and Jewish Christians. Therefore, these authors necessarily had to use language with which the people to whom they were writing were familiar and could readily understand. Greek influences can be noted, too, in other parts of the New Testament, although they are not as conspicuous there as they are in the writings of Paul and John.
To say just how much of the New Testament was influenced either directly or indirectly by Greek conceptions is difficult, but such influences are recognized readily in the doctrine of the Logos, which may be translated as Word or Reason; in ethical conceptions having to do with the conflict between flesh and spirit; and in the belief in immortality.
When the author of the Fourth Gospel, commonly known as the Gospel of John, begins his account of Christianity by saying "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," he uses a concept that had long been familiar to students of Greek philosophy. The Word, or Logos, which was the term used by the Greeks, has a long and interesting history. One finds it in the writings of Heracleitus, one of the Pre-Socratics whose work appears to have had considerable influence on the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. For Heracleitus, the Logos was a kind of cosmic order, or divine justice, that presides over the destinies of a changing world. Whenever either of two opposite forces operating in the world oversteps its bounds, the Logos ensures that a proper balance is restored. Light and darkness, heat and cold, wet and dry, male and female, like all other pairs of opposites, are thus kept in proper relation to one another. Nor is the work of the Logos confined to the physical aspect of nature, for it affects the moral order as well. Whenever the requirements of justice are violated, either by individuals or by nations, the Logos acts in a compensatory manner and punishes the evildoers and thus restores the proper balance of things. Plato regarded the Logos, or Reason, as the divine element that is present in human beings. Its demand for harmony among the elements, including those in human nature, provides the key to the real meaning of the good life.
In Stoicism more than in any other branch of Greek philosophy, the doctrine of the Logos was emphasized. The Stoic philosophers identified Reason with God. They did not conceive of it as having an existence apart from the world; they believed that it permeates every part of the world. By virtue of the Logos, or Reason, the world is a cosmos rather than a chaos. Reason is present in the minds of humans, and knowledge is possible because the rational element in human nature is akin to the Reason that exists in nature, the only difference being that in the former case, Reason becomes conscious of itself. So far as humanity is concerned, Reason functions to give guidance and direction to the activities of life. Because all humans are rational beings, a common bond exists between them, and this bond was recognized by the Stoics as the basis for their belief in the universal brotherhood of humanity. Reason operating in the lives of human beings made possible the realization of what constituted for them the real meaning of the good life.
The Stoic ideal is expressed in the words "life according to nature," which means a life directed by the rational element that is present in both nature and humanity. This ideal can be achieved by bringing one's feelings and desires under the control of Reason, which the Stoics believed was a real possibility for any normal human being. Epictetus, a well-known Stoic writer, describes this way of life in his essay "Things within our Power and Things not within our Power." The individual has power over his own inner attitudes. He can govern his own spirit, control his temper, and follow the path of duty rather than yield to his feelings or be led by his emotions. On the other hand, circumstances arise over which there is no control. Some things that happen are inevitable, and the wise person will accept them without fear or complaint. The apostle Paul reflects this ideal when he writes in one of his letters, "I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, there to be content."
Closely related to the concept of the Logos, or Reason, is the notion of conflict between flesh and spirit, an idea that pervades the whole structure of Greek philosophy and is illustrated in the teachings of Plato, who held that the world of ideas, or the realm of the spirit, constitutes reality. This realm is eternal and unchanging. In contrast, the world that is experienced through the senses is a changing and unstable one. We could not have any knowledge concerning such a world except for the unchanging ideas that participate in it. The presence of these ideas, which are copied or imitated in particular things, gives to them the appearance of reality. But when ideas are embodied or imitated in material things, the result is always somewhat inferior to the original. In other words, matter is the source of corruption and deterioration.
Ideas conceived in this way are something more than a basis for the existence of particular things: They are also ideals or standards of perfection, thus making it possible for particular things to be evaluated in terms of their approximation to the ideal. To call an object good means that it is a close approximation to the ideal, one that is as nearly like the ideal as it is possible for a physical object to be. In a similar way of thinking, a person is morally good who conforms to the pattern of the ideal as much as it is possible for a human being to do. Centuries after Plato, Christians illustrated this point when they said of Jesus of Nazareth, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." Jesus is regarded as an embodiment of the ideal. He is the ideal man, the standard according to which the goodness of any other human being is to be judged.
For the Greeks, the source of goodness is spirit, and evil has its roots in matter. Because a human being is composed of both matter and spirit, a struggle is constantly going on within one's own nature. The conflict between good and evil that takes place in the life of an individual is a conflict between the desires of the flesh and the demands of the reason, which is the ruling part of one's spiritual nature. The Greek idea of a good mind and an evil body was never accepted by Jews, who teach that man is created in the image of God. Body, soul, and spirit constitute a unit that is good. Evil entered the world with the Fall of man and infected all of the elements in his nature, including his mind and his body. The apostle Paul was brought up in the Jewish tradition, and nothing indicates that he ever abandoned the notion of original sin. Nevertheless, in writing to Gentile Christians, he frequently uses the language of Greek philosophy. For example, in the Epistle to the Galatians, he writes, "So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other. . . . But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control."
The Greek conception of a good mind but an evil body is illustrated also in the teaching concerning the immortality of the soul. Unlike the Hebrews, who never accepted the idea of a soul existing apart from the body, Plato and many of his followers believed that souls have neither a beginning nor an end. They belong to the eternal realm of the spirit but are capable of entering human bodies and remaining there until the body dies. During this time, they can be influenced by their contact with that which is physical. As a result, they may be dragged down toward the level of matter or may so direct the physical body that its activities will be in the direction of spiritual attainments. In one of Plato's well-known dialogues, the soul is described as being something like that of a charioteer who is driving two steeds, one of which is wild and unruly, the other of which behaves in an orderly manner. The charioteer determines which one of these steeds will be subdued by the other. The two steeds represent the flesh and the spirit, and the charioteer is the soul. The soul, throughout the course of its embodied existence, is engaged in a conflict between flesh and spirit, which is also a conflict between evil and good. Souls that yield to the demands of the flesh are deserving of a different fate than those that follow the prompting of the spirit. This belief is one of the main reasons why Plato believed in the immortality of the soul. Souls that do not receive the happiness that they deserve in one life can be given a just compensation in another one. This argument provides a solution for the problem concerning the suffering of comparatively innocent persons: They may be receiving just punishment for deeds done in a former existence, or they may be given an appropriate reward in a future one.
Another reason for believing in the immortality of the soul lies in the fact that ideas present in the soul have neither beginning nor end. They are eternal; therefore, the soul in which they have their existence must also be eternal. On no other basis does Plato think it possible to account for the ideas that one can think of but that are never experienced through the senses. One can think of a perfect circle or a perfectly straight line, although neither has ever been seen. Plato's explanation is that the ideas have always been present in the soul. One's awareness of such perfect ideas is a recollection of what happened in some former existence. They are latent in the soul of a human being and are raised to the level of consciousness as a result of the stimuli provided by sensations.
When Plato writes his account of the death of Socrates, he makes a clear distinction between what happens to the physical body and what happens to the soul. When Socrates' friends visit Socrates in prison during his last hours, Socrates explains that his imminent death is not an occasion for sadness because the time is close at hand when his soul will be released from the body in which it has been imprisoned for so many years. Only the physical body dies. The soul journeys to another world unencumbered with the difficulties that have attended its existence in a mortal body. In this future existence, the soul will receive a just reward for whatever goodness it has achieved; because Socrates believes that he has lived well, he looks to the future with joyful anticipation.
This conception of the soul and its relation to a life beyond physical death was widely accepted by the Gentiles of the Greco- Roman world during New Testament times. Although neither the Jews nor the early Jewish Christians thought of this issue in this way, many, if not most, of them believed in some kind of survival after physical death. We know that the early Christian movement was greatly based on a firm belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Because the story of this resurrection was told in various places, it was not always interpreted in the same way. People whose orientation was in the Greek tradition were bound to see in it something quite different from people who were brought up in a Jewish environment.
A Brief Outline of the Life of Jesus
Our information concerning events in the life of Jesus is obtained almost entirely from the Gospels of the New Testament. Before any of the Gospels were written, the Christian community had already existed for some time. Community members had formulated a number of specific beliefs concerning Jesus and the significance of his life, death, and resurrection. When the Gospels were written, the materials contained in them necessarily reflected to a considerable extent those beliefs that were generally accepted by Christians at that time. Not only Christians' specific beliefs but also their interpretation and significance for coming generations were bound to become part of the written biographies. There is nothing strange or unusual about this practice, for it is the kind of thing that is always involved in historical writing. Historians make use of source materials and record actual happenings with as much accuracy as possible. Even so, their selection of facts is recorded, and their interpretations of these materials govern the way in which histories are put together, which is true of the New Testament writings no less than it is of other historical writings.
The authors of the Gospels, inspired as they undoubtedly were, could not help but be influenced by their beliefs about Jesus. For them to fill in the gaps that occurred in their accounts by telling what they believed must have happened or even to insert at various points what seemed appropriate given their knowledge of subsequent events after Jesus' physical death would have been most natural. Determining just how much of the record as it exists at the present time is due to the interpretations of the authors is not always an easy task, nor can this determination be done with complete accuracy. So far as the main outline of events is concerned, no reason exists for doubting the biographies' historical accuracy, but like any other historical writing, appropriate allowances must be made for the limitations under which the different authors carried on their work.
The oldest of the biographies of Jesus, which according to most New Testament scholars is the Gospel of Mark, tells us nothing of the time or place of Jesus' birth, nor does it record anything of his life prior to the time when he was baptized by John in the Jordan River. Perhaps information concerning the early part of Jesus' life was not available or was not regarded as important. Other Gospels report that he was born in Bethlehem of Judea and grew up in the town of Nazareth in Galilee. His public ministry did not begin until after his baptism, which was apparently a turning point in his career. John the Baptist was conducting a vigorous campaign in preparation for the great day when God would establish his kingdom here on earth, which John believed to be near at hand. John called upon people to repent of their sins and in witness thereof to be baptized. That Jesus responded to this call and was baptized indicates that he was in full accord with the work John was doing. Shortly thereafter, Jesus began to proclaim the coming of the heavenly kingdom on earth and called upon his fellow men to make preparation for it. The work of John the Baptist was brought to a close when he was imprisoned and later beheaded by Herod Antipas. His death may have been one of the reasons why Jesus continued, at least in part, the type of work that John was doing, although there are good reasons for believing that Jesus would have carried out a program of his own quite independent of what happened to the Baptist.
Before beginning his own public ministry, Jesus, like many of Israel's prophets, retired to the solitude of the wilderness for a period of fasting and meditation. At the end of this period, we are told that he was tempted by Satan, the archenemy of God and the personification of the forces of evil. Although the details of the temptation stories are somewhat varied, there can be little doubt that they report an actual event, and the meaning of the experience is essentially the same in all of them. They tell us that Jesus was tempted to do evil in the manner that is typical of the temptations that come to all human beings. That Jesus was able — with divine help — to resist these temptations brings assurances that any person may overcome evil by cooperating with divine aid, the same as Jesus did.
According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus began his public ministry in the towns and villages of Galilee by proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. He spoke in synagogues, in private homes, on lakeshores, and wherever people would gather to see and to hear him. Two elements in his ministry — teaching and healing — were so closely linked together that neither one can be understood apart from the other. Both of them concerned overcoming the forces of evil in preparation for the coming of God's kingdom. The purpose of the preaching, or teaching mission, was to make people aware of their need for repentance and to give them a clearer understanding of the way they should live in order to be ready for a place in God's kingdom. One of the chief devices used by Satan to lead people astray is the development of people's sense of complete satisfaction with themselves, which is often designated as the sin of pride, a feeling on the part of individuals that they are already good enough, that there is no need for any reform on their part. Jesus wanted to counteract this aspect of Satan's work, and preaching was one of the means he used to accomplish this end.
Jesus' healing mission was another means employed for the same purpose. The Jewish people generally accepted that physical suffering was predominantly the main punishment for sin. This point is well illustrated in the story concerning the healing of a man who was born blind. The first question put to Jesus by those who were standing nearby was, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" But if suffering is a punishment for sin, then an assurance that one's sins have been forgiven would be followed by a removal of the punishment. The Gospels indicate that in Jesus' ministry, the healing of the sick and the forgiveness of sins were linked so closely together that they were but different ways of reporting the same event. Overcoming sickness, as well as erroneous beliefs, counteracts the work of Satan and thus prepares for the coming of the kingdom.
According to the account in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus' early ministry in Galilee was quite successful. Large crowds gathered to hear him, and many sick individuals were brought to him in order that they might be healed. To assist him in the work he was doing, as well as to instruct the listeners further concerning life in the kingdom, Jesus chose a group of disciples. The disciples came from different walks of life and were so deeply impressed by the character of Jesus' mission that they wanted to be closely associated with it. This willingness does not mean that they fully understood it. Apparently, they all believed that the kingdom was soon to be established, but they were not in complete agreement concerning the manner in which it would be brought about, and there was some doubt in their minds with reference to the precise role of Jesus in connection with it. For a long time, the Jews believed that the coming of the Messiah would precede the establishment of the kingdom, but there was some question in the minds of the disciples concerning whether Jesus was the one who long had been expected. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus' Messiahship was a secret known only by Jesus himself and the demons whom he encountered. His Messiahship was not revealed even to the disciples until he discussed it with them at Caesarea Philippi shortly before the journey to Jerusalem, and then he warned them that they should say nothing about it.
We have no definite information concerning the length of Jesus' public ministry. So far as the events related in the Gospel of Mark are used as the basis for calculating its length, we can say that it would have been possible for all of the events to have occurred within a single year. Other Gospels indicate a longer period of time. Whatever length of time it may have been, evidently the only purpose of the ministry was that of preparing the people for life in God's kingdom. None of Jesus' mighty works was done in order to attract attention to Jesus himself. The miracles were manifestations of God's power, which is always available to those who are prepared to make use of it. Some people saw in these miracles nothing more than a type of magic or an exhibition of some spectacular power, but they were the ones who failed to grasp the true meaning or significance of Jesus' work.
At some point in his Galilean ministry, Jesus had a disappointing experience in his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus could do no more mighty works in Nazareth because of the citizens' lack of belief, but his enthusiasm for carrying forward the mission he had set out to perform was not dampened; he intensified his efforts. He sent his disciples into the outlying territory with instructions to do the same type of work that he was doing. The disciples' efforts appear to have been successful, for when they brought back their report, Jesus said with reference to it, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven." Later, Jesus and the disciples carried their mission into the region northeast of Galilee, including such places as Tyre, Sidon, and Caesarea Philippi.
After a brief return to Galilee, during which he visited the city of Capernaum, Jesus decided to go to Jerusalem. The growing opposition to his work on the part of those who were engaged in the activities that he criticized seems to have been one of the reasons that prompted this decision. But more important, the success of his entire mission was at stake, for it was crucial that the cause that he represented be placed squarely before the leaders of the Jewish people in their headquarters at Jerusalem. Jesus realized the danger that was involved in an attempt of this kind, for he was familiar with what had happened to Israel's ancient prophets whenever they challenged government officials' policies. Nevertheless, despite the dangers to him personally, "he set his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem" no matter what it might cost him to do so. As he talked with his disciples about what might happen to him in Jerusalem, they were shocked, for they did not believe anything of that kind would happen to the promised Messiah. When Jesus tried to explain to them the true nature of the work of the Messiah, they did not understand. The journey to Jerusalem was relatively uneventful, but after Jesus' entrance into the city, opposition to his program soon became so strong that it resulted in his death. Jesus' coming into the city is described by the gospel writers as a triumphal entry, for evidently many people welcomed him, believing that the time was at hand when the promised Messiah would take part in the establishment of God's kingdom. Their hopes were soon frustrated by the turn of events. The chief priests and rulers of the people were infuriated by Jesus' attacks on the use that was being made of the Temple. When Jesus drove out the buyers and sellers and denounced the commercialism involved in priests' and rulers' activities, he aroused the antagonism of the Jewish leaders, which led to their decision to denounce him.
Because it was the season for the celebration of the Jewish Passover, multitudes were entering the city to participate in the services. Jesus observed the Passover meal with his disciples, but in the meantime, his enemies plotted against him by charging that he was not only disloyal to the Jewish faith but an enemy of the Roman government. After the Passover meal, Jesus was betrayed by Judas, one of his own disciples, and arrested by soldiers. In the course of his trial before the Roman governor, he was examined by Pilate, who declared that he found no fault in Jesus. Pilate wanted Jesus released, but a mob that had gathered to press charges against him demanded that he be crucified, and in the end, Pilate yielded to their demand. From the point of view of Jesus' followers, everything for which they had hoped was lost. Even the disciples forsook Jesus and fled in order to save their own lives. Jesus died on the cross and was buried in Joseph's new tomb.
Later, a remarkable change took place in the experience of these same disciples. They became convinced that Jesus' cause was not lost. The man who died on the cross was one whose life met with divine approval. He died not because of his own sins but, like the suffering servant of the prophet Isaiah, for the sake of others. The disciples were now sure that he was the true Messiah, the nature of whose mission they did not understand before his crucifixion. His death on the cross did not mean the end of the cause for which he stood. In fact, that cause was now more alive than it had ever been before. God's kingdom would yet be established. Jesus' return to earth to complete the program already begun would be accomplished in the near future. With these convictions in the minds of the disciples, the Christian movement was inaugurated, a movement that produced the writings in the New Testament.