This essay on the first century is meant to provide a simple surface level overview of the context in which the New Testament was written. It’s not riveting, and it wasn’t meant to be. But I believe it is incredibly important to understand that Jesus and the early Christians lived and wrote in a very different world form our own, and our understanding of scriptures will change based upon our understanding of its context.
The Cultural Background of the New Testament:
Life Under the Roman Empire in the 1st Century
The Roman household was highly patriarchal and centered, not around blood relatives, but a cooperation of men and women brought together under the authority of one man called the “paterfamilias”. He was the father of the unit called a “familia”. He held ultimate power in the house and could buy, sell or even kill his slaves. Everyone in the familia worked for the good of the paterfamilias and their own success in life was dependent upon his own.
Children were expected to display unconditional obedience at all times. Children were governed by the Roman family law patriapotesta or “power of the father,” which gave him absolute power to punish as he liked, to put them in chains, to sell them into slavery or kill them in their youth*. Children were to honor their fathers as one would honor a god. Fathers were strict as an expression of love, and mothers were to be more sensitive and nurturing**.
Marriages were arranged, and women were commonly married in their teens and were usually married to much older men. The woman was considered the property of her father and ownership passed from the father to the husband upon being wed, a custom that was rooted in the Roman Patria potesta. Marriages were usually economically motivated, and contracts were drawn up beforehand which dealt with financial issues such as inheritance***.
For the Roman citizen, honor was held in high regard above all else, and it was defended at any cost, even his very life. The accumulation of honor meant the furthering of your career and stature among your peers. The Paterfamilias’ honor was held in high regard by the entire familia and they all worked to maintain the honor of their leader. Being challenged by a subordinate was a challenge to your very honor, and brought great shame. A man would feel a great responsibility to recover honor that was lost or shame that had come upon them.
Patriotism was also held in incredibly high regard amongst the Romans, especially for those in the service of the Empire like an official, a governor, or a soldier. A Roman who was loyal to the Emperor was called “amicus” to them and was considered trustworthy. Friends of Rome, or “Amici Populi Romani,” were people or states who had loyalty to the Emperor. And any who were not regarded as friends of the Empire could not advance in status and would find their career in jeopardy. Even the rumor of disloyalty would be devastating.
Roman life centered around the cities and the Empire went to great lengths to encourage urban life. Large amounts of money were spent on public plays, feasts, and on arenas where the people could be entertained by violent gladiator matches, all in the pursuit of keeping the Roman citizens happy.
Citizens of Rome were entitled specific rights that slaves, resident aliens, and Jews were not. Citizens could vote and appeal to Caesar when they felt they were being mistreated. Moreover, they were exempt from certain types punishments that were considered humiliating and thus beneath that of a citizen of Rome (like crucifixion)*4.
The Jews in the first century were under the occupation of Rome. They were monotheistic and worshiped their ancient God, Yahweh, rejecting the pantheon of gods of the Gentile world. Idolatry was a great offense to the Jews and they considered any sculpted images, whether of deities or natural beings, to be idols. The Gentiles were quite fond of art, especially sculptures, and decorated their cities with the statues and paintings of, not only created things, but also the divine beings whom they worshiped. The presence of Gentile craven images in Jewish cities was a source of great friction between them.
While there were Jews in the diaspora who had learned to live quite comfortably under the empire, most lived in Jewish communities that made concerted efforts to separate themselves from their barbarian counterparts. They did not take part in Roman life. They did not wear the same clothes, shave their beards, worship Roman gods, or enter into Roman houses. Doing so would make them “unclean,” meaning that they could not continue with their usual worship habits until they were ritually cleansed again, according to their Mosaic laws.
The Jews believe that the Romans were making their cities unclean just by living there and different sects of Judaism had different solutions for this problem. The Zealots concluded that the answer was to wage war against their occupiers, and would regularly commit assassinations by hiding daggers in their clothing and attacking individual soldiers and officials who were in large crowds in public spaces, slipping away in the chaos that ensued. Others, like the Sadducees, believed that they could partner with the empire and negotiate a better life under the umbrella of their safety. In Jesus day, they controlled the priesthood and most of the political affairs. They were more open to Hellenistic influence than most of the other sects*5. The Pharisees were vocal in their dissent of any Gentile occupation and sometimes resorted to outbursts of violence. They managed the synagogue life *6 and were the leaders of middle and lower class peasant Jews. The Essenes, while holding views similar to those of the Pharisees, separated themselves altogether by moving into the wilderness to practice their religion unabated. Almost all believed that one day they would be free of their oppressors and would have their own nation where Yahweh would finally rule, the questions was whether to wage war themselves or wait for God to accomplish it.
Outside of those four main sects of 1st century Judaism was several smaller sects that are lesser known but do offer some significant to NT context. Among them are the Herodians who were supporters of the pro-Roman Herod dynasty*7, and the Am-ha-Eretz, or, “the people of the land” who were mostly poor farmers who were against Roman rule and supported the Pharisees.
In addition to these sects, there was a group called the Samaritans, an off-shoot of the Jews who remained around Schechem when the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed. They revised the Hebrew scriptures to argue their own place in Israel’s story and built a rival temple on Mount Gerizim that could be seen from Schechem. They were rejected by the Jewish leaders as discredited and there were significant hostilities between the two.
* Barclay, William. The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians. 3rd ed. edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002. p. 202
** Burge, Gary. The New Testament in Antiquity: A Survey of the New Testament within Its Cultural Context. Zondervan; unknown edition (February 2, 2009), n.d. p.91
*** Ibid. p.90
*4) Ibid. p. 87-88
*5) Strauss, Mark L. Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels. 3.2.2007 edition. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2007. p.131
*6) Ibid. p. 132
*7) Ibid. p. 132