Why would someone interested in the New Testament study the history of the Greco-Roman world? This history is important because the key to understanding the New Testament is context….If we do not try to put ourselves into the context of the original readers of the Scriptures, we can very easily read our own culture into a passage and reach wrong conclusions about what it meant to the author and therefore what it should mean to us. James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), 293.
The years between the two Testaments are critically important for understanding the New Testament. Let me offer two easy examples. First, the conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees are often based on-going discussions in the Second Temple Period over Jewish practice. The Pharisees have a rich history prior to their role in the Gospels. Most Christians think of the Pharisees as the evil, works-for-salvation religious leaders who hated Jesus and were constantly trying to trick him into saying something worthy of death. But this is far from the case! Anyone who thinks this mischaracterization of the Pharisees is accurate is reading their own culture back into the New Testament (As Jeffers says in the quote above).
A second example is Paul’s struggle against what he calls Judaizers in Galatians. This group of Jewish Christians insisted Gentile converts submit to circumcision in order to fully convert to Judaism. There are a number of factors here, but these Pauline opponents should be understood in the light of circumcision as a boundary marker during the Maccabean Revolt. What define a person as “Jewish” 200 years before Paul’s day was the ritual of circumcision and to reject that practice struck at the heart of what it meant to be Jewish at that particular time.
The main struggle of the Jews during this 400 year period was how to integrate into a world which was decidedly not Jewish. As Greek and Roman culture came to pervade the post-exilic world, how could a Jewish person live out their lives in faithfulness to God’s Law yet also live in a pagan world?
One option is it withdraw entirely, as the Essenes will in the mid-second century. I do not think the Essenes were a monastic community who lived completely separate from other people (this is a misreading of the evidence and imposes a later Christian view of asceticism on the Essenes). But they certainly separated themselves from the mainstream of Judaism as we know it in the first century. For the group at Qumran, it appears they sought to live in a state of ceremonial cleanliness required for priests in the Temple as the waited for the messiah (or messiahs) to come to their community and lead them into battle against the “sons of darkness,” the Jews who were in charge of the Temple!
A second option is to become wholly integrated into the culture, as many Jews did. Philo of Alexandria’s brother is a chief example of this, since he rejected Judaism entirely. Although Herod the Great kept some Jewish practices, for the most part he intentionally lived as a Roman and he certainly ran his kingdom as a Roman. Throughout the Second Temple period there were Jewish people who completely Hellenized and walked away from their ancient Jewish practices.
Pharisees, Sadducees, and Christians fall in-between these two extremes since they found ways to remain loyal to God’s Word, yet also found a way to interact with the pagan world. In the case of Christianity, the motivation was to reach the lost world with the Gospel of Jesus.
This is exactly the same struggle American Christians face today as our culture becomes increasingly post-Christian. It is the same struggle Christians face in countries where Christian was never the majority religion. It is impossible to completely withdraw from the world, although some Christian communities have tried to be as separate as possible. It is also the case many Christians have become so integrated into their culture they have ceased to be Christian by any objective definition of the word.
Can the struggle of the Jewish people in the Second Temple period be a model for contemporary Christians as they struggle with similar issues?