The historical context of the new testament.

The time of the stories of the new testament lies between two major events in the Middle East, the Maccabees revolt of the second century BC and the Roman-Jewish wars of the first and second centuries AD.

In 166 B.C, two hundred years before the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, there was a rebellion in Judea that overthrew the Hellenist (Greko-Roman or “gentile”) Seleucid empire that continued in the colonising tradition of Alexander the Great, that is it imposed Greek social structure, economy and religion onto Judea at the same time as outlawing indigenous Hebrew culture, especially the Jubilee year of restoration (Leviticus 25), Sabbath laws and the land covenant of circumcision. Idols of Zeus were placed in Solomons temple in Jerusalem.

The indigenous Hebrews launched a guerilla war against the colonising Greek army and economy as well as Hellinised (civilised) Hebrews collaborating with the Greek regime. The gentiles were expelled from Judea and indigenous self-rule was instituted in Judea, Galilee, Samaria and other regions of Abraham and Joshua’s covenants, in the form of a priestly dynasty – the Hasmoneans. The old testament books of Maccabees tell the story. The festival of Hanukkah or “the festival of light” is a celebration of the rededication of Solomon’s temple after its defilement by the colonising Greeks. Jesus attended this festival and declared himself the messiah at it (John 10: 22 – 30).

Rome invaded the Holy land in 63 BC, after a hundred years of indigenous self-rule. However Rome did not outlaw Hebrew culture and law as the Greeks had done, instead it ruled in collaboration with the Hasmonean priests. The priests accepted Rome’s money to refurbish and expand Solomon’s temple. The temple itself became the centre of Roman tax collection and the priests compromised indigenous law, especially the Jubilee, in order to maintain peace with the Roman colonisers. This arrangement is the religious and political status-quo of the new testament.

Thirty years or so after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, in the 60s AD, indigenous Hebrews again launched a guerrilla war of independence, in this case against Roman domination. The Romans were evicted, self rule was instituted in Judea, Galilee and Samaria, based in the religious authorities in Jerusalem. Revolutionary Hebrew coins (“freedom coins”) were minted to replace the Roman economy and land and wealth redistribution occurred in line with tribal Jubilee law, as documented in the book of Acts.

In 70 AD Rome re-invaded and smashed the Jerusalem temple but Hebrew guerilla resistance continued for a hundred years.

The new testament was written during and/or after the revolution of the 60s and the whole new testament was written in the time of guerilla resistance and Rome’s persecution of the Hebrews as a result. That is, the events of the revolution and ongoing guerilla war would be well known by the bible writers and those to whom they wrote, it was the social context of the new testament. Domination by and liberation from the colonial empires of Egypt, Babylon, Greece and Rome is the social and historical context of the whole bible.

What can be solidly argued from the biblical texts is Jesus identification with the old testament prophetic tradition of resistance to empire.

What can also be solidly argued from the biblical texts is Jesus’ direct engagement with the issues and debates of his own time regarding the attempted fusion of God’s law and Caesar’s law by the priests (Pharisees and Sadducees). For example – there was a popular Babylonian born (Hellenised) Pharisee named Hillel at the time of Herod the Great, that is at the time of Jesus’ birth. Hillel was instrumental in abandoning the Jubilee law, the restoration of land to traditional owners and the extinguishment of debt. Such an arrangement is of course not compatible with the Roman colonial economy and was a direct threat to Rome’s capacity to extract wealth, which is why the Greeks outlawed it. Jesus proclamation of the Jubilee in his first announcement of his ministry was a direct engagement in the social debate of indigenous self rule and colonial domination. His constant attack on the pharisees must be understood in the context of the Hasmonean collaboration with Rome.

But unfortunately Christendom has established a tradition of interpreting the bible through the lens of Hellenic imperial Rome and as such betrayed the tribal indigenous perspective of the bible writers.

Even radical biblical archaeologists like John Domonic Crossan, whose work I would still recommend to anyone, interpret the new testament through the lens of Roman history, culture and debates within the Hellenic empire rather than the sociopolitical realities of Africa and the Middle East upon which the bible stories are founded.

John Tracey

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