Bible Notes 8: New Testament Background and Summary

Artist’s imagining of the Second Temple,

What a joy to focus Bible study upon the Old Testament! Studying those Bible books during these past several months, I’ve made so many wonderful discoveries. I particularly enjoyed using Jewish study materials for the Tanakh (the proper word for the Jewish Bible: “Old Testament” is of course a Christian term). I cherish my friendships and collegial relationships with Jews and love to understand the Scriptures through Jewish as well as Christian scholarship.

A Jewish friend points out that the New Testament is, to a Jew, quite unlike the Tanakh. We Christians are taught that the New Testament grows self-evidently from the Old, but different aspects of those scriptures resonated differently among Jews and early Christians. As one of my professors puts it, “certain chords were sounded by Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah which resonated strongly in the New Testament (new covenant, vicarious suffering, new creation, suffering servant).” Meanwhile, though, “other notes grew in intensity on which rabbinic Judaism sought to construct its faith (temple, cult, priesthood, law).”(1) Judaism had to survive the Roman destruction of the Temple  in 70 CE, and so the leadership of the Pharisees, segueing into the leadership of the Rabbis and Sages, preserved the scriptures and traditions of Judaism.

The New Testament also contains numerous negative depictions of Jews and Judaism. In subsequent posts, I’ll be using a favorite book, The Reluctant Parting by Dr. Julie Galambush (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005). A divinity school classmate, Julie takes each New Testament writing and explains its context within the first century Judaism, when the Jesus believers and other Jews became into conflict. Julie discusses how the anger focused toward Jews in the New Testament is often an expression of hurt and discouragement among Jews toward fellow Jews—and not Gentiles expressing hostility toward Jews. But the New Testament “taught” centuries of Gentiles exactly that: hostility toward Jews and Jewish faith.

And yet almost everything in Christian doctrine originates from the Jewish scriptures and traditions, refigured though those ideas may be. Major exceptions include the afterlife and last judgment (ideas that began to be debated within Judaism after the biblical period; the Eucharistic consumption of blood, very contrary to Torah kashrut teachings; and the Cross, a Gentile way of killing people. Early Christians (who were Jews) managed to make Old Testament connections even to these.

Here is an earlier blog post where I list several Old Testament passages that became important for New Testament writers. Christians’ teachings about Jesus took them deeply into the Jewish scriptures, though in ways difficult to accept by other Jews.


The Old Testament ends with Malachi, probably written in the 400s BCE, although Esther is from that time or later, and Daniel and also the apocrypha books of the Maccabees are from the 100s BCE. Thus, the Old Testament ends with the community establishing Jewish faith and identity both in the land and in the diaspora. See my earlier post on the Talmud for the development of Rabbinic Judaism.

During this time of crisis and development for Judaism, Christianity emerged. Jesus, a Galilean Jew from Nazareth, was born about 4 BCE and died around 29 or 30 CE. Among the most famous Mishnah sages whose lives overlapped with Jesus, Hillel lived in about 100 BCE-10 CE. The sage Rabbi Akiva was born after Jesus died, living in about 50-135 CE. Some scholars believe that 1 Thessalonians, from about 50 CE, may be the earliest New Testament book.

This past week I heard a presentation by Lawrence Schiffman, Professor Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. Subsequently I ordered his book From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Hoboken: Ktav Publishing House, 1991). He has a good summary of the background of Christianity (pp. 149ff). After Herod’s death in 4 BCE, Judea was ruled by Roman procurators, the first few of whom were wise, but Pontius Pilate–who of course ordered Jesus’ execution–was an unwise ruler insensitive to Jewish customs, resulting in years of conflict and economic decline. Early Christianity began in this climate, “firmly anchored in the heritage of Second Temple sectarianism” (p. 149). This was a time of several other messianic movements. Jesus himself likely learned from among the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders of the time, although of course he and Pharisees had disagreements and discussions.

Eventually, as Schiffman writes, “Jesus’ teachings apparently raised the ire of some of the Hellenized Jews in the leadership of the high priesthood, as well as of the Romans, who decreed his crucifixion. It is impossible from the incomplete accounts [apart from the Gospels] we have to determine exactly what led to the execution of Jesus, yet we know the tragic results of the widespread Christian assumption that the Jews were responsible for it” (p. 152).

The separation of Judaism and Christianity took about a hundred years, Schiffman writes. On the Christian side, we can see in New Testament traditions that the believers in Jesus’ resurrection began to see Jews as “the other”, with whom Jesus (though himself a Jew) disputed (p. 153). The New Testament writings reflected bitterness of Jesus-believing Jews toward other Jews.

In the very early days, Schiffman writes, Christians and Jews might still discuss the Hebrew Bible, but tensions arose and grew. On the Jewish side, tannaitic Judaism became the dominant kind of Judaism after the unsuccessful Jewish revolt against the Romans during the last third of the first century CE. (See my earlier post about the Talmud.) The Pharisees were the only survivors of the several groups that had existed during and right after Jesus’ lifetime. As the Tannaim (sages of the Mishnah period) standardized Jewish beliefs, Jews who believed in the messiahship of Jesus were perceived as minim, or Jews with wrong beliefs. The Tannaim also developed laws to separate other Jews from commerce and interaction with the Christian minim (p. 153). By the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE), which effectively prevented Jews from returning to the Land, the Tannaim forbade  Christian writings.

The situation became complicated because, in the Apostle Paul’s churches, Gentiles—that is, persons outside the purview of Talmudic halacha, or Jewish law—were becoming the dominant kind of Christian, and the minim, Jews who combined Jesus-belief with Torah-observance–faded away (p. 154-155)

When religion and politics combine, someone gets very hurt; in this case, in the 300s, the Roman empire became increasingly Christianized, eventually resulting in attacks on Jews and synagogues and other expressions of anti-Semitism (pp. 155-156). Legislation of the Christianized empire “set the stage for the tragic history of Jewish-Christian relations in medieval and modern times” (p. 156). James Carroll’s book, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, A History (New York: Mariner Books, 2001) is a long and thorough account of this history.

I keep coming back to this eternal promise to the Jewish people:

Thus says the Lord,
who gives the sun for light by day
and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
the Lord of hosts is his name:
If this fixed order were ever to cease
from my presence, says the Lord,
then also the offspring of Israel would cease
to be a nation before me for ever (Jeremiah 31:35-36).


1. Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), 176.

*****Here’s a summary of the New Testament, that I wrote a few years ago. Like many Christians, I tended to turn first to the New Testament as I began serious Bible studies. Leafing now through my old Bible that I’ve used since I was twenty, I find all my jottings from college and seminary when I studied the Bible (on my bed rather than at a desk), with commentaries to study, too. I can scarcely convey my excitement I felt when I discovered that the gospels contained evidence of early oral traditions, possible antecedent written sources, and intentional compositional ordering of material about Jesus.  I poured over the book Gospel Parallels, which lays out the Synoptic Gospels—Mathew, Mark, and Luke—in order to show textual similarities and differences.(1)

I learned that over 90% of Mark’s gospel is also found in Matthew and Luke, and that the latter two gospels have material in common that is not found in Mark: the so-called “Q” material. Matthew and Luke also have material unique to their own gospels, implying other sources that they used. I hadn’t doubted Jesus’ historical existence, but I was fascinated by the shaping of the material, the use of sources of Jesus’ words and deeds to put forward theological convictions. That the Gospels were not straightforward biographies, factual in all chronology and detail, didn’t matter to me in the least.(2)

Gospels and Acts 

In Matthew, Jesus addresses his mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). It seems the most Jewish Gospel but also the most angry in terms of the Jewish leadership. We get Jesus’ bitter diatribe in Matthew 23, but we also get strong connections of Jesus with the Jewish scriptures and traditions. Jesus by no means repudiates the Torah, but interprets it by his own authority. At the same time, Jesus provides hope for Gentiles, too (12:18, 15:28, 24:14, etc.), and among the gospels only Matthew uses the word “church” (ekklēsia). Matthew retains Mark’s basic geographical framework (the Galilean ministry, chapters 4-18; the journey to Jerusalem, 19-20; and the week in Jerusalem, 21-28:15), but unlike Mark, Matthew includes a birth narrative (including the stories of the Wise Men, the flight into Egypt, and the slaughter of the innocents).  The gospel presents Jesus’ teachings in five discourses (chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25), and uniquely gives us teachings such as the wicked slave (18:21-35), the landowner (20:1-18), the ten virgins (25:1-13), the talents (25:14-30), and the narrative of the last judgment (25:1-46).

Mark opens with, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Hasty, simply written, the gospel contains a key verse, 10:45: “the Son of man …came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Who is this Jesus, though?  As the gospel proceeds, Jesus’ friends don’t seem to “get” him. He confuses those closest to him. One of the saddest verses is 14:50, And they all forsook him, and fled. Meanwhile, the people on the “outside” identify Jesus right away: the demons, outcasts, and Gentiles. The first post-crucifixion person to “preach” Jesus is a Roman soldier who participated in his execution (15:39). And yet, for all its darker qualities, the gospel seems written to those already Christian for their guidance and comfort, as I’ve jotted in the margin. Mark’s gospel omits birth stories, devoting chapters 1 through 13 to Jesus’ ministry (chapters 1-9 in Galilee, chapter 10 on the way to Jerusalem, and 12-13 in Jerusalem), and then chapters 14 through 16 for Jesus’ passion.

Luke, the only Gentile author in the New Testament, wrote two accounts, both addressed to person named “Theophilus,” which means “God-lover.” (That was Mozart’s middle name: “Amadeus” is the Latin translation.) In the gospel, Jesus addresses his concerns for the poor and disadvantaged; Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 61:1-2 (Luke 4:18-19) doesn’t spiritualize the blind, oppressed, and imprisoned, but he proclaims liberty and release to them. “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20)—not “poor in spirit” which you and I might be able to claim. Unique to Luke’s gospel are the story of the good Samaritan (10:25-27), the story of Mary and Martha (10:38-42), the parables of the lost coin and the prodigal son (15:8-32), the story of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31), not to mention the stories at the Gospel’s beginning: the birth of John the Baptist, the Magnificat, the Benedictus, the song of Simeon, the shepherds in the field, the story of young Jesus in the Temple.

How is John related to the other gospels? Is it a different historical tradition or does it assume the traditions of Mark?  This is a debated subject; the basic outline and facts of Jesus’ life are there, but the stories are different: the water into wine, the Samaritan woman, the raising of Lazarus. John focuses on seven “sign” miracles, five of which are not found in the other Gospels. John’s is a “high” view of Jesus, a view that helps us understand him theologically. We don’t find parables and pericopes here, but rather long reflections and dialogues. While Jesus’ Synoptic parables do not deal directly with Jesus’ identity, John’s gospel contains numerous “I am” sayings. While the other gospels announce the Kingdom of God, in John, Jesus’ announces the Spirit that will guide Jesus’ followers.

Acts provides stories of the first (approximately) thirty-five years of the early church.  Peter dominates the first portion of Acts, Paul the second half. Luke frames the stories of Acts with affirmations about God’s kingdom (1:3, 28:1); Jesus had preached the kingdom, and after his ascension, the life-power of Jesus is given to people through the Holy Spirit, and so for Luke, the kingdom of God exists wherever people accept that ever-available life-power(3). Thus the disciples are instructed not to fret about the signs and portents of Jesus’ second coming, they have what they need for the present time, the Spirit promised in Joel’s prophecy (Joel 2:28-32, Acts 2:17-21).

In spite of its connection to Luke, I tended to think of Acts as a stand-alone historical account between the gospels and the epistles. But eventually I realized that Acts is as important as the gospels because the book provides the way that we know Jesus today. We’ll never know Jesus in the flesh—and judging from Jesus’ own words, we shouldn’t even long to have known him in the flesh (John 16:5-15). Now, Jesus is now fully present to us through the Holy Spirit.(4) Jesus’ story continues, if not in a scriptural way, in the innumerable book-length stories of us, his disciples (cf. John 21:25).

An explorer of these books will notice the way different gospels accounts are shaped, and how placement of stories and teachings elucidate meaning (4).  She’ll learn about God’s love from the many “pictures” of God (Mt. 18:10-14, 35, 19:13-15, Luke 7:36-50, 15:3-32, and others). She’ll try to regain a sense of childlike openness and wonder (perhaps lost in adulthood), which Jesus says is essential for understanding him (Mark 10:13-16). She’ll understand that those who are good, upright, Ten Commandments-following people are often the ones who can’t or won’t follow Jesus, and the sinners and strugglers may get into the kingdom first (Matt. 21:31-32, Mark 10:17-31, Luke 15:11-32).

The explorer should try not to isolate Jesus as a teacher and healer from Jesus as risen Lord upon whom she can call for help and guidance. Jesus’ teachings had characteristics of healing and vice versa. When Jesus taught, he aimed not just at ethical standards but also at the healing of our hearts. When Jesus healed people, he not only showed a concern for people’s physical needs but also wanted to teach people about God’s hope and salvation (Matt. 12:15-21).(5)


The Bible has many different kinds of literary genres.(6) In the two testaments you find history, poetry, legal codes, prophecy, songs, letters, sermons, gospels, and even one book of erotic poetry. Ideally, we should understand the different genres as we read, and genres overlap within books. Ezra contains autobiography, letters, and history; several of the prophets contain oracles and narratives. The gospels and Acts are history, but they’re also preaching. Hebrews is a sermon with an epistolary conclusion (though no epistolary greeting). Of course, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy form a long history and contain accounts of individual incidents, but the books also encompass legal codes and cultic (worship) instructions, while ancient Christian catechesis and liturgy, as in the Didache, are later than the canon.

We find very few letters in the Old Testament, but letters form the largest body material in the New Testament. The canon includes letters of James, John, Peter, Jude, the author of Hebrews, and Paul.  Paul’s several letters are arranged in order of length, although 1 and 2 Thessalonians were probably the earliest letters, and Philippians and 1 and 2 Timothy seem valedictory.  All these letters were written to individuals or churches in order to address particular issues, to deal with needs and problems, to convey information and greetings, and to communicate feelings. Although not intentionally written in an epigrammatic way, we can lift epigrams, slogans, and promises from the letters for our own needs, for within these letters are treasures of biblical proclamation and pearls of wisdom. If I were to give someone a single Bible book to convey the Gospel, I’d tell them to read Romans or Ephesians. Galatians is also excellent for communicating the Gospel, although it was written in frustration and anger; if you’ve a good commentary to help you, Galatians might help renew your faith.

The letters have different purposes and viewpoints. Like the Gospels, they’ve changing facets in which God’s light beautifies, changes, and illuminates. Reading in turn through my various marginal notes and scribbling:

Romans is Paul’s self-introduction to a church he wished to visit soon. He argues that God accounts us righteous by faith rather than works of the law. The righteousness of God is revealed in God’s justification of sinners through the atonement of Christ.

1 and 2 Corinthians is largely Paul’s words of teaching, advice, and reprimand to a congregation swayed by impressive teachers, confident in their own wisdom, and yet lacking in love and spiritual maturity.

Galatians is Paul’s frustrated letter to a Gentile church. Paul points out that the Galatians already evidence of God’s power and acceptance in their lives through the gifts of the Spirit. They must not add anything on to God’s work, including traditional Jewish rites like circumcision.

Ephesians and Colossians are similar letters, written (if Paul did write them) while he was imprisoned. He shows the sufficiency of Christ and God’s free salvation. In Christ we are built up as a church; Christ has removed barriers between God and us.

Philippians, another “prison letter,” is a joyful letter, warm and affirming for a congregation Paul clearly feels gratitude.

1 and 2 Thessalonians concern the second coming of Christ and the need to be watchful, though the first letter is warm and the second letter, though also warm, contains more admonishment.

1 and 2 Timothy concern the qualities of church leaders and provides advice and encouragement to Paul’s young colleague.  Titus also deals with church leaders and the need to deal with false teaching.

Philemon concerns a runaway slave, Onesimus, whom Paul has helped convert, and so Paul writes Onesimus’ master about the matter, hinting strongly that Onesimus should be freed.

Hebrews is an epistolary sermon by an unknown author to an unknown group of people. The title, which is a latter addition, is based on the fair assumption that the original audience consisted of converts from Judaism, who, more than a Gentile group, would have grasped all the many references to the Hebrew scriptures and traditions. Although its supersessionism demands contemporary reinterpretation, the sermon is beautiful, intricate, and argues the sufficiency of Christ compared with the angels, the prophets, and the temple.

James stresses the validity of one’s faith through the good works of one’s personal growth and one’s relationships with others. The book only mentions Jesus twice and is similar in style to Old Testament wisdom literature.

1 and 2 Peter concern the steadfastness of one’s faith in times of persecution and also in regard to false teachers.

1, 2, and 3 John all provide glimpses into the lives of the early church. 1 John, especially, teaches the need to demonstrate one’s faith through love.

Tiny little Jude, which quotes a non-canonical writing (1 Enoch 1:9), is closely related textually to 2 Peter and is concerned false teachers and apostasy.

After these brief epistles, we come to the final book, Revelation, which concerns the final times. It’s actually a letter, too (1:4), to seven Asian churches.  John must be a different man than the apostle, for the book’s style is dissimilar from the gospel and the letters, and this author does not identify himself as an apostle. The book chronicles the many signs of the end times and is written in symbolic language that harkens back to Old Testament prophecies.

The letters, like the gospels, aren’t just “about” Jesus but also witness to his living reality. “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:16. This verse used to bother me; aren’t Jesus’ life and teachings important? They are, but Jesus’ life and teachings can’t be disconnected with his death and resurrection, and his earthly life cannot be disconnected with the eternal life that he now shares with us, And so it is not inappropriate that much of the New Testament deals not with specifics about Jesus’ life and teachings (the letters scarcely quote Jesus’ teachings explicitly) but the grand fact of his salvation and gifts of the Spirit. Now, as readers of this material, we too receive the first-century preaching of the Gospel of Jesus, and our lives, too, become guided and maintained by the Spirit.


We should also be humbled by the way the Bible witnesses to the imperfection of human efforts, including (perhaps especially) religious efforts, and God’s compassion for us. The Israelites, in their centuries of life with God, provide example after example of doubt, complaint, loss of faith, idolatry, wrongdoing, and judgment. A knee-jerk Christian reaction might be, “Oh, those faithless Hebrews.” But look closely at the New Testament. Those scriptures reflect a much shorter time period than the Old Testament (fewer than a hundred years, depending on the conjectural dating of some of the epistles, compared to 1600 years between Abraham and Nehemiah), and so we don’t see the same kind of patterns of sin-judgment-repentance in the New compared to the Old. But in the New Testament, the early Christian congregations also struggled with problems: divergence from sound teachings (2 Tim. 4:1-5), the threat of apostasy (Heb, 6:1-8), factions (1 Cor. 1:10-17), unchastity (1 Cor. 6:12-20, 1 Thess. 4:1-8), incest (1 Cor. 5:1-5), lawsuits (1 Cor. 6:1-7), disrespect of the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:17-22), and others. All seven of the churches of Revelation received a scold or a warning or both. Thank God for God’s steadfast love and loving kindness!



1. Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr., ed., Gospel Parallels: A Synopsis of the First Three Gospels(Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1973).

When we study the Gospels, it’s difficult not to mentally harmonize the material. For instance, we think of the “seven last words of Jesus,” but no single Gospel contains all seven; we mentally conflate the material.  In fact, a second century Christian named Tatian harmonized the content of the four gospels into a continuous life, called the Diatessaron, which we now know through variant versions of ancient copies. Howard Clark Kee, Jesus in History: An Approach to the Study of the Gospels (second edition, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), 281-292.

2 I still have some of my favorite seminary paperbacks like Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper & Row, 1960); The Crucified Messiah and Other Essays(Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1974), Studies in Paul (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1977) and Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976), all by Nils Alstrup Dahl; and Klee, op. cit. Also Richard A. Buridge, Four Gospels, One Jesus? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1994);  Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), and Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

3 Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), 643.

4 William H. Shepherd, who has published several good books about preaching (CSS Publishing Co.) has also written the book The Narrative Function of the Holy Spirit as a Character in Luke-Acts (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1994).

5  I make this point in my book, What’s in the Bible About Jesus? for the series What’s in the Bible, and Why Should I Care? (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), 43.

6 An introduction to the Bible’s types of writings is Margaret Nutting Ralph, And God Said What? An Introduction to Biblical Literary Forms (New York: Paulist Press, 1986, 2003).


As you study the Tanakh/Old Testament, you realize there’s not much about the afterlife, whereas the subject becomes more prominent in the New Testament. I was going to delve into the differences between Judaism and Christianity on the afterlife, but I found three online articles instead. Although the promise of eternal life is precious, I also appreciate the emphasis in Judaism on doing good here and now.