The Inaugral Humanities Conference
This afternoon I presented a paper on why having knowledge on the historical context of the New Testament is important and beneficial. I thought you, my readers, my interested in reading this paper A) because I’ve worked quite hard on it and B) because this is the kind of thing I’m working on here at school and I thought you might be interested.
The Importance of Historical Context
Most people who are familiar with the New Testament know it only on theological grounds. They do not typically know when it was written, who it was written for, or the context within which is was written. They may see these as unimportant insights or they may simply not have had the opportunity to expand their knowledge of the New Testament in these areas. Readers may abstain from the opportunity to understand the historical context for fear of faith crisis. However, knowing the historical context surrounding the New Testament is important, because it better allows the reader to understand the message that the New Testament authors were trying to convey to the audience of the time.
Religion played a big part in the lives of the people of the Greco-Roman world and, therefore, had a considerable impact on how they received and reacted to the stories about Jesus. The religions of the Roman Empire were vastly different than the religions most of us are familiar with in modern times. There was not much in the way of religious organization(Ehrman 18). They didn’t have set doctrines that were universally followed( Ehrman 18). Worship was based on the here and now, not on any sense of an afterlife(Ehrman 18). Individuals were not expected to wholly devote themselves to a single deity, and while ethics played a part in a person’s life, it was not because of a deep seated sense of obligation due to religion(Ehrman 18).
When the idea of monotheism began to develop within Judaism and early Christianity, it set those people apart. Inhabitants of the Greco-Roman world believed that not only were there multiple gods to be worshiped, but that daimonia and demigods existed and that all of these beings were to be appeased(Ehrman 28). As Ehrman says, “Jews, too, believed that there were immortal beings, far greater in power than humans, who existed somewhere between them and the true God… The difference was that Jews as a rule insisted that only the one Creator God… was to be worshiped.” People were apt to believe in and listen to the stories of Jesus’ miracles, because holy men and divine beings were prevalent in the Greco-Roman world(Ehrman 16). Just as other religions of the time believed that divine beings interacted with humans and sometimes appeared in human form, we find accounts within traditional Jewish teachings and outside the Hebrew Scriptures of men who seemed to have a special relationship with God(Ehrman 42).
Two such men were Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the “circle-drawer,” we know of both of these “sons of God” from the writings of Jewish rabbis(Ehrman 42). Ehrman says Honi “was given his nickname because of a tradition that he prayed to God for much-needed rain, and he drew a circle around himself on the ground, declaring that he would not leave it until God granted his request” (42). Like Jesus, Honi became a martyr of the faith outside of the city of Jerusalem around Passover (Ehrman 42). Hanina ben Dosa arrived on the scene sometime in the middle of the first century C.E. and was famous for his ability to perform miracles, healings, and exorcisms; like Honi, Hanina had the power to call on God for rain(Ehrman 42). In a similar fashion to what we hear in the story of Jesus’ baptism, Hanina was “reputedly called the Son of God by a voice coming from the heavens” (Ehrman 42). Each of these men are different in some ways than what we are taught about Jesus; they, for example, prayed for God to intervene, where Jesus performed miracles of his own power(Ehrman 42).
In today’s world, we see “son of God” and think Jesus, the one and only Son of God. It is important to know that that’s not how he was seen at the time of his ministry. He was one of many. Regardless of how similar or dissimilar Hanina and Honi were to Jesus, they were all three known as sons of God. People understood this to be a title given to someone who seemed to have been “chosen to stand in a special relationship with the God of Israel” (Ehrman 359).
Without this knowledge of the world that Christianity was born into, readers may have a difficult time understanding why texts were written and developed in a certain manner. For instance, each of the Gospel books tell the story of Jesus’ life in a different way. Most often we do not find complete agreement between the four books(Ehrman 51). This may be explained away by the fact that the earliest accounts of Jesus’ life were written roughly 35-65 years after his death(Ehrman 46) In the mean time, tales and teachings of this Son of God were being circulated via word of mouth, in most cases this was probably done in intimate small-group settings(Ehrman 47). Ehrman says, “They were told in different contexts, for different reasons, at different times” (48).
While knowing historical context is important, it can also cause problems for believers today. Because religion in the Greco-Roman world was viewed primarily as a way to find favor in the eyes of the gods, testifying to miraculous results due to faith in Jesus may have made converting pagans somewhat easier than what we think of today(47). Because these converts were made by telling stories of Jesus’ life via word of mouth, and because the interval between his death and our first written accounts of his life is so large, there is the possibility that the stories of Jesus we study today as the examples for our lives as Christians may be hyperbole or they may simply have changed due to a lack of first-hand experience with Jesus(Ehrman 48). Thus, when an individual is introduced to the historical context of the New Testament, his faith may be put to the test, because there is no way to know that the stories we have are accurate(Ehrman 49). In fact, they probably are not(Ehrman 53).
When faced with the idea that Jesus was not the only Jewish rabbi known as a son of God, we also must face the fact that this sheds further light onto the gospels. Jesus was not the only man that could perform miracles, he wasn’t even the only holy man known as a son of God. The writers of the gospels, therefore, may have made redactionary changes in order to show that Jesus was special even above and beyond these other sons of God.
For all we know, Jesus may have been just an ordinary man. We must, however, take into consideration the fact that as the stories changed, they retained the spirit, if not the facts, of the originals. As Ehrman puts it, “They were meant to convince people that Jesus was the miracle-working Son of God whose death brought salvation to the world and to edify and instruct those who already believed” (54). Simply put, sometimes it was necessary and acceptable to change a fact here and there to better portray the theological truth within the story(Ehrman 54).
This issue and others like it are bound to arise when looking into the historical aspects of a religious text, but the discrepancies and possibility of faith crisis do not nullify the importance of understanding the world within which an article of faith was written. After all, what kind of faith would it be, if it were without a working understanding of the very foundations of that faith? Often times knowing and understanding the historical context of these works can deepen our belief in them, because we better know and understand the way they were meant to be perceived.