Matthew Skinner: Understanding Jesus' World

When I was a kid, my school had fire drills (calmly exit the building in a single-file line), earthquake drills (curl up under your desk to protect your head and neck) and occasional nuclear-bomb drills (same posture as for earthquakes, but I think we were supposed to close our eyes so the flash wouldn't blind us before we were vaporized).

These days, my children describe different drills, including the "lockdowns" they practice at school to protect them from shootings. Drills begin when by an administrator calmly announces on the PA system: "Lockdown with intruder."

Different generations. Different fears. And different hopes.

Events can shape a generation's mindset, how we look at the world. For me, as seen in my school's drills, the Cold War was a biggie. For my children, Columbine.

Think about what has influenced your outlook on the world and what you expect from life -- not only within your family, but broader, cultural movements. What will your descendants need to know to understand you and your world? What are the things that make you ask (or answer) these questions: What does God have to do with life? Is God good? Does God care about us?

Maybe your list includes the Civil Rights Movement, Watergate, AIDS, 9/11, and the current recession. Perhaps MTV's "Jersey Shore" makes you wonder whether there's a God.

What does this have to do with the Bible? It's a reminder to pay attention to the history behind the Bible. Unless we have a basic awareness of the events and social attitudes that shaped the fears, longings and questions that were active in the cultures the Bible emerged out of, we may miss a good deal of what the Bible has to say. We may miss how it shows us people of faith attempting to articulate how their religious convictions make sense of their daily life.

What influenced the world of the New Testament? We could name many things, all deserving a long discussion. As a starting point, here are three big issues that shaped how Jesus' followers thought about God and their lives during the last decades of the first century C.E. Even a rough sketch reveals the importance of each:

1. The Emergence of Gentile Christianity.  Although the Gospels occasionally state and imply that Jesus' message offers good news for the whole world, Jesus limited the overwhelming majority of his public ministry to interactions with his fellow Jews. Only later did Jesus' followers begin to bring their message about him to other people, as described most fully in the book of Acts and Paul's letters.

The amazing thing? It worked. Within a generation or two, Christian communities emerged across the Mediterranean region, composed -- in whole or in part -- of gentiles (non-Jews). Perhaps more striking, in time it was concluded that these gentile converts did not need to follow the requirements of Jewish law in order to belong fully to the people of God.

This was no minor development. Judaism was familiar with attracting and instructing converts. Since, at the midpoint of the first century, churches and synagogues had not yet parted ways, one might have anticipated that gentiles who responded positively to Christian preaching would be expected to adopt Jewish identity and practice. Some Christian leaders argued for that, but others insisted that law observance was not required. The Book of Acts (chapters 10-11 and 15) and Paul's letters chalk this up to an act of God. They look to Jesus' own teachings, the words of Jewish scripture and manifestations of the Holy Spirit in the lives of new converts as the basis for this new understanding. In large part, the New Testament treats this as an unexpected development. It comes to pass not as the result of an outreach strategy but as something new God initiates in the world.

2. The First "Jewish-Roman War" and the Destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.  A Jewish-led uprising in 66 C.E. eventually drove Roman power from Judea and Galilee, until Roman forces returned and besieged Jerusalem in 70 C.E. After reclaiming the city, they destroyed the temple. Perhaps a quarter of a million Jews died during the siege (although one ancient historian estimated more than 1 million), plus more afterwards until the war concluded in 74 C.E. with the fall of Masada.

The war had its political consequences, of course, but also theological ones. What does it mean when the temple, God's dwelling place, lies in ruins? How is God to be worshiped? Where is God to be found? Judaism would evolve, with Rabbinic Judaism offering viable solutions to these questions. Christians (with their identity still deeply rooted in Judaism, especially in regions close to Jerusalem) would interpret the situation in similar but also different ways. Parts of the New Testament speak about Jesus and the church as fulfillments or relocations of the temple's basic significance. Jesus and the church themselves constitute a new kind of temple, new settings in which God can be encountered.

No wonder the Gospels have so much to say about Jesus' interpretation of Jewish law and his criticisms of the temple's practices and leadership. The things Jesus said about how God can be known and rightly honored would have been especially important for his followers to remember during the generation living around and after 70 C.E. This was a time in which some Christian communities did much to differentiate themselves from other Jewish beliefs and practices, which made it a crucial period for Christian self-definition.

3. The Need to Wait for Jesus.  Many parts of the New Testament speak about Jesus returning soon -- very soon. Some passages in the Gospels imply that their authors expected Jesus to return during their lifetimes. Paul seems to expect this, too, in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. Yet, roughly a decade later, when he writes Philippians 1:20-24 he assumes he will die before Jesus comes back.

As the first generation of Jesus' followers was dying out, those still living began to realize there might be a long wait until Jesus brings all his promises to full fruition. This seems to have occasioned a change in perspective. The New Testament holds slightly differing views in a creative tension: yes, there is an urgency and newness to the Christian faith; no, this faith is not about living only for the short-term and breathlessly expecting Jesus to deliver us from here at any moment.

As time elapsed, the long-term existence of Christian communities became more of a given. This thing called the church would stick around. And so much of the New Testament is interested in talking about the church, how it fits or doesn't fit within its surrounding societies, and how God can work through it to accomplish God's purposes.

So What?

The history behind the New Testament is more than bland "background" information. It prompts us to consider how the Christian message sounded to real people, and how first-century events and developments affected how this message was told and lived.

The New Testament does not deliver "pure" religious ideas disconnected from social realities. That is, it isn't unconcerned with helping its earliest readers make sense of their experiences. Its authors look at the world around them and seek to help readers grasp that God is present in the here and now, still active in the changing realities that affect "everyday living."

Our children still undergo the strange theater of disaster drills in school. Communities of faith continue to change and debate questions of what it means to belong. Religious differences sometimes nudge us toward better self-understanding and even mutual understanding. Wars and disasters lead us to ask "Where can God be found?" Others' bizarre speculations about the end of the world prompt us to commit ourselves to the importance of this life and where we live it.

Unforeseen developments, fears and new perspectives all can change how we understand religion and live out our faith. What we read in the Bible should stimulate us to more effectively relate our beliefs to the experiences that shape our lives.

[Used with permission. Originally posted on The Huffington Post, May 23, 2011]