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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for the New Testament

Relates to: 

Authorship: All four Gospels in the New Testament—the Greek word for gospel is euangelion, which literally means “good news”—were written anonymously, despite their ascribed authorship (“the gospel according to…”). In the second and third centuries, Christians began to associate the authorship of these anonymously written gospels with particular figures in the early Christian movement. While these attributions remain affixed to the canonical gospels down to the present day, their historical veracity is unclear.

Biography: “Matthew”

The authorship of the Gospel according to Matthew is largely untraceable. Though the title “according to Matthew” was likely attached to the text in the second century—and the Matthew in question is almost certainly the apostle (and tax collector) twice identified in the gospel itself (Mt. 9:9; 10:3)—there is no verifiable evidence indicating that the apostle or anyone named Matthew actually wrote the text. The earliest attestations of Matthean authorship are recorded by Papias, the second-century bishop of Hierapolis, and Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (ca. 180 C.E.). Papias reports only that the evangelist compiled a collection of Jesus’ sayings in Hebrew/Aramaic, while Irenaeus, writing later in the second century, explains that Matthew “issued a written gospel for the Hebrews in their own language’ (Against the Heresies 3.1.1). What is striking is that neither Irenaeus nor Papias explicitly identifies the author of the Greek text of Matthew. Indeed, if Irenaeus believes this Hebrew gospel to be the source of our Greek text, he is almost certainly wrong (it is possible he has in mind an entirely different document, which has not survived). While both Papias and Irenaeus appear to be inferring that the original Hebrew gospel was translated into Greek, this proposition remains dubious since there are no textual indications of a Semitic linguistic origin. Moreover, Matthew’s extensive usage of Greek sources, among them the Gospel of Mark, further obviates a translation hypothesis. We remain altogether unable to trace the development of this tradition associating a collection of Hebrew sayings of Jesus with the figure of Matthew (who then, it must be proposed, produced his full-fledged gospel either in Hebrew or (possibly translated) Greek). It remains highly specious that the apostle Matthew actually wrote the Greek gospel that bears his name.


The Historical Context

The four canonical gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—were all composed within the Roman Empire between 70 and 110 CE (± five to ten years) as biographies of Jesus of Nazareth. Written a generation after the crucifixion of Jesus (ca. 30 CE), none of the four evangelists was an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus. Our earliest extant sources about Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings remain the letters of the apostle Paul (whose earliest letter dates to the late 40s CE). While all four gospels narrate the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth (Christos, or Christ in English, is the Greek word for “anointed one,” a translation of the Hebrew word mashiah) they present their accounts with different emphases and styles. Mark, Matthew, and Luke are classified together as the Synoptic Gospels or Synoptics, owing to the fact that they largely parallel one another in both content and narrative structure (in some cases the same stories appear in all three texts verbatim). All three texts recount the events of the life of Jesus from roughly the same perspective (from the Greek noun synopsis or “a seeing all together” or “general view”). Mark, the earliest gospel, was likely written just after the destruction of the second Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, and was used as a source by both Matthew and Luke when they undertook the respective task of producing their own narratives.

“Matthew,” having produced his text in Greek for a Greek-speaking audience, likely wrote outside of Palestine, where Aramaic was the regional lingua franca. Most New Testament scholars subscribe to the position that the evangelist wrote in Syria, perhaps even in the great city of Antioch, which, given its proximity to Palestine, might help explain the religious composition of the Matthean community. Written between 80-85 CE, Matthew’s gospel utilizes not only the text of Mark, but also a sayings source, termed “Q” (from the German Quelle, meaning “source”), an oral (or less likely written) repository of sayings by Jesus, which circulated as a tradition apart from Mark (how else to explain material found in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark!). Matthew almost certainly used additional material—what scholars often call “M”—which lacks parallels in either Mark or Luke, rendering it unique unto “Matthew.” The evangelist, then, composed his text with an array of sources in an effort to underscore to his community a particular perspective of Jesus of Nazareth as the Jewish messiah. Matthew’s insistence that Jesus continued to embody Jewish piety, offering the true interpretation of Torah, indicates that the author himself and, quite likely, most of his intended audience, were Jewish. Jesus’ thoroughgoing Jewishness, his adherence to Jewish Law, is rendered most sensible in the context of a predominantly Jewish community, which had come to believe that Jesus was the Christ. This is not to suggest that “Matthew’s” community was utterly devoid of Gentiles, the text suggests otherwise, but only that “Matthew’s” emphatic criticism of the Jewish authorities (scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees) reflects genuine and rising tensions between Jews who, on the one hand, adamantly denied that Jesus was the messiah and those who, on the other, had fully embraced his messiahship (so-called “Jewish Christians”). “Matthew,” who was likely himself a Jewish leader, authored a text whose sustained purpose was to demonstrate that Jesus was, in fact, the Jewish messiah, the embodiment of the words of the great prophets, and the true interpreter of the Mosaic Law. For “Matthew,” being a devotee of Jesus and being Jewish were thoroughly compatible identities.

The precise meaning of the evangelists’ words, however, was subject to much debate among Christians throughout antiquity. Despite mutual agreement among Christians about the authoritative status of each of the canonical Gospels, extant commentaries and treatises on all four Gospels make it abundantly clear that during the first five centuries of the Common Era the meaning of these texts was highly controversial and subject to intense scrutiny. The sheer variety of opinions available in ancient Christian texts about the Gospels should caution against the view that any particular verse in Matthew only one interpretation. The Gospels were and continue to be repositories of interpretative debate and contestation.

Bibliography

Bart Ehrman’s textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, remains the best source for basic information about the entire New Testament.

Todd Berzon, Department of Religion, Columbia University
Albright, W.F. and C.S. Mann. Matthew: Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. 

Allison, Dale C, ed. Matthew: A Shorter Commentary. London: T&T Clark International, 2004. 

Luz, Ulrich. Matthew: A Commentary. 3 Vols. Edited by Helmut Koester. Translated by James E. Crouch. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.




Pauline Texts:

Biography

The apostle Paul, born between 5-15 CE, was a devout Jew, “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the churches; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5-6). Aside from noting his association with the Pharisees—a sect or party of elite Jews who resided in Palestine (see the Explorations section for Josephus’ account of the Pharisees)—and his violent persecution of the followers of Jesus, Paul’s epistles are notably devoid of information about his homeland, adolescence, education, and familial background. To fill this lacuna, scholars of the New Testament turn to the Acts of the Apostles, written by the author of the third gospel, Luke, some twenty years after Paul’s death (Paul was crucified during the latter stages of the emperor Nero’s persecution against the followers of Jesus, ca. 64-68 CE, while the Acts of the Apostles was written around the turn of the century). Although Luke describes Paul’s missionary activity in great detail, scholars continue to debate the historical verisimilitude of the narrative of Acts. Not only are there several instances in which Acts and the letters of Paul diverge or flatly contradict one another, but Luke himself has a clear ideological position: to show how the missionary activity of Jesus’ apostles shifted from the Jews to the Gentiles. Though many of the biographical details provided by Acts are highly plausible, they remain largely unverifiable.

According to the Acts of the Apostles, Saul (Paul’s Jewish name; Acts 13:9) was born a Roman citizen in Tarsus in Cilicia (ancient Asia Minor, modern Turkey), a city brimming with Hellenistic culture, including a prominent school of Greek rhetoric. The fact that he was a second-generation citizen outside of Rome has led some to posit that Paul was born into a relatively prominent family, despite the fact that Luke describes Paul as a tentmaker by trade (Acts 18:3). Whatever his precise social standing, Paul’s literacy placed him within a privileged minority of the ancient Mediterranean world, where literacy rates are estimated to be between 10-15% of the total population. His ability to read and write with rhetorical sophistication indicates that Paul received some type of formal education. Luke claims that Saul studied under the great legal teacher Gamaliel, where he was “educated strictly according to our [i.e. Jewish] ancestral law” in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3). Paul himself never mentions his educational background, nor that he had ever been to Jerusalem prior his missionary activity. As a Jew living in the Diaspora (that is, outside Palestine), Paul wrote his letters in Greek, the lingua franca of the ancient Mediterranean. Though he appears not to have known Aramaic, the dominant language of ancient Palestine, debate persists over whether Paul could read the Bible in its original Hebrew.

While Paul is identified as the author of thirteen of the New Testament’s twenty-one letters, scholars now regard only seven as authentically Pauline (1 Thessalonians, 1&2 Corinthians, Romans, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon). The remaining six letters fall into two categories of pseudonymous writings (letters written by someone else in Paul’s name): the Deutero-Pauline epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians), authored by a “second Paul,” a later writer (or writers) who chose to fashion his texts in the style of the genuine letters, and the Pastoral epistles (1&2 Timothy, and Titus), letters written to his brethren, Titus and Timothy, instructing them in pastoral duties.

Historical Context

Paul’s journey from persecutor to apostle, wherein he comes to embrace Jesus as the Messiah along the road to Damascus (Acts 9), sets the stage for his missionary and epistolary activity. The former, which is narrated in the latter chapters of Acts (15-21), attempts to provide a holistic narrative to the rather piecemeal and fragmentary nature of the Pauline epistles. The authentic letters of Paul are, above all else, situational and occasional writings. They are not systematic treatises on theology or exhaustive records of Paul’s intellectual thinking, but actual communications between himself and the communities with whom he had a relationship (Philemon is a notable exception; it is a letter addressed to an individual rather than a community). Paul’s letters attempt to right problems within these communities, problems of sufficient magnitude that they merited further instruction from Christ’s foremost apostle. Indeed, what troubled Paul about Galatia was not necessarily the same as what troubled Paul about Rome or Corinth or Philippi.

The recipients of Paul’s letter to the Galatia remain, geographically speaking, elusive. While we know that the region of Galatia was located in north-central Asia Minor, its expansiveness and Paul’s lack of specificity means we cannot identity precisely where within Galatia his letter was sent. The occasion, however, of the letter, written in the late 40s or early 50s CE, is altogether clear. In wake of Paul’s departure from Galatia, a party of Christ believers (often called the circumcision party) has convinced gentile members of the church, whom Paul had brought into the faith, that true believers in Christ must follow the Jewish Law in its entirety. Paul has been alerted to this development and his letter outlines quite angrily his opposition to gentile adherence to the Jewish law, as embodied in the practice of circumcision. Paul’s letter reveals the difficulty in negotiating the relationship between being a Jew or Gentile and simultaneously being a follower of Jesus. Furthermore, Paul’s introductory remarks suggest that the circumcision party has challenged his apostolic authority. Unlike the other prominent apostles, Paul never met Jesus, a charge that may have compelled his response that his gospel came directly from Christ and not from human hands.

The longest and last written of Paul’s authentic epistles (written around 57 or 58 CE), the letter to the Romans is an exceptional text. Unlike his other writings, Paul’s letter to the Roman community lacks a particular occasion or causative problem. Indeed, Paul had no relationship to the Roman community prior to the drafting of his epistle. He neither established the church at Rome, nor, in fact, had he ever visited the illustrious city. The letter concerns not specific issues within the Roman church per se, but rather Paul’s articulation of his own gospel. The letter is not, fundamentally, corrective. While in his introductory remarks Paul expresses a desire to visit the Roman congregation (1:10-15) to share his gospel, the (possibly) real motivation behind his writing emerges only at the very end. Having finished his missionary activity in (what is likely) Achaia, a territory of the northwestern part of the Peloponnese of Greece, Paul enumerates his desire to take his missionary activity westward: “But now, with no further place for me in these regions, I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you when I go to Spain. For I do hope to see you on my journey and to be sent on by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little while” (Rom. 15:23-24). Paul’s desire to meet with Romans, so it seems, is bound to his hope that they will support his Western missionary excursion, which may well aim to use Rome as a base of operations. Paul’s letter, then, emerges as an effort to introduce himself formally to a congregation, which seems either ignorant of his activity or skeptical of what little they have heard. The care with which he presents his gospel and his surprisingly defensive tone—given his lack of association with the community—lend credence to the supposition that Paul is writing to a community whose support he is eager to obtain. Paul, unsurprisingly, revisits territory covered in earlier letters, all in an effort to situate himself in the good graces of the Roman community as an apostle of the true gospel.  

Sources:

Bart Ehrman’s textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, remains the best source for basic information about the entire New Testament.

Of the innumerable commentaries and scholarly works dedicated to Paul and his letters,  exceptionally interesting and thought-provoking reflections can be found in:

Boyarin, Daniel. A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Gager, John G. Reinventing Paul. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Sanders, E.P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1977.

Segal, Alan F. Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.


Todd Berzon, Department of Religion, Columbia University