In 1974 Martin Hengel wrote a seminal book on NT background entitled Judaism and Hellenism. It traces the story of Greek influence on Jewish culture in the period following Alexander the Great. Here’s some of the stuff he notes:
– Hellenistic rule, trade, economy, politics and education all pervaded Palestine in the Ptolemaic and Seleucid periods creating a tension required for later revolt.
– By the third century BC all Judaism was to some degree Hellenistic Judaism, even where foreign influence was repudiated by Jewish writers.
– In response Judaism became increasingly nationalistic as a way of self-preservation. Eschatological hope was political and the Torah was central to national and religious self-identification.
– Things came to a bit of a head with the attempt at “Hellenistic Reform” – basically an attempt to get rid of Jewish religious expression through the Torah. A guy called Judas Maccabeus (and his chums) kicked some feta-loving heads and Judaistic nationalism, bound up with the cult, the law, and a political eschatological hope, reached new heights.
– From this point on (c. 150BC and following) any criticism of the law or the cult was seen as analogical to the attempted “Hellenistic Reform” and was met with severe opposition.
– All of this inevitably inhibited any sort of universal missionary consciousness.
So what? Well, it certainly adds some more colour to the backdrop of the ministry and mission of Jesus and the early Christians. Remember, speaking out against the law or the cult or the temple or political hopes put you on a par with the Hellenistic ‘reformers’ and, as such, would get you killed. Interesting to note that both Jesus and Stephen are killed for speaking against the temple. Perhaps there’s also something to be gleaned when thinking about the challenges the early church faced in reaching out to Samaritans and Gentiles, and the battles fought over the observance of the law (particularly food, festivals, and circumcision). With all of the background that Hengel so helpfully sketches one can begin to see the strength of feeling and cultural values that would have provoked such strong emotion. A bit of NT background helps our reading of the Bible to come alive in new and dramatic ways; it also points to the staggering courage of Christ and his followers as they engaged a hostile culture with the good news.
[NB: For the informed reader I’m not really a NPP kinda guy but I do think this background stuff brings new life to the narrative of the Gospels and Acts.]