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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Historical Contexts of the Biblical Communities

W. Lee Humphreys

Israel stands at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, a location that is as crucial politically and historically as it is geographically. For its entire history—from the time before it was settled by the Hebrew people, through the political growth of the nation, up to the time it became the birthplace of the Christian faith, and beyond that to the present day—it has been powerfully affected by the play of political forces emanating from larger empires outside it, as well as subject to the stresses and strains of conflict within. The biblical communities existed within this dynamic matrix of forces, forces that were in uneasy tension with each other.

There were stresses within the communities themselves. These stresses included such matters as conflicts among the different classes of society; disputes between the central administration of the monarchy and those in outlying areas; and struggles between those who favored alliances with one or another of the great empires and those who opposed such alliances.

There were conflicts and alliances with near neighbors and competitors: the Canaanite peoples who had inhabited the land before the Hebrews; the Philistines, along the coast, who appear at about the same time as the Israelites and who controlled the five cities of Gath, Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Ekron; the Arameans (Syrians), with their capital at Damascus; and other nomadic tribes and smaller kingdoms.

And there were the overshadowing effects of the great world powers. These were a succession of empires that dominated various parts of the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. To the south and west was the most stable of these, Egypt, in the Nile valley. It was already an old empire when the biblical story begins. Its political power, though declining overall during most of the life of Israel, grows and shrinks as its various ruling groups, called “dynasties,” exert or lose control.

To the north and east, in the area of modern-day Syria, Iraq, and Iran, were other empires that followed one another in succession. These empires developed in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, an area called “Mesopotamia” from the Greek words for “between the rivers.” The Assyrian empire, the Babylonian empire, and the Medo-Persia empire each dominated the area for a time and then fell before the next conqueror. Often they were in conflict with Egypt, and Israel found itself caught in the middle.

Later there were dominant powers from further west in the Mediterranean. First the Greeks, under Alexander the Great and his successors, subdued the eastern Mediterranean and imposed Greek culture upon the conquered territories. Later the Romans replaced the Greek rulers and assimilated their empire.

Inside the biblical communities and outside as well, the balance of power would shift from one pole of tension to another, and sometimes the tensions became so severe that the matrix shattered and new configurations of world power, or new political arrangements, would emerge. Waves of historical change would dramatically alter the context in which the ancient nation of Israel, the early Jewish communities, and the early Christian churches sought to define themselves.

Moreover, at the heart of the religious confessions of ancient Israel, early Judaism, and early Christianity stood events that these groups understood to be firmly rooted in human history: the exodus from Egyptian bondage; the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The historical contexts of these events, and the later, somewhat different contexts of the biblical communities that remembered them, provided the medium in which they perceived their God's self-revelation and in which they experienced distinctive relationships with this deity. Historical events that affected the lives of these communities would carry profound theological implications for the adherents of their faith. It was not enough for them to comprehend their world in the political, social, economic, cultural, or military terms that shape contemporary historical study. “What is God doing now?” “How can we respond faithfully to God in this historical moment?” These and other vital questions faced all believers. It is not too much to say that history from this perspective was a complex drama or conversation between the deity and the people. Understanding the historical contexts of the biblical communities is vital for an appreciation of their religious heritage.

The ancient nation of Israel lived most of its life, in its several forms, in a matrix of tension. It stood where three continents meet: Africa, Asia, and Europe. With some ebb and flow, Egyptian sway over this region gradually gave way first to Assyria and then to Babylon. With the triumph in the sixth century B.C.E. of the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar II, before whose armies the last vestiges of an independent nation of Israel fell, a transformation of this power alignment was also in sight. Within decades, Persia, under the great king Cyrus and then his successors, claimed control of territory that stretched from India to Ethiopia (Esther 1.1 ). In the late fourth century this empire fell to Alexander the Great of Macedon. Upon his death in 323 B.C.E. his empire, which included much of the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, was politically divided into three parts but would remain uniformly Hellenistic (Greek-influenced) in its dominant cultural traditions.

In this Persian and then Hellenistic context, the earliest Jewish communities emerged among the survivors of old Israel and sought to define a mode of life that would preserve an authentic identity as the people of God in alien if not always hostile settings. The old homeland in southern Palestine especially became a center of contention between segments of the empire Alexander shaped. Then in the last century B.C.E. Rome came increasingly to assert its control over this territory until, by the turn of the eras, it controlled both the Mediterranean basin and significant territories to the east. In this Roman empire, as well as further east, Rabbinic Judaism evolved and early Christian communities emerged.

This sketch provides a frame within which we can examine in more detail specific characteristics of these historical contexts of the biblical communities, as well as the complex interaction between them.

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