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

The Social World of the New Testament

Wayne A. Meeks

Understanding the literature of any author or group requires identifying its appropriate social context. To ask about the social context within which the New Testament ought to be read is really to ask several different questions. First, we have to distinguish the social world of each document from the very different situations of Christians in the second to fourth centuries when the individual writings were being assembled into a “New Testament,” not to mention the later contexts, down to the present, in which the resulting Bible has been read and understood. Second, the settings of the particular writings differ from one another. The Gospel of Mark, for example, addresses a situation quite different from that of the Gospel of John. Third, some of the documents describe a social world that is different from the social world of the author. Matthew, for example, describes the activities of Jesus in mostly rural parts of Galilee prior to the Jewish revolt of 66–72 C.E., but writes for a Greek-speaking audience, probably in Antioch or one of the smaller cities of Syria, at a time when Jewish life in Syria-Palestine has been devastated and transformed by the war and its aftermath. Matthew's world inevitably affects his description. Further, the way the author portrays the world may be different from the picture of the world that was in the minds of most of the original audience; that seems to be the case, for instance, with the Revelation of John. Finally, the image of the ancient world that we form with the help of historical research does not fully coincide with the world as seen by the people living in it then.

The generalizations that follow here apply for the most part to the first century of Christianity's existence. This description must be taken as a very large-scale map, wanting detailed adjustment to particular times and places.

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Oxford University Press

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