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

The Historical Context of the Early Christian Communities

One of the groups emerging within Judaism at the turn of the eras was, of course, the early Christian movement. Christian origins were intricately interwoven both with Jewish struggles for identity and with the larger Roman historical context. Jesus of Nazareth was executed on the authority of local Roman officials for crimes against ruling Roman authority. Within a very short time after the death of Jesus some small Jewish groups were claiming that Jesus had risen from the dead and that in his death and resurrection all men and women could overcome sin and death and find themselves in new relationships with God. They proclaimed that in the passion, death, and resurrection of this Jesus, now called the Christ (Greek for Messiah or “anointed,” the Jewish title for the anticipated ruler), God had acted anew to reconcile all human beings to the divine being.

Soon this gospel moved beyond the confines of the Jewish communities of southern Palestine into the larger Gentile world. In fact, in Jewish contexts it had carried little conviction and gained few adherents. But it found a sympathetic and even enthusiastic hearing in certain circles of the larger Hellenistic and Roman context. The message proclaimed a new liberty and humanity offered in relation to God, and many, in all social strata, found it compelling. But it was especially compelling to those whom the existing political, social, and economic structures—structures that expressed the symbols and traditions of the dominant culture—had constrained and dehumanized. Furthermore, the scandal for Judaism in the death of this Messiah, this Christ, on a cross did not have the same impact on the larger Gentile world. For that world was not unacquainted with traditions about the death and return from the dead of a deity or offspring of a deity, a death and rebirth in which men and women could find their lives caught up and transformed as well. Roman cults that centered on such figures as Mithra, for example, were to be found throughout the historical context into which early Christianity moved, and they helped to set the stage for it.

This same message of transformation and liberation also entailed, however, a profound challenge to the rulers and ruling structures of that larger context. Allegiance to this God and Christ was generally understood, in line with the Christian's Jewish heritage, to prohibit allegiance to any other deity. In particular, this meant that one would not recognize the deities of the ruling Roman powers nor the emperor himself when claims were made that he too was divine. Christian and Roman perceptions of what was due Caesar and what was due God simply did not mesh. Roman divinities symbolized the established authority and structures that maintained the empire, and when Christians denied the divine status of the Roman deities, including the emperor, that denial could be interpreted as a denial of the political and social legitimacy of the established powers.

Christian communities nevertheless grew steadily during the course of the first two centuries of the common era. Especially after the failure of the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66–72 C.E. and the revolt in 132 C.E. under the insurgent nicknamed Bar Kochba (“son of a star”), Christianity was increasingly understood as separate from Judaism. Since Christianity was in fact often perceived as a destabilizing force in the Roman empire, some in authority made efforts to stamp it out or bring it into conformity with the established powers. Persecution and the possibility of martyrdom were constant threats, even if largely local, sporadic, and not very systematically organized.

Like the Jewish communities out of which they emerged, however, early Christian communities found themselves in tension with and even alienated from their larger historical context while at the same time they were influenced by it in many ways, often adopting much from it. These influences can be traced in many areas: in literary forms that are found in many New Testament and other early Christian writings; in organizational structures that were to shape Christian communities; in theological patterns by which Christian thinkers sought fuller understanding of the implications of God's act in Christ; and even in early Christian festivals and holy days. The early Christians put their own stamp on these practices, structures, and religious and philosophical traditions, but they nevertheless drew them from the larger world. In fact, several of the disputes that engaged the early Christian community mirrored disputes between religious and philosophical groups in the Roman world, the world in which these Christians sought to find their identity.

In these first centuries of the common era both Judaism and Christianity gave shape to and defined the authority of collections of writings that formed their respective Bibles or canons of sacred writings. For each this activity was not only a response to internal pressures and conflicts, important as these were, but it was also a response to the larger world in which Jewish and Christian communities lived. In their Bibles they aimed to construct at least the parameters within which they could define themselves and govern their interactions with that larger historical context.

Beyond that, many of the methods of interpretation by which both religious communities looked for meaning in their heritage, and the ways they appropriated the scriptures to address an ever- changing present, were often those used by others in the Hellenistic and Roman world as they also engaged their past in search of identity for the present and direction for the future. Authors who explained the Greek and Roman epics, as well as those who explicated the Jewish or Christian scriptures, were occupied with the discovery of typological patterns, those in which characters or events represent or foreshadow other characters and events in later writings. Such patterns were investigated across scriptures and between scriptures and contemporary situations. Likewise, the use of allegory to seek levels of meaning beneath the surface of a text, and the suggestion that distinct levels of meaning were to be found in texts, reflect Christian and Jewish engagement with interpretive strategies employed by Greeks, Romans, and others in working with their own heritage. Not only the books that came to comprise the Jewish Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old and New Testaments, but many of the ways they were kept living and enlivening, bear the clear imprint of the historical context of the biblical communities.

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