Much of the wisdom of the New Testament letters can be missed when we don’t consider the historical context of these letters. Learn more in this video.
Tim: Near the end of the Bible are twenty-one letters written to communities of Jesus’ followers throughout the ancient Roman empire.
Jon: Letters? Like I’m reading someone’s mail?
Tim: Yeah! The letters are written by the apostles, that is, the people that Jesus appointed to spread the good news about his Kingdom. And they wrote to Jesus’ followers living in different cities around the Roman world. These letters were all written in a style called prose discourse.
Jon: Now, if I’m reading a letter that wasn’t written to me, then there’s likely a lot of background information that’s assumed but not mentioned.
Tim: Yeah, exactly. And the letters in the Bible are no different.
Jon: Okay, so let’s talk about how to read the New Testament letters in historical context.
Tim: So there are three levels of historical context to keep in mind when reading the New Testament letters. The first is how all the letters fit into the larger storyline of the Scriptures.
Tim: But God promises a guy named Abraham that life and blessing will spread to all nations through him and his descendants to renew God’s vision for humanity3.
Jon: And Jesus said he came to bring that promise to its fulfillment through his life, death, and resurrection4.
Tim: Right. And so the apostles saw themselves as heralds, announcing the arrival of God’s Kingdom in Jesus5, like the apostle Paul when he wrote to the house churches in Rome about the good news. He said his job was to summon people of all nations to give their allegiance to Jesus, the exalted king of the world6.
Jon: That’s a bold thing to say to people living in the capital city of the Roman empire, whose allegiance is supposed to be to Caesar.
Tim: Yeah. And that actually brings us to the second important context for understanding the New Testament letters, the culture of the Roman Empire in the first century.
Jon: So Rome ruled all of these territories around the Mediterranean Sea.
Tim: And they built their empire by conquering and enslaving their enemies and then imposing heavy taxes. The emperor and his small circle controlled all of the power and wealth, and they knew how to deal with people who threatened the social order.
Jon: Most people lived without much money or stability.
Tim: And Roman culture had a very clear hierarchy. Men from important families with money and education could move ahead in society. But women, slaves, children, and the poor were always at a disadvantage and treated as inferior.
Jon: Yet in a community of people who follow Jesus, everyone was treated with love and equal dignity7.
Tim: Yeah. In Roman life, it was unheard of for people of high status to associate with people below them. But the apostles said that through Jesus, God had given the gift of his love to everyone without regard to their status8.
Jon: So in that context, these letters were counter-cultural and they broke down barriers between people.
Tim: Exactly, and so that brings us to the last level of context, the situational context of each letter.
Jon: You mean the specific issues in the church of a city that prompted the writing of the letter in the first place.
Tim: Yeah, like Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. It’s tempting to read this letter and focus on all the important theology and then overlook why he wrote this letter.
Jon: Why did he write it?
Tim: Well towards the end, he talks about how Jewish food laws and sacred days have become controversial between Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Jesus.
Jon: Which was creating divisions in the church.
Tim: And if you read carefully, you can see that some Christians with higher social status were treating Jewish followers of Jesus with contempt9.
Jon: And Jewish Christians were returning the favor, condemning the non-Jews as second rate followers of Jesus.
Tim: Exactly, and so all of the ideas and theology in the first part of the letter were crafted to address those very problems. Paul acknowledges that the Roman Christians have big differences in culture, theology, and social status, but he wants them to realize that they are unified by their faith in Jesus, who is the real center of their church10.
Jon: Okay. Great. But if that letter was written to someone else, then what should I get out of it? I don’t live in ancient Rome.
Tim: Well in these letters we see the apostles challenging and transforming every part of their first century culture and life with the good news about King Jesus. And by watching them, we gain wisdom about how that same good news can transform our culture as well.
Now, there’s one more helpful step to take in reading the New Testament letters, and that’s learning how to follow the flow of thought from the letter’s beginning all the way to its end. And that’s what we’ll look at next.