Book review: The World That Shaped the New Testament
by Calvin J. Roetzel
This is a great little introduction to the political and religious atmosphere of New Testament times. I read this 2002 revised edition which I picked up at a Christian campus bookstore, where it is sold as a textbook.
The political setting begins with Alexander the Great and continues on into the time of Herod the Great and his descendants. It discusses competing Jewish sects (Pharisees, Sadducees, etc.), Hellenistic philosophies (Stoicism, the Cynics, and Neopythagoreanism), early Gnosticism, and the Imperial Cult. It delves into the social and family setting in Palestine and the Diaspora, and explains the role of the Temple. It talks about modes of scriptural interpretation (such as midrash) and the influence of Philo and the rabbis. It concludes by attempting to describe (for most of us can at best only imagine) a worldview which accommodates angels, demons, and other supernatural explanations in a dualistic world, and the eschatological expectations held by the Jews. Into this atmosphere strode Jesus.
It’s short, not at all in depth, but very good as an intro to the times.