The Historical Context of the New Testament

The Historical Context of the New Testament

The era that constitutes the NT period can be simply delineated: The dates of the events recorded and the writings preserved are roughly consonant with the beginning and end of the first century a.d. According to a commonly accepted chronology, Jesus' birth occurred in 4 b.c. and Revelation was written in a.d. 96.

The historical data, however, are not evenly spread. The gospels report little (almost nothing) during the thirty years following Jesus' birth and the beginning of his ministry. Their narrative focuses on the time of his ministry, death, and resurrection (a.d. 27-30). Acts covers the next three crucial decades (a.d. 30-62?) although not in an even manner. Paul's letters overlap the latter part of Acts (a.d. 49-62), except for the Pastoral Letters, which presumably postdate Acts (a.d. 64-66?). It is not known when the gospels were written nor the dates of the remainder of the NT. Most of them probably were written between a.d. 50 and 70, although various scholars argue for earlier dates (e.g., for Matthew) as well as later (e.g., for Hebrews). Since exact dating, however, is impossible, we are uncertain of our knowledge during the thirty years a.d. 66-96. So the historical information given us by the NT illumines primarily the forty years a.d. 27-66, stretching out to both ends of the first century.

This was a time in the history of the biblical world that was extraordinarily complex. Three major forces were at work, contributing to and shaping the world into which Jesus came and in which the NT was written: Greek culture, the Roman Empire, and Jewish religion.