The Biblical Worldview
Our worldview is the lens through which we interpret reality. A worldview is constructed by answering a series of questions such as
- Who are we?
- What are we here for?
- What’s wrong with the world?
- Where is all of this headed?
A humanist worldview might say that we are the product of random chance. There is no inherent meaning, so we really ought to pursue fulfillment. Ignorance and exclusion is what’s wrong with the world, and that our future is a triumph of knowledge. The biblical worldview understands that reality is God’s creation. That sin is the problem, and that that sin is the result of human choice (even if we’ve been incited to sin by others). We believe that God has set about putting things right, first working through his people, and that we are looking forward to a new creation when God finally intervenes and puts all things right. This basic worldview is what the writers of scripture, particularly the New Testament believed. Understanding their assumptions is important to understanding what they’re writing.
The Story from Abraham to the New Testament
While the exact chronology of the Old Testament is a bit controversial among scholars, the timeline above reconstructs the dates when everything happened using the most literal reading of the text. This is Israel’s story in a nutshell, presented as a bit of context for understanding the Bible and its history. I’m starting with the call of Abraham, as dates for anything before are fuzzy at best. And Genesis 1-11 really serves as a prologue for Israel’s story.
The story begins with Abraham’s call, around 2000 BC. God promises to make him a great nation. Abraham can’t get his wife pregnant, so he takes his wife’s slave as a concubine (sort of like a slave with privileges) and has a son, Ismail. Later, God makes it clear that it is his intention to give Abraham a son through his wife, and this son, who turns out to be Isaac, is the one whose offspring will fulfil the promise God gave to Abraham.
Likewise, Isaac has two sons, Esau and Jacob (whose name is later changed to Israel) and it is through the one (Israel) not the other that the promise will be realized. Israel’s family is fraught with tension over the favoured son, Joseph who is sold by his jealous brothers into slavery in Egypt. Joseph works his way up the rank becoming the prime minister of Egypt in time for a famine that brings his brothers looking for food. Joseph refuses to take revenge on his brothers and the whole family moves to Egypt.
Exodus and Conquest of Canaan
The plot picks up 400 or so years later, when the Israelites have multiplied greatly. They’ve been enslaved by the Egyptian king (their kings were called Pharaohs). Moses, an Israelite is adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and grows up as an Egyptian prince. He kills an Egyptian and flees into exile. After 40 years (around 1490 BC) God appears to him and instructs him to deliver his people from Egypt into the land of Canaan (modern day Israel). After plagues force Pharaoh to release the Israelites, they exit Egypt and journey to their new promised home in Canaan. Along the way, God makes them camp for a couple of years at Mount Sinai where he gives them the law (including the 10 commandments) and he instructs the Israelites how to worship him.
The people move to enter the promised land, but loose their nerve. God condemns them for not trusting in him and tells them, they’ll wander in the dessert for 40 years until all the adults are dead and a new generation can give it another try. After 40 years, Moses dies and is succeeded by Joshua who leads a campaign destroying most of the very sinful inhabitants of the land. Some are spared, and these people become a problem because they tempt the Israelites to worship their Gods.
So begins the time of the judges, around 1425 BC, when Israel repeatedly falls into sin and is then delivered by a God-appointed leader (a judge). After the judge dies, they return to sinning, and God hands them over to be oppressed again. Each time through the cycle things get worse and worse.
The United Monarchy
Eventually things just suck, and so the people ask the final judge, Samuel, to give them a king. He reluctantly agrees and anoints Saul as king (Around 1050 BC). Saul starts out strong, but ends up being a pretty bad king. God appoints David (a lowly shepherd boy) to succeed Saul, and Saul wanting to see the crown go to his sons and jealous of David’s favour with God, tries to kill him.
David eludes capture by Saul, and succeeds him when Saul, and most of his sons are killed in battle. David is seen as Israel’s great king, a man after God’s heart and God makes a promise to keep one of his descendants on the throne forever. As he gets on in years, David has an affair with the wife of one of his soldiers and when she reports she’s been made pregnant by the encounter, he arranges to have her husband killed in battle. After this, David’s house starts to fall apart.
David’s son Solomon succeeds him. His reign marks the high point in Israel’s wealth and power. Solomon prays that God will give him wisdom and God delivers. It’s during this time that Solomon builds the magnificent temple (to this point, God “lived” in a tent called the tabernacle). However, in the end, Solomon marries about 700 women, many of them foreign, and they lead him to worship other Gods.
Israel & Judah
When Solomon dies his son, Rehoboam is so inept that the Northern Tribes (everyone but Judah and Benjamin) succeed from the country. They take the name Israel with them and the portion still ruled by Rehoboam is called Judah. The Northern kings get a bad start and never look back. They have one bad king after another. Judah’s rulers are a more mixed bag. They have some good and some bad kings.
Before the Isrealites entered the promised land, God had decreed that if the people really blew it, he would send them into exile. In 722 BC, God’s patience for Israel ran out. He sent the Assyrians (the regional power of the day) to conquer Israel and settle its people all over their empire. They’re never heard from again.
Judah’s kings start to be more problematic and a similar fate befalls them in 586 BC, only this time it’s the Babylonians that take them into exile. The temple is destroyed and the people are carted off to Babylon. After about 50 years, Babylon is defeated by the Persians who allow the Jews to go back and rebuild the temple. The Jews who return from Babylon after a few generations away no longer speak the Hebrew language every day, instead they speak Aramaic, a language that they would have learned in exile. This is the language that Jesus would have spoken.
Greeks and the Hasmoneans
The return from exile proves to be disappointing as Israel is stuck playing a puppet to one master over another. Things go from disappointing to outright bad, in 332 BC the Persians are defeated by Greek (Hellenistic) general Alexander the Great. When Alexander dies, his empire is divided and Israel is taken over by one then another of the mini-empires. Sometimes the Greeks are tolerant of Jewish worship, other times they try to force them to abandon their worship of the Lord.
A group of very devout Jews lead a revolt against the secularizing Greek influence. These people, called the Maccabees, manage to free Israel from Greek rule. They become a royal dynasty called the Hasmoneans and rule for about 100 years. In the end, they become very corrupt and the people are glad to see the arrival of the Romans who overthrown the Hasmoneans.
In 63 BC the Romans conquer the area. New names are given to regions. The former country of Judah is called Judea while the north of the country is called Galilee. The Romans very quickly fall out of favour. They are brutal and militaristic.
While the Romans conquered the Greeks, they adopted Greek culture and even administered large portions of their empire in Greek, which had become the international language of the day. This is why when the New Testament is written, the authors write it in Greek rather than in Aramaic or Hebrew. The Roman love for Hellenistic culture leads them to encourage people to stop worshiping God and to adopt Greek culture.
Anticipation for a Messiah
It’s this suppression of Jewish identity and the tension it causes in society (some Jews decided to adopt Greek culture (they’re called Hellenists) while others became increasingly angry about it. The people felt as if God’s promise to bring them back from exile 500 years before had never been truly fulfilled. God had promised that a decedent of David would rule forever, so they looked for that new king. Israel desperately wanted to be a major player on the world stage again. They felt that if a king could rise up to cast off the hated Romans that they would be free to practice their own religion. Surely that’s what God would want!
It’s into this context, in about 4 BC, that Jesus is born. (it should be 1 AD, but medieval calendar makers messed that up for us all).
The Jewish/Gentile Tension
Jesus is crucified and rises somewhere between 30 – 33 AD. The word spreads quickly among the Jews thanks to a move of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentacost, about 50 days after easter. Initially all Christians are Jews, they’re just the Jews who believe that Jesus is God’s promised messiah. Following the leading of the Holy Spirit, Peter tells Cornelius, a Roman, about Jesus and he becomes a filled-with-the-spirit Christian. The church concludes the message isn’t just for Jews, it’s for everyone. When Paul, who was a Jewish persecutor of the church, is converted he takes the good news throughout the empire.
Eventually, tensions arise between Jewish believers and Gentile believers over if someone needed to adopt Jewish culture and law in order to be a Christian. The church concludes that they don’t, paving the way for a separation of Christianity from Judaism. Tension between Jews and Gentiles was a major feature of many early churches and it comes up a lot in the biblical letters written to these churches.
The Destruction of the Temple
In the late 60s, the Jews tire of the Roman occupation and revolt. The Romans send in the army and in 70 AD they destroy Jerusalem and the temple and deport the Jews around the empire. Israel ceases to exist until it was reconstituted in 1948.
As Jesus left, he said he would return, but he said he didn’t know how long until he would return. The early church initially assumed it would be a short time. There’s a basic assumption by many New Testament authors that Jesus’ return is right around the corner. In fact people in Thessolonica stopped working and had to be told by the apostle Paul to work while they waited. Eventually the church began to come to the realization that Jesus’ return might not happen in the time frame they had in mind. Earlier New Testament books anticipate his imminent return. Later ones, like 2nd Peter, anticipate that while he could come at any time, he might also take a while.