Book Review: “Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament” by J. Julius Scott Jr. (2000)

This evening, I taught “Part One” of a New Testament Survey for a College Bible Study Group where I live, and at the meeting I emphasized to the students the importance knowing a biblical book’s genre, author, audience, and setting before they can genuinely understand what a particular text might have meant for its original audience. An average reader might painstakingly glean such key knowledge from the text itself, but not nearly as quickly and thoroughly as he could get through a quick perusal of any number of commentaries. Even still, that student might simply be adding historical information onto an already tainted preconception of Jewish culture at the time of Christ, a culture he might mistakenly think resembles that of King David or at least Nehemiah. How can the average reader of the New Testament get a better understanding of Jesus’ culture or His relationship to the Pharisees? Scott’s Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament offers some very insightful information for that very purpose

Scott’s Introduction lays a pretty convincing basis for why his book is necessary. For example, the first of eight facts he shares regarding Intertestamental Judaism is that it descended from but did not mirror the OT Judaism that we think we know so well (21). Add to this the neighborly relationship between the Jewish and the Hellenistic cultures of the time period, not to mention the multitude of religious and political sects that were running rampant throughout the districts at the time, and you’ve got a pretty convincing argument for how a modern Christian could benefit from such a study.

Scott first takes his readers through “The Background and Setting of Intertestamental Judaism” (Part One), touching on the historical sources, the geography, and a quick survey of the Old Testament and Intertestamental time periods. Next he covers “The Crises and Responses of Intertestamental Judaism” (Part 2), covering such things as the crises of the 6th and 4th centuries B.C., the Scribes and their traditions as well as those of other sects, and (most interestingly) a brief description of what common life entailed for a first century Israelite. Finally, Scott covers “The Religious Thought of Intertestamental Judaism” as a background for Christian customs and controversies (Part 3). Here, Scott discuss religious thought and the following beliefs regarding the Final Age: the Kingdom of God, the Messianic Hope, and the Covenant and Law during the Final Age.

A book like Scott’s helps to color one’s reading canvas with the background hues of religion, politics, society, and culture before the foreground details of personality and circumstance can be painted on properly. When I first picked up the book, I was not quite sure what I was getting. After having worked through the whole text, however, I feel like I can more handedly field the questions that will inevitably arise from my college group regarding the cultural differences between the Western Now and the Jewish Then. This book might not be for everyone, but Bible teachers and New Testament students specifically might want to take a look.

©2015 E.T.

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