Building a Case for the Cultural Backdrop of New Testament Theology
Equanimity is the middah (character trait) of balance and calm—even-temperateness at all times.
My first posts on Revelation 13, 17-18, and Daniel 2 and 7 may have shifted your balance. Those posts were not intended to cause panic; I intended to get you, dear friends, to look up! This thin line between panic and even temperateness is often a function of perspective and position. Where is your citizenship?
If your perspective, as a citizen, is the Kingdom of God and your position is of “right standing,” then know this, keep looking up and at Messiah. Adapt where you must, prepare what you can, and network with others for prayer, support, and resources. Leave all else in God’s most capable hands. Otherwise, you risk dampening the light that might be a beacon for others. I know because I have wavered on this thin line of equanimity.
“The inspiration of God is required if drudgery is to shine with the light of God upon it. In some cases, the way a person does a task makes that work sanctified and holy forever. It may be a very common everyday task, but after we have seen it done, it becomes different”—Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Holiness, February 19
How does this message relate to the next series of posts titled “Cultural Backdrop Behind the New Testament Writings”? These posts will provide cultural, geographical, and linguistic clues that offer contextual interpretations when applied to the New Testament texts. These interpretations consider the first-century Jewish communities in the Greco-Roman world. My intent is always to seek and share the Jewish nuances so often missed because doing so, I believe, brings unity. Where there is unity, there is equanimity. Divisive infighting is put to rest. Calm prevails among believers. We may celebrate God and His Messiah, Yeshua, differently, but our theology should come from “authorial intent.” That is a fancy way of seeking the author’s perspective and message. Searching for authorial intents includes a study of the author’s audience, background, and nuanced language. In other words, how does the author use his words—words a first-century audience understood? Always as that question.
For example, if I said “refrigerator” to the apostle Paul, he would need to ask me questions that gave him a sense of my context. When John wrote the Book of Revelation, severe Roman persecution of the saints existed, so his imagery focused on elements from that time and culture. Here is an example from our previous study of Revelation 13: “…to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name” (Rev. 13:16b-17, ESV).
In the late first century, what was this number? Jewish culture applies a number to each letter; hence, the total number of a word or a name is the sum of its parts. Associations are then made between words or phrases with the name number.
Statue of David
Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash
Cultural Backdrop #1:
Matthew writes using the gematria (numerical value) of King David’s name in the genealogy of Jesus (Yeshua). He intends to connect Jesus to the lineage of King David, and his audience is the Jewish aristocracy. They need to know Jesus’ messianic “pedigree.” In Hebrew, the name “David” has a gematria of 14, so Matthew divides this ancestorial list into three sets of fourteen generations (1:17). He is driving this gematria home, which would have been understandable to his audience.
Consequently, what is John doing with the number of the beast (Rev. 13:17b)? At the time of John’s writing, who had the gematria of 666? What clues can we glean for our time? The short answer is “Nero Emperor.” His name and title correspond to 666 in Hebrew or 616 in the Latin Vulgate. Emperor Nero (54-68 CE) ramped up his persecution of believers, beginning with the execution of James (62).
According to Tacitus (c. 55-117 CE), his treatment of the church was particularly heinous, noting the accusation against the church for Rome’s fire—Nero’s own doing, some would say. He also detested the Body of Messiah for their refusal to worship him as their god. Nero is said to have begun a ruthless slaughter of believers for these proposed infractions.
The question of application might include not so much the number 666, which is so prevalent, but rather a leader whose character and actions match Nero’s. This consideration is why Yeshua encourages us to look up and know the signs, which I detailed in the last three posts. In light of the biblical texts, we should be mindful of the one-government structure and its leaders. Consider the call: “Get out of Babylon” (Rev.18:4; Jer. 51:45). As the believers fled Jerusalem and Judea to escape the armies of Titus, we must, likewise, disassociate from the New World Order. This effort will be neither simple nor convenient. Don’t expect it to be. Build communities of prayer, support, and resources. Credible podcasters call this movement “building parallel economies.”
Recalling Revelation 13:16b, this mark is said to be applied to the right hand or forehead. Late first-century Jewish followers would have envisioned the phylacteries (tephillin) commanded in Exodus 13:6 and Deuteronomy 6:8. The boxes attached to straps contained biblical passages meant to remind the wearer of God’s sovereignty. Jewish men place one box inside the left arm close to the heart signifying the heart’s intent to obey. The straps are then wrapped to indicate the letter “shin” for El Shaddai. Bringing the straps down to the left forearm in seven loops, they create the letter “dalet,” the second letter of Shaddai. Finishing this procedure, they wrap the middle finger on the left hand to represent the letter “yod,” completing the name Shaddai. The wrapping of the tephillin existed in Jesus’ day (Matt. 23:5) and continues today. A key difference noted in John’s revelation is that Satan commands the mark upon the right hand. Mimicry is Satan’s hallmark, albeit in defiance of God.
I remind myself when I ask you to remain steady and calm—in a state of equanimity. Light shines brightest in darkness, and we must be the lights that reflect the middah (character traits) of God and His Messiah, Yeshua.
Remain calm, be blessed—
 J. Julius Scott, Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1995), 91.