As I was looking over the first lesson, which simply aims to introduce the course and its subject, I was thinking about an issue that this lesson implicitly raises but nowhere discusses: How does the study of the context of the NT texts relate to and affect our study and understanding of the texts themselves? In other words, What do we think we're doing when we study "The World of the New Testament"?
I have a sense (and this is only a gut feeling; I haven't verified this point empirically) that at least two motives drive research into the context of the NT texts, one historical and the other hermeneutical. The historical program seeks to either substantiate the historical claims made by the NT texts or subvert them. So, for instance, some scholars will suggest, with respect to the portrait of Herod in Matt. 2.16–18, that had Herod initiated any gruesome program of murder and terror as the Matthean evangelist reports, we certainly would read of it in Josephus or one of the Roman historians. Others, from exactly the same perspective but toward exactly opposite ends, will point out that Matthew's description of Herod's paranoia and cruel protection of his power matches exactly, say, Josephus's description of the end of Herod's reign in end of the first book of his Jewish War. For both arguments, insight afforded by study of the NT world serves to validate (or not) a NT report.
On the other hand, a hermeneutical approach to NT context seeks not necessarily corroborate NT historical claims so much as to understand them, irrespective of (or at least with less emphasis on) the "whether-or-not-ness" of more historical approaches. As another example, there has been considerable debate at least since Sanders's Jesus and Judaism (1985) whether or not Jesus had any significant conflict with the Pharisees of his day. While many "historical" approaches to this question have sought to prove or disprove genuine conflicts between Pharisaic theology and Jesus' teaching, other ("hermeneutical") research has sought to place the NT reports of such conflict in their proper context.
Curiously, Sanders himself provides salient examples of both approaches. On the one hand, Sanders vigorously denies that the Pharisees would have conflicted with Jesus if the latter had ever summoned "sinners" to repent and worship Israel's God in accordance with Torah and established Jewish practice. This, I suggest, is a historical judgment: What the NT reports to have happened could not have happened because of what we know from research into the NT world (viz., the Pharisees and their theology).
On the other hand, Sanders famously proposed that the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees was rooted precisely in Jesus' acceptance of "sinners" without calling them to repent. Though this is also a historical judgment, I would like to draw our focus on its more intentionally hermeneutical focus. Here Sanders doesn't question the gospels' reports of conflict with Pharisees but rather reinterprets the causes and significances of that conflict. This reinterpretation is called for precisely because Sanders knows more about the Pharisees than what is reported in the NT texts and so can interpret those texts with some clearer idea of how the texts would have been interpreted by their original audiences (who likewise would have known more about the Pharisees).
Clearly the distinction between "historical" and "hermeneutical" research is neither hard nor fast. But I would like to suggest that our research into the World of the New Testament holds out particular promise for our interpretation of the NT, and not simply our estimation of its "reliability." As an experiment to text this hypothesis, as you read about "the historical Jesus," whether in the news or in scholarly monographs, notice how often some piece of contextual evidence is said to prove Jesus could not have said some thing he is reported to have said.
The current story of "Gabriel's Revelation" [see my previous post here] is a compelling instance. For some, the discovery of this particular datum of NT context (that some Jews spoke of/expected a dying and rising Messiah-figure) "proves" that the NT kerygma of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection on the third day is a repackaging of a traditional story and not a report of a historical event. Even granting the authenticity of this ink-on-stone tablet (which April DeConick has aptly described as "odd"), the most this text offers to NT research is a crisper focus and clarification of the (after all) Jewish message of an actually crucified and resurrected Messiah-figure, Jesus.
As our discussion progresses, we ought to shift our understanding of NT context away from verification and authentication of historical claims to consider the way our understanding of the NT world affects our reading and understanding of the texts themselves.