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The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background… (edition 1999)

by James S. Jeffers

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Member:amyblue
Title:The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity
Authors:James S. Jeffers
Info:IVP Academic (1999), Paperback, 352 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***
Tags:read in 2012, early christianity read

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The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity by James S. Jeffers

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Fantastic book on the world of the new testament. I used it for a History and Archaeology course in college and still love it! It would help to paint a better picture of what the new testament that the apostle Paul would have seen and experienced was like. ( )
  jenpb18bennett | Apr 1, 2012 |
James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999).

While Jeffers acknowledges that "many Bible background books have been written over the years", in this one his aim is to provide the reader of the New Testament with an understanding of Greco-Roman societies and culture that will enhance interactions with the text. His position that the New Testament texts were written "to specific people, in specific places, nearly two thousand years ago" serves as a caution not to read into Scripture the thoughts, values, and ideas of our modern society. The complexity of the cultural milieu is indicated by Jeffers' use of the plural: "Greco-Roman societies" that points to the wide variety of cultures encountered as the reader moves geographically and temporally through the writings of the New Testament.

Jeffers begins the first chapter of his book with an imaginary interaction between the reader, transported to the home of a member of the Jewish ruling class in first-century Jerusalem, and her host. He paints a vivid picture through his description of the clothes worn, the food served, the languages spoken, the subjects of conversation, and so on. How can the reader understand her host and orient herself to her new environment? Jeffers moves on in subsequent chapters to provide her with the necessary tools. In his second chapter, Jeffers describes with broad brush strokes everyday life in the first century and highlights some of the differences between those societies and our own. His observation that the role of the doctor in the New Testament era was undertaken by slaves (19) illustrates some of the cultural distance between our values and those of that world, and perhaps suggests a more cohesive way to think of the interaction between the roles of Jesus as both healer and slave/servant in the New Testament narratives.

Central to the spread of Christianity in the New Testament era was the flow of the message from the villages and towns of Palestine to the cities of the Roman world. Jeffers devotes his third chapter to a discussion of "the city" in the New Testament world and the complex way in which terminology is used to describe cities, towns, and villages (e.g. po,lij and kw,mh) in the New Testament writings by different authors. Jeffers observes that it took less than a decade from the crucifixion for the message of Jesus to have moved its central locus from the villages of the near east to the major cities of southern Europe (70).

In the next two chapters, Jeffers details the role of religion and cultural organizations in Greco-Roman society. He dispels the myth that early Christians met in the burial catacombs of Rome and instead tells how early Christians used the well-established legal framework of a "burial association" as a means of organization (76). His writings on the interaction between the individual and the early church, and between the early church and other extant religious groups, will no doubt resonate with those concerned with exactly these same issues today. How do rich and poor interact within the church? What of those of different races? How should the followers of Jesus interact with Jews who rejected His message but who, nonetheless, sought to be devout followers of God? The early church grappled with these very issues and the New Testament addresses them. Jeffers emphasizes that it is within the context of first century society that these issues are addressed. There is an implicit caution that blindly reading our modern cultural values into the texts that address these issues is inappropriate.

Throughout the New Testament narrative we read of Jesus, Paul, and others interacting with and indeed often confronting the leaders of the local society. Jeffers explains in Chapters 6 – 8 how the governments of New Testament times functioned, from the role of the Roman senators down to that of the village elders in Palestine. The interaction between the governmental, financial and legal systems is explained and the complex interaction with the religious bureaucracy, particularly that of the temple in Jerusalem, is described. An understanding of these interactions is central to grasping the flow of events that occurred when Jesus was arrested and ultimately crucified. Similarly, the travails of Paul in his interactions with the legal systems of the cities through which he journeyed and his ultimate trials and imprisonment all occurred within the first century legal system. The interactions of Jesus and of Paul with the legal systems were quite different and, in Chapter 9, Jeffers talks of the key importance of citizenship in the first century world. Paul's Roman citizenship was a critical tool that he used to great effect in his legal battles and was one that Jesus did not possess.

In the tenth chapter, Jeffers describes the dispersion of the Jewish people throughout the near east and Europe from 722 B.C. onwards and how they had established themselves in the cities and towns. The tension between integration into local society and the call of Torah to be a people set apart was one that was played out in the lives of the scattered Jewish people. When certain fragments of these scattered communities became followers of Jesus, tensions arose both within those communities and between the communities and the other inhabitants of the cities in which they were found. In Rome in 49 A.D., Claudius ordered the expulsion of the Jews because – according to Orosius – "they were persistently rioting at the instigation of Chrestus" (317). Jeffers points out that in Acts 18, Priscilla and Aquila flee from Rome to Corinth because of this edict. The great fire of 64 A.D. in Rome was blamed on the early Christians by Nero and violent persecution followed. Very early tradition has it that both Paul and Peter died during this time of persecution (318). Jeffers uses illustrations such as these to illuminate familiar New Testament stories by crafting them in a way sensitive to the society and culture in which they occurred.

Slavery, an institution never condemned in the New Testament and whose abolition is never called for (235), is the subject of the eleventh chapter. Jeffers explains the importance of slavery to the economy of the New Testament world and the place of slaves in society. In comparison with our modern world, where our concept of slavery is most directly shaped by our views on the era of slavery in the southern states of America, the differences are striking. Jeffers emphasizes that slavery in New Testament times is best viewed as a process rather than a permanent state (229), at least for slaves in the cities and towns. Thus, a process of moving into, through, and out of a period of slavery was relatively common and typically occurred before a person was thirty years old, following which, as a freedman, the individual continued to owe allegiance to his past owner. Such a concept of slavery is surely insinuated into the New Testament use of slavery as a metaphor for a believer's relationship with God.

The family, the role of women in society, and education in New Testament times are all considered in Jeffers' thirteenth chapter. His discussion of the role of women in the early Christian church serves again to emphasize his position that the New Testament texts were written "to specific people, in specific places, nearly two thousand years ago" (11). Jeffers observes that some of Jesus' statements about women were quite revolutionary. For example, Mat 19:3-12 teaches that women (and men) might remain unmarried under certain circumstances; an idea that would have been quite foreign in a society where the role of women as wife and mother was of central importance (251).

Jeffers' final chapter compiles information about the various cities and provinces of interest to the reader of the New Testament. When Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Egypt (Mat 2:13-14), is it likely that they would have met other Jews there? Jeffers speculates on that possibility (275). Corinth was already a thousand years old when Paul arrived to minister there. What did he find in this huge city, one that was two and a half times the size of Athens? Jeffers paints a picture of the city as it was when Paul visited it (262). Each brief vignette helps the reader visualize the places in which the New Testament narrative unfolds. Jeffers ends his book with appendices that provide a summary of Greco-Roman history, a timeline of events in the Greco-Roman world, and useful maps of the regions under discussion. Helpful subject and scripture indices are provided.

Coverage of the nuances of the Greco-Roman societies of the New Testament era in any book must always be incomplete and Jeffers' book is indeed selective in its content. For example, the reader seeking to place in cultural context those few references made in the New Testament that might relate to homosexuality will not find much help in Jeffers' book (and no entry in the index to guide them), where only brief mention of cultic practices is made.

The culture of even the modern near eastern world is mysterious to many Americans and Europeans. Surely the ancient near east is even more remote from our understanding. This book provides the cultural lens needed for us to see across the chronological and cultural chasm that separates our world from that of the New Testament. Those interested in an informed reading of the New Testament will benefit from this book and those who struggle to see how the text relates to issues confronted by our society will appreciate the clarity with which Jeffers writes about New Testament culture.

In conclusion, Jeffers set out to write a book that is based upon the specific premise – according to his dedication – that "a Christian never need fear the pursuit of truth". Indeed, as it is inherent in the nature of truth that it not be contradictory, truths revealed through reading the New Testament and truths revealed through study of the Greco-Roman culture of the New Testament era must be coherent. Jeffers' book helps the reader see more clearly that coherence and so helps the reader explicate the truth of the New Testament writings. This is an admirable goal and one that Jeffers' book successfully meets.

Bibliography

Jeffers, James S. 1999. The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press. ( )
  juliandavies | Feb 5, 2007 |
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What was life like for first-century Christians? Imagine a modest-sized Roman home of a well-to-do Christian household wedged into a thickly settled quarter of Corinth. In the lingering light of a summer evening, men, women and children, merchants, working poor and slaves, a mix of races and backgrounds have assembled in the dimly lit main room and are spilling into the central courtyard. This odd assortment of gathered believers - some thirty in number - are attentive as the newly arrived and travel-weary emissary from Paul reads from the papyrus scroll he has brought from their apostolic mentor. But if you were to be transported to this scene you would perhaps be overwhelmed by a flood of unexpected difference. The voice of the reader recedes as through open windows the din and clamor of the city assault your ears. Hooves clunk and cart wheels grind and echo from the street while drivers shout, vendors call and neighbors gather and converse. And later, as you accompany a family through darkened and dangerous streets to their third-story tenement apartment, you might try to mask your shock at the cramped and unsafe conditions.... James Jeffers provides an informative and scenic tour of daily life during the time of Jesus and the apostles. He affords "you-are-there" glimpses of everything from legal codes to dinner foods, from social hierarchy to apartment living, from education to family dynamics. His eye-opening book will advance your understanding of the New Testament and early Christianity and enrich your reading and application of the Bible.… (more)

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