The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era

  • James S. Jeffers
  • Mar 1, 2000
  • Series: Volume 3 - 2000

James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999). 352 pp. pap. ISBN 0-8308-1589-9.

As one reads the stories and letters of the New Testament, how does one mentally imagine the world in which these documents were written? What did people wear or eat, and how were they governed? What roles were expected of the various socio-economic classes, genders and trades? In short how is one to envision "everyday life in New Testament times"? A half-century ago a British book with that very title by A. C. Bouquet answered these and related questions superbly, but very little of comparable scope has been produced since. Now James Jeffers richly fills this void.

Writing as a professor of ancient history (California State) and as an evangelical Christian, Jeffers thematically surveys virtually every relevant area of backround that one might want to understand while studying the New Testament. Chapters on historical background and religion contain the greatest amount of overlap with information traditionally found in introductory chapters to New Testament surveys. The remaining chapters introduce far less well-understood topics. In a chapter on life and death in the first century, one learns of food production, trade, banking, debts, crafts and manufacturing. Manual labor and even business more generally was generally viewed as beneath the dignity of the landed gentry. The small class of artisans tended to group themselves by trade on a given street and co-operate more than compete with one another. Recreational needs were met by public gymnasia and baths as well as sporting events held in the stadia, including the Circus Maximus in Rome which could hold more than 150,000 spectators. This chapter also surveys travel, dining, attire, and burial practices.

Two chapters deal with cities in the ancient empire, the first, topically treating layout and design, urban life and finances, and comparing and contrasting the Jewish, Greek and Roman city life. A second, alphabetically by province and then by city, gives synopses of the most relevant historical and Scriptural information about almost all of the Greco-Roman communities that appear in the New Testament.

A chapter on influences on Christian organization highlights the religious, cultural and economic nature of various categories of voluntary societies in the Greco-Roman world, noting that at least by the third century, Christians were legally organizing themselves as burial associations. Whether Romans 14:7-10 is, however, a liturgy for a Christian burial seems more dubious.

Governing the provinces, including Palestine, is treated in a helpful chapter that surveys the relative autonomy imperially appointed leaders had throughout the empire. Here appears much of the relatively commonly known information about the various governors who dot the pages of Scripture. Less well understood are the "tools of governance: finances, law and the military" In this chapter, one surveys taxes, weights and measures, coinage, forms of legal punishment and life as a soldier. Interestingly, for many years, men were expected to enlist at their own expense; only as republic gave way to empire were state wages increasingly provided. As in each chapter, examples from throughout the New Testament plentifully punctuate Jeffers' discussion to illustrate their relevance for the average reader of Scripture.

A particularly useful chapter treats, in turn, social class and status, stressing the lopsided pyramid structure of a miniscule fraction of enormously wealthy people, a small "middle-class," and 80 + % of relatively poor people; and the ranking and privileges of the various classes, with wealth, citizenship and freedom bestowing the greatest number of honors, in that order. Citizenship, the Jews in the cities, slavery, and "the family, women and education" then occupy successive chapters; here dovetailing with New Testament theology is the strongest. Perhaps the most common way to become a citizen was when a slave gained his or her freedom. Was this how Paul's family had arrived at this rare privilege among Jews? Slavery itself was quite different from what we think of with the nineteenth-century American South, which, in part, explains why the New Testament's opposition to the institution was relatively muted. While no New Testament author seems to support full equality of gender roles, they take long steps in that direction in a society that conventionally assumed women could not even learn as much or as well as men. Two helpful appendixes round out the volume with a summary of Greco-Roman history and a chronology of events discussed.

There are a few errors that may be attributed to the fact that Jeffers is not first of all a New Testament specialist. Mark does not, in fact, ever use the Greek word komopolis for the villages of Galilee as alleged (p. 67), and when he uses the two parts of this compound word separately, they are kome (not komo) and polis (contra p. 66). On p. 229 Jeffers declares that we cannot tell if Chloe was a Christian but on p. 252 he calls her a fellow-worker with Paul. On that latter page, he also attributes Paul silencing of women in the churches to 1 Cor. 7:34-36, when it should be chapter 14. And on p. 257 he confuses the Bereans with the Thessalonians in attributing to the latter the commendation of Acts 17:11 concerning their nobility in studying the Scriptures.

Notwithstanding these handful of mistakes and a few questionable interpretations of Scripture here and there, overall I would recommend this volume as the place to start for the busy student, layperson or ministry professional who wants a succinct overview of the culture and customs he or she is most likely to wonder about while reading the New Testament. Given the paucity of the competition, one may hope that Jeffers' work will stay in print considerably longer than the three-to-five years that seem so typical these days for Christian publishers? books not otherwise in a larger multi-volume series.

Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary, Denver, CO
March 2000

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