Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.21

Peter Oakes (ed.), Rome in the Bible and the Early Church.   Carlisle / Grand Rapids:  Paternoster Press / Baker Academic, 2002.  Pp. xvii, 166.  ISBN 1-84227-133-4.  $17.99.  

Reviewed by Benjamin Garstad, Columbia University (
Word count: 1120 words

From social histories of the first-century Empire to 'spears and sandals' screen epics like 'Ben Hur' and 'The Robe', the nexus that joins Rome and the early church is the question of context. The Roman context of early Christian literature (Luke-Acts, Romans, Philippians, 1 Clement, Shepherd of Hermas) is addressed in the six intelligent and useful papers in this slim volume, the outcome of the 1999 meeting of the Tyndale New Testament Study Group in Cambridge. Rome has multiple identities in these papers: the state and worldly authority under which the first Christians lived, the centre of the social and legal order of the first century, the site of interaction between different Jewish sects, and the home of the Roman church (a representative of the wider church, but one about which we have a number of sources of information). The authors have happily avoided the temptation to see the early Christian writers as passively subject to the insuperable pressure of their Roman context (expecially its social norms), but rather show them deliberately and creatively responding to the world around them, often challenging its habits and preconceptions. They have also avoided the silly jargon which tends to attach itself to New Testament studies (for instance, 'Luke' is used consistently, not 'the author of Luke-Acts).

The contributions are occasionally referred to as 'chapters', but they are really separate articles. There is no overall plan or thrust to the book, though all of the papers address the theme stated in the title (not always something we can expect from conference proceedings); no final conclusions are drawn from the individual insights; nor is there an index. Each of the articles pursues its own argument, and each has a separate bibliography (puzzlingly, as a number of items are shared by two or more). I shall therefore offer a summary of each contribution.

Steve Walton, 'The State They Were in: Luke's View of the Roman Empire', addresses Luke's attitude to and presentation of the Roman state, and in so doing deals with questions of the purpose and audience of Luke-Acts. He begins with a meticulous review of the scholarship, including the five main theories presently in the field. Walton's conclusions are nuanced and considered, denying that Luke can be read as an apolitical author. Cooperative and respectful relations with authorities are shown as possible; when they break down Christians must recall the authorities to right conduct and bear a faithful witness to Christ.

Conrad Gempf, 'Luke's Story of Paul's Reception in Rome', offers a reading of the last chapter of Acts which does not read too much into the text. He refutes extravagant theories which would have Luke present the Roman Jews as ignorant of Christianity or Paul as the founder of the Roman Church. Instead he offers the reader a diplomatic and accommodating meeting between Paul and the leaders of the Jewish community in Rome, with each party well aware of their positions as a Jew and Roman citizen and as the representatives of a not always orderly or welcome foreign group in the capital respectively. Luke is also seen to reaffirm Paul's claim that Christianity was a sect of Judaism.

Bruce Winter, 'Roman Law and Society in Romans 12-15', presents the ethical teaching of Paul as profoundly contrary to the culture of power and privilege which prevailed in the Roman world. He was a "radical critic" of the enmity, vengeance, and immorality endorsed by the Roman system. Although Paul forbade the powerful the abuse and exploitation permitted them by law, he still bound them to obligations of aid and benefaction, which were the reverse side of Roman power relations. Paul further insisted that his criticism of Roman ethics was not an excuse for civil disorder; Christians must pay their taxes, however unpopular, and Christian churches must distinguish themselves from the political associations so suspect by the authorities.

Andrew D. Clarke, 'Jew and Greek, Slave and Free, Male and Female: Paul's Theology of Ethnic, Social and Gender Inclusiveness in Romans 16', demonstrates that the inclusiveness that Paul urges upon the church is not merely a philosophical pipe dream, but seen in practice in the list of addressees which concludes the epistle to the Romans. Relations between Jews and Gentiles are to be marked by mutual respect and essential unity. Service, not power or wealth, was to determine respect amongst the broad socio-economic cross-section which made up the Roman church. Respect, especially for service, was also the hallmark of Paul's addresses to women as well as men. Clarke does not elaborate on the prosopographic methodology he employs (and by which, for instance, he distinguishes between native-born residents of Rome and immigrants, and between slaves, freedmen, and free men), but there are references to fuller works.

Peter Oakes, 'God's Sovereignty over Roman Authorities: A Theme in Philippians', argues that Paul encourages the Philippians by suggesting that the persecutions they are undergoing at the hands of the Roman authorities are comparable to his imprisonment in Rome. Paul "remaps the universe" to demonstrate the ultimate authority of God in Christ and to justify the Philippians' courage in declaring the gospel. In particular, Paul recasts a prophecy of Isaiah to indicate that Christ has been enthroned in the place of Caesar and over a wider realm.

Andrew Gregory, 'Disturbing Trajectories: 1 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Development of Early Roman Christianity', considers the evidence about the early Roman church (after the period of the first apostles) which two works outside of the Canon can provide. He begins by re-evaluating the arguments for the terminus post quem for the composition of 1 Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas, suggesting that the range at least be extended earlier to c. 70. He argues against a 'trajectory' for the Roman church which sees charismatic leadership replaced by institutional leadership. The contemporaneity of 1 Clement, with its emphasis on order, and the prophetic Shepherd indicates that these models existed side by side at Rome. The distribution of these texts also indicates "a degree of common belief and practice" (in addition to common external factors like society and government) shared by Christian communities across the Mediterranean. This contrasts with recent scholarly emphasis on the diversity of early Christianity.

The clarity, length, and price of this book all commend it as a suitable text for beginning and intermediate undergraduate courses on the New Testament and early Christianity. The contributions all competently discuss central problems in the context and composition of the New Testament and lead the reader to further research. They are, moreover, all good models of writing and research on limited topics which might profitably be imitated by students.

There are a number of errors in the Greek text; otherwise the editing is exemplary.

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