Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.06.17

Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity. Third Edition.   Grand Rapids:  W. B. Eerdmans, 2003.  Pp. xxii, 648.  ISBN 0-8028-2221-5.  $36.00.  



Reviewed by R. Dean Anderson, Valkenburg, The Netherlands (r.d.anderson@hetnet.nl)
Word count: 1500 words

This book, first published in 1987, sets out to provide a brief but comprehensive overview of the relevant historical and cultural environment of the New Testament for students. The book offers a general synopsis of Greco-Roman history from 330 BC to AD 330 focusing on the first century AD. It deals with contemporary society and culture, including sections on the Roman military, social class, slavery, citizenship, law, social relationships, morality, economic life, clothing, entertainment, education, literature and language, art and architecture and clubs and associations; Hellenistic-Roman religions and philosophies (a considerable portion of the book); Judaism (the largest section dealing with history, literature, parties and sects, beliefs and practices, and organization and institutions); and finally a section on Christianity in the ancient world, focussing on archeology and the reception of Christianity. Each section has a representative bibliography on both general and more specific topics, enabling the student to find his/her way into a further investigation of the topic. The bibliographies concentrate on English language works, citing German or French literature only in cases of untranslated standard works or special studies. In general I missed a reference on p.xxi to Brill's New Pauly (2002-) and on p.86 (bibliography on economics) to M. Finley, The Ancient Economy, which surely deserves a mention. There are no references provided for digitally available material or relevant websites. The text is accompanied by relevant black and white photographic material. The quality of the photos varies but on the whole is good and is a definite improvement with respect to the first edition. An index of subjects and scripture references is provided.

It is clear that in the 620 pages of text all these topics can only be given a cursory introduction, but as a student's introduction the book does appear to serve its purpose. Not infrequently summaries of somewhat controversial subjects indicate specifically which modern reconstruction Ferguson is following. Alternative views are also sometimes given. The author is keenly aware that no-one these days can be expected to have mastered the literature in the various disciplines covered and admits that mistakes will have been made along the way. This raises the question as to the advisability of having one scholar produce such a text. Seven other scholars (most or all from biblical disciplines) are thanked for reading various parts of the manuscript. The reviewer would have felt more secure if many more specialists, and particularly classicists, had been consulted. Nevertheless the overall impression is of a job well done.

According to an information sheet supplied by the publisher, this third edition has updated the bibliographies and provided fresh discussions of first-century social life, Gnosticism, and of the Dead Sea scrolls and other Jewish literature. The reviewer has not seen the second edition but did have access to a first edition of this book for comparative purposes. It is obvious that the second edition already contained new sections on literary genres and also revised and rearranged the sections on "Hellenistic-Roman philosophies". The claims of the information sheet seem to justified in respect of first-century social life. There are brief new sections on friendship, social networks and honor and shame, which reflect recent emphases in New Testament studies. The new section on clothing and appearance would have benefited from relevant photographic material (no photographic material has been added since the first edition). The sections on the Dead Sea scrolls and Jewish literature have also seen some revision and correction. Despite the claim to contrary, however, there is no fresh discussion of Gnosticism. Certain points of detail have been revised or slightly fleshed out, but the basic discussion is the same as that in the first edition.

The proofreading has been very good. I detected only three errors of spelling: p.305 "opnion", p.324n.13 "Brgriff", and p.498 "Lexiticus Rabbah" for "Leviticus Rabbah". There is extensive internal referencing and this was sometimes slightly incorrect, for example: on p.31 the reference to pp.237-43 should be to pp.238-43, on p.85 the reference to pp.570-71 should be to p.571, on p.250 the reference to pp.553-55 should be to pp.554-55, on p.261 the reference to pp.162-63 should be to p.163, on p.426 the reference to pp.491-92 should be to p.491. Other minor errors include the placement of note 26 on p.75 at the end of the wrong sentence (it should be a sentence earlier), and the reference in note 151 to "Ps. 96:5 LXX", which in Septuagintal numbering should be Ps. 95:5. More serious is the reference on p.250 to p.358n84, which should be to p.381n97; and the reference in p.78n33 to note 22, which is supposed to refer to positive estimates of women in rabbinic literature. In fact the reference is to a note on prostitutes at the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth! The intended reference was surely to note 30. On p.526 the reference to CD X.11 should be corrected to CD XII (a mistake carried over from the first edition). Finally, the photo of the scriptorium at Qumran on p.511 (midst a section on Jewish art) seems to have been displaced and belongs with the section on Qumran (pp.529ff).

The relevance of the various subjects discussed to the New Testament is often helpfully pointed out en passant, although obviously without detailed discussion. The number of references could have been increased. I missed a reference in the section on astrology to the visionary constellation described in Revelation 12:1-2, and a reference in the paragraph on allegory (p.357) comparing Galatians 4:21-31. Note 215 on p.506 (on building synagogues near rivers) should refer to Acts 16:13. The mention, at the top of p.540, of the importance of each and every letter of the law in Judaism surely warrants comparison with Jesus' statement in Matt. 5:18-19. On p.573, where the origin of the synagogue is briefly addressed, mention might have been made of Acts 15:21 (a tradition also found in Philo and Josephus). Occasionally the references given are accompanied by a stated interpretation which may be open to question (for example Jesus' supposed repudiation of the ultimate authority of Mosaic legislation when speaking about marriage, p.518), but in general they are helpful in showing possible relevance to the student.

A few critical comments on several sections of the material follow.

There is a brief new section on rhetoric (pp.119-20) which rightly emphasizes the importance of the progymnasmata as the building blocks for much literature, including elements of the New Testament. With this in mind, it is strange that no original sources are mentioned in the bibliography. One might at least have expected G. A. Kennedy's Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition Introductory to the Study of Rhetoric, translations with introductions and notes (Fort Collins, Co., 1999). In the discussion several common misconceptions are unfortunately repeated, such as the idea that Graeco-Roman school rhetoric was a development from Aristotle. Ferguson correctly states that Greek rhetorical theory is best represented by the Rhetorica ad Herennium and many of Cicero's works. He however fails to distinguish early rhetorical works of Cicero such as De Inventione, which do indeed represent Greek theory, and the late works such as De Oratore which do not. Quintilian's reliance on the latter also makes a simple equation of his work and Greek rhetorical theory problematic.

Apart from the addition of one bibliographical entry, the section on clubs and associations (pp.142-47) does not seem to have been revised since the first edition. It is a pity that Frank M. Ausbüttel's dissertation (Untersuchungen zu den Vereinen im Westen des römischen Reiches, Frankfurter Althistorische Studien, Michael Lassleben, Kallmünz, Heft 11, 1982) is not referenced. Ausbüttel (cogently, it seems to me) challenges the common assumption, originating from Mommsen and repeated by Ferguson, that burial societies existed in Roman society.

I find the section on "philosophy as ethics" (pp.321-23) weak and somewhat misleading. In the space of two pages Ferguson identifies three modes of moral exhortation, protrepsis, paraenesis, and diatribe, which are more or less discussed as literary genres. Only the first should probably be indentified as a genre recognized by the ancients. The latter two terms were fluid and not generally used in a technical sense. Modern discussions of ancient diatribe, particularly in connection with the New Testament, use the term to describe a style and not a literary genre (e.g. S. K. Stowers, The Diatribe and Paul's Letter to the Romans [Chico, CA, 1981], mentioned in a footnote, and T. Schmeller, Paulus und die "Diatribe" [Munster, Aschendorff, 1987]. More appropriate to this section would have been a discussion of Theseis.

Obviously the section on archeological remains bearing on early Christian history (pp.585-87) needs to be kept short, but one might have expected a cross reference to the mention of the inscription naming Erastus the aedile in Corinth on pp.41-42 and that mentioning Pontius Pilatus on p.417.

In conclusion this book provides a good introduction for students to the historical, cultural and religious environment of the New Testament. The broad scope of the book makes the bibliographies indispensable and the consultation of further literature mandatory for any serious research.

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