BMCR 2019.08.54

New Testament Christianity in the Roman World. Essentials of Biblical Studies

Harry O. Maier, New Testament Christianity in the Roman World. Essentials of Biblical Studies. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. xvii, 238. ISBN 9780190264406 $24.95.

Preview

For a research area as crowded as New Testament studies it is surprisingly difficult to identify works both accessible and useful for acquainting students or curious readers to this literature’s Greco-Roman milieu. Textbooks abound but these do not always satisfy discriminating general readers, nor do they serve the aims of different New Testament courses. For example, I regularly teach an introduction to the New Testament excluding the gospels and struggle to find resources that are not disproportionately focused on gospel literature. Moreover, few books strike the right balance between drawing New Testament material into broader considerations of religion and social life in Mediterranean antiquity without constraining how students will then read the primary sources. And while there are many high quality publications having to do with the New Testament’s social context,1 these tend to be organized around specific themes or perspectives that can align imperfectly with the objectives of a given instructor or reader.

Harry O. Maier’s New Testament Christianity in the Roman World manages to fill a lacuna in a subfield that is, by other measures, exceedingly well populated. As a title in Oxford’s Essentials of Biblical Studies series, the book is pitched to the student level and aims to synthesize recent methodological, theoretical, and exegetical developments in the study of the New Testament as the product of a wider Greco-Roman environment. Maier manages this balance deftly: readers familiar with the scholarship on which he draws will detect subtle inflections and nuances—Jörg Rüpke’s lived ancient religion approach is especially influential—but the lucidity of the world that he depicts is never clouded by the sophistication undergirding it. Just as impressive is the light hand with which he garnishes a concentric exploration of social life under the Roman Empire with New Testament and contemporary Jewish and Christian sources. Whereas similar publications gaze upon the Roman world from a fixed New Testament vantage-point, Maier presents this material as an unexceptional series of snapshots of ancient life more broadly.

One feature that makes the book conducive to a range of curricular scenarios is its organization. In Maier’s words, his objective is “to orient readers to overarching social phenomena that constituted the Roman world and invite them to consider ways in which each aspect presents important contexts for understanding the contents of the New Testament and the emergence of Christianity” (2). The units of analysis that he selects—religion, empire, city, household, and self— emerge as overlapping but distinct spheres of activity, the particularities of each throwing into relief a cacophony of concerns and social entanglements expressed even within a single New Testament text, to say nothing of the canon as a whole. Each chapter is subdivided further to qualify terminology, to address conceptual challenges, or to accentuate consequential events, social developments, and themes. The dynamism within and across each chapter is a testament to how carefully Maier has selected his evidence and staged the conditions of greatest relevance to a critical understanding of earliest Christianity. Maps and occasional images aid in fleshing out the complexion of the first centuries.

A substantive introduction signals the interpretive stakes of historicizing (or dehistoricizing) New Testament writings before acquainting readers with the canon’s internal diversity and the complex processes that led to its formation. This is followed by a sketch of the Hellenistic and Roman imperial periods that foreshadows how these historical frames will resonate through New Testament writings. A turn to spatial considerations, including distinctions between empirical, imagined, and practical spaces, acknowledges Maier’s theoretical debt to Michel de Certeau’s elaboration of practices, strategies, and tactics in imagining how early Christians inhabited the different contexts that he will delimit. The introduction concludes with a welcome caveat about the anachronisms and homogeneity that Christianity/Christian and Judaism/Jewish can project onto antiquity, along with a suggestion of the highly interested and deeply problematic opposition of these categories in Christian theology.

Certain methodological choices receive less justification. For instance, Maier’s geographic focus on the Roman world of the eastern Mediterranean makes sense in light of the received wisdom about Christianity’s origins and early expansion but may inflate the confidence with which such things can be known from sources at pains to mask or misdirect their authorship, dates, and compositional settings. Moreover, the framing of the book as an introduction to the New Testament writings that follow the gospels implies the latter’s literary priority when the Pauline Epistles not only predate the canonical gospels as writings but may have even influenced the author of Mark, regarded by most as the earliest of the four and a source for Matthew and Luke.2 Notwithstanding, Maier’s tendency is to deprivilege New Testament evidence and he is adept at comingling canonical and noncanonical sources so as to normalize their commonalities.

Chapter 2, “The Gods and the Cosmos,” contrasts the secular world of Western modernity with an ancient one in which religion was embedded in all aspects of society.3 Although I am wary of how starkly this contrast is now drawn in scholarship on ancient Mediterranean religion,4 Maier does well to highlight the different resonance of belief in a nondoctrinal setting and to complicate the opposition between Greco-Roman “polytheism” and the “monotheism” of Judaism and Christianity. Exploring such topics as theology and cosmology, types of divine beings, and the spaces, occasions, and personnel of religious practice, he pieces together a vivid backdrop that anticipates his New Testament examples. One might quibble about minor matters—the section on “magic,” for instance, seems to affirm its opposition to “religion” while dismissing as polemic characterizations of Christians as “magicians” in a manner that implicitly sets them apart from other recipients of the label—but the chapter grounds nicely subsequent discussions of religious practice.

Chapter 3, “The Emperor and the Empire,” dissects the political armature of the Roman world with sections on networks and religious traffic that are especially germane to understanding the Mediterranean itineraries that frame much New Testament literature. Once again, Maier strikes an ideal balance between describing the mechanisms of empire and tracing their vectors through these writings. A section on imperial cult disabuses readers of common misconceptions about emperor worship while demonstrating echoes of this political idiom in key New Testament terms and concepts. Here, he stresses that imperial iconography might have filtered how Christians heard language such as evangelion or encountered an image of Christ as a vanquishing savior in 1 Corinthians or Revelation. Readers should thus consider the intended function of these choices as well as “when, how, and in what situations imperial terms and acclamations were most salient” (93).

Chapter 4, “The City and Its Residents,” narrows from empire to its urban nodes to underscore the centrality of cities in imperial administration. Granting the relatively low percentage of the population that resided in urban settings, Maier nevertheless affirms their significance for most New Testament authors and implied audiences. Nearly all the places mentioned in these texts were either ports or lay at junctions of Roman roads (a valuable reiteration of an earlier point about apostolic movements tracking with maritime trade routes). He also expands on the demographic realities of Roman life, informing readers about urban size, density, and economies, about distinctions of civil status, kinds of civic assemblies, and wealth distribution, among other important details. A focus on voluntary associations invites comparison with the organizational forms and gathering spaces of urban Christian groups. This is followed by an even more detailed section on the civic situations of Jews in Greco-Roman cities that also touches on the matter of god-fearers. Throughout the chapter Maier continues to query how Christians would have navigated the complex urban matrices in which they were embedded.

In Chapter 5, “The Household and Its Members,” Maier trains his lens on domestic life, parsing the composition of ancient families and devoting more attention to the material remains of houses, apartments, tabernae, and insulae. The chapter is attuned to how gender mapped onto domestic spaces and to the circumstances of women, children, and slaves (the last receive extensive treatment). Naturally, given the preoccupations of certain New Testament texts, this includes a discussion of idealizing conceptions of family relations that covers household codes and the leges Juliae. Maier also carves out room for education and apprenticeship, paying close attention to the possibilities available to children of varying socio-economic locations. The chapter concludes with additional sections on practices involving the dead and the concept of fictive kinship in New Testament literature.

The sixth and final chapter, “The Self and Others,” foregrounds the individual. Maier begins with an overview of philosophical theorizations of the self and its regulation, a discussion that includes a useful note about the absence in ancient thought of Cartesian distinctions between body and mind or physical and spiritual realms. Discussion of the body drifts into ancient models of medicine that furnish useful context for New Testament discourses, real and metaphorical, about health, suffering, and healing. As in the preceding chapter, Maier highlights the gendered dimensions of medical reasoning and shows how similar logic rippled through other areas of Greco-Roman society. Yet he is equally attentive to the diversity of positions about self and body, reminding readers that “there is no single model of the self in the New Testament, nor even, it appears, within the literature directly from Paul” (191). The latter observation winds back to the influence of philosophical anthropology—Stoic and Platonic in particular—on Paul and other New Testament writers, as well as on Philo and other Jewish intellectuals. Necessarily cursory introductions to such topics as Paul’s apparent reliance upon a Stoicizing conception of pneuma and the cultural currency of self-mastery offer a nice preamble to more technical work on the New Testament’s many points of contact with Greco-Roman philosophy.

Overall, Maier’s is an immensely learned, readable, and productive introduction to New Testament writings as artifacts of the sociocultural context in which they took shape. He is to be commended both for how he enlists these sources to accentuate, rather than mandate, a broader investigation of the Roman world and also for doing so in a manner that is suggestive but not determinative of their interpretation. The book is an excellent resource for curious readers and students alike and I see it especially working well as the backbone of a course that favors extensive engagement with primary sources. Or so I intend to use it.

Notes

1. E.g., Dietmar Neufeld and Richard E. DeMaris, eds., Understanding the Social World of the New Testament (London and New York: Routledge, 2010).

2. Particularly Luke, which some now date in the early to mid-second century. For Pauline influence on Mark, see Ian J. Elmer, David C. Sim, and Oda Wischmeyer, Paul and Mark: Comparative Essays. Part I, Two Authors at the Beginnings of Christianity (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014); Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Mogens Mueller, and Eve-Marie Becker, Mark and Paul: Comparative Essays. Part II, For and against Pauline Influence on Mark.

3. Although Maier is not representative of the assumptions he critiques, see Brent Nongbri, “Dislodging ‘Embedded’ Religion: A Brief Note on a Scholarly Trope,” Numen 55 (2008): 440–60.

4. For the position that the religious landscapes of antiquity and modernity are incommensurable, see, e.g., Greg Anderson, “Retrieving the Lost Worlds of the Past: The Case for the Ontological Turn,” American Historical Review 120 (2015): 787–810; Carlin A. Barton and Daniel Boyarin, Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016). For a critique of the notion of a disenchanted modernity, see Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).