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Seven Events that Shaped the New Testament World, reviewed

May 21, 2013

PrintWhat was the world–or, better, what were the worlds–in which early Christians lived?

Seven Events that Shaped the New Testament World answers that question by highlighting seven key “events” in the seven or so centuries surrounding Jesus. Here, from the table of contents, is what the book covers:

1. The Death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE)
2. The Process of Translating Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (ca. 250 BCE)
3. The Rededication of the Jerusalem Temple (164 BCE)
4. The Roman Occupation of Judea (63 BCE)
5. The Crucifixion of Jesus (ca. 30 CE)
6. The Writing of the New Testament Texts (ca. 50-ca. 130 CE)
7. The Process of “Closing” the New Testament Canon (397 CE)

 

Author Warren Carter uses each of the seven “as entry points, as launching pads, to talk about these significant and larger realities.” As one reviewer (whom I read before I read this book) pointed out, these events are not all “events,” per se. Events 2, 6, and 7 above are extended processes. Similarly (as the same reviewer also noted), the writing of the New Testament and the closing of its canon didn’t shape the NT world; they emerged from it.

That’s perhaps just a technicality, though. Carter seeks to be “transparently selective,” using “each event as a focal point for larger cultural dynamics and sociohistorical realities” of New Testament times.

Here is author Warren Carter introducing his book:

 

Carter’s analysis of how historical events shape culture–and how that should influence how we read and understand the New Testament–is incisive and engaging. Early on he writes, “Hellenistic culture did not suddenly replace all other cultures but entangled itself with local cultures to create multicultural worlds.” Given my interest in the Septuagint, I really appreciated his take on that Greek translation as “a way to negotiate a multicultural world.” He deftly explains to readers the intersection between Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures.

Photographs, sidebars, and occasional footnotes contribute to the level of detail Carter provides. And yet his tone is conversational, and his narrative re-tellings engaging. Last summer I wrote about how I wanted to see Mark Wahlberg or Matt Damon in a film adaptation of 1 Maccabees. Carter’s narrative (ch. 3, “The Rededication of the Jerusalem Temple (164 BCE)”) is nearly as engaging as such a movie would be. In addition to telling the narrative, he has a sidebar on “identity markers” that unpacks the role played by boundaries of identity in Jewish and other religious traditions. His explanation of the difference between 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees was easy to follow and illuminating.

The conversational tone at times was a little too conversational for me. There is frequent reference to “the early Jesus movement,” when “early Christianity” would have sufficed. So, too, “Jesus-followers” could just have been called “Christians,” which I would have found less distracting. Of course, a biblical scholar will note that any of these terms are “problematic,” but the more conventional ones would have made for a smoother read, in my view. And I could have done without reference to early Christians as “reading with Jesus-glasses on” and statements like, “Only bad boys were crucified in Rome’s world,” not to mention the description of Alexander the Great as “a macho man, an action figure.”

I also thought that his emphasis on cultural backdrops was occasionally too strong. For example, comparing Jesus to Alexander, he writes, “In many ways, this presentation of Jesus as the man with great power who rules everything imitates and competes with the presentation of manliness that we have seen with Alexander, the world conqueror.” To speak about Jesus in terms of degrees of “manliness” is perhaps a category mistake. Carter’s mention of Philippians 2 and Jesus’ self-emptying is spot on, of course–I’m just not sure that Paul has imperial powers and the social construction of “manliness” in mind when he writes to Philippi.

Theologically conservative/evangelical readers will bristle a little bit at Carter’s statement about the New Testament that readers today “need to discern when to read against the grain” when it comes to groups that the NT seems to exclude. I don’t read Paul and the NT as “not always gracious to women,” as Carter does, and don’t think he somehow needs to be explained away in this manner. Of course, not all who read this review will agree with me either!

Those criticisms being present, Carter succeeds in the book’s aim: “The seven chapters of this book provide an orientation to some important aspects of the early Jesus movement and the New Testament. Reading it will enlighten you about the beginnings of the Christian movement and help your understanding of the New Testament.”

Though I did not agree with Carter on all his assessments, his description of seven key “events” (as well which events he chose to highlight) has enhanced my understanding of and appreciation for the context into which Jesus came and in which the church was born. As long as one reads critically (as one should always do), Carter provides a wealth of helpful information that is accessible to just about any student of the Bible.

Thanks to Baker and NetGalley for the e-galley to review. The book is on Amazon here. Its Baker product page is here. You can download a sample pdf of the book here. There is also a helpful interview with Carter here.

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