The world of the New Testament is set within the larger framework of an established Greco-Roman society. This culture, consisting of specific social, religious, philosophical, and literary nuances, influenced and informed the early people and events of the Christian community. Not having a grasp of backgrounds severely limits one’s ability to fully grasp the significance of the early Christian witness. The world of the New Testament was set within an emerging Roman empire.
This empire intersected with a wide religious spectrum, and included a general set of principles regarding social and family structures. Though the empire embraced a panoply of religions, a general expectation towards honoring the Emperor through cultic practices appeared early in its history. These cultural structures, while not always explicit in the New Testament writings, were interwoven within the fabric of life for early Christians. Not to understand this background is to fall short of understanding the historical and theological impact of the New Testament writings.
To this end, here are five helpful resources to add to your library (and some runner ups) in order to get you on your way to being a Greco-Roman backgrounds expert.
James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (IVP Academic, 1999)To begin this journey, readers should begin with Jeffers’s The Greco-Roman World. While this text is far from comprehensive, it provides a readable introduction to the main themes and concerns regarding the Greco-Roman world of the New Testament. Jeffers contrasts Greco-Roman practices with the witness of the New Testament, both where they coincide and where they diverge. While Jeffers interacts with primary sources, his introduction provides more general overview rather than a consistent engagement with numerous texts. Each chapter provides a short bibliography for those wishing the take the next step towards their journey.
Robert Louis Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 2nd ed. (Yale University Press, 2003)The next book you should read following Jeffers is Wilken’s The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. It is easily approachable like Jeffers, yet begins to offer more in-depth exploration of the primary sources. Specifically, Wilken looks at various Roman voices as they perceived Christianity. From Pliny to Celsus and Julian the Apostate, Wilken provides a helpful overview of Christianity’s detractors both early and within later imperial Rome. Wilken does an excellent job at identifying the main arguments against the Christian faith and provides an invaluable introduction to the main primary texts. Those wishing to become familiar with the primary anti-Christian voices of the early centuries should invest some time with Wilken.
Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Eerdmans, 2003)Upon reading Jeffers and Wilken, the next stop on one’s journey through Greco-Roman backgrounds should be Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity. This text serves as an accessible compendium of the Jewish and Greco-Roman concepts of religious, sociological, and philosophical environment of early Christianity. While readers can certainly read Ferguson from cover to cover, it also serves as an occasional reference source when needed. Ferguson shines in his historical depth, even on the shortest of entries, and the bibliography offered for every topic covered. Students of Greco-Roman backgrounds would be amiss to neglect Ferguson in their personal libraries.
Joel B. Green and Lee Martin McDonald, eds. The World of New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts (Baker Academic, 2013)The next two texts represent more recent entries to background studies, yet appear to be promising for background studies. Green and McDonald’s text is similar to Ferguson in its scope, yet provides more comprehensive introductions to key facets of Greco-Roman studies. Additionally, this text is more like Jeffers in that it correlates the study of Greco-Roman backgrounds to its impact upon New Testament history and texts. Green and McDonald’s strength is the conglomeration of analyzing ideas, literary influences, and geography. Students of the New Testament, and those wishing to enhance their backgrounds knowledge should consider consulting Green and McDonald.
William Tabbernee, ed. Early Christianity in Contexts: An Exploration Across Cultures and Continents (Baker Academic, 2014).One of the newest entries into background studies is Tabernee’s Early Christianity in Contexts. This text begins with geography, then analyzes particular religious, philosophical, literary, and historical influences within particular regions. This approach is somewhat unique and provides insight where more broad backgrounds text may be deficient. This text will help readers understand how regional influences could have varied, and thus giving students of Greco-Roman backgrounds a broader perspective of other influences such as Egyptian, Northern African, and Asian Minor particularities among others. If one is looking for broadening their perspective on how specific regions influenced the faith, Tabernee will be a helpful resource.
So you’ve reached the end of the first leg of your journey? Where do you go from here? The sources mentioned above will go a long way to equip you with the basics of Greco-Roman backgrounds in order to inform your study of the New Testament and early Christianity. Upon completing these books, should you wish to keep traveling, there are plenty of sources to help you along the way.
I have personally gained much insight from the Oxford Handbook on Social Relations in the Roman World (OUP, 2011). There are some great articles that dig deeper into the nature of friendships, law, and mediums of communication in Roman society.
I have also enjoyed various offerings from the Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. While I have personally consulted the volumes on Greek and Roman sexualities as well as the companion on Roman religion, there are numerous additional companion volumes on a wide array of topics.
Last, Cambridge offers a similar set of texts in their Cambridge Companions to the Ancient World series. These companion volumes will help enhance your study, whether focusing on the aspects of Roman economy, or more specific perspectives regarding the Roman Republic.
If you are just setting off on the journey, start with the first five sources as your initial guide. As you continue on the path, find companion sources that will highlight specific topics within Greco-Roman history. The journey towards understanding the Greco-Roman background of the New Testament and early Christianity is a life-long voyage, yet the rewards along the way are boundless.
About the Author:Coleman Ford
Coleman is currently a Ph.D. student in Church History and Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His research interests lie in the concept of virtue in the patristic tradition, patristic ethics, patristic exegesis, reception history of the church fathers, and Christian ethics.