The World Of Jesus: Making Sense of the People and Places of Jesus’ Day, by Dr. William H. Marty
[Note: This book was received for free from Bethany Books in exchange for an honest review.]
For a reader who is unfamiliar with vastly better works on the historical, religious, social, and cultural background of the early New Testament, this book may be appealing. Though this author is no Bruce, Edersheim, or Jeffers, all of whom have written excellent works on the Greco-Roman world as well as the influences of that world on second temple Jewish and Christian thought and practice, those who wish to read a watered-down tabloid history of the intertestimental period and who want a quick read without scholarly footnotes or a thoughtful examination of primary and secondary source material may find this book appealing. Far be it from me to condemn anyone who wishes light and superficial reading, even about our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. For those who might expect more than light and superficial reading, though, I feel I must provide some sort of review of the materials of this book.
Dr. Marty professes in this book to be writing a historical work of the intertestimental period, that is, the time between Malachi and Matthew, a stretch of time of about 435 years where there were no God-breathed works written, no widespread prophetic revelation, though there were a lot of Jewish works written that are of some interest today (and only a couple of which, 1st and 2nd Maccabees, which the author explores in any detail as source material quarried for this work). The book is divided into eight chapters, with an introduction and conclusion, and the balance of the work reflects the author’s concerns. The Persian period, which was responsible for the writings of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, along with parts of Daniel and the minor prophets of Zechariah, Haggai, and Malachi, gets comparatively short treatment here, except when the author wishes to talk about Haman’s genocidal hostility and the politics and interfaith marriages of the returned exiles. Far more treatment is given to the Hellenistic period, the time of the Maccabean revolt and the Hasmonean dynasty, as well as the rule of the Herodians under Roman domination.
The vast majority of this work is a gossipy account of the goings on of priestly, aristocratic, and especially royal elites of the Hellenistic and early Roman periods. Time and space that could have been profitably spent examining the hero lists of the time and their relationship to early Christian thought, or the influence of Jewish apocalyptic thought on early Christianity (and present-day Christian culture) are instead spent on the betrayals, murders, and family drama of the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties. Now, I am certainly as fond of family drama as the next person, perhaps even more so, but when seeking to understand the historical and cultural context of the life of Christ, surely there must be a sense of proportion and balance, along with careful attention to such sources as we possess. The fact that each of the first seven chapters of this book start with an imagined dialogue written by the author and the fact that the book is nearly devoid of scholarly historical examination makes this work’s value as a history perilously diminished.
It must also be noted that there are some serious contradictions, or at least tensions, between this author’s approach and the explicit statement of his text. For example, the author correctly recognizes that the hostility of Ezra and Nehemiah to interfaith marriages was on religious and not ethnic grounds, and then contradicts himself by stating that Ezra and Nehemiah sought to preserve the Jewish community through ethnic purity, when they were more concerned about ethical conduct. Several times the author speaks out against dogmatism when it comes to a preterist or futurist interpretation of the abomination of desolation, and several times vaguely skirts over significant historical matters (the several different seventy year periods of captivity for Judah, the seventy weeks prophecy of Daniel, the reason why Herod Antipas was successfully accused of treason by Herod Agrippa I), and then the author then goes on in other places to make dogmatic statements against those whom he terms legalists, while making definite statements about chronological matters that are wrong, whether we are talking about the date of Jesus’ birth and crucifixion, or the day of the week where he confronted the leaders of the Pharisees and the Sadduccees in the temple (see, for example, Lyman’s book New Insights, for a more scholarly and accurate look at the chronology of Christ’s birth and death).
The end result is a work that must be judged as seriously flawed. Although this is a work that seeks to find a ready market as a popularly accessible work on the history of the Jewish world and surrounding nations in the period between the exile and Jesus Christ, the work pales in comparison to those vastly superior works on the period that are already available. Those who want a very quick read, with a few helpful if obvious discussion questions, and who do not mind the author’s slipshod and sloppy approach to history and religious thought, might be satisfied by a book like this one. Those who are searching for more intellectual and moral depth are likely to find this book only an appetizer when it seeks to promote itself as a full course meal on the historical, social, religious, and political context of Jesus and the Judaism of his day. Those who read this book ought to go into it knowing what it is and tempering their expectations accordingly.