The New Testament Background: Writings From Ancient Greece And The Roman Empire That Illuminate Christian Origins, edited by C.K. Barrett
A book like this may be profitably read for context, as its openly avowed purpose is to provide a sense of the larger historical and religious and philosophical material that illuminate the meanings of the Bible and the environment in which the Bible was inspired and written and preserved. The editor of this work, who makes his presence known with many witty editorial comments about the wide variety of texts provided (more than two hundred of them, with a wide range of authors and approaches and subjects), makes the sensible statement that for a reader to understand the Bible, they must understand at least something of the world which the Bible was written in and which the early Church of God was preaching to. This book is written for the wide body of intelligent and reflective religious people who do not have a firm grasp of the original text in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic. In its purpose it succeeds admirably well, all the more so because it openly admits that it is providing a small sample, and because it generally avoids making strong and oversimplified conclusions based on its elegant and targeted and judicious selection of materials. It also serves the admirable role of seeking to restore Epicurus from the slanderous view in which his philosophy was viewed as supporting the licentious pursuit of sensual pleasure, which he explicitly spoke out against, which can be read from his own writings, allowing him to speak in defense of his reputation.
In terms of its contents, the book is divided into thirteen chapters that together contain 280 texts translated from their original Mediterranean languages that deal with the context of the New Testament material. The first section deals with the Roman Empire, providing sources from poets and historians about the reign of emperors from Augustus to Domitian. The second section shares selections of papyri, including examples of the form of first century epistles, magical and religious texts, and texts showing socioeconomic conditions of the early Roman Empire relating to marriage and family as well as lawsuits and property. After this comes a few examples of inscriptions, mostly of a religious nature. Following this comes a selection of Greco-Roman philosophers, including Heraclitus, Plato, Stoics, Aristotle, Epicurus, and some of the Greek playwrights of the Athenian golden age. After this comes a selection of Gnostic texts, including Hermetic texts, Coptic texts, and a couple of selections of Mandaen literature. After this comes some texts on the Isis mystery religion. Following this comes some selections from 1 Maccabees and the writings of Josephus, Philo, Eusebius, and even Juvenal on Jewish history and culture. After this there is a large selection of texts from the Talmud showing the rabbinic perspective, some texts from the Qumran literature, and notable material from Philo, Josephus, the Septuagint and Targums, and finally apocalyptic literature. Although not deep or lengthy, these numerous excerpts give a broad understanding of texts related to the Bible that place it in its proper cultural perspective.
Despite these considerable virtues, though, the book is not perfect. The most fundamental problem of this problem, and a difficult one for a work like this to avoid, is that it presents itself as the judge and critic of texts rather than as someone in the position of learning from the texts. The very act of selecting works that are supposed to relate to the Bible can become problematic when an editor considers gnostic texts to be “Christian,” when the apostles clearly marked gnosticism as across the line. Additionally, the fact that the editor of this work comes to biblical texts as a judge and critic rather than a student or learner tends to lead him to view prophecy (like that of Daniel) with a great deal of skepticism. The editor comments that between the Persian Empire and the early Roman Empire that the Jews had an uncanny ability to pick the right side in a conflict, without noting that Daniel is what gives the insight on those winners, if one will concede the viability of predictive prophecy and divine revelation, something that is difficult for textual critics to believe, even those who write excellent books for cultural context such as this one.