Backgrounds of Early Christianity
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987) 515 pp., $24.95, paper
A survey of the New Testament world, Backgrounds of Early Christianity is a most useful introduction to the field for undergraduate students as well as for those embarking on a more intensive study of the period. Ferguson’s work combines wide scope and compact style with helpful, selective bibliographies. He skillfully develops political surveys of the Hellenistic and Roman periods and socio-cultural analyses of the Roman period, while effectively sketching details of citizenship, governmental officials, the scope of Roman law, the modes of public entertainment, and the literary and linguistic styles of the time. Anyone interested in the origins of Christianity can use this book to identify terms, roles, and methods of communication that pervade New Testament writings but which often puzzle the novice and even many who claim to know these documents.
Equally useful and illuminating are Ferguson’s surveys of Hellenistic-Roman religions and philosophies, which occupy two chapters. Two aspects of these religious movements are especially important for the rise of Christianity: (1) they served as forms of social identity, rather than being merely private convictions or inclinations, because they involved the devotees in community activities; and (2) they were voluntary in nature—except for the imperial cult, which was prescribed by the central government—and thus set the pattern for the kind of commitment through choice that gave rise to Christianity and characterized its astonishing spread.
On details, one may disagree with Ferguson’s evidence and interpretation. For example, he subscribes to Franz Cumont’s theory about the Persian origins of the Mithra cult, a theory that has been thoroughly challenged and even discredited by the work of David Ulansey (in The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, Oxford, 1989). Ulansey has shown the close connections between Mithraic iconography and the Hellenistic mythology behind the signs of the zodiac, particularly the myth of slaying the bull. To take another example, Ferguson treats the Gnostic movement as a pre-Christian phenomenon, even while acknowledging the late date (second century C.E.a and later) of all the unmistakably Gnostic writings. The antecedents were there, of course, bur the reconstruction of first-century C.E. (or even earlier) Gnosticism is an artifice of modern scholars. Ferguson also understates the impact of Stoicism on Paul. The Stoic understanding of the role of conscience plays a crucial part in Paul’s argument in Romans (2:12–15), virtues from the Stoic tradition appear among the fruits of the spirit in Galatians (5:22–23), and Stoic views of accountability and judgment seem to have influenced his eschatology as well.
The chapter on Judaism begins with historical and literary analyses of the evidence from post-Exilic Judaism and is on the whole successful. Yet although the author expresses caution about using the rabbinic writings—which he correctly dates from the second to the sixth centuries—for historical reconstruction of Judaism in the pre-70 C.E. period, he nevertheless uses these writings at many points. The result is a mixture of useful historical evidence for the range of Jewish options in the first century and glaring anachronisms, especially when Mishnaic and Talmudic sources are used for describing Judaism in the time of Jesus. For example, the religious authority and procedures of the Sanhedrin are transferred back to the time of the trial of Jesus, in spite of the fact that what existed at that time was a synedrion (later transliterated as “Sanhedrin”), which was simply the Judean manifestation of the standard Roman procedure of designating a local elite to exercise a considerable degree of local autonomy in overseeing regional affairs. Only much later did this institution become the religious supreme court called the Sanhedrin, yet Ferguson uses the Talmudic sources to read this function back into the earlier period. Occasionally, Ferguson also employs early Christian sources apart from their contexts, as when his description of the message and activities of Paul is documented from New Testament writings such as Acts and the Pastoral Epistles, which date from a generation after Paul and reflect post-Pauline concepts and church organization.
The final chapter of the book is built on more solid historical ground, adducing evidence from archaeological sources and from classical authors to shed light on Christianity in its early stages. A serious flaw, based on the well-known Theodotus inscription, appears in the conclusions regarding Palestinian synagogues in the pre-70 C.E. period. The inscription mentions three generations of synagogue leaders and describes the synagogue as a mix of hospice, school and place of worship, all of which we know demonstrably developed in the later second 013century. Adolf Deissmann, however, on wholly arbitrary grounds, assigned this inscription to the first century, even though it was found in an undated archaeological context and was dated to the later Roman period by the palaeographical experts who first saw it. Ferguson is not alone, unfortunately, in drawing inferences from this solitary source, which was dated on what is now known to be the wholly unwarranted assumption that there were no Jews in Jerusalem after 70 C.E.
Despite my disagreements over detail, the work as a whole is highly commendable. It is difficult to know who will benefit most from this collection of evidence and bibliographical sources: beginning students in the field, graduate students who are preparing for comprehensive examinations on the subject of the historical origins of Christianity, or professors who have been coasting on information they picked up decades ago. Fortunately, Ferguson has not treated the evidence as mere background, as his title implies, but as the living, changing context in which Christianity appeared and began its diverse and astounding growth.
The New Testament in Its Literary Environment
David E. Aune
(Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987) 260 pp., $22.95
This concise survey offers both specialist and nonspecialist the most durable results of the literary analysis of the New Testament. Professor David Aune’s work is a model of learning and insight.
The eighth and last volume in the Library of Early Christianity series, this volume could easily serve as an introduction to the New Testament as well as a reference work on the broader context.
Professor Aune, of St. Xavier College in Chicago, surveys the major components of the New Testament and discusses the types of literature to which the early Christian writings are most closely related. He displays thorough familiarity both with recent scholarly treatments and, more important, with the ancient literary world. The first chapter, for example, surveys the various approaches to the analysis of the Gospels that have been developed in the last century—approaches such as form criticism, which attempted to isolate the units of oral tradition behind the Gospels; and redaction criticism, which studied the editorial processes evident within the Gospels themselves. Aune then reviews the numerous suggestions about the generic affinities of the stories of Jesus. He finally makes a strong case for identifying the Gospels as a form of biography. This may sound like the reinvention of the wheel, but many scholars in this century have ardently resisted the notion that the canonical Gospels are biographies in any meaningful sense.
Aune’s second chapter explores how the Gospels function as biographies in presenting the life of Jesus as a model for imitation. He notes ancient opinions about the Gospels and compares the canonical Gospels to the apocryphal Gospels of the early church, such as the Gospel of Thomas, which is not at all a biography but a collection of sayings.
Luke-Acts, the largest literary unit in the New Testament, merits extended treatment. The prefaces to the two works indicate that their author was striving for literary respectability, and Luke-Acts has often been compared with the productions of ancient historians. Aune surveys ancient historical writing, particularly as it developed in the Hellenistic and early Roman periods. He carefully notes the diversity of scope and method among historians, from the critical political analysis of Thucydides and Polybius, who catalogued the rise of Rome, to the antiquarianism of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who, at the time of Augustus, wrote of Rome’s earliest days. Aune pays special attention to features of historical literature that appear in Acts, such as speeches, digressions and travelogues. Israelite historical writing, from the biblical accounts of the monarchy through the work of Josephus, receives similar treatment as part of the literary environment of Luke-Acts.
Like the Gospels, Acts is set within a wider context of early Christian literature, particularly the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. Aune raises the interesting possibility, defended recently by Richard Pervo, that both the canonical and apocryphal Acts have their closest literary parallels not in historical literature, but in ancient novels. Although Aune continues to favor the connection of Acts with historiography, he recognizes the presence in the work of many of the features of popular narration.
Discussing the Pauline corpus and other letters in the New Testament, the author treats the wide variety of ancient epistles, from the ephemeral letters of the papyri to the various types of literary epistles. Aune carefully presents the formal features of both Greco-Roman and Semitic letters. Such formal features as salutations, thanksgivings and greetings appear regularly in the framework of Pauline letters. Recent literary analysis has attempted to illuminate the generic affinities of the body of the letter, that which the framing elements contain. Aune notes the important contribution of rhetorical criticism, with its concern for ancient theories about types and strategies of persuasive discourse. He also notes how scholars have detected the presence of traditional liturgical formulations, hymns and acclamations within Pauline epistles.
In his final chapter, on the Book of Revelation, Aune makes a number of important distinctions among apocalyptic literature, apocalypticism as a social phenomenon and apocalyptic eschatology as a system or collection of beliefs about “the end.” He then provides a succinct and admirably clear discussion of the way in which the complex symbolic writing that is Revelation fits into these interpretive grids. In doing so he usefully describes a broad range of revelatory literature, from the heavenly journeys of Enoch through the oracular literature of the Greco-Roman world.
Each chapter concludes with an annotated bibliography describing the most significant contemporary literature on the books and literary types under discussion.
Backgrounds of Early Christianity
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987) 515 pp., $24.95, paper