Greeks, Romans, Jews: Currents of Culture and Belief in the New Testament World

By James D. Newsome
Philadelphia : Trinity (1992). 475 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
4.2 (Fall 1993) : 236-237

This work purposes to serve as a textbook introducing seminary students and interested lay people to Jewish history, literature, and theology of the Greco-Roman period, which was the setting of the NT. Greeks, Romans, Jews covers much of the same material found in the four-volume revision of Emil Schurer's The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, but in an abridged form at a fraction of the price. For the beginning student, Newsome has done an admirable job of summarizing the current state of Judaic studies for the period 332 B.C. to A.D. 135.

The book has three main strengths. First, it has a well-written, in-depth analysis of the literature of Greco-Roman Judaism in two uneven parts. The first two-thirds deals with the Greek (Hellenistic) period in Palestine: two chapters on the historical background from the coming of the Greeks (Alexander the Great, 332 B.C.) to the collapse of the Hasmonean State (63 B.C.) and five chapters that discuss the Jewish literature during this 270-year period, the theology of Palestinian Judaism, and the development of the Qumran Community. The last one-third chronicles the Roman Era, with two chapters surveying the historical background from 63 B.C. to 135 A.D. and the final two chapters discussing the Jewish literature of this 200- year period.

Second, Newsome incorporates the primary and secondary sources necessary for further study in his footnotes and bibliography. Third, he has written a good six-page synopsis of the principal Ptolemaic, Seleucid, and Roman rulers (449-54). A similar synopsis for the Hasmonean rulers would have been most helpful.

Two striking weaknesses are evident in the book. First, the book's format includes discussions of Roman-era events before the presentation of Roman history. For example, the beginning student would better understand Herod the Great's proposed relationship with the Essenes (120-21) after reading the historical introduction to Herod the Great (281-99). So he should read chaps. 1, 2, 8, 9 first for the historical background, then read the chapters dealing with the Jewish literature. Second, Newsome's higher critical viewpoint places some of the OT canonical literature in the intertestamental period. An example is the book of Daniel (76-78). Though the consensus of liberal thought dates Daniel in the Maccabean era, good reasons exist for dating the book in the 6th century B.C. (see OT Introductions of Archer, Harrison, and Young). Newsome gives fair assessments of non-canonical dating with different viewpoints noted, but he does not give the OT canonical books the same treatment.

Nevertheless, the beginning student in NT backgrounds with a good foundation in Biblical Introduction will find Greeks, Romans, Jews a helpful book to begin his study of the history and literature of Greco- Roman Judaism.