Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 3rd edition

By Everett Fergusen
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (2003). xxii + 650 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
16.2 (Fall 2005) : 340-341

This work is Everett Ferguson’s second revision of his well-received textbook on NT backgrounds that was first published in 198 7. Very little in the main content of the text has been changed from the second edition of the work which was published in 1993 (see the review in TMSJ 5/2 [Fall 1994]:216-17). The major changes in the third edition of Backgrounds of Early Christianity are in the areas of style and updating. The reading of this new edition is easier on the eyes thanks to sharper print, clearer pictures, and shaded charts. Also, the footnotes and bibliographies have been updated to include material that was not available in 1993.

The aim of Ferguson in this volume is to present a comprehensive, introductory guide to the world from which the NT and the early Christian church emerged. The introductory nature of presentation means generalizations must be made so that the beginning student can be given as broad a sweep as possible of vital material (xvi). The order of presentation of the material is the same as in the first two editions. In the Introduction (1-4), the author adds a disclaimer concerning Backgrounds in the title to the book. Though “backgrounds” has a connotation of distance and disengagement, Ferguson is stuck with the word, though he agrees that “environment,” “milieu,” or “context” might be better choice (1).

The first chapter of the text presents a concise political history of the Hellenistic-Roman era from broadly 330 B.C. to A.D. 330, from Alexander to Constantine (5-47). The only addition in this edition is a final section on “Political Connections of the New Testament” (46-47). The second chapter surveys the society and culture of the Hellenistic-Roman era (48-147). Ferguson has focused discussions on social relationships (66-69) and clothing and appearance (96-97) that were not in the second edition. An introduction to Hellenistic-Roman religions is given in the third chapter (148-318). A sample of a civic cult, the worship of Artemis at Ephesus (198-99), and a discussion of the term “Gnosticism” (300-301) are new features in this third edition. The fourth chapter covering Hellenistic-Roman philosophies (319-95) includes added information on Arius Didymus (363) and Epicurus and his school (370-72).

The longest chapter of the book is the fifth on Judaism (396-582). A paragraph on the pseudepigraphic work “Joseph and Aseneth” (460) and a section on “Jewish Mysticism” (501-3) are the major additions to this chapter from previous editions. The final chapter presents Christianity in the ancient world (583-620). Ferguson adds three sentences concerning the supposedly ossuary of James, the brother of Jesus, concluding that certain identification with the family of Jesus is impossible (591). Indexes of subjects (621-42) and Scripture references (643-48) and a map of the Hellenistic-Roman era (650) conclude the volume.

This third edition continues to fulfill its purpose as an excellent introduction to NT backgrounds. All students of the NT should own and read the volume. However, if one owns one of the first two editions, the few additions in the third edition do not warrant the purchase of this new edition.