The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity

By James S. Jeffers
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (1999). 352 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
14.1 (Spring 2003) : 124-126

 James S. Jeffers is an associate professor at Biola University who also teaches ancient history at California State University, Dominguez Hills. This combination of expertise in both Roman history and early Christianity evidenced in Jeffers’ teaching experience is also reflected in The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era. He correctly states, “If the New Testament texts are written to make sense to people in the first century, then we must try to put ourselves into their places in order to determine what the writers of the New Testament intended their readers to understand by what they wrote” (11). Therefore, the purpose of this book is to give the non-scholar an understanding of the Greco-Roman world at the time the NT was written as an aid in biblical interpretation (11, 293). This volume “tries to present [Hellenistic] society within the context of Roman control, hopefully in a way that Christians in the first century would have experienced it” (13). The book fulfills its purpose as a goo d introduction to NT backgrounds.

The author presents in his first chapter a short, fictional dinner discussion supposedly from first-century Jerusalem to orient the readers to the political and cultural environment of the NT (14-18). Those readers who need a fuller historical account to understand the allusions found in the first chapter are directed to an appendix where a summary of Greco-Roman history leading up to and going through the NT era is presented (293-320). The bulk of the volume surveys different aspects of first-century life (19-292). Jeffers introduces the reader to such topics as work, travel, burial practices, city life, religious and secular associations, religious beliefs, government, money, law, military, social classes, citizenship, slavery, family structure, and education in the time of the NT. In each chapter, the topics are presented with data known from Greco-Roman sources as a basis for the insights given by the author on how this aids in the understanding of the biblical material. Jeffers is concise, yet usually clear, in his discussion of both the background material and its biblical application. The volume is enhanced by a chronological chart of significant events from 50 B.C.–A.D. 90 (321-23), seven computer-generated maps (324-29), and subject and Scripture indexes (343-52). The book has a wealth of useful information on how life was lived in the early Roman Empire.

Although the work is a fine introduction to its subject, the reader should be aware of two weaknesses. First, in his suggestions for further reading at the end of chapters two through thirteen, Jeffers tends to direct the reader to books and journal articles that are usually found only in university libraries. These resources are not the kind of material to which the non-scholar for whom the book is intended would have ready access. A better source would be the wealth of background information in Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, histories, and archaeologies that can be found in Christian bookstores and many personal and church libraries.

A second, and greater weakness, is found in Jeffers’ discussion of women in Greco-Roman culture and the NT (249-52). The author rightly states that women were viewed in the culture to be intellectually inferior to men and that their main function was that of childbearing and child rearing. Some women, particularly those of the upper classes, did break out of the traditional roles, though this was frowned upon within that society. These women were especially active outside the home in religious matters. They were primarily attracted to cults practiced by women, but also to those cults that were open to both sexes and to the official state cults. New cults gave great freedom to women to hold offices alongside men. But as the cult sought greater respectability from society, it would remove women from positions of leadership. Jeffers implies that this also happened in early Christianity. He states that Paul’s teaching and descriptions “present a softened version of the larger society’s patriarchal family structure” (252). Women were allowed to serve in leadership positions within the early church, although Jeffers does not know the level of leadership exerted by women because of the difficulties in interpreting some of Paul’s comments concerning women. However, the only book to which Jeffers directs the reader for further information is Craig S. Keener’s Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Hendrickson, 1992). Keener’s work argues that women can exercise all the ministries/offices in the church and that mutual submission in Christian marriage are the true interpretations of the Pauline texts. By his favorable citing of Keener, Jeffers apparently concurs. This reviewer would direct the reader instead to Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Crossway, 1991) [see TMSJ, Spring, 1991, 107-9].

The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Erais a valuable introduction to NT backgrounds. However, the biblical exegete and expositor should use Jeffers’ volume in conjunction with the more expansive and detailed Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson (Eerdmans, 1993) [see TMSJ, Fall, 1994, 216-17].