Joel B. Green and Lee Martin McDonald, eds. The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.
The World of the New Testament (hereafter WNT) contains 44 essays covering a wide array of extremely relevant topics for studying the context of the NT. Those essays come in five sections:
- Setting the Context: Exile and Jewish Heritage
- Setting the Context: Roman Hellenism
- The Jewish People in the Context of Roman Hellenism
- The Literary Context of Early Christianity
- The Geographical Context of the New Testament [note: these essays aren’t really on “geography”; they are primarily about the history of various regions of the Mediterranean world]
The essays typically run 10–15 pages each, with a few exceptions (e.g., Charlesworth’s essay on “Jesus Research and Archaeology” is 28 pages long, while Yinger writes only 4 pages on “Jewish education”). I am not sufficiently well-read in all the relevant topics to say this authoritatively, but as far as I can tell the vast majority of the essays are written by recognizable experts in those particular areas (thus, e.g., Nicholas Perrin on “Exile,” David Instone-Brewer on “Temple and Priesthood,” and David Downs on “Economics, Taxes, and Tithes”).
I assigned portions of WNT for my New Testament Literature and Interpretation (undergraduate general education) courses this past year, so my comments below are geared specifically toward the pedagogical value of the book.
First, WNT isn’t designed to be read cover to cover; each chapter exists independent of the others, so it functions more like a dictionary than a textbook in that sense. So by all means use it as a textbook, but as a supplemental one, especially for undergraduates. Here’s a list of the essays I assigned for one section or another of my NT Lit course:
“Hasmoneans and the Hasmonean Era” (Larry Helyer)
“The Imperial Cult” (Nicholas Perrin)
“Economics, Taxes, and Tithes” (David Downs)
“The Dead Sea Scrolls” (C. D. Elledge)
“Jews in the Diaspora” (David deSilva)
“Josephus in the New Testament” (Michael Bird)
“Early Non-Canonical Christian Writings” (Nicholas Perrin)
In truth, I would like to have assigned a lot more, but my main textbook for the course was already solid on backgrounds (The New Testament in Antiquity, by Burge/Cohick/Green), and this was, after all, a survey course. I will probably make room (somehow!) next time for “Women, Children, and Families in the Greco-Roman World” (Lynn Cohick), “Jews and Samaritans” (Lidija Novakovic), “Apocalypticism” (Larry Helyer), and “Macedonia” (Gene Green). These are all fantastic essays and I hate to leave any of them out!
Second, as a newly-minted PhD and first-time professor of NT Survey courses, WNT enhanced my own understanding of the topics addressed in many of the essays. So it wasn’t just informative for students who didn’t know Hellenization from a hole in the ground—I learned a lot too! WNT is full of essays that are accessible to college freshman but still useful in their own right to young scholars. Some essays (especially deSilva’s “Jews in the Diaspora”) also shaped my classroom presentation of the material even if I didn’t have them read the essay itself. Perhaps most helpfully, every essay points the reader to both key primary texts and major secondary sources (each essay ends with an annotated list of key books and article on its respective topic).
Third, I used these readings in an undergraduate survey course, but I see no reason why it could not also work in upper-division undergraduate “NT Backgrounds” classes, as well as introductory courses at the graduate/seminary level as well. In graduate settings it could be the main textbook as long as the assigned portions were organized by the curriculum rather than the other way around—you wouldn’t want to just march through it chapter by chapter.
In terms of their accessibility to undergraduates, I provided a list of reading questions for each essay to guide my students’ interaction—I don’t know if my questions were the best, but I do think the material is sufficiently technical to merit assistance of that sort, at least in some cases. The essays also assume some basic knowledge that needed to be given either in class or through other readings—every essay assumes Alexander the Great’s legacy of Hellenistic influence throughout the Mediterranean world, for example, but no single essay explains that legacy as an issue in its own right.
I don’t have any major criticisms of the volume. It is a bit difficult to grasp the arrangement of the essays; some groups appear to fall into a coherent sequence, while others are more random. Section One, “Exile and the Jewish Heritage,” moves from “Exile” to “The Hasmoneans and the Hasmonean Era” to “The Herodian Dynasty” (so far so good!), but then to “Monotheism” and “The Scriptures and Scriptural Interpretation.” The last of these seems particularly out of place, especially given that Philo and Josephus receive distinct essays within Section 4: “The Literary Context of Early Christianity,” and Section 3: “The Jewish People in the Context of Roman Hellenism” includes an essay on “Noncanonical Jewish Writings.”
The coverage of major issues is very impressive. I would love to have seen some distinct attention paid to particular OT individuals who play formative roles not only in biblical interpretation but social identity as well in Second Temple Judaism (e.g., Moses, Elijah, Abraham). I also wonder why “Messianism” or “Messianic Expectations” or something of that ilk did not receive its own essay; there is a brief discussion of Messianism at Qumran in “The Dead Sea Scrolls” (pp. 239–40), and that’s about it.
In all—a great book and one that I plan to use personally and pedagogically for a long time. Thanks to Joel Green and Lee McDonald for putting it together, and thanks to Baker Academic for a complimentary copy!
*Michael Kibbe is a graduate of the PhD program at Wheaton College and now serves as an Assistant Professor of Bible at Moody Bible Institue in Spokane, WA.