on January 27, 2006
Ferguson's intent in writing Backgrounds of Early Christianity was neither to produce a history of the ancient world nor to synthesize ancient culture, philosophy, and religion in accordance with some interpretive scheme.
Instead, his desire was to craft an introductory textbook as a guide for beginning students. In the preface, he notes that limitations of writing and analysis have forced a compartmentalization (e.g., philosophy versus politics) and viewpoint (e.g., politics, religion, marriage) within his book that did not exist in the ancient world.
Ferguson ensures relevance to the New Testament with frequent references. General bibliographies for broader research are included at the beginning of each chapter. Specialized bibliographies for investigation into more narrow issues are provided at the end of each chapter. All bibliographic references are to works in English except where special circumstances apply. Footnotes are ample and well-chosen. Numerous photographs and tables enliven and clarify content.
In the preface, Ferguson deals with the issue of parallels between Christianity and ancient beliefs and practices. He denies that such similarities demand a naturalistic explanation for the rise of Christianity. This writer agrees and would go further to say that early apologists like Justin Martyr took a similar stance. Moreover, the popular Christian impulse to claim an utterly unique origin for Christianity is a self-inflicted handicap in dealing with the historical evidence. Furthermore, if Christianity were totally unique, it would likely be incomprehensible.
Backgrounds is divided into six sections: (1) Political History, (2) Society and Culture, (3) Hellenistic-Roman Religions, (4) Hellenistic-Roman Philosophies, (5) Judaism, and (6) Christianity in the Ancient World. The longest section is on Judaism, the most immediate background for ancient Christianity.
The first section, entitled Political History, begins with a discussion of the Near East before the time of Alexander the Great followed by a description of Alexander's exploits, the breakup of his kingdom, the politics of the republic and of the empire, and the relevance of it all to the New Testament.
The second section, entitled Society and Culture, covers the Roman military, Roman social classes, slavery, Roman citizenship, social relations, social morality, economic life, clothing and appearance, entertainment, education, literature and language, art and architecture, and finally, clubs and associations.
The third section, entitled Hellenistic-Roman Religions, addresses ancient Greek and Roman religions, religion in Hellenistic-Roman times, domestic and rural religion, civic cults, ruler cults, personal religion, Greek mysteries, Eastern religions, Gnosticism and associated topics, and the later development of monotheism and sun worship.
The fourth section, entitled Hellenistic-Roman Philosophies, provides information on the religious, ethical, popular, personal, and social aspects of philosophy followed by treatments of the Sophists and Socrates, Plato and the Academy, Aristotle and the Peripatetics, Skepticism, Cynicism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Eclecticism, Neopythagoreanism, Middle Platonism, Plotinus, and Neoplatonism
The fifth section, entitled Judaism, covers Jewish history from 538 BC. to AD 200, Jews in the early Roman Empire, Jewish literature and other sources in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, parties and sects, beliefs and practices, and lastly, organizations and institutions.
The sixth section, entitled Christianity in the Ancient World, includes material on literary references to Christianity in non-Christian sources, archaeological remains bearing on early Christian history, some alleged archaeological remains of early Christianity, attitudes of pagans toward Christians, the legal status of Christianity, hindrances to the acceptance of Christianity, religious rivals, factors favorable to Christianity, and the uniqueness of Christianity.
Backgrounds is so well-done that one struggles to find much in the way of needed improvements. One observation, however, is that it tends to focus more on backgrounds of the New Testament rather than early Christianity as the title claims. An example is in section four where Ferguson provides background on Roman and Greek philosophies. Tying that background to first century apologists (many of whom styled themselves as philosophers in order to gain a hearing and avoid persecution) would have been helpful. Another example is where Ferguson highlights the Roman preoccupation with law but fails to connect that "background" with the resultant legal flavor of Western Christianity. A third example would be failure to explore the actor's mask [page 100] as background to Tertullian's use of the mask ("personae") to explain the nature of the Trinity.
Continuing in the area of law, more detail on the use of oaths as a way of settling legal disputes would have been helpful. In Roman law, a person could attempt a summary judgment in his favor by resorting to an oath as a way of establishing his case. Thereupon, the judge could either accept or reject the oath as sufficient. That appears to be the background for Heb 6:13-18 where the author rests his point on such a strategy. In the case of Hebrews though, God swears by Himself, not some other god. Thus "the two immutable things in which it is impossible for God to lie" appear to be God's dual roles as (1) an unchanging advocate (the one who swears) and (2) an unchanging judge (the one who passes judgment on the trustworthiness of that which is sworn). None of this would be apparent without more background into ancient legal practices.
Although Ferguson generally focuses on New Testament backgrounds rather than backgrounds for early Christianity, he sometimes misses an important clarification to the New Testament itself. Take, for example, his discussion of the First Jewish Revolt [p. 420]. Although he does distinguish Barabbas as a revolutionary, he fails to use that distinction to challenge the popular present-day understanding of Barabbas as a common thief. The difference is profound. The fact that Barabbas was a Jewish version of Robin Hood or Zorro makes the people's preference for him over Jesus more understandable.
Another improvement would be expanded treatment of ancient homosexuality. Ancient practices are often used to argue for modern-day acceptance, so fuller treatment of the subject would be a welcome addition.
Continuing on to the topic of slavery, Ferguson's background on manumission omits the point that freed slaves were granted citizenship. That fact could open up greater insight on Acts 22:28 where the chief captain says he acquired his citizenship with "a great sum of money." One possibility, in light of background studies, is that the captain was a former slave who had bought his way to freedom.
Moving on to Artemis of the Ephesians, Ferguson gives several interpretations for the bulb-like appendages adorning the idol [pages 175 and 198]. His options include eggs, breasts, or even the shape of a meteor. He does not mention, however, the possibility of the bulbs being the testicles of sacrificial bulls, a viewpoint that is gaining more and more acceptance.
On the subject of eagles, Ferguson refers to them in four places [pages 51, 91, 210, and 214], but fails to elaborate on how they served as omens within Roman culture -- a belief that probably traces back to contacts with the Etruscans. Such knowledge could throw light on Jesus' use of eagles as an omen for the impending destruction of Jerusalem -- "wherever the corpse is, there the eagles will gather."
On the subject of emperor worship [e.g., page 203], it would have been helpful if Ferguson had tied the Greek antecedents of Roman emperor worship to 1 Cor. 12:3, where Paul says, "No man can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit." In ancient times, the competing claim was "Caesar is Lord," and no person would have been bold enough to resist that assertion without divine help.
The section on Greek and Roman religions would have benefited by exploring the episode in the Gospel of John where the soldier pierces the side of Jesus with a spear and out flows "blood and water." The background for that episode lies in Gnostic beliefs and religious mythology. Specifically, the phrase "blood and water" appears to be a hendiadys that collapses into "watery blood" -- or in other words, "ichor" -- the blood of the gods. Thus the point of the story is not to inspire later-day autopsies so common in New Testament commentaries, but rather to say (1) Jesus was truly dead and (2) Jesus was truly God -- both ideas being anti-Gnostic assertions made plain by the mythological meaning of "ichor."
As a final suggestion, the reference to shared bathing among men and women [page 105] should include the possibility that common facilities may have been time-shared to avoid mixing of the sexes -- at least in some locations.
All of the preceding suggestions are quibbles in the face of the overwhelming wealth of material Dr. Ferguson expertly offers. Detailing the good points would mean rewriting the book. A few examples will therefore have to suffice. Explanation of the typical "pedagogue" as a slave who harshly "mastered" his charges [page 110] is rich imagery for Paul's slave-master understanding of the Law in Gal. 3:23-25. Furthermore, Ferguson's background on veils [page 171] is indispensable in understanding 1 Cor. 11 where Paul apparently goes against custom to make a gender distinction that had not existed previously. Moving on to pages 287-296, Ferguson provides an excellent debunking of the popular, but apparently unfounded charge that Christianity borrowed from or developed out of Mithraism. Finally, the exposure of a child as the Roman way of refusing to admit the unfortunate victim into society offers a powerful commentary on the present-day practice of abortion. Examples like the preceding are too numerous to mention.
Before closing though, there is one problem on a grammatical level that deserves special attention. The final editing of the book has omitted commas as the means for setting off introductory phrases. As a result, the reader will often have to read affected sentences two or three times before sorting out the missing punctuation. The net effect is to seriously detract from an otherwise enjoyable reading experience.
Notwithstanding the rather surprising grammatical shortcoming, Backgrounds of Early Christianity fulfills its purpose admirably, surpassing its goal of being an introductory textbook and earning itself a prime spot on the bookshelves of pastors, teachers, and researchers.
-- Bill Brewer
Everett Ferguson is a professor emeritus at Abilene Christian University. He has authored at least 20 books, edited at least 23 others, and co-translated Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses with Abraham Malherbe.