Customer Reviews: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
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on February 3, 2002
I bought this one on a whim, thought it might have an interesting section or two. I ended up reading the thing cover to cover.
In a field where lots of books are hard to read because they're poorly written, this one is exceptionally well organized, clearly written and easy to read.
It also covers all the subject, from Greco-Roman political history, through Hellenistic-Roman religions and philosophies, on to an excellent section on Judaism and another on early Christianity. Even if you're not an early Church buff, the book is a good introduction to ancient culture.
It's honest. It's written by a proff at a Christian university, but it doesn't slant the scholarship. For eg it gives a good accounting of both sides of the modern scholarship on the contributions of pagan Mystery Religions to the Church, and the _testimonium Falvianum_ is treated fairly -- and dismissed as a later interpolation.
Each section lists a number of books for further reading -- very useful.
A great book!!
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on May 26, 2003
This book is an excellent introduction to the historical, cultural, social, economic, and political backgrounds of the times before, during, and after the beginnings of Christianity, i.e., from 330 B.C. to A.D. 330, from Alexander the Great to Constantine. It superbly complements the study of the New Testament. It has helped me attempt to make concepts in the Gospels concrete which, at first, seemed to be abstact.
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on November 3, 2006
This is THE book on NT backgrounds. Ferguson gives you a broad sweep of nearely everything you need to know when studying hte NT and an extensive bibliography of additional resources for picking up the rest. I read this book early on in my carreer and still refer to it almost weekly. In the more specialized material I now study, his work is the basis that allows me to understand it. In short, if you read nothing else on NT backgrounds, read this. If your going to enter into advanced study of NT backgrounds, read this first. I even reccomend this book to 'lay' churchmembers without any theological training. It is simply the best.

The next best thing to Fergusson is C. K. Barrett, "NT Background: Selected Documents." This is a collection of excerpts from 1st Century primary sources. Still, READ FERGUSON FIRST!
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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.
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on September 14, 2008
This work, now in its third edition, remains the best and most comprehensive textbook available about the world in which the New Testament was born. Just about every subject you would want to know about is included, such as writing in the ancient world, apocryphal literature and Hellenist and Roman philosophy in addition to political history. It contains charts, photographs and maps. The bibliographies are excellent and not too long.

Another work, which covers some of the material but is a bit more manageable in length is Jeffers' THE GRECO-ROMAN WORLD OF THE NEW TESTAMENT ERA.
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VINE VOICEon November 16, 1999
This isn't the easiest reading book in the world. But it is a wonderful bird's eye view of the cultural, political, religious, and social world in which Christianity came into being. You learn about the Romans, the Greeks, the Jewish people, and a myriad of other peoples who populated the Roman empire. This book is essential toward an understanding of the backgrounds of early Christianity.
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on March 28, 2002
I read this cover-to-cover. It was easy to read, and mostly very interesting. It is written for a wide, general audience, and does not make assumptions about the beliefs of the reader. The articles are moderately long, with nice hierarchical subheadings. I am eager to learn more about the interpenetration of Judaism and Hellenism in the actual origins and formation of Christianity.
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on September 19, 2010
This book is good for extensive raw info about the cultural setting from which Christianity emerged--actually, the scope of his topic is so broad I wondered if the title shouldn't have been "Intro to Western Civilization". The author provides a lot more factual material than he does commentary; he only occasionally, then briefly, analyzes the relationships between early Christianity and its cultural context. He does seem particularly eager to distinguish Christianity from certain things it might resemble, e.g. other religions which also have resurrection themes. But mostly he provides the background and leaves it at that. I thought that he might tie it all together in the final chapter, and he does provide a few good insights there, but not in proportion to the amount of material he'd covered in the previous chapters.

Despite this it's a good book, ambitious in its scope and essential for its bibliography, which provides "further reading" sources after each section; the book also has actual footnotes. This is a welcome change from the lazy "end notes" and "select bibliography" which seem the norm anymore. Plus in the bibliography he provides titles of works which don't necessary agree with his own views. This is a gracious gesture on his part: if you have this book in hand, you can go off and explore pretty much any facet, or any viewpoint, of the subject. The book gives the reader plenty of information to carry him/her forward in his/her study of this complex topic. I give it four stars instead of five only because I would have liked more discussion of the implications of the "backgrounds" for the Christianity. But it's a very useful reference source.
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on September 21, 2015
This is a well written, well organized, comprehensive, and highly readable book that explains the political environment of the 1st century, 2nd Temple era, society and culture, and the various religious realities of the day as well as what existed politically and religiously leading up to 1st century Judean life.

I bought the book for a class and while it isn't necessary to read it straight through, it's so well written thst you may do just that. I will continue to read and reference it for a long time to come.

It's definitely a book you should read if you desire to sort out the maze of ancient history and to understand the only two sibling religions – Christianity and (rabbinic) Judaism – that survived and that period.
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on October 18, 1999
For study of the background of the New Testament, this is a great place to begin. It is readable and interesting. The material is well-organized as well. I highly recommend it.
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