Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Book Review: Backgrounds of Early Christianity

This will be a short review of a long book.

In over 682 pages, Everett Ferguson goes a long way toward his stated purpose of illuminating the historical setting of the 1st century in as many of its ramifications as feasible so as better to understand the real world in which people lived in the days of Jesus and the apostles. And he makes it readable too. Ferguson surveys political history, society & culture, Hellenistic (Greek) & Roman religions, Hellenistic & Roman Philosophies, Judaism, and many references to early Christianity found in literary evidence outside the Bible and in archaeology.

Here are 6 items from Ferguson's work that will affect my understanding of the New Testament:

1. My teaching on the kingdom has been affected by gaining a more thorough knowledge of the political context of the Gospels and its use of words such as “King of the Jews”. As I more accurately understand the political overtones of such words, I hope to more accurately teach these texts to people today.

2. A more detailed understanding of the Roman practice of adoption has strengthened my understanding of the New Testament doctrine of adoption. It also leads me to connect my teaching on adoption in passages like Galatians 4:1-7 with the broader New Testament doctrine of the lordship of Christ.

3. Greater awareness of Plato’s philosophical emphases (such as nonmaterial reality, a deathless soul distinct from the body, the idea of cosmic religion, and a just society) has impacted the way I evaluate the biblical faithfulness of American Evangelical Popular Religion, which has too often uncritically accepted much extra-biblical philosophy.

4. I was surprised to learn that the biblical injunctions concerning the units of society (Eph. 5:21-6:9; Col. 3:18-4:1; I Pet 2:13-3:7; etc.) show Stoic influence in both form and content. That Paul was familiar with philosophical, especially Stoic, idioms and assumptions and used these to express his own arguments has motivated me to deepen my understanding of Stoic philosophy as I seek to interpret and apply and teach passages like Romans 1-2 and Acts 17.

5. The historical background of synagogue worship, with its emphasis on hearing the Word of God, has strengthened my conviction that reformed worship, with its emphasis on the centrality of preaching, is the way God wants His gathered people to worship Him under the New Covenant.

6. The significance of the Gallio inscription for dating the life and ministry of Paul in Corinth in early A.D. 50 has awakened me to the importance of archaeology for background studies in the New Testament.

Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd edition, 2003, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 682 pages, paperback.

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