Book Review: Exploring the New Testament World

bell-the-new-testament-world-book-coverAlbert A. Bell, Jr., Exploring the New Testament World: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Jesus and the First Christians (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1998), 336 pages.

As a New Testament student, I have a deep interest in the social, cultural, political, and religious world from which my faith and these documents, in particular, have emerged. I always like books that help me better understand this world.

This review is focused on a popular volume from Dr. Albert A. Bell, Jr., who is current faculty and professor of history at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, which he joined in 1978. Bell is an eclectic author who has been published in academic circles (Jewish QuarterlyThe Classical WorldThe Classical Journal), as well as being an accomplished mystery novelist, and fiction and non-fiction author.

One of Bell’s passions is the New Testament and its world, and in 1998, he published an expanded and revised edition of his Guide to the New Testament World (Herald Press, 1994) with Thomas Nelson Publishing under the title, Exploring the New Testament World (abbreviated here as ENTW). It is a fairly well-known volume, and over the course of nearly 20 years, is has served as a required textbook in various colleges and university settings.

I initially purchased this volume while in undergrad. I did so because I recognized the name on the “Foreward” by-line as the venerable Bruce M. Metzger. With his endorsement that Bell’s book is was the new standard,[1] I ante-ed up and added this volume to my personal library. Since then, I have read chapters and sections here and there, using it in college papers, sermons, or for insight. But recently, I read the book cover to cover, as part of my graduate course work covering the New Testament World.

The following is a brief survey of the book and some thoughts about its strengths and weaknesses. Here we go.

Survey of Exploring the New Testament World

Bell organizes ENTW to cover nine chapters. There are ten total chapters, plus two appendices (a glossary of ancient writers, genealogies of the Julio-Claudian Caesars, and the Herods), but in terms of NT world material, there are only nine sections. The first chapter, Bell provides a straightforward argument explaining the importance of placing the NT writings and narratives within the context of the Greco-Roman world, and the importance of the ancient sources that inform students of this first-century world in order to provide an accurate picture of the ancient realities early Christians faced.

Chapter two develops several important contours of first-century Judaism. It surveys the issues of Hellenism and its tensions within the Jewish community, the importance of oral traditions, the various sects of the Jews (Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, etc.), and some of the tensions between the Jesus movement and early Judaism.

Chapters three to nine cover the Greco-Roman world and its social, political, religious, and philosophical contours, and their impact and interaction with early Christianity. The chapters provide context and provide significant highpoints in each of these areas. The Roman political structure is introduced, along with the emergence of the Caesars, and how a little city-state managed an empire which includes Judea. The benefits and penalties of Roman law as it was applied to citizens and non-citizens, to the aristocracy and the lower class, along with the government’s concern for subversion. A concern, the Christians easily could arouse. The interests and concerns for religions and philosophies in the Greco-Roman world are much different than modern concerns, as one could be religiously pluralistic, but such flexibility was not held among the philosophies. Religion was not about relationship nor morality, per se, but about personal success and the appeasement of the gods. Philosophy was about framing the proper worldview for justice, truth, and reality, and building a consistent lifestyle.

The interests and concerns for religions and philosophies in the Greco-Roman world are much different than modern concerns, as one could be religiously pluralistic, but such flexibility was not held among the philosophies. Religion was not about relationship nor morality, per se, but about personal success and the appeasement of the gods. Philosophy was about framing the proper worldview for justice, truth, and reality, and building a lifestyle consistent with that philosophy (Epicureanism, Stoicism, the Cynics, etc.).

In the Greco-Roman world, status was everything, and even then, the social world was immanently connected (patronage, slavery, free classes). The NT language of dichotomy –slave or free, male or female, Jew or Greek, etc.– comes alive, when one appreciates the first-century world’s penchant for status. Moreover, the Roman concern for “property” is equally of value as it plays out in the social and family life of the Romans (pater familias). Finally, the volume closes with attention to the “approximate” view of time versus the modern obsession with millisecond accuracy view of time, the way distances were measured, and the various means and methods of traveling — and yes, they did sight-seeing and had vacations, and the “they” are typically the rich.

I could not agree more with Dr. David A. deSilva’s Logos.com review on ENTW, “this is a great point of entry into the NT world. It covers a great deal of ground in a short compass.” deSilva is no slouch when it comes to studying the NT world.

Strengths and Weaknesses

First, the strengths. Bell offers a volume that is not intended for the scholar, but for a “lay readership.” In fact, he clearly says, “I don’t assume anything on the part of the reader except an interest in the New Testament and an openness to exploration.”[2] So it strikes me odd that Andreas J. Köstenberger “roughs up” Bell regarding the concern for the “general reader” as being an example of “a lack of focus.”[3] That’s why I bought the book in the first place. Mission accomplished.

This is where Bell’s folksy, novelist, writing style serves as a major asset and strength. Bell is fun to read. He provides common sense illustrations. He is not encumbered with “scholar speak.” For the material covered in ENTW can be dry and dull, but Bell’s popular writing style really makes the materials appealing and memorable. Is that not the mark of a good teacher?

Clearly, “the most outstanding feature,” as Köstenberger states,[4] is the robust bibliographies at the end of each chapter which allow the emerging NT world student ample “next step” resources and direction for further study. Even though now 20 years old, the bibliographies are still helpful because many of the articles cited are still primary resources that must be consulted today anyways. I had thought about placing the “dated” bibliographies only in the weaknesses column, but they are still valuable.

Second, the weaknesses. I still have to list that while bibliographies in ENTW are excellent, there has been 20 years of research since 1998. This research may push an understanding of a Greco-Roman or Jewish phenomenon in different, more accurate directions. So, in light of newer contributions to understanding the New Testament World, Bell’s work is dated by comparison.[5] An updated revision would certainly be welcomed.

Bell’s knowledge of the Greco-Roman world is certainly evident but it comes at a cost. Bell is disproportionate with his treatment of the Greco-Roman world compared to his treatment of the Jewish world, demonstrated by seven chapters to one chapter on the Jewish milieu.[6] ENTW would certainly be a much larger and different book if Bell provided equal space.

Finally, there is a limitation built-in to ENTW. The volume is an introductory volume for a readership at the very beginning of New Testament and background study. For this reason, many of his discussions need refinement.[7] Other topics Bell brings up are irrelevant or vaguely touch on New Testament background research, such as his inclusion of the Shroud of Turin.[8] It would seem this speaks to his intended audience, but this does suggest the volumes limits.

Recommendations

I loved reading ENTW, but by the above tally, there are several strengths and weakness to consider. While I have profited from the book, I would agree that it should not bear the sole burden as the main textbook without supplement. As E. P. Sanders says, “Ancient history is difficult. It requires above all common sense and a good feel for sources.”[9] Still, Bell’s achievement is a resource that is easy to read, well researched, and it serves its purpose well to be a “point of entry” (daSilva). For being nearly twenty years old, the book has stood well. It has accomplished its task.

In this vein, then, I would recommend ENTW to the average church goer and those new to reading the New Testament illuminated by understanding the world its documents emerged from. It would certainly provide illustrative help for teachers and preachers of the New Testament documents. And perhaps, in this segment of New Testament students, Bell’s work will still have much life and longevity.

If, however, we are thinking in terms of college reading then, if there is no revision in sight to update the discussions or to reassess its attention to the Jewish world, then either make ENTW supplemental reading not the core (because it reads so easily), or replace it with a more complete and scholarly work like Everett Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003). Or, a blend of the two.

References

  1. Metzger’s “Foreword” begins like this, “Previous generations of students were instructed and entranced by T. R. Glover’s classic book, The World of the New Testament […] That book, now longer in print, will no be replaced for other generations of readers by the present volume written by Dr. Albert A. Bell, Jr.” (ix). That is a pretty intense opening line, and I experienced it like the opening word-crawl from Star Wars.
  2. Bell, Exploring, xii.
  3. Andreas J. Köstenberger, “Exploring the New Testament World. Albert A. Bell, Jr. Nashville; Nelson, 1998, xiv + 322 pp., $14.99,” JETS 42.4 (Dec 1999): 754.
  4. Köstenberger, “Exploring,” 754.
  5. Newer resources like Joel B. Green and Lee Martin McDonald, eds., The World of the New Testament: Social, Cultural, and Historical Contexts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013) would certainly have “fresher” insights.
  6. Köstenberger, “This may reflect more the author’s area of expertise than a conscious presupposition concerning the preeminence of a Greco-Roman over against a Jewish background for the NT. Nevertheless, it would have been helpful to acknowledge this focus at some point in the volume as well as in the title of the book” (754).
  7. Köstenberger points out a footnote comment, regarding the largely controverted discussion regarding the authorship of Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus (754). Bell seems to keep open the option for pseudonymity (Exploring, 150, n. 7), without qualification.
  8. Bell, Exploring, 13.
  9. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 55.

Advertisements