Book Review: Peoples of the New Testament World: An Illustrated Guide

One of the challenges of New Testament study at any level is simply putting ourselves–and the events and people depicted therein–into the world in which they actually happened and lived.  The Greco-Roman and Jewish world at the turn of the first millennium has many features that are on their face unfamiliar to us, yet are crucial to understand the life and ministry of Our Lord and the early days of the church.  Many of these features, if properly explained, can be more readily understood, clearing up mysteries and enriching our understanding of the Scriptures.

A book that can be very useful in that explanation is Peoples of the New Testament World: An Illustrated Guide.  Written by Dr. William A. Simmons, Associate Professor of New Testament at Lee University, it uses the device of “people groups” to break down and explain the various groups and institutions that Jesus and the early church encountered in the New Testament era.  The whole concept of “people groups” may conjure visions of political correctness run amok, but this book is anything but politically correct.  Sticking with the Biblical text while employing a broad range of scholarship, Simmons begins with a brief introduction which is more of an overture than anything else, repeating themes that he returns to in the core of the narrative.

Simmons’ core contention is that the Judaism’s leitmotif from the Babylonian Exile onward to the destruction of Herod’s Temple was dealing with constant threat of national extinction, either through genocide or assimilation.  (For some reason the author uses the term “holocaust” for just about every disaster the Jews encounter, even when genocide isn’t the whole discussion.)  In doing so Simmons extensively explores the intertestamental period, a portion of time that many Evangelicals look upon with the same inchoate dread as Muslims do al-jahiliya.  That, in turn, is due to the fact that those books referred to by Protestants as “apocryphal” and Catholics as “deuterocanonical” (specifically 1 and 2 Maccabees, but also Sirach and Wisdom) are key references for this period, which is the immediate prologue of the New Testament era.  But Simmons is unafraid of using and discussing these sources, along with other classical sources, chief among which is Josephus.

The Jews’ response to their existential threat varied from religious resistance and exclusivity (the Pharisees and Essenes) to political accommodation (the Sadducees and Herodians) to political revolt (the Zealots).  Some of these make up the people groups he reviews, which are as follows:

  • The Pharisees
  • The Sadducees
  • The Scribes, an excellent section which shows how literacy empowered this group in a world where it was the exception
  • The Zealots
  • The Tax Collectors, with an overview of the Roman system of tax farming and how the Jews were paying taxes both to the Romans (and their clients) and the Temple
  • The Sinners
  • The “People of the Land” who clashed with the Jewish establishment from Ezra’s return from exile onwards.  This whole subject engenders a discussion of Ezra’s exclusivistic standards, why they were brought into being and how they conflicted with other Jewish and semi-Jewish groups.
  • The Samaritans
  • John the Baptist and his disciples, which is where Simmons brings in the Essenes and Qumran.
  • The Hebrews and the Hellenists.  In his coverage of these two groups, he deals with one of the knottiest problems in studying the Acts of the Apostles: the whole rationale behind the appointment of Stephen and the other deacons, and the nature of these two groups both within Judaism and the Jerusalem church.  Simmons’ idea is that the Hellenists, being Jewish by religion but largely Greek in culture, were the vanguard of the church’s outreach to the Gentile world, and also the chief sufferers of the persecution unleashed by the Sanhedrin.
  • Charlatans, Exorcists and Magicians
  • The Herodians
  • The Roman Imperial Rulers, which includes a description of every emperor from Augustus to Domitian, including the most detailed description I have seen of the lives of the three emperors of Tacitus’ “one and long year” (69 A.D.) namely Galba, Otho and Vitellius
  • The Centurions
  • Patrons, Clients and Trade Guilds.  Patronage drove the whole Roman system and made it work for a millennium, but this is a subject that gets almost no coverage in Christian literature.  Simmons discusses patronage in general, how it affected the church from the outside, and how the patronage mentality, engrained in the people, entered the church.
  • The Greek Philosophers.  Another subject that Evangelicals tend to shy away from, Simmons concentrates on two schools: the Epicureans and the Stoics.
  • Slaves and Freed Persons, where he discusses the whole institution in its Roman (not American) context and why the church probably did not openly advocate its abolition at the beginning

Simmons’ narrative is generally clear.  He tries to avoid the academic jargon that seminary scholars are famous for, but many of his topics are complex.  Lighting the way are his illustrations, which are numerous and attractive.  In particular his use of the artwork of J.-J. Tissot is proof that, as long as copyright laws are what they are, Christian authors will continue to profit from their nineteenth century predecessors, although there’s no question that Tissot’s work (he spent extensive time in the Holy Land) does add to the book.

The editing needs some touching up in spots.  If there’s one aspect of the content that in my opinion could use some enhancement, it’s his use of his sources and context after the New Testament era, which needs to be brought up to par with his use of intertestamental information.  For example, his depiction of the brutality of the Julio-Claudian emperors should be set against, say, the Severans and their third century successors, whose damage to the Empire was far more extensive and ultimately proved to be fatal in the West.  Some discussion of the effects of the Roman world on the development of Christian theology wouldn’t hurt either.  For example, he discusses the “graces” that came from patrons, but that reality in turn influenced Augustine’s concept of justification, so important for Reformed theology.  In the reverse, he mentions the proper client response of being eucharistos (grateful) without really dealing with the relationship between that and the Lord’s Supper.

But perhaps much of this is beyond the scope of the book, which is broad enough.  It’s hard to think of a book where one can get “up to speed” more readily on the world of Jesus and the Apostles than Peoples of the New Testament World: An Illustrated Guide, and as such it is an essential reference for those who wish to really know what it was like to walk and live in the world of Jesus and his Apostles.

The book’s author furnished the review copy.

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