Here are reviews of some resources that give helpful background information about the time of Jesus Christ, the apostles and the early New Testament Church.
In Stone and Story: Early Christianity in the Roman World
By Bruce W. Longenecker
Published by Baker Academic, 2020
The Bible never mentions the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, so why would anyone look to the ruins of this city to shed light on the New Testament? Yet that’s exactly what Bruce W. Longenecker does in his new book, In Stone and Story: Early Christianity in the Roman World.
Pompeii, together with nearby Herculaneum, were destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. This eruption created a time capsule of sorts, through which we can better understand the Roman world. Understanding the Roman world then helps us appreciate the background of the New Testament.
The author explains that he has provided neither a comprehensive study of these Roman cities nor a full introduction to the New Testament. Instead, his book “selectively explores some points of the interface where the world of the Vesuvian towns intersects with themes and issues evident in New Testament texts” (p. 24).
What I liked about the book
One of the first things I noticed is the book’s beauty. Photographs of colorful frescoes, stone ruins and even ancient graffiti fill the pages of the book. Only rarely is there a two-page spread without at least one such illustration.
More important, however, are the little insights into the Roman world and, ultimately, into aspects of the New Testament. These insights do not necessarily change the reader’s basic understanding of passages, but they do allow for richer and deeper perception.
For example, the author illuminates the exchange between the apostle Paul and a Roman commander regarding citizenship (Acts 22:27-28). “The two men are not just trading information casually. Instead, a Roman commander is seeking to outdo Paul with regard to citizenship status” (p. 18).
Reading this book also leads to a fuller appreciation of the difficulties first-century Christians faced in the Roman world. One such difficulty for tradesmen was “the fact that occupational associations … usually had cultic dimensions to them” (p. 178). Obtaining work without guild membership was almost impossible, but belonging to one meant participating in idolatry.
What bothered me about the book
I was a bit irritated at the author’s insistence on using terminology such as “Jesus devotees” or “Jesus followers” rather than “Christians,” and referring to the “Christian deity” rather than to the “Christian God.”
More significant, though, was Longenecker’s discussion of the religious environment in the first century, which he covered in the six chapters of Part 2. His wording is cumbersome in places. In fact, I had to reread passages to be sure I understood.
For example, at times he seemed to be saying the New Testament writers adjusted the substance of their message to reach their audience. A more careful reading made it clear that it was not the message itself, but the approach, that he believes these writers adjusted.
I would not recommend this book to anyone who has a limited knowledge of Scripture and biblical teaching, nor would I recommend it as a primary resource. However, more advanced students of the Bible will find In Stone and Story an excellent addition to their libraries.
Reviewed by Bill Palmer
Paul on Trial: The Book of Acts as a Defense of Christianity
By John W. Mauck
Published by Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001
Certainly none of the first-century New Testament authors could have imagined he was writing inspired Scripture that would eventually be a part of what is known as the Holy Bible today. Yet, like all authors, each one had specific reasons in mind for committing his words to pen and ink. Knowing the reasons the authors wrote can be a great help in understanding the meaning of their words.
In some cases, the general purposes are obvious. The Gospel writers would naturally want to preserve an accurate history of the life of Jesus Christ. The epistles generally address problems, questions and heresies in specific geographic areas. The book of Revelation tells the reader why this unique prophecy was preserved: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants—things which must shortly take place” (Revelation 1:1).
What about the book of Acts? Without the book of Acts, we would have great difficulty understanding the roles of Peter and Paul and their writings for the New Testament Church. It would be virtually impossible to understand how a church that began as completely Jewish became largely gentile in a few short years.
But should we conclude Acts is essentially a history of the first-century Church?
In his very readable work Paul on Trial: The Book of Acts as a Defense of Christianity, lawyer John W. Mauck develops the thesis that Acts, along with Luke, is a legal document, prepared to give a Roman court official the information needed prior to Paul’s appearance before Nero.
The emperor would not want to make a legal ruling in a case where he had no information or background, so one of his officials would be given the responsibility of providing that background. Luke, being highly educated and articulate, would be a logical choice to offer such a document.
After putting forward his premise and giving helpful explanations about the ancient Roman legal system, Mauck proceeds through the entire book of Acts to show how the information given and not given fits with his thesis.
Near the end of his book, the author examines 11 other theories put forward to explain the book of Acts. To his credit, he examines each of these fairly and honestly.
As with any such effort, the reader may not be fully convinced of the author’s premise, and we are often left thinking, “But what about … ?” Nonetheless, Mauck presents some fascinating insights that can be helpful for any serious student of the Bible.
Reviewed by David Johnson
More Resources on the New Testament Era
- The Archaeology of the New Testament: 75 Discoveries That Support the Reliability of the Bible, David E. Graves, 2019.
- Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, F.F. Bruce, 2000.
- New Testament History, F.F. Bruce, 1980.
- The New Testament Era: The World of the Bible From 500 B.C. to A.D. 100, Bo Reicke, 1974.
Online on LifeHopeandTruth.com:
- New Testament: Overview (see also related articles with background on each section and book in the New Testament).
- Chronology of Paul’s Journeys and Epistles.
- Church History: The Beginning.
- Church History: The Ancient Nazarenes.
- Learning From the First Christians.