Monday, January 27, 2014

"Seven Events That Shaped the New Testament World" by Warren Carter: A Review

For many young believers and new readers of Scripture, it is tempting to approach Scripture apart from its cultural context. The view that the sixty-six books of the Bible descended from above intact is a wonderful thought but does a disservice to the text, to the gospel it reveals, and to the God who revealed it. This was a constant reminder to me while reading Warren Carter's book Seven Events That Shaped the New Testament World.

The book itself is straightforward. Outside of the book's introduction and conclusion, it consists of seven chapters each dedicated to one of the seven major events that shaped the world of the New Testament and the world of the first generations of Jesus followers. The seven events are as follows:
1. The death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE)
2. The process of translating Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (ca. 250 BCE)
3. The rededication of the Jerusalem Temple (164 BCE)
4. The Roman occupation of Judea (63 BCE)
5. The crucifixion of Jesus (ca. 30 CE)
6. The writing of the New Testament texts (ca. 50 - ca. 130 CE)
7. The process of "closing" the New Testament canon (397 CE)
Such books invite immediate criticism from those who, often in self-righteous arrogance, want to argue that the author has missed something. But as I first surveyed the book and now having read it, I am not sure I would exchange any of these seven events for another. This is, we could say, what most scholars and students of Scripture would affirm.

Each chapter helpfully introduces the event or person in language clearly meant for students, not scholars, of Scripture. In his chapter on Alexander the Great, for example, the author survey's his life, conquest, death, and its aftereffect. The reader concludes with the author that though the Bible never mentions his name, Alexander influence is all over the New Testament.

With Alexander the Great came the spread of Hellenism (event 1) which lead to the translation of the Septuagint (event 2). It also meant Greek occupation of Israel which culminated in the Maccabean revolt (event 3). After the Greeks came the Romans (event 4) who ruled during the time of Jesus. The Romans, of course, crucified Jesus (event 5) which launched Christianity. As Christianity spread, the apostles wrote books which eventually led to the formation of the New Testament canon (events 6 and 7). The Bible, then, is not just an isolated book separate from the world, but is shaped by it.

Regarding the above, the author and I are in complete agreement. I read this book hoping to gain more insight into the New Testament world and how it was shaped. In that regard, the author succeeded. His thesis is clear and he delivers on it. However, regarding a number of specifics regarding Scripture the author and I are in stark disagreement. Consider the following:
  • The author repeatedly asserts that Paul wrote only 7 of the 13 letters attributed to him. (13)
  • On Acts: Acts is not giving us an eyewitness account but is offering an important interpretation of Paul. (13, see also 105, 110, 117) [1] He later adds, Paul gets a makeover in Acts. (121)
  • A weak definition of Justification. He writes, At heart, the word is about relationship and being faithful to one's relational commitments. (40)
  • Identity Markers. He writes, Various groups have taken offense at these statements. Numerous Christian groups would dispute these markers, defining Christian identity quite differently. Plenty of GLBT folks identify themselves as Christian. Paul declares that because of God's faithful purposes, "all Israel will be saved," and it is not at all obvious that in context he limits this to those who believe in Christ (Rom. 11:26). Nor is it clear that God is as committed to assigning people to hell . . . Paul describes God's work in this way: ' God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that [God] may be merciful to all" (Rom. 11:32). If "all" actually means "all," declaring who is going to hell may not be on track. (44)
  • Idols. He writes, Is 1 Peter requiring believers to participate in such activity involving idols? That sounds strange, but it may be 1 Peter's strategy. Certainly such an expectation would be consistent with the rest of 1 Peter's insistence that Christians earn a good name with socially cooperative behavior. And 1 Peter exhorts its readers to honor Christ "in your hearts" (3:15), allowing for socially compliant, public actions while maintaining inner integrity. And while 1 Peter condemns excessive behavior involving idols (4:3), it does not condemn idols themselves. (80) [2]
  • Bart Ehrman is commonly referenced in footnotes.
  • The meaning of the cross. He writes, When Jesus was crucified, he did not leave his followers a manual explaining his execution's significance. (100) 
  • Denies Petrine authorship of both 1 Peter (122) and 2 Peter (108, 122) suggesting they were both written after his death.
  • On the Gospels. He writes, [The Gospels] are not eye witness accounts of Jesus's ministry, written by Jesus's disciples at the end of a hard day's ministry. They do not pretend to offer disinterested and balanced reporting of "just the facts." (126) Richard Bauckman has disproved this thesis.
  • Dating the New Testament books. 
    • The author gives a range of 50-130. I disagree with this late date.
    • We do not know precisely when most of these documents that end up forming the New Testament were written. (107)
    • Acts given a date of 90-120s (117, 120).
This is a real weakness of the book. Not because I disagree with the above, but because often it seemed as if the author was chasing rabbits or at least these assertions did not serve the thesis of the book. His broader argument that the New Testament reflects the multicultured world it was written in is not better served by repeatedly denying Pauline authorship of 1 Timothy or asserting that the Paul of the epistles is strangely different from the Paul of Acts. Likewise, raising the issue of homosexuality is unnecessary and distracts the authors main point.

In the end, the book's main goal and thesis is strong and well done. Barring the above weaknesses on issues I strongly, yet respectfully, disagree with the author, he succeeds in making his case. I am not one to not recommend the book because I disagree with some of its content. Its main argument is strong and on that basis I would recommend it. Pastors and students of Scripture would benefit from gaining the insight available in these pages in the events that shaped the world we read in the New Testament.


[1] Fuller quote: Moreover, there are significant differences between the two sources in the presentation of Paul. In Acts, Paul does not write letters. Nor does he take a collection from the gentile churches for the church in Jerusalem, a very important matter for Paul. His gospel anticipating the return of Jesus to complete God's work fades. His concern with the manifestations of the gifts of the Spirit - a charismatic church structure - is replaced by a ore institutional structure. In Acts, Paul struggles over the law and conflicts with churches recede. There are conflicts between the Acts 15 account of the Jerusalem meeting and that of Galatians 2:1-10. It looks like the theological and pastoral agenda of the author of Acts shapes the presentation of Paul as the (almost) solehero of the second part of Acts.

There surely are significant similarities. yet we need to recognize that Acts is not giving us an eyewitness account but is offering an important interpretation of Paul. (13)

[2] Full quote: Honoring the emperor can involve a number of behaviors such as paying taxes, praying for the emperor, and making offering to an image of the emperor. Often offerings or sacrifices were offered by the public on significant civic occasions, as well as by various groups such as trade associations.

Is 1 Peter requiring believers to participate in such activity involving idols? That sounds strange, but it may be 1 Peter's strategy. Certainly such an expectation would be consistent with the rest of 1 Peter's insistence that Christians earn a good name with socially cooperative behavior. And 1 Peter exhorts its readers to honor Christ "in your hearts" (3:15), allowing for socially compliant, public actions while maintaining inner integrity. And while 1 Peter condemns excessive behavior involving idols (4:3), it does not condemn idols themselves. (80)









For more:
Dealing with the Discrepancies of Jesus' Genealogies
Rethinking the Identity of the Beloved Disciple
"How the Bible was Build" by Charles M. Smith & James W. Bennett: A Review
"God's Word in Human Words":  A Detailed Critique - Part 1
"God's Word in Human Words":  A Detailed Critique - Part 2
"God's Word in Human Words":  A Detailed Critique - Part 3
"God's Word in Human Words":  A Detailed Critique - Part 4     
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