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Monday, April 29, 2013

"Seven Events that Shaped the New Testament World" (Warren Carter)

TITLE: Seven Events That Shaped the New Testament World
AUTHOR: Warren Carter
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013, (192 pages).

How do we read the New Testament? Many scholars will agree that it has to be studied in context, both the context of the Bible texts, as well as the surrounding contexts when the Bible was first written. This book focuses on the latter, the events that influenced the shaping of the New Testament texts, as well as the New Testament world.

The seven events (* indicate the best estimate) chosen are:
  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)
My simple summary of the whole book is in terms of three periods: Before Christ; During Christ; After Christ. The first part prepares readers with the contexts surrounding the introduction of the person of Christ. The second part sheds more light into the culture and the circumstances that led to the death of Christ. The third part shows the culmination of the Bible that we have today. All of them necessarily deal with the person of Christ. After all, without Christ, there is no New Testament! The key point that Carter wants to make is that as the ancient world is multicultural, so was Jesus' time, and our modern time. From Greek and Hellenistic cultures, we observe how the New Testament gets transmitted through Greek influence, Jewish traditions, Imperial power, the Roman order, and many more. It explains how the early Christians are considered a minority movement, and suffer much persecution, marginalization, and how powerlessness shapes their identity, their group dynamics, and their way of life. The first event paints the influence of Hellenistic culture that comes with the death of Alexander, one of the greatest emperors on earth.

The first event is essentially about Alexander the Great, whose massive name has been associated with military conquests and the growth of the Macedonian Empire. Carter asserts that Alexander himself is a complicated man, with many concerns not just military might. He tries to create a new economic order. He struggles with trying to get the infrastructure and organizes huge support resources to maintain his mighty military arm. Cultural matters, alliances, people development, cross-cultural relationships, all play a part  in the spread of his influence, through language, city building, philosophical traditions, diverse ethnicities, and religious experiences. What makes him "great" is he manages to get most of this done before he was 33! Not so great was his inability to provide a heir, the implosion of his empire after his death. With Alexander comes the belief that one can only gain, when one gets superiority over all others. This runs counter to the life of Jesus, that instead of seeking power at all costs, Jesus gives up power at his own cost.

The second event looks at the circumstances leading to the Septuagint also known as the LXX. Just the name Septuagint and the LXX represent the enmeshment of four cultures; with the Hebrew Scriptures get translated into Greek, with a Latin name and Roman numerals. We read about the origins that go right to the beginning of Egyptian King Ptolemy II's reign from 285 BCE to 247 BCE, and the imperial order that all the books in the imperial library be translated into Greek. That includes the Hebrew Scriptures. It shows how both Jews and Gentiles came together for a common cause. It marks the beginning of how the Jewish people assert their identity and the preservation of the biblical texts. This helps the Jesus movement through cultural adaptation that keeps the Hebrew Scriptures accessible for the masses at that time. It also presents an opportunity to translate the ancient Hebrew Scriptures through "Jesus-glasses." In case readers are curious about how one can read with Jesus-glasses when Jesus has not even appeared, note that the 250 BCE here is used as a process date rather than an absolute date. In other words, the translation has not been fully completed before the time of Christ, but many years after the Resurrection event.

The third event is about the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple in 164 BCE, where Carter highlights the the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes tries to control the Jewish people, by focusing his control on the temple. Rather than religious persecution, the key point is to remember that the conquest of the temple is essentially a quest for power and domination. The way the Jews defended their temple is a way in which they are defending their very sense of identity. Understanding this point will help Gentiles understand the centrality of the temple, instead of branding them mere religious expressions. In other words, the temple is not merely synonymous with Judaism. It represents the identity, the culture, the way of life, and essentially anything that is fundamentally Jewish.

The fourth event begins smack in the middle of the end of the the superpower of the 1st Century, the Roman Empire. The Jews continue to be struggling under the authority of various superpowers. What they lack for military might, they compensate for the longevity and preservation of the Holy texts, as well as renewed hope and longing for the Messiah. A few takes the path of violence and unrest which unfortunately brings about greater persecution. Interestingly, despite the diversity of perspectives among Jews, we read of how the New Testament describe the Roman power negatively in the gospel of Matthew as well as some positive thoughts through the epistle to the Romans. The significance of this event is the fact that multiple powers are not able to silence the gospel message.

The fifth event is perhaps the most significant of all the seven events: The coming, the crucifixion, and the resurrection of Jesus. It shows how Jesus prefers not to challenge the Roman political might nor advocates violence. It also tells how significant the challenges are for Jesus. Carter then brings together the many different interpretations of Jesus' crucifixion and its significance. For instance, the use of crucifixion is normally reserved for violent rebels, treason, terrorists, and criminals. Yet, the Romans use it to kill Jesus. It is also used for people who resist Roman rule, yet Jesus has been recorded to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what is God's. Why then was Jesus crucified? Perhaps, that can be attributed to Jesus' non-denial of the title, "king of the Jews," when in fact only Rome can grant that title. Is that not a defiance of Roman authority? Not only do they demonstrate the reality of Christ, it shows how one event can impact the Middle East then, and the world now.

The sixth event covers the writing of the New Testament texts after the death of Jesus. Carter concentrates on Paul's letters, writings by people after Paul, as well as the gospels. Essentially, when we understand the history, the circumstances, and the lives of the writers, we get to appreciate the New Testament writings better. It reveals Paul's theological perspectives. It gives insights on how these writings focus readers' attention on Christ. This is significant because it shows how Christianity continues to thrive via multiple witnesses, sharing the same message, even though they come from different backgrounds.

Finally, the seventh event touches on the canonization of the Bible. Spanning 350 years and ratified by different church councils. Readers are reminded that the Bible is not exactly canonized by the Church within the recent few years. It has been deliberated over the centuries, verified over multiple councils, and formed only after much consolidation and extensive sources of authority. Carter highlights three key points in the formulation of the canon. First, the stages are only realized at the end. In the beginning, no one knows that there is such thing as a canon. Second, there are still parts of the canonization process that remains elusive for modern understanding, pointing to the presence of something or someone beyond ourselves. Third, the Scriptures are canonized with Jesus in mind. From the writing, to the using, to the collecting, to selecting, and the ratifying, Carter adds to these five stages, several important criteria that forms checks and balances over the canon and the canonization process. This adds significance because people in general needs to be assured of the accuracy, the reliability, and the sanctity of the Holy Scriptures.

My Thoughts

Whenever anyone talks about events that shaped any particular world, there are at least three questions that one instinctively asks. What events are they? Why are they chosen? What kind of world are they referring to?  This book is basically about highlighting the multi-era, multicultural, multifaceted, multiperspectival environments from which the New Testament, even the whole Bible comes into being. There are many parts that I agree wholeheartedly with Carter. Things like the process of formulation of the Bible that is over a long period of time, traversing many different cultures, survives various trials, endures difficult challenges, and other particular circumstances that often threaten but fail to halt the advancement of the gospel message. I am convinced about the fact that the New Testament arises out of a multicultural environment, and yet retains a staunchly Jewish flavour. I am also intrigued by the way Carter recognizes the tussle between Jesus-followers and the Roman authorities. Why is a small group of ragtag disciples, lowly educated, marginalized, and despised, still able to carry about a gospel message without the similar might of the Roman military, or the economic resources of the Gentile kingdoms? Despite the complexity of multiple voices in a multifaceted environments, through multiple contexts, it is amazing that the message remains so simple. Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour of the whole world. It is not simply a religious text but texts that are socially relevant. The part that I am a little more ambivalent is the part about reading with Jesus glasses. While it is true that the New Testament is formed through the eyes of Jesus followers, what I am not sure is the extent to which this has happened. Is the entire New Testament written with "Jesus-glasses" at the time of writing? Or is the reading of the New Testament with "Jesus-glasses" more valid for modern Bible readers? Are the writers of the New Testament really that focused on Christ when they write the New Testament? While the overall gist is agreeable, that New Testament is Christ-focused, what is quite arguable is to what extent is the focus. 

Carter ends with a call for "reading in community" with reference to the reading of the New Testament, even the Bible itself. Maybe, that can also be applied to the reading of this book. One will certainly benefit more in engaging discussions about the seven events, why they are chosen, and maybe, other possible events in history that Carter has not highlighted. I will put this book in the same category of Mark Noll's classic, "Turning Points." If you are a history major, do not miss out this book.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Baker Academic and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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