How do you get students to learn about the Greco-Roman background of the New Testament? You could assign Helmut Koester’s History, Culture, and Religion in the Hellenistic Age, or perhaps Everett Ferguson’s popular Backgrounds of Early Christianity; but reading these kinds of textbooks can be tedious and boring. A fresh alternative, though not as detailed or exhaustive, can be found in Moyer Hubbard’s Christianity in the Greco-Roman World: A Narrative Introduction (Hendrickson). There are many fine qualities that are immediately recognizable in this book.
1) Format – this book has four major sections: Religion and Superstition; Education, Philosophy, and Oratory; City and Society; and Household and Family. Within each section there are the following features: the section begins with a fictional narrative introducing the subject matter in 4-5 pages. Though brief, it is enough to give you a taste of what life was like and how the culture and beliefs shaped their world. Then, basic information on the topic is presented. Next, Hubbard relates this background/contextual material to the early Christian movement and shows how such knowledge illuminates the context. Finally, there are suggestions for further reading.
2) Strong points – Hubbard’s short narratives are remarkably entertaining and informative. His writing style is attractive and he offers a nice variety of useful information without you even realizing it! It has the flavor of Bruce Longenecker’s attempt at teaching through fiction in his The Lost Letters of Pergamum. Also, there are numerous sidebars with short ancient quotes from philosophers, inscriptions, coins, worshippers, etc… Here is one from Petronius: “Indeed, the streets of Rome are so filled with divinities, that it is easier to meet a god than a man” (p. 23). Sometimes the quotes are humourous: “To the God who cures hangovers” (An inscription in Corinth). Finally, I appreciate that Hubbard offers annotations for the recommended reading. This helps guide the reader in the use of these resources.
Perhaps my only concern is the title: by using Early Christianity, I don’t think it will be crystal clear to some that this specifically applies to the NT times (and not just later). However, the same is true for Ferguson and it became popular through frequent use, so the same could happen for Hubbard.
I could see this book working well as a textbook in a course on hermeneutics or NT backgrounds. It might work for a survey course, but it would depend on the depth of the primary textbook. In any case, I warmly recommend it as light reading or for classroom use.