Carter’s Big Seven for New Testament Backgrounds (Review)

Warren Carter has written a handy little book (~150 pp) on the background and context of the New Testament called Seven Events That Shaped the New Testament World (Baker, 2013). So, what are the “big seven”?

(1) The Death of Alexander the Great (and the Hellenization of his conquered lands)

(2) The Process of Translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (and the influence of the Septuagint)

(3) The Rededication of the Jerusalem Temple (and the legacy of the Maccabean revolt)

(4) The Roman Occupation of Judea (and the challenge of faith and cultural adaptation and resistance for Jews)

(5) The Crucifixion of Jesus (and the subsequent interpretation of Jesus’ death)

(6) The Writing of the New Testament Texts (and the various genres of the texts)

(7) The Process of “Closing” the NT Canon (including the criteria and controversy)

So – what is my estimation of the book?

The Strengths

Perhaps the three best qualities of this book are that (1) Carter is an expert when it comes to the historical and social issues of the second temple period, and also life in the Roman Empire. In the early chapters of the book, I deeply appreciated  his socio-historical analysis. (2) Carter is an outstanding communicator and he sprinkles pithy statements and dashes of humor throughout which makes it easy reading. (3) It is short. What a treat to be able to get through the book in just a few hours of reading!

On the chapter on the Septuagint, here is a choice quote that shows Carter’s penetrating analysis:

For Jewish people in the cities across the ancient world where Hellenistic culture was well established, the translation [LXX] was a way of making and marking their way in the Greek world. It recognized and legitimated their hybrid existence. They lived with a foot in each of two cultural camps. The translation upheld Jewish identity and practices. But by rendering the writings in Greek, it signified the Jews’ presence in and an openness to a context of Greek culture. They did not flee it or fear it at all; yet in embracing it and being embraced by it, they did not completely capitulate to it, nor were they assimilated by it. The translations recognized and shaped a tensive existence, a hybrid life lived in two worlds simultaneously in the interaction of cultural traditions (p 34).

Brilliant!

In the next chapter, he addresses a variety of responses to persecution and pressures from anti-Jewish forces. I think his very basic taxonomy is helpful; Jews ranged across these options: alliance, flight, nonviolent defiance to death, and fighting (p. 54).

I also appreciated his take on works and grace in early Judaism.

First-century Judaism is not based on works whereby people try to earn God’s favor, as many Christians have thought. It is not ignorant of grace. It is not dead and obsessed with ritual. Rather, it is rooted in God’s gracious initiative expressed in the covenant and the giving of Torah; this requires human obedience in lived faithfulness, in which failure is inevitable but forgiveness is available (61)

Carter gives a tip of the hat here to covenantal nomism, but it is expressed so carefully and makes important corrections to problematic assumptions.

The chapter on crucifixion is also very helpful, mostly for how Carter succinctly communicates.

 Crucifixion was reserved for lower-ranked, more marginal, and provincial folks like violent criminals and , typically, rebellious slaves….In addition to punishing violent criminals and slaves, crucifixion was especially used to punish rebellious foreigners. Brigands, violent terrorists, or guerrilla fighters attacked the personnel and property of ruling powers, whether during war or in times of social unrest. Retaliation was always swift and violent: crucifixion was the fate of many. (p. 89)

This is a great wake-up call to any Christian sentimentality towards the cross. It was repulsive and degrading. It was reserved for the most despicable enemies of the state. This is a wonderful introduction to the question – what kind of perception did the Romans have of Jesus such that this was his punishment?

Weaknesses

While I found the earlier chapters very informative and engaging, as we got into the last two chapters, I found the information less striking, and also less relevant to the main subject at hand (shaping the NT world). As we leapt from 30AD to the writing of NT texts and beyond (as far as 397AD), I wondered – why not include the destruction of the temple (70AD)? After all, it appears to have been a major point in the beginnings of the “partings of the ways” (and thus the formation of a distinctively “Christian identity”) and also a hinge point for the dating of the Gospels (though where one falls, before or after, is a matter of debate).

Also, I think he pulled the “Paul didn’t write these texts (Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, PE)” trigger took quickly. My understanding of the state of the discussion in 2013 is that Colossians and 2 Thessalonians, even if they are not card-carrying members of the “authentic club,” still should hardly be lumped together with the dubious authorship of the Pastoral Epistles (so the guild has largely agreed). Also, if Carter included a discussion of the role and influence of a letter secretary, I must have missed it, yet that is a major factor on the table of this discussion. I don’t want to be painted as the nay-saying fundy here, but this seemingly casual bifurcation (letters that Paul did write, those he didn’t write) does not keep up to the same standard of up-to-date scholarship demonstrated in the earlier chapters. If you are interested in getting into this topic further, see my article on authorship and Colossians in a recent Current in Biblical Research.

One more thing

I hesitate to raise this matter because I don’t want to sound too political, but in the end I think if you are considering using this as a textbook, you ought to know: in one sidebar discussion, Carter makes a statement that sounded kind of universalistic. Now, I am not saying students shouldn’t talk or think about this, but it felt one-sided and out of place with no exegetical explanation or discussion. This could catch students off guard and give folks the wrong impression about Carter’s concerns or agenda. In a discussion of social “identity markers” (like circumcision for Jews), Carter makes an analogy regarding cultural markers in the church today, and the potential problems caused by litmus tests and divisions among Christians on matters like homosexuality. He goes on to say this:

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 it is clear that God is as committed to assigning people to hell as our politician and his allies [he mentions a hell-fire politician earlier in the sidebar]. 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)

I am just not sure where Carter is going with this, and I think he could have made his point about cultural identity markers in another way. For what its worth, I think a “you-don’t-have-to-believe-in-Jesus-to-be-accepted-by-God” approach to Romans needs more defense than appeal to Romans 11. Remember in chapter 10 (just one chapter before), Paul presupposes that being saved involves calling on the Lord (10:13). 10:9 makes it clear this “Lord” is Jesus. The calling requires believing –  believing in Jesus (10:14; cf 10:17).

Again, this was a surprising little statement in a book focused on setting the scene of the New Testament. I think it was out of place, and too brief and vague to be of any proper value in the wider purpose of the book.

We Can All Learn From Carter

Do not let these caveats turn you away from what is overall an articulate work. The best thing this book does is say — you gotta understand the events and cultural situation of Jews (and eventually Christians) in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds if you really want to make sense of the whole New Testament. While I decided not to use this as a textbook,  I have already introduced quotes from the book into my lectures. For more information, Carter has a couple of videos on the book produced by Baker.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Carter’s Big Seven for New Testament Backgrounds (Review)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s