Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review of Peoples of the NT World

Peoples of the New Testament World: An Illustrated Guide. By William A. Simmons. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008, 352 pp., $37.95, hardcover.

William A. Simmons, professor of New Testament at Lee University, seeks to describe the characteristics of the groups evident in the New Testament and how these groups interacted and influenced one another. Simmons begins with a series of defining moments in the survival of Jewish identity from the Babylonian period to the early Roman empire. He argues that Jewish identity during this period was constructed in opposition to the various occupying powers. The varying responses to imperialism, however, contributed to the fragmentation of Jewish identity that resulted in identity-based groups evident in the New Testament. Simmons gives full attention to the impact of empire and insightfully recognizes that political, social, and religious factions contributed to communal destabilization within the Christ-movement.

Jewish groups are the focus of chapters two through five. Simmons plausibly traces the beginnings of the Pharisees to the reforms of Ezra whilst noting that a concern for the survival of Jewish identity informed the Pharisees’ commitment to following the law. The Sadducees are presented as possibly being associated with the Zadokites and are seen as having similar approaches to cultural assimilation as a means of negotiating Jewish identity in the context of imperialism. The social and political power of the scribes is discussed by Simmons who notes that in Israel, the scribes were central to the discursive formation of Jewish identity. The Zealots are presented as a group that is understood in a binary relationship to the emerging ethos of the early Christ-movement.

Marginalized groups associated with Judea are the focus of chapters six through nine. Simmons rightly notes the association of the tax-collectors with the occupying power of Rome but he also contends that their marginalization had a moral basis associated with it (102). Simmons’ exegetical and historical insight emerges clearly in his understanding of “sinners” as an identifiable social group who were not only “ritually unclean” but “moral profligates” who had cast aside “their religious heritage” (108). This marginalized group, however, is one in which Jesus shares table fellowship. This act of social identification, argues Simmons, provides a theological framework for the social practice of the emerging Christ-movement. The social stratification evident in the Roman empire is clearly seen in the discussion of “the people of the land”, a marginalized group that existed in a constant state of liminality. The significance of ethnic identity is clear in the discussion of the Samaritans. Simmons argues that in the ministry of Jesus “ethnic and racial barriers were being transcended in the name of God” (131). Whist true salvifically, William S. Campbell has argued that ethnic identity continues to be relevant in the Christ-movement but in a reprioritized manner (Paul and the Creation of Christian Identity. [London: T&T Clark, 2008: 6-8]).

Chapters ten through twelve introduce social groups associated with the earliest Christ-movement. The followers of John the Baptist are discussed and John is understood as the key transitional figure within the existing religious climate in Judea and that of the emerging Jesus-movement (134). Simmons builds on Jacob Jervell’s idea of the mighty minority in his description of “the Hebrews” as an identifiable social group within the New Testament. The next chapter discusses “the Hellenists” as a similarly constructed social group. Simmons notes that issues related to Jewish and gentile identity emerged quite early on in the Christ-movement, as early as Acts 6. However, it may be better to see the ‘parting of the ways’ that was to occur as a result of the Temple tax, the destruction of the Temple, and the Bar Kokhba revolt. It was not a result of an ongoing ideological battle between the Christ-movement and Judaism or between “the Hellenists” and “the Hebrews” within the Christ-movement. This supposed ideological battle forms the framework of Simmons’ argument in these two chapters. W.D. Davies rightly noted, however, that “in Christ Jews remain Jews and Greeks remain Greeks. Ethnic peculiarities are honoured” (‘Paul and the People of Israel’, NTS 24 1978: 23). Thus, Simmons may be too stark with regard to this ideological battle.

The Roman context is discussed beginning with a highly informative chapter on syncretism and magic. Magic as an ordering principle is often overlooked in New Testament introductions and Simmons’ work makes a significant contribution in this regard. The next chapter describes “the Herodians” as transitional client figures between the Jewish and Roman world (204, 223). Chapter fifteen provides an uneven summary of the Roman emperors and the provincial governors. Also, a discussion of the imperial cult and ideology would have made this chapter more useful. Roman centurions are researched in the next chapter. Simmons argues that these extensions of Roman imperialism are presented in a positive light within the New Testament and that they contributed to the furtherance of the gentile mission (273).

Chapters seventeen through nineteen consider the significance of other key ordering principles within the Roman empire. First, patronage is discussed and the stratified nature of the empire is understood as the means in which the empire could be maintained. Simmons rightly notes the presence of a transformed understanding of patronage within the early Christ-movement (290). Second, the philosophical context of the New Testament is uncovered. Simmons provides helpful introductions to Epicureanism and Stoicism. Third, slavery is overviewed and he understands some of the New Testament documents to contain “the seeds of emancipation” for slaves that would emerge in later revisions of Roman law (321).

This book is highly recommended for general survey courses and those seeking to understand the cultural context of the New Testament. Simmons has produced a richly illustrated and extensively researched monograph that deserves to take its place among the existing handbooks on the New Testament. Slight editorial slippages (e.g. 36-37, 53, 182-83) should be addressed in future editions so that this helpful work will be given the attention is rightly deserves.

A slightly different version of this review originally appeared as:
Review of Williams A. Simmons, Peoples of the New Testament World: An Illustrated Guide. (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008). Criswell Theological Review, N.S. volume 7, no. 1 (Fall 2009): 108-10.

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