One challenge confronting every reader of the Bible is the encounter with a foreign culture. Most American households own several Bibles and since it is so much a part of the fabric of society, it is easy to forget that the Bible was not written in the 20th century. All readers of the Bible, from the lay person to the seminary student to the scholar will read passages that at times do not make sense in our modern setting. While not everyone may like or want to learn ancient history, we all must engage it at some level if we are going to read the Bible. The problem, though, is where to find a resource that not only provides the needed information, but does so in an accessible format. Moyer Hubbard’s Christianity in the Greco-Roman World: A Narrative Introduction (Hendrickson, 2010) fits the bill.
There are already a number of good resources available to those who want to learn more about the first-century setting of Christianity. What sets Hubbard’s book apart from all others, however, is the fictional narrative that he weaves between the pages to help draw the reader into the Greco-Roman world. Rather than just present a grocery list of things that students of the New Testament should know, Hubbard brings that world to life through a fictional account of a household located in Chenchreae, a town six miles outside of Corinth. As readers enter into the life of the household they experience the setting of ancient Corinth. We learn what it was like to live as a slave in the household of an upwardly mobile Roman. We gain some familiarity with the various religions and philosophies vying for one’s attention. And we catch a glimpse of the challenge of being a Christian sect in such an environment.
The book is divided into four chapters each of which covers a set of topics important for any interpreter of the New Testament: (1) Religion and Superstition, (2) Education, Philosophy, and oratory, (3) City and Society, and (4) Household and Family. Each chapter begins with a fictional narrative that introduces the reader to the first-century setting whether it is a slave girl travelling to Corinth, a pair of debating philosophers, a group of Romans politicking in the bathhouse, or some women making their way to a local meeting of the church. After the narrative section readers are presented with a competent explanation of the chapter’s topic. Once the information has been covered, Hubbard reflects on the letters and actions of Paul in that context. Each chapter concludes with lists of primary and secondary sources that will help the reader to investigate further.
Hubbard is to be commended for this creative approach to teaching culture and history. My own experience confirms that story can be a powerful medium for drawing students into the world of the Bible. In the past I have required my students to read the fictional works by Theissen and Longenecker as way to experience the world of Jesus and Paul. Hubbard’s contribution will be even more helpful because it brings both story and curriculum together. I anticipate this volume will be on many textbook lists. But it will also be helpful for the interested layperson. Hubbard’s style makes this an accessible volume for many interested in the Greco-Roman world.If I have any suggestions for the volume it is that it needs more fiction. I realize that this was not Hubbard’s purpose. But I found myself wanting to know more about the characters he created. What happens to them? Perhaps it is not a complaint but more of a request. I hope Hubbard will one day write a fiction novel that continues to teach us about life in the first-century.