I received Warren Carter’s new book Seven Events that Shaped the New Testament World for review from Baker Academic under the impression that this book was about events that shaped the world behind the New Testament, i.e. the cultural matrix of the narrative we find in the New Testament. This is true, in part, but it may have been titled Seven Things that Shaped the New Testament Canon or Seven Things That Shaped Early Christianity (my preferred title) because the seven “events” are not all events and the thing being shaped may be early Christianity, not the world of early Christianity or the canon of the New Testament. That said, the book remains a fine, short introduction to seven things that did influence the emergence of Christianity.
Message of the Book
Carter provides readers with “…an orientation to some important aspects of the early Jesus movement and the New Testament.” (KL*, 60) He writes, “I take each event as a focal point for larger cultural dynamics and sociohistorical realities that were in some way significant for followers of Jesus and the New Testament.” (KL, 65) This book explores the cultural forces that shaped Christianity. Some things made Christians resistant. Some things were accommodated. Carter notes,
“…followers of Jesus followed one who had been crucified by Rome and its allies. But there was also plenty of cultural imitation and accommodation. Christians drew resources such as language and ideas and social structures from each of these cultural streams. They wrote in Greek. They read Jewish Scriptures. They followed Jesus as members of his kingdom or empire, which they saw as eventually ruling over everything. They accommodated, they contested, they competed, they survived.” (KL, 119)
This book unpacks the forces that shaped the movement.
Summary of the Contents
After the Introduction the book is divided into seven chapters, each introducing those “events” or things that shaped early Christianity. Chapter 1: The Death of Alexander the Great revisits the man Alexander and his conquest. Alexander created an empire that Hellenized most of the known world at that time. This brought Greek culture, customs, and most importantly language to groups of people who were otherwise separate. The empire after Alexander’s death was a vacuum for leadership and Judea was caught in the midst of it. This would come to influence Judaism, later Christianity, and even how Rome would handle the territory when it emerged as the next empire.
Chapter 2: The Process of Translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek discusses the evolution of the Septuagint (LXX). The LXX was produced because the world was Hellenized. Jewish holy writings in the Greek language would allow early Christianity to communicate Israel’s narrative to the pagan world.
Chapter 3: The Rededication of the Jerusalem Temple unpacks the uprising against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the rise of Judas Maccabeus and his family, and how this brief time of Jewish independence would shape the people before Rome’s invasion. This may have been my favorite chapter. Carter juxtaposes the messages of 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, and the Book of Daniel, asking how they present warfare, martyrdom, and divine sovereignty over the nations. This chapter does a very good job at presenting the diverse responses to the pagans found among the Jewish people.
Chapter 4: The Roman Occupation of Judea is similar to the first chapter: a pagan force overtakes Judea and this will shape the world into which Jesus was born and the world in which the early Jesus movement would emerge. Carter makes a list of winner and losers, Rome being the biggest winners, of course! Rome’s occupations drove the Jewish people to dream of independence again. This prepared the way for various forms of messianism. The chapter ends with an interesting survey of how various NT documents presented the role of Rome in the world (e.g., Romans, 2 Peter, Revelation).
Chapter 5: The Crucifixion of Jesus is a chapter that discusses crucifixion in general, who was crucified, what would lead to crucifixion, and why Jesus was crucified. This may be the most important question a historical Jesus scholar must answer: What did Jesus do to die a death like crucifixion? If this question is not answered sufficiently then a historical reconstruction of Jesus must be suspect. Jesus’ political aims and message receive attention in this chapter in their historical context as does how early Christians interpreted Jesus’ death.
Chapter 6: The Writing of the New Testament Texts is not an “event,” but a series of tiny events. The chapter begins with the Pauline corpus. Carter divides the corpus into Pauline, Deutero-Pauline, and Trito-Pauline epistles discussing his reasons for accepting and denying Pauline authorship. The content of these letters is surveyed as are the Catholic Epistles and the Gospels.
Chapter 7: The Process of “Closing” the New Testament is not an event either. Rather, it is an evolution, a process. Carter examines the canon was in flux until the local Council of Carthage in 375 and even after the council. He outlines the evolution of the canon in several stages including writing, use (in corporate worship), collections (such as the fourfold Gospel or the Pauline corpus), early lists and selections, the approach to ratification, and the criteria used. Some readers may be surprised to find that the New Testament was instable for most of the first few centuries. Some books that made the canon were ignored for a long time. Some books that did not make the canon were widely embraced at points in history.
This book is a helpful introduction to the events that shaped the early Jesus movement. Some chapters deal with large, overarching cultural shifts like the rise of empires. Others deal with slow, evolutionary processes such as canonization. Of course, a book like this is a risky endeavor because there will be events ignored that others find more important. Also, when you name seven chapters you have to tie together a lot of material to that event (so the chapter on Jesus’ crucifixion covers a dozen adjacent topics). Carter does a fine job of putting together an easy to read book. Who should read it? I think the best audience may be someone who wants to delve into the history of early Judaism and Christianity, but who doesn’t know where to begin, nor who feels ready to engage a thick, wordy introductory textbook. This book fills the gap between having very little knowledge of these topics and having introductory level knowledge of these topics. If you don’t know where to begin then I recommend this book. It will help you!
KL = Kindle Location