In the preface and introduction to this book Simmons stresses the importance of the general context of the New Testament. He suggests that when groups such as the Pharisees and Sadducees are mentioned, the authors assume their readers are aware of a number of things about these groups. This book is intended to fill in the information that modern readers do not share with the original addressees.
After a brief introduction on the importance of context, Simmons gives a historical sketch from the Old Testament Babylonian period through the New Testament Roman period. The value of this section is enhanced because it is developed within the framework of the people of God living in a foreign-dominated society. This includes a discussion of the important struggle of the Jews against aspects of Hellenistic culture that pressured their existence as a unique people.
Simmons then describes many groups and individuals, including the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, zealots, Samaritans, Herodians, Roman rulers, John the Baptist and his disciples, and centurions. Less-known groups are also discussed: tax collectors, “sinners,” “people of the land,” Hebrews, and Hellenists (the later two mentioned in passages such as Acts 6). Also chapters are devoted to charlatans; Greek philosophers; the Roman relationships of patrons, clients, and trade guilds; and the difficult subject of slavery. Simmons often discusses the history, practices, and beliefs of these groups.
This book has much more detail than most dictionary articles and commentaries. It is well researched and includes helpful annotated bibliographies after each chapter. The descriptions of the Pharisees and Sadducees include discussions of possible origins that bring the reader up to date on current debates. When coming to a conclusion, Simmons is only as certain as the data allow, and he presents his conclusions accordingly. For example after discussing whether “Hellenists” in Acts 6 were Jews who spoke Greek or were Gentiles, Simmons concludes the former (pp. 177–78).
The book ends with a helpful annotated bibliography of primary documents as well as a general bibliography, a list of illustrations, and three indexes (subject, important persons, and Scripture and ancient sources).
Any volume of this type must choose its material carefully. Nevertheless a few omissions and observations may be mentioned. Unfortunately the book does not include a discussion of Bernice, the daughter of Herod Agrippa I in Acts (e.g., Acts 25:23), especially in light of her relationship with the future emperor Titus (briefly mentioned on pp. 222 and 253) and her scandalous life (p. 222). Also it is puzzling that so much space is devoted to the three emperors who together ruled only a little more than a year (Galba, Otho, Vitellius, A.D. 68–69; pp. 238–47), whereas the discussions of the five previous and much more important emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero) who ruled almost one hundred years (31 B.C. to A.D. 68) get only a little more space (pp. 227–37). Also the chart of “emperors” (p. 229) includes two leaders who were not emperors, Julius Caesar (whose inclusion is understandable) and Marc Antony.
Although this is not a volume on religion, a section on emperor worship could have been added. It is questionable whether even a brief discussion of first-century emperors can be complete without mentioning this relatively new phenomenon. On the whole, Simmons is better with the Jewish material than the Greco-Roman. The latter lacks some of the depth and critical interaction that is evident with the Jewish material. In addition to these observations the chapters on patron-client relations and assemblies (chap. 17) and slavery (chap. 19) may seem to be an odd fit. Yet these roles were important to the fabric of first-century Roman life. However, to explore these issues fully, one needs to go beyond the scope of this work and into fields such as anthropology.
These are minor criticisms and do not detract from the value of this book. It can be read cover to cover or serve as a reference volume. It is packed with illustrations and maps that help illuminate the context and contribute to the interesting nature of the subject matter. Its purpose must be kept in mind. It describes groups and individuals that are mentioned or contribute in some way to understanding the New Testament. Therefore it offers little information on religion, culture, and similar topics as such. Students of the New Testament will profit from this book.
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