Category Archives: Bible Backgrounds

Jews and Greeks in the First Century A.D.

jerusalem templeJews and Greeks in the New Testamentgreek temple

Even a casual reader of the New Testament cannot help but notice the frequent use of the expression “Jew and Greek.” To cite just a few examples, Paul writes that salvation is “for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Rom. 1:16); or, “Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:22-24); or, “There is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Although we might notice this language, it is easy to read over it without understanding its significance. In a previous post, I promised to demonstrate how Bible background knowledge (history, culture, language, etc.) can help illuminate our study of the Bible (see my article, “Bible Background Knowledge: Why is it Important, How does it Help?“). In this article I will provide some historical and cultural background that will not only demonstrate the importance of the “Jew and Greek” language used by New Testament writers, but will show how revolutionary the Christian message was as it sought to reconcile Jew and Greek into one body (the church).

Identity: Jews and Greeks

greek dress
Style of dress can be a marker of ethnic identity

The most elementary definition of identity might define a Jew as someone from Judea and a Greek as someone from Greece. This definition not only oversimplifies the problem, but it ignores the fact that by the first century A.D. Jews and Greeks were scattered across the Roman empire and beyond. The Assyrian and Babylonian captivities (722 B.C. and 586 B.C., respectively), had uprooted the ancient Israelites from their homeland and scattered them among other nations. Similarly, the conquest of Alexander the Great (333-321 B.C.) not only brought the spread of Greek culture and language, it also facilitated the movement and migration of Greeks throughout his empire. This means that by the first century, Jews and Greeks were living side by side in cities throughout the Roman Empire. How does a person maintain their ethnic identity when they are separated from their homeland over the span of many years and miles? Christopher Stanley (‘Neither Jew Nor Greek’: Ethnic Conflict in Graeco-Roman Society, JSNT, 64, 1996, p. 111), identifies three important factors: 1) a belief in a shared history; 2) common culture (including language and religious beliefs); and 3) some form of physical difference (which could include bodily appearance, hairstyle, clothing, etc.).

For a Jew these 3 factors are easily identifiable. A Jew would, 1) identify with Israel’s history (the Exodus, the kingship, etc.); 2) believe in the one true God (keeping the Law by observing the Sabbath and the distinction between clean and unclean foods) and; 3) would practice circumcision. These distinctions, however, would not only apply to someone born of Israelite blood, but also to any foreigners who became proselytes (converts). Acts 2:10 mentions such proselytes. Similarly, a Greek came to mean more than just someone who was from Greece, but someone who had also adopted Greek (Hellenistic) culture, and spoke Greek. Ironically, it was these ethnic “identity markers” that could potentially attract or repel people in the other group.

Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and Barbarians

The terms “Gentile” and “Greek” are often used synonymously by scholars and sometimes by ancient authors. There is some support for linking these two words in Scripture, but it’s worth pointing out that the terms Gentile and Greek are not necessarily referring to the same people group. The word “Gentile” is from the word for “nations” and was used by Jews as a description of those who were outside of the covenant God had established with Israel. Therefore, in the eyes of a Jew, all Greeks were Gentiles, but, to be accurate, not all Gentiles were Greeks. Therefore, context should determine what is meant by these terms. For the purposes of this article, the words will usually refer to the same people group unless otherwise specified. In some cases Jewish use of the word “Gentile” was not meant derogatorily, but in other cases it was. When used derogatorily it could be shorthand for “sinner” (see Gal. 2:15; mention could also be made of the well-known rabinnic saying that God created the Gentiles in order to stoke the fires of hell). The point is that to speak of “gentiles” is a Jewish way of viewing the world. No other group in the Roman world would refer to themselves or others this way (although they might speak of other “nations” of course).

Famous painting of Alexander the Great's battle with Darius III of Persia. The Greeks viewed even the great Persian empire as barbarians.
Famous painting of Alexander the Great’s battle with Darius III of Persia. The Greeks viewed even the great Persian empire as barbarians.

Like the Jews, the Greeks also divided the world into two distinct populations. There were Greeks, and the rest who weren’t Greek were Barbarians. After all, considering the legacy of language, art, philosophy, politics, and culture, who in their right mind would not want to be Greek? This two-fold way of viewing the world by both Jews and Greeks reveals a deep-seated pride on the part of both groups. Commentaries have made us well-aware that the Jews could be capable of arrogance. In fact, “Phariseeism” in our day is synonymous with legalism and pride (although this is an oversimplification). What is often overlooked (although modern studies have come a long way in correcting this view), was that the Greeks could be just as arrogant concerning their culture and way of life. In other words, when it comes to pride and arrogance, there was plenty of blame to spread around whether one is talking about Jews or Greeks in the first century.

Conflict Between Jews and Greeks

Attitudes of arrogance and the natural human tendency toward viewing those outside our group as inferior, naturally leads to prejudice and conflict. But before discussing the differences between Jews and Greeks that led to conflict in the Roman world, it should be noted that many Jews adopted various facets of Hellenistic culture, including speaking Greek. In fact, following the conquest of Alexander the Great, it would have been impossible to not be affected in some way by Hellenistic culture. Indeed, some Jewish writers such as Josephus and Philo sought to explain Jewish beliefs and practices by appealing to Greeks using Greek terminology and philosophy. There were also Greeks, and other Gentiles, who spoke well of Judaism. This is further evidenced by the fact that some became proselytes, while others regularly attended synagogue being known as “God-fearers” (e.g., Acts 13:26). In spite of the attraction that some from each ethnic group had for the other, prejudice and conflict were a common response.  As noted above, we are well-aware of Jewish prejudice toward Gentiles (including Greeks), therefore, I will focus on Greek/Gentile attitudes toward Jews (this includes the elite of Roman society who had become thoroughly Hellenized).

ancient-greek-gods_120822_1952_54Ancient Greeks are famous for the glorification of the human body, well-evidenced in the statuary they have left behind. Greeks loved athletic competition and this competition took place in the nude. Circumcision was abhorrent to a Greek and considered to be a mutilation of the body. To demonstrate the detrimental effect that this Greek attitude could have on Jews, the writer of 1 Maccabees informs us that in the days preceding the Maccabean revolt some Jewish youths began to attend the gymnasium (a Greek institution) in Jerusalem, and sought to remove “the marks of circumcision” (1 Macc. 1:14-15). When the Greek King Antiochus Epiphanes IV enforced Hellenization of Judea and attempted to terminate Jewish religious practices, war was the inevitable result (168-163 B.C.). When Judea was taken over by the Romans (63 B.C.), Pompey desecrated the Temple by entering it and sent about 100,000 Jewish captives to Rome. Fortunately, the Jews also had some gracious Roman patrons, including Julius Caesar and Augustus, nonetheless, many well known ancient writers derided them for their beliefs and culture. For example, the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca said, “the way of life of this accursed group (the Jews) has gained such influence that it is now received throughout the world; the vanquished have given laws to their victors.” The Roman historian Tacitus wrote, “those who have gone over to their (the Jews) way of life follow the same practice, and the earliest lesson they receive is to despise the gods, to disown their country, and to regard their parents, children, and brothers as of little account” (both quotes are taken from Thomas H. Tobin, “Paul’s Rhetoric in Its Contexts, p. 24). Roman emperors twice expelled the Jews from Rome (once in 19 A.D. by Tiberius, and again in 49 A.D. by Claudius, see Acts 18:2). These examples could be multiplied, but they demonstrate the uneasy tension that existed between Jews and Greeks in the ancient world.

Violent conflict between Jews and Greeks erupted in many of the cities found on this map
Violent conflict between Jews and Greeks erupted in many of the cities found on this map

An investigation of the period between 50 B.C. and 120 A.D. (a 170 year span), produces evidence that there was violent ethnic conflict between Jews and Greeks. This is an historical fact known to scholars, but not as familiar to lay people. Stanley (in the article cited above) categorizes this violence into 4 phases. Phase 1 occurred roughly between the years of 49 B.C. and 11 B.C. and was limited to western Asia minor (modern Turkey). Some of the troubled areas included Sardis (49 B.C.),  Laodicea (46/45 B.C.), Ephesus (43 B.C.), and Cyrene in North Africa (13 B.C.). Phase 2 occurred between the years of 38 – 44 A.D. and centered in the areas of Egypt, Judea, Syria, and Babylonia. Some of the cities included Alexandria, Egypt (38-41 A.D.), Jamnia (39 A.D.), Dora (41 A.D.), and Philadelphia (44 A.D.) which are all areas within the boundaries of ancient Israel (referred to as Palestine by many scholars), and Syrian Antioch (39-40 A.D.). Phase 3 occurred during the years of the Jewish Revolt (66-73 A.D.) and encompassed all of Israel (Palestine), plus Alexandria, Cyrene, Antioch, and Damascus. Phase 4 occurred during the years of the Diaspora Revolt (115-117 A.D.) resulting in violent conflict in Jewish communities in North Africa and Mesopotamia (this info is taken from Stanley’s article, pp. 102-103).

The Significance of the Conflict Between Jews and Greeks

If you’ve stayed with me this long we’ve finally come to the point of this article. First, however, it has been necessary to sketch the historical and cultural background. If you look at the cities mentioned above where ethnic conflict and violence between Jews and Greeks was known to occur you will notice many familiar names found in the New Testament such as Ephesus, Sardis, Antioch, Damascus, Cyrene, etc. It is phenomenal to think that in the midst of this ethnic tension and hatred, often expressed through civic violence, that a group of Jewish believers were commissioned to take the gospel to the Greeks (and the rest of the Gentiles)! In fact, Paul, a former Pharisee, residing in the city of Antioch, which only a few years earlier had been at the center of one of these ethnic uprisings, is called by the Holy Spirit to a mission to the Gentiles (Acts 13:1-2)! That a former Pharisee would become an “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13) and would suffer greatly to see Greeks and others won for the kingdom of God, is a testament to God’s transforming power. That a movement consisting of Jews and Greeks in one body could maintain a bond of unity and peace, in a world where ethnic violence was the norm is a witness to the power of the gospel itself!

Gallio shows no concern for the Greeks who beat the ruler of the synagogue. (picture from
Gallio shows no concern for the Greeks who beat the ruler of the synagogue. (picture from

The violence between Jews and Greeks also sheds light on the narrative accounts of Acts. In every city that Paul travels to he begins in the synagogue. Some Jews believe, some Greeks believe and this volatile combination creates civic unrest for the remainder of the population. In Iconium some Jews and Greeks believe which causes unbelieving Jews to stir up a mob of Gentiles to persecute the fledgling church (Acts 14:1-5). This same scenario is repeated in cities throughout the Roman empire. In Philippi, Paul and Silas are dragged to the market place before the city authorities. The accusation brought against them is, “These men, being Jews, exceedingly trouble our city” (Acts 16:19-20). In Thessalonica when a “great multitude of devout Greeks” are converted, the unbelieving Jews become envious and stir up a mob (Acts 17:4-5). In Corinth another mob is stirred up against the disciples, but when the proconsul Gallio refuses to judge the case we are told, “Then all the Greeks took Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him before the judgment seat” (Acts 18:17). When one becomes aware of the violence between Jews and Greeks, these accounts recorded by Luke in the Book of Acts take on a sober realism. Relating this knowledge to the Book of Romans, Philip Esler, influenced by Stanley’s research, states, “This mutual hostility between Judeans and Greeks would have formed part of the living memories of most people to whom Paul wrote Romans, and some of them may have experienced it in other cities of the Mediterranean region” (Conflict and Identity in Romans, p. 75).

By becoming sensitive to the ethnic problems that existed between Jew and Greek, the above passages, as well as the ones mentioned at the beginning of this article, take on a richer and deeper meaning. This is just one example of how a study of Bible backgrounds can greatly enhance our understanding and appreciation of Scripture. In the next article, I will take a look at how Bible backgrounds can enhance our knowledge of the Book of Romans. (To read the follow up article, click here).

The IVP Bible Background Commentary Part 2: Genesis – Kings

The IVP Bible Background Commentary Part 2: Genesis – Kings

untitledTHE IVP BIBLE BACKGROUND COMMENTARY: Old Testament. By John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000. 832 pages. Available at Amazon USA / UK

In my first review (which you can read by clicking here), I looked at the overall purpose and scope of the IVP Bible Background Commentary. In this review, I will focus on some of the interesting insights that can be learned by using this resource. Because of the sheer volume of material, I have chosen to focus on the Books of Genesis through 2 Kings. In a future review, I will look at the sections concerning the Psalms and Wisdom literature, as well as the Prophets.

Cultural Insights from the Ancient Near East

Since this is a commentary on Bible backgrounds, one expects information that provides insight into the culture of the ancient Near East. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, is loaded with wonderful insights that the ordinary Bible reader would be unfamiliar with. Moderns may think that the practice of polygamy in the ancient world was simply to satisfy the sexual desires of the male, but there were other motivating factors as well: “1) an imbalance in the number of males and females; 2) the need to produce large numbers of children to work herds and / or fields; 3) the desire to increase prestige and wealth of a household through multiple marriage contracts; and 4) the high rate of death of females in childbirth” (comment on Gen. 4:19, p. 34 and 1 Sam. 1:2, p. 281). Although this insight doesn’t justify polygamy, it does demonstrate some of the cultural factors that led to the practice.

From the movie "The Ten Commandments," Moses (Charlton Heston) and his father-in-law Jethro.
From the movie “The Ten Commandments,” Moses (Charlton Heston) and his father-in-law Jethro.

One interesting problem that the commentary resolves concerns the supposedly different names for Moses’s father-in-law. Was his name Jethro (Exod. 3:1), Reuel (Exod. 2:18), or Hobab (Judg. 4:11)? Did one man really have 3 names, or as some more sceptical scholars suggest, are 3 contradictory sources being used? The authors explain that, “The difficulty can be resolved once the ambiguity of the terminology is recognized. The term designating male in-laws is nonspecific. The term referred to a woman’s male relatives and could be used for her father, brother, or even grandfather” (comment on Exod. 3:1, p. 79). The authors suggest that Reuel may be the grandfather, Jethro the father (of Moses’s wife Zipporah), and Hobab a brother-in-law of Moses, or some other such combination.

<img class=” wp-image-961″ src=”” alt=”An account by Sargon II has similarities to Joshua 10:11” width=”173″ height=”213″ /> An account by Sargon II has similarities to Joshua 10:11

Other insights are provided by a brief discussion of the ancient Near East’s concept of corporate responsibility and how Achan’s sin impacted his whole family, not to mention the entire nation (comment on Josh. 7:1, pp. 218-219). A description of palace architecture also helps the reader better understand Ehud’s assassination of the Moabite king Eglon, and how he managed to escape (comment on Judg. 3:23, pp. 248-249). The authors also frequently quote from ancient texts that have similarities to biblical accounts. For example, one ancient Near Eastern text that comes from Sargon II, king of Assyria “reports that in his campaign against Urartu (714 B.C.) the god Adad stormed against his enemies with ‘stones from heaven’ and so annihilated them” (p. 225). This is reminiscent of the Lord’s intervention for Joshua against the kings of Canaan (Josh. 10:11).

The "witch" at Endor (1 Sam. 28)
The “witch” at Endor (1 Sam. 28)

One very interesting feature relates to an understanding of life after death in the ancient Near East. The authors discuss the strange story of the medium at Endor summoning Samuel at the request of Saul, after Samuel had died (1 Sam. 28). They comment, “This specialist from Endor used a ritual pit to conjure up the spirits of the dead….The pits were believed to be magical portals through which spirits could pass between the realms of the living and the dead. The practitioner was one who had special knowledge of the location of such a pit and who was familiar with the procedures necessary to summon the dead” (comment on 1 Sam. 28:7, p. 318). Of course, this doesn’t mean that the woman conjured up Samuel through her own power, but it does give insight into the ancient beliefs and practices involved. A comment on 1 Kings 16:4 regarding the fate of King Baasha of Israel and his family is also enlightening. The passage states that the king and his family members will be eaten by dogs if they die in the city or by birds if they die in the fields. The authors comment, “most ancient peoples believed that proper, timely burial affected the quality of the afterlife….We know that even Israelites believed that proper burial affected one’s afterlife, because they, like their neighbors, buried their loved ones with the provisions that would serve them in the afterlife; most often pottery vessels (filled with food) and jewelry (to ward off evil), with tools and personal items sometimes added” (p. 373).

IVP Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Old Testament: Limitations

Me hanging out with Philistines at Tel es-Safi (Gath).
Me hanging out with Philistines at Tel es-Safi (Gath).

The authors frequently site knowledge that is available through archaeology. This could be regarding certain cities, or artefacts. For example, when speaking of the Tabernacle (2 Sam. 6:17, p. 332), the discovery of a Midianite tent shrine that dates from the 12th century B.C. is noted. While this is interesting information, it also points up a shortcoming in the commentary. A photo of such discoveries would be helpful (or a reference where further info and pictures might be found). Additionally, it is the archaeological information contained in the commentary that particularly cries out for a new updated edition. For example, when the Philistine city of Gath is mentioned in the text, the authors constantly remind us that there has been no archaeological work done at this site (see e.g., the comment on 1 Sam. 27:2, p. 317). However, this is no longer the case. In fact, excavations have been going on at Tel es-Safi (biblical Gath) since 1996 with many fascinating discoveries made (see my article on Philistine cities here).

Although the authors have intentionally omitted the use of references for the sake of the average reader, still the lack of references hurt the commentary. Besides the Midianite tent shrine mentioned above, there are many places that references would be extremely helpful, even for the average reader. For example, there is a brief discussion of the problem of the date of the Exodus on page 86. Although the article gives the basic outline of the problems involved, it is still very general. The curious reader, however, is not left with any suggestions on how to pursue a deeper treatment of the subject.

The commentary is also full of repetition. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be quite helpful to have information at your fingertips rather than being told to go to another place in the commentary to find it. The problem is the authors do both. For example, whole sections of the commentary on 1&2 Kings refer the reader to 2 Chronicles. Again, if this was the practice throughout the commentary, I would have no problem with it. In fact, it would shorten the commentary considerably and might allow for the photos and references that I believe would be helpful. My complaint is that the decision to repeat information (sometimes 3, 4 or more times), while at other times saying, “see such ‘n such” for information on this passage, seems arbitrary.

Evaluation of Genesis – 2 Kings, IVP Bible Background Commentary

In spite of the shortcomings I have mentioned, I believe this commentary is extremely useful and informative. Besides simply providing a review, I have attempted to show the reader some of the interesting insights available. Other helpful features include geographical information (stating how far it is from one place to another, or what the terrain is like). This can raise important issues for interpretation. For example, what are we to make of the fact that Saul’s hometown is only a short distance away from Samuel’s hometown, and yet Saul had never heard of Samuel! (comments on 1 Sam. 9:6, p. 293). Other helpful explanations include the value of different types of money (shekels, etc.), the times of year represented by the names of various months, and the meaning of certain political or military offices (e.g., the Assyrian official known as Tartan means “field marshal, 2 Kgs. 18:17, p. 405). Although I am hopeful that an update on the Old Testament volume will be forthcoming from IVP (as the New Testament one which appeared this year), I would still heartily recommend this commentary as a source of valuable information in better understanding the Bible and the ancient Near East.

(A copy of this commentary has been provided for the reviewer in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. Many thanks to the publishers at IVP!)

The IVP Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament is available at,, and at Amazon USA / UK



Bible Background Knowlege: Why is it Important, How does it Help?

Bible Background Knowledge: Why is it Important, How does it Help?

nt background
Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

I am  currently in the process of reading two large commentaries on Bible backgrounds. Both are from IVP, the first is entitled Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, and the second, Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. As some of you are aware, I have already posted an initial review of the Old Testament Bible background commentary (click here to read the review). Why spend so much time learning about Bible backgrounds? Why not just jump right in and study the Bible itself? Well, I do believe we all should “jump in” and study the Bible, however, when it comes to understanding the Bible, knowing things about the history of Israel and the ancient Near East, the cultural settings of the biblical world, yes, and even the languages, can make a huge difference in understanding a passage properly.

As I noted in a previous post (Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes), reading the Bible is like taking a trip to another country. At first we might not even think about the differences; we’re just excited to be making the journey! However, once we arrive, we inevitably experience culture shock. Not only is the language different, but what is considered polite, humorous, or acceptable behaviour is often quite different. Living conditions, how governments work, how (or if) children are educated varies from place to place. Even when countries speak the same language, the meanings of words, as well as what is considered socially acceptable, can be quite different, as I have learned as an American living in England these past 11 years. Cultural knowledge is indeed important. As a result, when it comes to the Bible, I have become a bit of a Bible backgrounds junky. This is why I am constantly reading and reviewing books that deal with Bible background material (like my review of The World of the New Testament), or posting articles that deal with some aspect of ancient culture which can enlighten our reading of Scripture (see, for example, my articles on Grace in 3D, Envy and the Cross, or Cross Examination). It also explains my fascination with archaeology and why I love reading about the excavations of ancient biblical cities, or the discovery of interesting artefacts (see the articles under Biblical sites).

Any number of passages confuse Bible readers who are unfamiliar with the “world of the Bible.” Even the simplest of things such as the mention of weights, measures, or money can be frustrating. What’s a cubit, or a seah, or a denarius, and how do they compare to modern standards of weight, measure, or currency? What makes Sarah think it is OK to give her handmaid Hagar to Abraham as a wife? What is Paul’s discussion of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 all about? Not only are there things we don’t understand, but there are also presuppositions we carry with us from the 21st century when reading the text. For example, we may forget that ancient Israel was an agrarian culture, not an industrial culture. Or, when we read Paul’s letters we may assume that he is writing to Christians who worship in large public buildings like we do today, as opposed to smaller house-churches, or even smaller apartment buildings. This may seem like a small matter, but understanding that Paul is addressing many small house-churches in Romans, and not some big metropolitan church that meets in a large public facility, helps us to better understand some of the problems he confronts in this letter. Being aware of cultural values that were important in the ancient world such as honor and shame, can deepen our understanding of a number of passages throughout Scripture, including Jesus’ clash with the Sadducees and Pharisees in the Gospels.

In a future article I will seek to demonstrate some of the benefits of applying background knowledge to our understanding of the Bible (meanwhile, if you’re unfamiliar with some of the posts I’ve mentioned above please feel free to read them. Just click on the links provided). I will also share some of the insights that can be gained from the Bible background commentaries mentioned above as I continue my review of them.


IVP Bible Background Commentary Old Testament: Part 1

IVP Bible Background Commentary Old Testament

untitledTHE IVP BIBLE BACKGROUND COMMENTARY: Old Testament. By John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000. 832 pages. Available at Amazon USA / UK

This one volume commentary on the Old Testament is a companion to the IVP Bible Background Commentary on the New Testament (also available at Amazon USA / UK). The purpose of both of these volumes is to provide helpful information regarding the cultural context in which the Bible was written. This is a daunting task for the authors seeking to provide this information for the Old Testament. The number of books in the Old Testament, the length of historical time involved, and the vast knowledge required of different ancient cultures makes this a challenging undertaking. But Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, all well-known Old Testament scholars, are up to the task.

Author John Walton
Author John H. Walton

The authors do not claim that the material included in the commentary will necessarily help with the theological interpretation of the Bible (p. 7). Although the authors include this disclaimer, one could certainly debate that a knowledge of cultural context can enhance one’s understanding of a given text of Scripture. In fact, throughout the commentary (as we shall see in future reviews) the authors demonstrate how a knowledge of background material influences one’s interpretation of the text. That being said, the authors’ main concern, according to the preface, is to provide enough cultural context so that the Old Testament is not misinterpreted by imposing our own cultural biases and worldview on the text. Regarding the background information provided they state, “In many cases there may not be anything that can be done with the information, but having that information may prevent one from doing something with the text that should not be done” (p. 9).

Author, Victor H. Matthews
Author, Victor H. Matthews

This commentary is written with the lay-person in mind. As a result, references to scholarly or ancient sources are omitted. There are no footnotes; only a 10-page bibliography for those who might wish to pursue a topic further. While this uncluttered approach makes reading easier, this volume is also intended for the pastor and student and the lack of references makes further research more difficult. A helpful glossary of terms is included at the back of the book for those not familiar with certain terms or names. The back of the commentary also includes charts on the various ancient tablets and inscriptions mentioned in the commentary, a timeline, and some general maps, all in black and white. Better maps are available in other resources, but for a quick general reference regarding a particular site or city, the maps included are adequate. Although it would have added to the length and expense of the commentary, photographs, charts, and maps within the commentary would have been very helpful for the lay-person.

Author, Mark W. Chavalas
Author, Mark W. Chavalas

The IVP Bible Background Commentary on the Old Testament only treats the books of the Protestant Canon (as opposed to the Catholic Canon) and approaches them in that order (as opposed to the order in the Hebrew Bible). The commentary is divided into four main sections: The Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy); Historical Literature (Joshua-Esther); Wisdom and Poetic Literature; and Prophetic Literature. Each section includes an introduction to the books or type of literature found in it. Scattered throughout the commentary are discussions on important topics such as, “Ancient Near Eastern Flood Accounts,” “The Date of the Exodus,” “Egyptian Information About Canaan and Israel,” “Afterlife Beliefs in Israel and the Ancient Near East,” and many others.

All in all, this is an extremely useful and interesting commentary. Because of the size of the IVP Bible Background Commentary on the Old Testament, I will be breaking it down into bite-sized chunks and reviewing various books, or sections, in future articles. Stay tuned for more on this excellent resource.

(Thanks to IVP for providing this review copy in exchange for an unbiased review. For other books from IVP please visit

A Week in the Life of Corinth

A Week in the Life of Corinth

A Week in the Life of Corinth is a charming story by New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III. Although it is fictional, it is based on Witherington’s knowledge of the New Testament world (not to mention his commentaries on Acts and 1&2 Corinthians) and includes real historical figures like the apostle Paul, the proconsul Gallio (Acts 18:12-17), and Erastus the treasurer of Corinth (Rom. 16:23). It is a book that not only “tells” us about the 1st century world, it “shows” us through the medium of story.

Buy A Week in the Life of Corinth see link below.
Buy A Week in the Life of Corinth at amazon. Click on the book above for USA or at the link below for UK or USA.

The story revolves around a fictional character named Nicanor, a former slave of Erastos (the Greek spelling used by Witherington), but now a freedman. By following Nicanor’s life for one eventful week, the reader is treated to many insightful details about life in the 1st century AD. For example, rather than being told about the relationship between a patron and client as a textbook would do, the reader experiences patronage first hand through the life of Nicanor. (For an example of understanding the importance of patronage, see my article: “Grace in 3D”.) We also learn the potential dangers involved in these kinds of relationships when Nicanor’s loyalty to Erastos clashes with the desires of the powerful Marcus Aurelius Aemilianus.

In order to educate the reader, the book is punctuated by information boxes entitled, “A Closer Look.” These boxes include a mountain of informative details including such topics as, Slaves and Manumission, The Roman Calendar, Gladiators and their Contests, Paul, a Visionary with an Eye Problem, Home Schooling Greco-Roman Style, Jews in Corinth, Roman Trials, and a host of other subjects. Besides these information boxes, Witherington also includes a number of photos and diagrams. Among the diagrams included are a layout of “First Century downtown Corinth,” and the layout of a Roman domus (house).

Erastus inscription in Corinth
Erastus inscription in Corinth

Photos include a number of pictures of the remains of ancient Corinth such as the diolkos (the shortcut used to drag small boats across the isthmus where Corinth is located rather than sail them all the way around Greece), or the Erastus inscription (see photo on right). Other helpful photos feature a gladiatorial school, an ancient Roman road, and a street in Pompeii. Although the photos are helpful, in order to keep this slender volume at a reasonable price, they are in black and white which affects their quality.

The book is suitable for the average reader seeking to learn more about life in the New Testament world in an entertaining way. However, there are a few shortcomings. Further character and plot development would certainly have created a greater emotional attachment to the story and its characters. The numerous Latin and Greek words used by Witherington are sometimes, but not always, explained. Although the use of these words adds to the atmosphere of the story, those who aren’t acquainted with these ancient languages may find it a little exasperating. More importantly, there appear to be some errors in the use of Greek and Latin words or names. For example, Tyche is definitely a feminine name, though Witherington uses it for a male doorman. In spite of these shortcomings, Witherington’s book is an enjoyable and educational read. I recommend A Week in the Life of Corinth to all who are interested in ancient Corinth or the world of the New Testament.

Buy “A Week in the Life of Corinth,” by clicking on one of the following links at Amazon: USA / UK

(Thanks to the publishers at IVP for providing this review copy in exchange for an unbiased review.)