The Ideas and Events That Shaped the New Testament World
Anthony J. Tomasino
Category: Biblical Studies
Imagine you're sitting in your living room engrossed in an old-fashioned mystery movie...and then the phone rings. You reluctantly pull yourself away from the TV and rush to the receiver." There can hardly be anyone who could fail to identify with such an interruption! The call finished, you rush back to your set. "You're just in time to catch the end of the flick. The detective has gathered all the suspects...but you don't recognise half of their faces. The characters recount crimes and clues that you've never heard of...after missing the middle of the movie, the climax doesn't make a lot of sense. (from the Preface, p.13).
From this intriguing opening Tomasino draws us into what is often uncharted territory. This is what it is like for us as we approach the Bible. Key figures and ideas from the Old Testament days have disappeared. New groups, even nations, have appeared on the stage - Pharisees, Sanhedrin, Romans and Greeks to name but a few.
Having outlined the problem, Tomasino then devotes the next couple of hundred pages to a romp through history. It is written in entertaining prose and assumes no prior knowledge of any of the civilisations whose fortunes are embroiled in this period of history. He starts in Babylon. The backdrop to Daniel, Nehemiah and Ezra are the national crises as the curtain falls on the Old Testament canon. The Medes and Persians are brought into the equation and the efforts of the Jewish exiles to rebuild Jerusalem. Then the rise of the Greeks, the temporary glory of the Maccabees and the Hasmonaean dynasty. Finally the Roman influence in the Biblical lands is charted and, with Herod the Great, we begin to find ourselves back in familiar territory.
Yet this is not simply a historical pastiche. Whole chapters are devoted to the Persian and Greek impact on Jewish life as well as the underlying conditions of Messianic hope at the start of the New Testament age.
In all of these the book provides an excellent introduction to the inter-testamental period and offers suggestions at the end of each chapter for further reading for the serious student of any given theme or era.
My frustration with the book as a decent reference tool lay in its indexing. Throughout there were fascinating and illuminating subjects treated separately in text boxes (some of which extended to two pages) on a wide variety of pertinent subjects. The irritation lay in the fact that these were not referenced or indexed in any special way which meant that the information was not as easily accessible for the rushed student or pastor with one eye on the deadline for that essay or sermon.
This is a book which is not afraid to challenge assumptions. Some may be surprised to read that "Judaism could have survived Antiochus Epiphanes, even without the Maccabean uprising. Indeed, given the immorality of some of the later rulers, it's a wonder that Judaism managed to survive the Hasmoneans." (p.210) but for many the book will be an introduction to a period of history about which they know little. This book is an excellent way to change that and for this I commend it highly.
For many, however, there will be a hesitation, even a bewilderment, about the need for a book which does not directly refer to the New Testament. To those I would suggest that here is a book which not only examines the backdrop to the New Testament, but examines each of the changing scenes behind it in turn and from different perspectives. This results in a much richer understanding of the world into which Jesus was born and links it with the culture whose prophets foretold his coming. This is the hiatus which we often consider to be beyond bridging. This book helps us to put the two Testaments back together. In so doing, it is almost as satisfying as having someone explain each of the characters and clues in the film so that the grand finale actually makes sense.
Simon Hawthorne, June 2004
Simon Hawthorne is a former Regional Adviser for the Church's Ministry among Jewish People who has a particular interest in helping Christians to rediscover the Jewish roots of Christianity.Order from www.christianbookshops.org
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