Carter, Warren. Seven Events That Shaped the New Testament World. Baker Academic, 2013.
Warren Carter never fails to delight in bringing the context of the ancient world to bear on the shape and telling of Scripture. His latest work does not fail to continue this track, but takes a broader reach and appeal than his previous works. Those familiar with Carter’s work knows of his imperial biases in reading the New Testament, biases I favor, but here, he begins long before the world of the New Testament, ending long after. Throughout the book, however, is the constant connection to the time of Jesus, presented unapologetically but nevertheless respectively.
In an apocalyptic flair Carter reveals seven different times contributing to our understanding of the New Testament. He begins with the death of Alexander the Great, followed by the Septuagint (along with some interesting insight into how Jesus may have read the LXX, or at least his community). After this is the rapid development of the New Testament world beginning with the rededication of the Temple, the Judean Occupation, writing the actual texts, and closing the canon. All of this covers more than six hundred years. This seventh event may give some heartburn, given that Carter takes his usual role of pointing out the variety of practices and doctrines enshrined in the New Testament. For others, his reliance on solid historical detail is disconcerting. For instance, Carter gives a faithful account of what ratifying the canon meant, rather than the conspiracy theories thrown around today of masked mean in the moonlight making mad ministerial decisions.
Each event is detailed and then stretched out so as to allow the reader to understand just what role this played in the shaping of the New Testament. For instance, the manliness of Alexander the Great is contrasted to the expected manliness of Jesus. The Septuagint is shown as an interpreter of the Hebrew, such as in Psalm 22. Jesus and Paul are shown as inheritors of the eschatological mess left over after the dedication of the Temple, courtesy of Daniel. Carter’s previous works come into play during the discussion of the Judean occupation and how responses to Roman power was a major driving force in Jewish theological reflection, the same reflection birth the Christians. His chapter on the crucifixion of Jesus is rather important for Historical Jesus studies, although he doesn’t dive into such arenas. After all, why was the rebel king crucified? His final two chapters tackle the rather important issues of writing in response to a crisis and in building the canon, an event I struggled to accept as shaping the New Testament world, but upon a closer examination, I understand appreciate his argument.
Warren Carter has written for a broader audience and in doing so, is able to serve both the academic and the lay community by giving them a short compendium of contextual structures for understanding the world of the New Testament. While we may seek to place the New Testament in a vacuum, written only by direct descendants of the Jews who not only managed a daring nighttime escape from Egypt but so too managed to escape the perils of being shaped by the larger, secular, world, in reality the New Testament writers were themselves shaped by history, living fully in their own time and place.
Carter’s writing style is that of a semi-casual, near formal eloquence that allows the reader to enjoy the words on the page as much as the knowledge gleaned from the fields of letters. He does not chase rabbits down holes, but conserves his space serendipitously so as to present as much as possible in an economic space.
This is a must for any classroom — whether educational or congregational.