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Backgrounds of Early Christianity [Paperback]

By Everett Ferguson (Author)
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Item description for Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson...

Having long served as a standard introduction to the world of the early church, Everett Ferguson's "Backgrounds of Early Christianity" has been expanded and updated in this third edition. The book explores and unpacks the Roman, Greek, and Jewish political, social, religious, and philosophical backgrounds necessary for a good historical understanding of the New Testament and the early church. New to this edition are revisions of Ferguson's original material, updated bibliographies, and fresh discussions of first-century social life, of Gnosticism, and of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other Jewish literature.

Publishers Description
Long serving as a standard introduction to the world of the early church, Backgrounds of Early Christianity is now available in an expanded, up-to-date third edition. Featuring 95 photographs of the ancient world, this book explores--now in even greater depth -- the Roman, Greek, and Jewish political, social, religious, and philosophical backgrounds necessary for a good historical understanding of the New Testament and the early church. New to this edition are substantial revisions of Everett Ferguson's original material, an updated bibliography, and fresh discussions of social life in the first-century, of Gnosticism, and of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other Jewish literature.

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Item Specifications...

Studio: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Pages   648
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 1.25" Width: 6.7" Height: 9.5"
Weight:   2.25 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Aug 19, 2003
Edition  Reprinted  
ISBN  0802822215  
ISBN13  9780802822215  

Availability  5 units.
Availability accurate as of Oct 21, 2016 09:33.
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More About Everett Ferguson

Register your artisan biography and upload your photo! About the editors
Everett Ferguson is Professor Emeritus of Church History at Abilene Christian University, where he was twice honored as an outstanding teacher. He is a life member and has served a term on the Council of the American Society of church History, and is a past president of the North American Patristic Society. His professional memberships also include the Society of Biblical Literature, Ecclesiastical History Society (Great Britain), Conference on Faith and History, and Association internationale d'etudes patristiques.
david M. Scholer is Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Early Church History at North Park College and Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois.
Paul Corby Finney is Assistant Professor of History and Associate Professor of Art and Archeology at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

Everett Ferguson currently resides in the state of Texas. Everett Ferguson was born in 1933.

Everett Ferguson has published or released items in the following series...
  1. Cascade Companions
  2. Classics of Western Spirituality (Paperback)
  3. HarperCollins Spiritual Classics

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Product Categories

1Books > Subjects > History > Ancient > General
2Books > Subjects > History > World > General
3Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Christianity > Church History > General
5Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Religious Studies > History

Christian Product Categories
Books > Church & Ministry > Church Life > Church History

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Reviews - What do customers think about Backgrounds of Early Christianity?

Concise and intuitive  Jan 11, 2007
Ferguson does a great job at presenting the information in such a way that the reader is able to understand and still gather a considerable amount of information. I am currently using this book, as well as two atlases, for a Greco-Roman survey class and appreciate the simple, to-the-point aspect of his book. The professor really could have just used this book by itself, instead of using all three.
Aboslutely the best  Nov 3, 2006
This is THE book on NT backgrounds. Ferguson gives you a broad sweep of nearely everything you need to know when studying hte NT and an extensive bibliography of additional resources for picking up the rest. I read this book early on in my carreer and still refer to it almost weekly. In the more specialized material I now study, his work is the basis that allows me to understand it. In short, if you read nothing else on NT backgrounds, read this. If your going to enter into advanced study of NT backgrounds, read this first. I even reccomend this book to 'lay' churchmembers without any theological training. It is simply the best.

The next best thing to Fergusson is C. K. Barrett, "NT Background: Selected Documents." This is a collection of excerpts from 1st Century primary sources. Still, READ FERGUSON FIRST!
Readable, general introduction   Apr 13, 2006
Very good general introduction to the social, political, and religious background of early Christianity. Covers everything from the coins in use to the condition of slaves. Written in simple, readable English. One of the best features is that every section has a bibliography with books that cover the subjects in greater depth.
Impressive Book  Jan 28, 2006
Everett Ferguson is a professor emeritus at Abilene Christian University. He has authored at least 20 books, edited at least 23 others, and co-translated Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses with Abraham Malherbe.

Ferguson's intent in writing Backgrounds of Early Christianity was neither to produce a history of the ancient world nor to synthesize ancient culture, philosophy, and religion in accordance with some interpretive scheme. Instead, his desire was to craft an introductory textbook as a guide for beginning students. In the preface, he notes that limitations of writing and analysis have forced a compartmentalization (e.g., philosophy versus politics) and viewpoint (e.g., politics, religion, marriage) within his book that did not exist in the ancient world.

Ferguson ensures relevance to the New Testament with frequent references. General bibliographies for broader research are included at the beginning of each chapter. Specialized bibliographies for investigation into more narrow issues are provided at the end of each chapter. All bibliographic references are to works in English except where special circumstances apply. Footnotes are ample and well-chosen. Numerous photographs and tables enliven and clarify content.

In the preface, Ferguson deals with the issue of parallels between Christianity and ancient beliefs and practices. He denies that such similarities demand a naturalistic explanation for the rise of Christianity. This writer agrees and would go further to say that early apologists like Justin Martyr took a similar stance. Moreover, the popular Christian impulse to claim an utterly unique origin for Christianity is a self-inflicted handicap in dealing with the historical evidence. Furthermore, if Christianity were totally unique, it would likely be incomprehensible.

Backgrounds is divided into six sections: (1) Political History, (2) Society and Culture, (3) Hellenistic-Roman Religions, (4) Hellenistic-Roman Philosophies, (5) Judaism, and (6) Christianity in the Ancient World. The longest section is on Judaism, the most immediate background for ancient Christianity.

The first section, entitled Political History, begins with a discussion of the Near East before the time of Alexander the Great followed by a description of Alexander's exploits, the breakup of his kingdom, the politics of the republic and of the empire, and the relevance of it all to the New Testament.

The second section, entitled Society and Culture, covers the Roman military, Roman social classes, slavery, Roman citizenship, social relations, social morality, economic life, clothing and appearance, entertainment, education, literature and language, art and architecture, and finally, clubs and associations.

The third section, entitled Hellenistic-Roman Religions, addresses ancient Greek and Roman religions, religion in Hellenistic-Roman times, domestic and rural religion, civic cults, ruler cults, personal religion, Greek mysteries, Eastern religions, Gnosticism and associated topics, and the later development of monotheism and sun worship.

The fourth section, entitled Hellenistic-Roman Philosophies, provides information on the religious, ethical, popular, personal, and social aspects of philosophy followed by treatments of the Sophists and Socrates, Plato and the Academy, Aristotle and the Peripatetics, Skepticism, Cynicism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Eclecticism, Neopythagoreanism, Middle Platonism, Plotinus, and Neoplatonism

The fifth section, entitled Judaism, covers Jewish history from 538 BC. to AD 200, Jews in the early Roman Empire, Jewish literature and other sources in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, parties and sects, beliefs and practices, and lastly, organizations and institutions.

The sixth section, entitled Christianity in the Ancient World, includes material on literary references to Christianity in non-Christian sources, archaeological remains bearing on early Christian history, some alleged archaeological remains of early Christianity, attitudes of pagans toward Christians, the legal status of Christianity, hindrances to the acceptance of Christianity, religious rivals, factors favorable to Christianity, and the uniqueness of Christianity.

Backgrounds is so well-done that one struggles to find much in the way of needed improvements. One observation, however, is that it tends to focus more on backgrounds of the New Testament rather than early Christianity as the title claims. An example is in section four where Ferguson provides background on Roman and Greek philosophies. Tying that background to first century apologists (many of whom styled themselves as philosophers in order to gain a hearing and avoid persecution) would have been helpful. Another example is where Ferguson highlights the Roman preoccupation with law but fails to connect that "background" with the resultant legal flavor of Western Christianity. A third example would be failure to explore the actor's mask [page 100] as background to Tertullian's use of the mask ("personae") to explain the nature of the Trinity.

Continuing in the area of law, more detail on the use of oaths as a way of settling legal disputes would have been helpful. In Roman law, a person could attempt a summary judgment in his favor by resorting to an oath as a way of establishing his case. Thereupon, the judge could either accept or reject the oath as sufficient. That appears to be the background for Heb 6:13-18 where the author rests his point on such a strategy. In the case of Hebrews though, God swears by Himself, not some other god. Thus "the two immutable things in which it is impossible for God to lie" appear to be God's dual roles as (1) an unchanging advocate (the one who swears) and (2) an unchanging judge (the one who passes judgment on the trustworthiness of that which is sworn). None of this would be apparent without more background into ancient legal practices.

Although Ferguson generally focuses on New Testament backgrounds rather than backgrounds for early Christianity, he sometimes misses an important clarification to the New Testament itself. Take, for example, his discussion of the First Jewish Revolt [p. 420]. Although he does distinguish Barabbas as a revolutionary, he fails to use that distinction to challenge the popular present-day understanding of Barabbas as a common thief. The difference is profound. The fact that Barabbas was a Jewish version of Robin Hood or Zorro makes the people's preference for him over Jesus more understandable.

Another improvement would be expanded treatment of ancient homosexuality. Ancient practices are often used to argue for modern-day acceptance, so fuller treatment of the subject would be a welcome addition.

Continuing on to the topic of slavery, Ferguson's background on manumission omits the point that freed slaves were granted citizenship. That fact could open up greater insight on Acts 22:28 where the chief captain says he acquired his citizenship with "a great sum of money." One possibility, in light of background studies, is that the captain was a former slave who had bought his way to freedom.

Moving on to Artemis of the Ephesians, Ferguson gives several interpretations for the bulb-like appendages adorning the idol [pages 175 and 198]. His options include eggs, breasts, or even the shape of a meteor. He does not mention, however, the possibility of the bulbs being the testicles of sacrificial bulls, a viewpoint that is gaining more and more acceptance.

On the subject of eagles, Ferguson refers to them in four places [pages 51, 91, 210, and 214], but fails to elaborate on how they served as omens within Roman culture- a belief that probably traces back to contacts with the Etruscans. Such knowledge could throw light on Jesus' use of eagles as an omen for the impending destruction of Jerusalem- "wherever the corpse is, there the eagles will gather."

On the subject of emperor worship [e.g., page 203], it would have been helpful if Ferguson had tied the Greek antecedents of Roman emperor worship to 1 Cor. 12:3, where Paul says, "No man can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit." In ancient times, the competing claim was "Caesar is Lord," and no person would have been bold enough to resist that assertion without divine help.

The section on Greek and Roman religions would have benefited by exploring the episode in the Gospel of John where the soldier pierces the side of Jesus with a spear and out flows "blood and water." The background for that episode lies in Gnostic beliefs and religious mythology. Specifically, the phrase "blood and water" appears to be a hendiadys that collapses into "watery blood"- or in other words, "ichor"- the blood of the gods. Thus the point of the story is not to inspire later-day autopsies so common in New Testament commentaries, but rather to say (1) Jesus was truly dead and (2) Jesus was truly God- both ideas being anti-Gnostic assertions made plain by the mythological meaning of "ichor."

As a final suggestion, the reference to shared bathing among men and women [page 105] should include the possibility that common facilities may have been time-shared to avoid mixing of the sexes- at least in some locations.

All of the preceding suggestions are quibbles in the face of the overwhelming wealth of material Dr. Ferguson expertly offers. Detailing the good points would mean rewriting the book. A few examples will therefore have to suffice. Explanation of the typical "pedagogue" as a slave who harshly "mastered" his charges [page 110] is rich imagery for Paul's slave-master understanding of the Law in Gal. 3:23-25. Furthermore, Ferguson's background on veils [page 171] is indispensable in understanding 1 Cor. 11 where Paul apparently goes against custom to make a gender distinction that had not existed previously. Moving on to pages 287-296, Ferguson provides an excellent debunking of the popular, but apparently unfounded charge that Christianity borrowed from or developed out of Mithraism. Finally, the exposure of a child as the Roman way of refusing to admit the unfortunate victim into society offers a powerful commentary on the present-day practice of abortion. Examples like the preceding are too numerous to mention.

Before closing though, there is one problem on a grammatical level that deserves special attention. The final editing of the book has omitted commas as the means for setting off introductory phrases. As a result, the reader will often have to read affected sentences two or three times before sorting out the missing punctuation. The net effect is to seriously detract from an otherwise enjoyable reading experience.

Notwithstanding the rather surprising grammatical shortcoming, Backgrounds of Early Christianity fulfills its purpose admirably, surpassing its goal of being an introductory textbook and earning itself a prime spot on the bookshelves of pastors, teachers, and researchers.

--Bill Brewer
As a source of protestant view on the 4th century BC to 4th century AD, YES, otherwise NO  Aug 1, 2005
I had hard to find anything about the veneration of saints, which I think would be important to include with a comparison to other religions of the period and earlier. In this book there's remarkably little on the actual original backgrounds of christianity, a religion composed from sources and not all that inventive uninformed people tend to think.

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