Thursday, April 10, 2008

Advice to Ph.D Candidates

Through a variety of experiences (including my own) I have seen that Ph.D candidates in NT studies have some kind of aversion to incorporating Graeco-Roman literature into their study. They are keen on the Old Testament, Josephus, Dead Sea Scrolls, and Rabbinic literature in relation to their thesis topic, but Graeco-Roman sources rarely warrant a mention yet alone concerted engagement. The underlying assumption (in practice if not theory) is that the New Testament authors were immersed in the Jewish world but only minimally in the Graeco-Roman world. There are a number of reasons for this ranging from lack of familiarity to lack of accessibility to the primary sources (or in some cases even pure dogged laziness and ignorance). But I beg all Ph.D candidates to consider the fact that (1) the New Testament was written (as far as we know) in Greek, the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean, (2) most of the New Testament was written outside of Palestine (James, Jude, and Matthew might be the exceptions), (3) the interface with Hellenism and Roman society was arguably one of the driving forces behind the sociology and theology of Diaspora Judaism and early Christianity, and (4) most of the early churches were located in the major Graeco-Roman cities and thus the life of the polis (culture, history, religion, literature, etc) was of paramount import to the New Testament authors and audiences. In other words, if you're gonna write a thesis on 1 Thessalonians, do not include twenty-six references to a fourth-century targumim and no references to any Graeco-Roman authors or inscriptions from Thessalonica. Here I commend David Aune as a model of how someone can let a mastery of Graeco-Roman sources illuminate their study of the New Testament (while remaining cautious of parallelomania).

Let me suggest a 12 step plan to get up to speed on Graeco-Roman sources:

1. Read Menahem Stern on Greek and Latin Authors and Jews and Judaism which is a great resource for what pagan authors thought of Jews.
2. Read lots of the articles out of Dictionary of New Testament Background edited by Evans and Porter.
3. Read Homer which was the "Bible" of Hellenism.
4. Read some histories like Herodotus, Suetonius, Tacitus.
5. Read at least one of the rhetorical handbooks by Quintillian or Aristotle.
6. When it comes to Paul read the Hellenistic Commentary on the New Testament by Borging, Berger, and Colpe (I imagine Helmut Koester's Cities of Paul and Paul and His World would be also helpful).
7. Read or eat Loeb Classical Library volumes for breakfast.
8. Read or beg, borrow, or acquire as many volumes of New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity as you can legally acquire.
9. Read or at least peruse David deSilva's Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture.
10. Although I haven't read it, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity by James S. Jeffery looks readable and informative.
11. Try read as much papyri (Greek magical or Oxyrhynchus) and archaeological stuff as you can find, esp. anything by Johnathan L. Reed and more recently John McRae's book on archaeology looks good too.
12. Get your church, seminary, or university to send you on a study trip to Greece and Turkey (while you're there send me a post-card, some fresh Greek olives, and stay out of the Turkish bathhouses).


Samuel Sutter said...

Interesting advice... why do you think the Greek side is so passe? It seems like Graeco-Roman literature was the default interaction in older scholarship. Is it a reaction or what?

Alex said...

Mike, thanks for the answer in the comments to the last post and for posting this extended version. It's a great resource.

Brandon said...

Read something by Johannes Weiss. :-)

Anonymous said...

Good resources Mike. I hope one day I'll make it to Greece and will indeed send you a post-card.

Eric Rowe said...

Regarding this:
"(3) the interface with Hellenism and Roman society was arguably one of the driving forces behind the sociology and theology of Diaspora Judaism and early Christianity"
I would up the ante even more. Not only was the interface with Hellenism and Roman society a driving force behind the sociology and theology of Diaspora Judaism, but it was of Palestinian Judaism as well. And the fact that many sources of that milieu were written in Hebrew does not erase this fact. A good reference that illustrates this in the case of rabbinic literature is the two volumes, Greek in Jewish Palestine and Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, by Saul Lieberman. I believe the Greco-roman background also proves valuable in the deuterocanonical books, and I bet we are yet to see some of the light it could shed on even such an anti-hellenistic library as the DSS. Rather than divide the possible background material for the NT into two categories, the Jewish and the Greco-Roman, we should instead see the Greco-Roman as the broad umbrella that in some ways enveloped the whole Mediterranean world and all its constituent people groups and cultures, with the Jewish being one of those subgroups.

Nick Kiger said...

I would add "The Religious Context of Early Christianity: A Guide to Graeco-Roman Religions" by Hans-Josef Klauck and Brian McNeil to your list.

I agree that the influence of Greaco-Roman religious practice has taken a back seat to the Jewish influence on the NT. I have even found this true of "seasoned" NT scholars.

Henryk G said...

I would also suggest:
"Jesus and Archaeology"
by James H. Charlesworth (Editor) (ISBN 978-0802848802) would be helpful. Indeed the leitmotif of this book is the importance of archaeology to NT studies.

Eric Rowe said...

Well, as long as we're adding books to the reading list, I think I should add that my professor, David Aune, is really one of the best when it comes to work on the intersections between NT studies and broader G-R literature. His more specialized works on prophecy in the Mediterranean world, magic, and the Apocalypse, all bear this out. But he has two more general works that also should really be in the libraries of people who want to make sure not to neglect this area, The New Testament in its Literary Environment, and The Westminster Dictionary of the New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric.

Ben Byerly said...

Given these, has anyone developed differences (especially theological) between Diaspora Judeans and those that lived in Palestine?

I've got a quote from Collins who lists four differences, but does not develop the argument. Kraabel seems to say that there are no differences; both were thoroughly Hellenized.

Tony Siew said...

Mike, I am beginning to see the light and have taken time off to study Graeco-Roman literature. Thanks for the biblio. I will copy it to my file.

David Reimer said...

And advise these future Ph.D. candidates that they in turn advise their students, parishoners, nieces and nephews, who are interested in NT studies to start their language studies with Classical Greek.

David Reimer

Larry McCallister, Jr. said...

I'd add Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians by Clinton E. Arnold. He interacts with the Graeco-Roman culture of magic in their religions and how Christ triumphs over the "powers".

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting post and, unfortunately, on target. My experience, though, as a NT PhD student has been that our professors forced us to engage Greco-Roman Lit as we examined NT themes and documents. Greco-Roman lit is somewhat of a default in (serious) scholarly work on the NT and most people i know if various programs are working in that lit.

As future NT PhD students look at programs for application, take this advice to heart and be sure you are getting into a program that takes all aspects of the ancient Mediterranean and the Roman Empire into account in its approach to NT studies.

Michael said...

Hi Dr. Bird,

Can you do an updated list? And one more comprehensive?

Michael Metts