The mere prospect of understanding the complex world that surrounded the New Testament is daunting. But Warren Carter, in his new book Seven Events that Shaped the New Testament World, dramatically simplifies the task but focusing on seven critical events that defined the era for Christians. I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Carter recently about his book and you will find our brief, informative discussion below.
1. There are many books available on New Testament history, what prompted you to write this book?
Carter: I wrote this book to help readers of the New Testament locate the NT in the diverse and multiple worlds that influence its language, forms of thought, and content. It seemed to me that among NT histories, these cultural interactions, especially involving ordinary folks, did not get a lot of attention. Also, I have been looking for sometime for such a book to use with classes and while I have used several, I thought there was a need for a book such as this that highlighted key events and their cultural importance in a clear and accessible way.
2. What audience(s) do you think will most benefit from your book?
Carter: College and seminary students taking NT courses will find the book very useful. But I also have an eye on folks in churches, both clergy and laity. For churches that have groups that like to read and think about their faith, this would be a good book to engage.
3. What benefit do you think organizing the discussion around 7 key events brings to your readers?
Carter: One benefit is that the use of 7 events (broadly defined) provides readers with a time line to hang onto. This timeline provides some sense of temporal order. Yet I discuss each of the events as a doorway into wider cultural forces, whether Hellenistic culture or Jewish diversity or Roman power or emerging Christian identities. So as the book unfolds, readers gain a sense of the complex and multicultural nature of the NT world. The time line stops it being a muddle while attention to the 7 key events as doorways highlights the multifaceted nature of the NT world. The use of the number 7, though, also underscores the perspectival and selective nature of the whole discussion. We can’t discuss or know it all; we have to make decisions that shape the reconstruction.
4. You use the phrase “New Testament World” in the title. What is the intended scope of this phrase?
Carter: Chronologically the book spans the death of Alexander in 323 BCE to the “closing” of the canon in 397 CE. It discusses Hellenistic, Jewish, Roman and Christian material. We contemplated using the plural “New Testament Worlds” to indicate the complexities involved.
5. You speak often about how people “negotiated” their socio-historical context. What is it, specifically, that you wish to convey with this term? Will you give a modern example?
Carter: I use the term to indicate the fluid, back-and-forth interaction between early Jesus-followers and their environments. They existed at particular times in particular cultural structures. Some of these structures they ignored; others they invested in heavily; some they engaged ambivalently. Jesus-believers in every generation engage the same tasks. For example, how do worship styles negotiate very diverse, contemporary cultural practices: Types of music? Levels of literacy? Use of silence? Use of ecclesial traditions etc. Or, how do contemporary understandings of the Gospel negotiate current contemporary cultural values such as individualism, pleasure, or material success? To take the later issue: some preaching promises multiple wealth, some preaching calls for a turning away from evil mammon, and some doesn’t talk much about wealth, as though it is irrelevant.
6. You point out from the beginning that your book is not about retelling the lives of “great men” but rather examining the impact of great events on ordinary people. In your view, how does this help us understand history more appropriately?
Carter: Most early Jesus-followers were not found among the upper societal levels of the powerful and rich. Mostly they were non-elite folks trying to live in reasonably challenging situations in a difficult and complex world. Thinking about these folks and their daily lives helps us hear some of the ways the NT texts both reflect and address such contexts.
7. There seem to be many similarities between our world and the NT world. Which would you highlight as the most important for relating our modern existence to their ancient circumstances?
Carter: It is of course hard not to construct another historical period in our own image so I don’t want to assume either vast difference or great similarity too quickly. I do talk in the book about the NT world/s as being “multicultural.” The NT worlds were, like our worlds, very diverse and complex. They were multifaceted and Jesus-followers were a very small percentage in the first century. There was considerable difference, whether of socio-economic, ethnic, or gender constructs for example. There were complex structures of power. Being a follower of Jesus in such worlds was always under construction. I think that is true for us. Notice I use the plural “worlds” here!
8. If you were to pick out the single most critical historical event that Christians need to understand in order to better grasp the NT, which would it be? Why?
Carter: Sorry but I can’t identify one single event. If I could, I would have written a book entitled One Key Event That Shaped….
9. How has studying history affected your spirituality and understanding of Christianity?
Carter: I think Christianity is an embodied identity. Studying history helps me think about my own negotiations as a Christian of twenty-first century US culture. We live Christianly at particular times and places, in particular communities and circumstances. Being Christian is always wrapped up in such locations. In this book I try to think about ways in which people constructed Christian identities in the complex world from which the NT texts emerged and which they addressed.
10. In what ways do you hope this book will help churches?
Carter: I hope it will help churches understand the NT texts a little more. But especially I hope it will help them engage the sorts of questions and responses the NT texts engage as they negotiate their contemporary worlds.