Tuesday, 12 September 2006

The past is a foreign country ...

As L.P. Hartley astutely observed, they do things differently there.

I have long believed that the New Testament cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of the contemporary culture which produced it. Now, a new book by Mark Chancey of the Southern Methodist University, Texas, "challenges the conventional scholarly view that first-century Galilee was thoroughly Hellenized".

A recent review concludes that Chancey "succeeds in challenging the overstating of a Greek setting for first century Galilee". But this is old news. In 1993, E.P. Sanders published a study in the journal Theology Today, warning against those who "think that a few Greek inscriptions and the construction of a few Hellenistic buildings by Herod prove that Palestinian Jews were swamped by, and accepted whole-heartedly, the entirety of Greco-Roman culture". Jesus, it seems, lived in a very Jewish context, despite the proximity of Herod's Hellenistic kingdom and the looming presence of Rome.

Scholarship is often cyclical, as current ideas fall out of favour and new theories turn out to be old theories with a fresh coat of paint. But it is important that we have such debates, to clarify the meaning of history for each new generation.

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