Peoples of the New Testament World: An Illustrated Guide, by William A. Simmons. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008. Pp. 352. $37.95.
William A. Simmons has contributed a first rate introductory text for New Testament studies. Peoples of the New Testament World provides valuable background for the different groups of people mentioned in the New Testament. This work is not an encyclopedia with entries on each individual mentioned in the New Testament, but rather is an attractive resource that provides brilliant photos and chapter summaries of groups contained in the New Testament such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, Stoics, and tax collectors. Simmons states that “… this book can be used to supplement general survey courses …” (12) and that the work is intended for “Informed lay persons, pastors, and beginning academics …” (12) Simmons is certainly accurate with these statements. Peoples of the New Testament World is a worthy book for both instructors and individuals seeking to understand more about the background of the New Testament.
Each chapter in Simmons’ work covers a group mentioned in the New Testament. Chapter 1 is a brief yet informative history of both the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds. Chapters 2-5 cover Jewish groups including the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and zealots. Chapters 6-9 cover other groups that were often marginalized in Judea such as tax collectors, sinners, “people of the land”, and the Samaritans. Chapters 10-12 address groups associated with the beginnings of the Christian movement such as John the Baptist, the Hebrews, and the Hellenists. Chapter 13 addresses magic and chapter 14 examines the Herodians. Chapters 15-19 cover Greco-Roman topics including, Roman emperors, centurions, patronage, philosophers, and slavery.
The format of this work is excellent. Each chapter is broadly divided into two sections: a history of the group and an interaction with the New Testament. The historical section contains information regarding the origins of the group and traces their development up to the first century. The historical information regarding the groups is surprisingly nuanced. Generally introductory textbooks present their conclusions without discussing the problems that scholars encounter; however, Simmons introduces his readers to these discussions. For instance, in the chapter concerning the Pharisees, Simmons discusses the problems that each of the available sources present and examines multiple views before finally presenting any conclusions. Unlike many introductory texts there are brief, yet useful, footnotes included at the bottom of each page. However, equally unexpected, the footnotes are neither intrusive nor intimidating. Rather they blend in well with the text. At the end of each chapter there is a brief annotated bibliography containing the works of important scholars for further reading. Additionally, each chapter includes numerous charts, maps, illustrations, and photographs.
There are many positive aspects of this fine text. The inclusion of groups which are often overlooked in introductory textbooks is impressive. For instance, slavery and patronage are two important topics about which students of the New Testament often either have misinformation (comparisons to U.S. slavery) or no information (patronage). Since both of these topics are critical to understanding the first century, their inclusion is beneficial to students and instructors. Another important chapter examines the debate between magic and miracles. This debate is usually either overlooked or dismissed quickly with the claim that miracles were superior to magic. Simmons forges a new path by presenting multiple scholarly opinions concerning the relationship between magic and miracles.
The footnotes and bibliographies are what truly separate Peoples of the New Testament World from most other introductory textbooks. The footnotes contained within each chapter provide additional resources for anyone seeking to examine issues further. These footnotes also provide the reader with the differing opinions of scholars on important issues. The annotated bibliographies at the end of each chapter are also important for individuals looking to pursue more details concerning a particular group. Finally, when taken in conjunction with the comprehensive bibliography at the end of the work, these bibliographies can function as the first step in finding sources for a research paper.
Another important feature of this work is the constant references to primary sources. Rather than simply presenting his own conclusions, Simmons presents the reader with material from a myriad of primary sources such as Josephus, Eusebius, Quintilian, Strabo, and Philo. Simmons’ interaction with primary sources varies from brief quotations to summaries to discussions in footnotes. Additionally, Simmons provides an annotated bibliography of the primary sources used within the work in an appendix.
Despite the many excellent elements of this work there are some potential issues. While most are minor, there is one important issue. There is not a thorough enough treatment of Greco-Roman religions and philosophies. While the Epicureans and Stoics are presented in detail, the Cynics are surprisingly absent. Additionally, there is only a brief mention of the imperial cult and no mention of Mithraism or the cult of Isis. These may be critical omissions for anyone seeking to use this book in a course that examines Christianity within its contemporary religious environment. Another more minor issue is that the Essenes, or Qumran community, are not examined in their own chapter. Instead, information is scattered over multiple chapters and the bulk of the discussion concerning the Essenes is embedded in the chapter describing John the Baptist. Moreover, in this chapter the Essenes are described as being “tantalizingly” similar to John the Baptist. In this reviewer’s opinion, the connection between the Essenes and John the Baptist is presented in too strong a manner. Another minor weakness, that others may actually consider a strength, is the lack of nuance concerning New Testament sources. While sources such as the Rabbinic texts are examined carefully, any New Testament passage is presented without discussion. Thus, the countless references to Acts are presented as historical facts without any further discussion. Finally, although the in depth interaction with primary sources is a great strength of this work, there are few lengthy quotations of material from primary sources. This may be intentional as an attempt to prevent the length of this work from becoming overwhelming. Furthermore, this issue can be resolved by accessing on-line versions of the primary sources or by supplementing this work with C. K. Barrett’s, The New Testament Background.
Overall, Peoples of the New Testament World is an excellent work that can be useful for a variety of individuals and is an informative tool for anyone studying the New Testament. For the layman, or any newcomer to New Testament studies, Peoples of the New Testament World provides valuable introductory material. Moreover, the footnotes and bibliographies mark this work as useful for beginning scholars as well. Additionally, instructors will find it useful as an introductory textbook for a variety of courses. It would be an excellent resource in an introductory New Testament course and would work well alongside textbooks such as Bart Ehrman’s The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings or Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Writings of the New Testament.