The Social World of the First Christians

Written by John Stambaugh and David Balch Reviewed By Derek J. Tidball

Literature on the social world of the early church is a growth industry. But among the many fine works being produced, this one by Stambaugh and Balch is highly recommended. In line with its title it is a basic descriptive book of the social world in which Christianity was established. Ch. 1 sets the scene by providing a historical framework and by detailing Roman administration and law. The next two chapters deal with mobility in the ancient world and the economy. The major proportion of the book is devoted to a description of the Jewish and rural society with which Jesus would have been familiar, and the Romanized and urban society in which Paul conducted his mission.

There is not a wasted paragraph in the book. Every one is packed with fascinating detail which brings the real world of the gospels and epistles alive. The authors base their description on references to primary sources but these are not unhelpfully obtrusive as they tell their story. The evidence of the NT itself is woven into the fabric they construct. For the most part the NT seems to be accepted as a reliable historical document and quoted as such. Fascinating little details emerge (the neighbourhood barber dispensed the most accessible medical care; the crown given to the winners of the Isthmian games, which may have been attended by Paul, was a crown of celery) as well as major descriptions, and these illuminate the NT text again and again, helping us to understand its original meaning. There may be little here which is not already available in the dictionaries or commentaries, but it is good to have it collected together in one continuous narrative and in a book which has a useful index.

The authors do not assume their readers know too much and have therefore succeeded in providing a basic introduction to the social world of the early church. Though clearly aware of the sociological theories which have been constructed on the material they write about, they exercise a very discreet caution about such theories. They occasionally allude to them positively, such as their references to Theissen’s work in Corinth. But the theorizing is light and they are not afraid to say that the evidence is ambiguous when they believe it to be so, as, for example, in reference to Marxist-based views that the ancient economy was based on the exploitation of the slaves. Similarly, theorizing about the Bible is also light. Occasionally one would have liked to probe further, such as when they claim that the term ‘saviour’ was not applied to Jesus Christ until relatively late by the early Christians. But such comments are unusual. Normally the NT is cited to illustrate a general point made.

The book provides a comprehensive survey of the ancient world. More perhaps could have been said about ‘wandering moralists’ and certainly about millenarianism. But you can always add to any work. It sets the emerging Christian sect in its social environment well. It draws out what it had in common with other social institutions and religious groups in a helpful way. Perhaps it does not draw out sufficiently the distinctiveness of the Christian sect, although it does refer to its distinctiveness at a number of points of detail as, for example, the fact that slaves are addressed directly rather than reflecting about them in the third person. But in justification it needs to be said that the discipline of sociology, to which this book is related, is concerned with what social groups have in common rather than their uniqueness.

If preaching is to build a bridge from the world of the NT to the world of today then books like this are a must. These two authors have collaborated well to produce the best general description of the social world of the first Christians so far.

Derek J. Tidball