March 9, 2009

Location, Location, Location (and Time?)

I love, love, LOVE this quote from Matthew Montonini's interview with Gary Burge about his new book, The New Testament in Antiquity, I just found from last month. (I'm hoping Michael Halcomb makes good on his threat to blog through the book, also.) The quote:
...everyone living in Jesus' world knew the difference between someplace like Galilee and Judea. The Decapolis east of Galilee was Greek; lands west of Galilee were Jewish. To live in Sepphoris meant one thing; to live in Caesarea meant another. To understand Jesus' world, we must also understand the many geographical assumptions he and his followers lived with day after day. And when we do, new insights emerge.
Yes! Understanding geography is just like selling real estate or opening a deli - the most important rule is location, location, location! But what about time? Burge also said, in the embedded video interview:
...each of [the book's] sidebars illustrates some fascinating aspect of life in the ancient world or perhaps in rabbinic Judaism and this once again reminds the student that they are travelling to a new country when they begin to read the New Testament."
Notice how the word "ancient" is transferred out of a temporal and into a geographic-slash-cultural frame of reference: "travelling to a new country". The emphasis shifts immediately from the historical term "ancient" to the cultural-geographic "world". Maybe I shouldn't fuss about marketing and we'll see what the book's really like. But I've seen other examples where writers use the word "background" for a sense and flavor of history, when they're really just talking about culture.

Where's the real history? What about events and their sequence? That "ancient" world was not static in time. Things changed almost constantly! Wars and rumors of wars actually came and went within particular time windows. When Emperors, Governors, Prefects, Procurators, Kings, High Priests and Ethnarchs die or get replaced, the whole political environment shifts. Sometimes that matters a lot.

Caesarea was a day from Sepphoris by horse or carriage. If 35 miles really matters so much, and it absolutely does, just imagine what a difference a year can make. To piggyback on Burge himself, I'd say that to understand the events in Jesus' world, we must also line up the chronological sequence he and his followers lived out, year by year. And when we do, new insights emerge. Indeed, believe you me, they do.

Will the "Antiquity" of the New Testament come out in The New Testament in Antiquity? Probably in general. But I'll be shocked (and yet thrilled) if it even attempts to outline, flesh out and string together several decades worth of sequentially temporal details. We shall see...

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