Author's Bias | Interpretation: conservative

Exploring the New Testament World: Foreword

Previous generations of students were instructed and entranced by T.R. Glover’s classic book, The world of the New Testament, published by the Cambridge University Press in 1931. That book, no longer in print, will now be replaced for other generations of readers by the present volume written by Dr. Albert A. Bell, Jr., whose broad knowledge in classics and history is focused on the New Testament world in still more extensive vistas—for the Dead Sea Scrolls and other documents have come to light in the years following the publication of Glover’s book.

Writing in a style that will appeal to the general reader, Bell has a knack of putting things in simple, yet memorable phrasing. Beginning his survey with the Judaic background, Bell describes the several Jewish sects that lived in Palestine during the New Testament period. Within this environment, he locates the place of Jesus and the early church. Then the scope widens and the reader is introduced to the Roman authorities who ruled during the first century. After providing thumbnail sketches of leading personalities, the author focuses on the Roman theory of law and the powers of governors to carry out criminal procedures. A discussion of how one could obtain citizenship is balanced by a consideration of the plight of slaves, who numbered perhaps half the population of Rome.

Turning from politics, Bell next guides the reader through the intricacies of Greco-Roman religions, including the mystery cults that spread from the East. This is followed by a succinct discussion of the several philosophical schools of classical times, succeeded later by Hellenistic philosophies. Here the commonly held understanding of Epicureanism as a self-indulgent philosophy is corrected and its true character, along with that of Stoicism, is set forth. A discussion of Neopythagoreanism and Neoplatonism rounds out the chapter.

From religion and philosophy, the author turns to consider the structures of Greco-Roman society. Here one finds a detailed account of the social classes (patrons, clients, slaves, freedmen, and women), as well as a description of the daily schedule of the ordinary person—including information about meals, housing, and clothing. The chapter on morality and personal relations (including family life, divorce, sexual deviance, and suicide) provides a nuanced discussion of features that lead to the ultimate weakening of the social fabric of the Empire.

The multitudinous facts of Greco-Roman history are treated with a completeness and proportion that make the book a veritable marvel of craftsmanship. In spite of all the compression that had to be exercised in delineating the history of New Testament times within the scope of some three hundred pages, Bell has escaped the danger of merely setting down a succession of facts. Each one of the topics considered in the book will assist the reader of the New Testament to understand more fully something of the society in which the early church found itself, something of the dominating personalities who played a part in this development, and something of the daily conditions of ordinary people in street and home.

Bruce M. Metzger
Professor of New Testament, Emeritus
Princeton Theological Seminary

Taken from "Exploring the New Testament" by Albert A Bell, Jr. ©1998 by Thomas Nelson Publisher. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson Publisher, 501 Nelson Place, P.O. Box 141000, Nashville, TN 37214-1000 (

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