I have mixed memories of my teenage years. In high school I loved the academic work and largely enjoyed my part time job with a local newspaper. On the other hand I found the social world of high school, with its constant pressure to "fit in", to be alienating. The popular students, the athletes and cheerleaders, tended to look back on their high school experience as the best time in their lives. But the rest of us-"those of us with ravaged faces, lacking in the social graces", in the words of songwriter Janis Ian-were quite happy to finish high school and move on to bigger and better things. At university, where each student is more of a "free agent," I felt more comfortable.


When I read about the Mediterranean world of Jesus, Paul, and the first Christians, it reminds me a little bit of high school. In the Roman Empire of the first century there were clearly defined social classes, and people were very much aware of their place in society. (See the article "Epitaphs and Roman Social Classes" in Issue 23 of this magazine.) In high school there were groups like "jocks" and "nerds", while the Roman Empire had slaves, freedmen, and citizens.


Such a pronounced class structure had both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, a clear structure promoted order. Individuals were accountable to the group, and pressure to live up to group expectations kept people in line. Moreover, membership in a group gave a sense of belonging. Interestingly, seating at the Roman gladiatorial games was organized according to social structure, using group identity to enhance the experience of the spectators. An article in the current issue of Grace & Knowledge, "Crowd Dynamics at the Roman Arena," discusses this and other reasons for the popularity of the Roman games.


On the other hand, the rigid class structure was oppressive for the slaves, the large group on the bottom rung of the social ladder. In general, pressure to conform was an obstacle for anyone who cut against the grain of society-e.g., Christians and Jews, who resisted societal demands to participate in worship of the Emperor. This may give added meaning to the words of Paul in Romans 12:2 (KJV): "And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind ...."


Keeping in mind the social context of the New Testament can increase our understanding of the Gospels and Epistles. We saw this in our study of the "parable of the unjust steward" (Luke 16:1-8) in Issue 17, where the insight that the servant's master was more concerned with reputation than with money goes a long way toward explaining the parable. In the current issue, the article "The Rapture in Context" shows how an awareness of the subversive political overtones of Paul's message gives additional insight into his teaching in I Thes 4:13-18.


Issue 25 of Grace & Knowledge also includes articles on Phil 3:8 and Gen 26:5, an extensive report on archaeology and the Bible, and a review of a fascinating book on colonial America's reaction to the Atlantic hurricane season of 1775. Enjoy!


--Doug Ward


Issue 25





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