The Urban World and the First Christians

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Steve Walton, Paul Trebilco, David W. J. Gill
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , September
     368 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Wayne Meeks’s 1983 classic, The First Urban Christians (Yale University Press), to which this collection’s title appears to pay homage, has had a double legacy in the field of New Testament [NT] studies. On the one hand, “social-scientific criticism” has been added to a number of other tools available for traditional exegesis, making Meeks’s text required reading in seminaries and a staple of doctoral exam lists on New Testament. On the other hand, some scholars have continued to pursue the questions Meeks left unanswered or unasked, asking questions of NT texts and contexts that illuminate the social realities of early Christian communities. Both approaches are well-represented in this collection, thus affirming and perpetuating that legacy. Although uneven overall, at its best this collection illustrates the vast and still-unexhausted possibilities of a fruitful integration of social theory, material culture, and social-scientific modes of analysis into both textual and historical work. 

Generally, the collected essays can be broken down into three broad categories. First, there are those essays that are primarily concerned with how cities function in the early Christian texts in rhetorical terms, or apply an exegetical lens to the question of “the city” in a particular text. Joan Taylor’s essay provides a model for this kind of work by weaving attention to cities into rhetorical criticism, conceiving of them as “actors” in the drama—in this case, Caesarea Maritima in Acts. The first part of the essay consists of a rereading of the text of Acts, noting the ways in which Caesarea functions as a stand-in for Rome. In a formal sense, the port and seat of Roman power functions as a “transit city” within the narrative and a key part of the narrative’s arc toward Rome itself (50). In the second half of the essay, Taylor describes the town’s specific archaeological features, nothing their resonances with the Acts narrative and potentially for Paul’s experience there. She pays significant attention to the harbor, the Temple of Augustus, and the palace, which in Paul’s time was the Roman Praetorium, all monumental feats of Roman engineering commissioned by Herod the Great. Taylor’s text is supported by careful maps and images that are not simply decontextualized “background” to her argument, but reinforce and complement it, providing the reader with additional ways of understanding and conceiving how Caesarea functioned politically, economically, and as a monument to Roman rule. Overall, she achieves a productive synthesis between text and material culture, evoking a powerful image of Caesarea in Paul’s time as well as noting the specific ways the city functions in the text of Acts. 

Next, there are essays that attempt to describe early Christian communities by incorporating and applying social theory. Wei Hsein Wan’s contribution is exemplary, applying theoretical perspectives on the construction of space to the social history of early Christian groups, primarily as read via 1 Peter. By drawing on sociologist Henri Lefebvre and his later interpreters, Wan emphases the importance of the construction of social space to the self-concept of early Christians. By comparing two conceptions of space—the space of Roman physical propaganda and the “spiritual house” of 1 Peter 2:5—he suggests how disparate Christian groups throughout the “diaspora” of Asia Minor (1 Peter 1:1) were able to forge a common sense of belonging through a shared alienation from spaces dominated by imperial messaging. Wan’s piece stands out in this collection (and in NT scholarship in general) due to its seamless yet circumspect integration of social theory into historical questions posed by NT texts. Hopefully Wan is a harbinger of a generation of new scholars who feel as comfortable appropriating the insights of theory as they do engaging in close readings of texts. 

Finally, several essays have a sharper focus on the history and archaeology of particular cities as background to Christian writings. Cédric Brélaz uses the question of why Philippi is the only city identified as a Roman colony in Acts as a jumping off point for a detailed exposition of the historical and archaeological background of Paul’s mission there. Brélaz’s examination of textual and material sources provides a wealth of details about Phillippi’s history and status as a colony in Paul’s time, though Brélaz suggests that the author of Act’s identification of the city as akolōnia was added for dramatic reasons rather than purely descriptive ones. Like Taylor, Brélaz spends time describing the layout of the city and the archaeological record of Roman construction in order to contextualize Paul’s experience there. He goes even further by locating Paul’s hearing before the authorities within the city’s physical geography, as well as framing Paul’s preaching in the city in the context of the three major ethnic groups present there: Romans, Greeks, and native Thracians. Overall, Brélaz’s attention to political, social, and economic details often overlooked in discussions of biblical cities make it both a valuable resource for scholars as well as a model for the kinds of productive questions that can be asked of our data.  

A significant number of the remaining essays have an explicit or implicit exegetical or theological angle, often centering around “the city” as a theological category. The popularity of this topic in contemporary American Christianity suggests that this volume as a whole would be most useful for clergy looking for scholarly NT approaches to “the city.” Naturally, different scholars will find particular essays more or less useful; considered as a whole, the most valuable contribution of this volume for scholars of NT/Early Christian literature may be in providing models for serious attempts to engage other disciplines and appropriate their insights. Although they are certainly not the only examples of this kind of work, the contributions of Taylor, Wan, and Brélaz stand out in this regard.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ben Sheppard is a doctoral student in Ancient Mediterranean Religions in the Religious Studies Department at the Univeristy of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steve Walton is professor in New Testament at St. Mary's University, Twickenham.

Paul R. Trebilco is professor of New Testament studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

David W. J. Gill is professor of archaeological heritage and director of heritage futures at the University of Suffolk.


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