Life In the Greco-Roman World (Book Recommendations)

[updated 4/10]

Great books change everything about a long, dragging, late night flight.

Last night I took my place on a crowded a jet to discover we were grounded for 45-minutes due to air traffic. Normally that’s a big bummer when you are already expecting another 3 hours of flight time and the tendons in your knees are being dented by the seats in front of you. But it wasn’t such a big deal since it gave me more time to read my new historical novel, A Voice in the Wind by Francine Rivers. By the time the plane landed I was over 150 pages into a book that I did not put down the entire time. And that’s how good books redeem bad flights.

But to get good recommendations we need to know discerning readers and that’s why I’m glad you read this blog. Last week I asked you for book recommendations that shed light on the everyday social life and the cultural heritage of the first century Roman world to gain a deeper understanding of the complex world that frames New Testament Christian history. Your response was overwhelming. I received book recommendations through the blog comments, email, from friends on Facebook, and from followers on Twitter. It is obvious that many of you have studied this topic from quite a broad array of genres from technical textbooks to historical fiction.

For my own benefit and future reference, I compiled the book suggestions into a select bibliography. This list includes the books that I currently own (º), those that I own and have read at least in part (•), and many of the books that are now on my list of books to buy and read in the future (*). Thanks to everyone who offered suggestions! Here’s the list (updated on 4/9):

Non-Fiction, Technical and Textbooks

•Eckhard Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 2 volumes (IVP, 2004), 1,972 pages, $56.70 Amazon.

ºEckhard Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods (IVP, 2008), 518 pages, $23 Amazon, $22 WTSB.

*James Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era (IVP, 1999), 352 pages, $15 Amazon, $15 WTSB. See Craig Blomberg’s review here.

*Moyer Hubbard, Christianity in the Greco-Roman World: A Narrative Introduction (Baker, 2010), 344 pages, $24.99 Amazon. Read Ben Witherington’s glowing review.

*Bruce Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (WJK, 2001), 277 pages, $20 Amazon.

*A. A. Long, Hellenistic Philosophy (Duckworth, 2010), 288 pages, $32 Amazon.

*Peter Connolly, The Ancient City: Life in Classical Athens and Rome (Oxford U, 2000), 256 pages, op.

ºEverett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003), 648 pages, $22 Amazon, $21 WTSB.

*Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (Yale U, 2003), 320 pages, $20 Amazon.

*Ben Witherington, The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical World of the New Testament, Vol. 1: The Individual Witnesses (IVP, 2009), 856 pages, $31 Amazon.

*Ben Witherington, The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament, Volume 2: The Collective Witness (IVP, 2010), 838 pages, $31 Amazon.

Ben Witherington, New Testament History: A Narrative Account (Baker, 2003), 431 pages, $22 Amazon.

Ben Witherington, New Testament Rhetoric: An Introduction Guide to the Art of Persuasion in and of the New Testament (Wipf & Stock, 2008), 274 pages, $25 Amazon.

David John Williams, Paul’s Metaphors: Their Context and Character (Hendrickson, 1999), 385 pages, $25 Amazon.

•F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame: The Rise and Progress of Christianity from Its First Beginnings to the Conversion of the English (Wipf & Stock, 2004), 436 pages, $36 Amazon.

Various, The New Testament in Antiquity: A Survey of the New Testament within Its Cultural Context (Zondervan, 2009), 480 pages, $31 Amazon.

Calvin Roetzel, The World That Shaped the New Testament (WJK, 2003), 192 pages, $24 Amazon.

Paul J. Sampley, Paul in the Greco-Roman World: A Handbook (Trinity, 2003), 700 pages, $110 Amazon.

Non-Fiction, Original Sources

*Eusebius, Eusebius: The Church History (Kregel, 2007), 368 Pages, $10 Amazon, $11 WTSB.

*Jo-Ann Shelton, As The Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History (Oxford U, 1998), 512 pages, $46 Amazon.

•Michael Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers in English (Baker), 336 pages, $30 Amazon, $25 WTSB.

*Elwell and Yarbrough, Readings from the First-Century World: Primary Sources for New Testament Study (Baker, 1998), 224 pages, $25 Amazon.

*C. K. Barrett, New Testament Background: Selected Documents (HarperOne, 1995), 400 pages, $18 Amazon.

Inwood and Gerson, Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings (Hackett, 1998), 439 pages, $16 Amazon.

Mark Harding, Early Christian Life and Thought in Social Context: A Reader (Sheffield Academic, 2003), 400 pages, $72 Amazon.

Non-Fiction, Commentaries on Acts

•Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Eerdmans, 1997), 923 pages, $34 Amazon, $35 WTSB. Don Carson, for example, is no big fan of the socio-rhetorical commentary format, since it tends to place greater emphasis on sociological points at the expense of more important theological points. Yet he commends this one, saying it is “very good indeed,” and that “his ‘socio-rhetorical’ approach (which in this volume tends to mean no more than that the author is sensitive both to the world of the first century and to the structure of the text) is particularly suited to this sort of biblical book” (NTCS, 81).

*Colin Hemer, Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Eisenbrauns, 1990), 482 pages, op. Clearly a commentary worth finding. Writes Carson, it is “a wonderfully erudite study of the social context of Acts, with countless insights” (NTCS, 84).

Historical Fiction, Christian

ºPaul Maier, The Flames of Rome: A Novel (Kregel, 1995), 464 pages, $11 Amazon. Maier’s novels are unique in that he begins with historical facts, real people, and true events, and then tells these stories by filling in the gaps with fictional putty. He calls this style a “documentary novel.”

*Paul Maier, Pontius Pilate: A Novel (Kregel, 1995), 384 pages, $10 Amazon.

•Francine Rivers, A Voice in the Wind, Mark of the Lion #1 (Tyndale, 1998), 515 pages, $10 Amazon.

*Francine Rivers, An Echo in the Darkness, Mark of the Lion #2 (Tyndale, 1998), 461 pages, $10 Amazon.

*Francine Rivers, As Sure as the Dawn, Mark of the Lion #3 (Tyndale, 1998), 508 pages, $10 Amazon.

*Tim Woodroof, A Distant Presence: The Story Behind Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (NavPress, 2002), 500 pages, op.

*Bruce Longenecker, The Lost Letters of Pergamum: A Story from the New Testament World (Baker, 2002), 192 pages, $12 Amazon, $9 WTSB.

Historical Fiction, Non-Christian

*Tom Holland, Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (Anchor, 2005), 464 pages, $10 Amazon.

Colleen McCullough, First Man in Rome (William Morrow, 2008), 1,152 pages, $12 Amazon.

Colleen McCullough, The Grass Crown (William Morrow, 2008), 1,152 pages, $12 Amazon.

Robert Harris, Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome (Pocket, 2007), 305 pages, $11 Amazon.

Robert Harris, Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome (Simon & Schuster, 2010), 352 pages, $10 Amazon.

That is a wonderful list of books, a feast for any diligent reader.

Thank you for your book recommendations, and thank you for your blog readership.


9 thoughts on “Life In the Greco-Roman World (Book Recommendations)

  1. Tony,

    Great summary post and glad you were helped by your good readers. I sent my recommendation (Hemer) from home, but now that I’m in the office, thought I’d drop a couple more if that’s ok.

    Margaret Williams: The Jews Among The Greeks and Romans (A Diasporan Sourcebook) – helps show how the Jews were viewed in antiquity

    Jerome Carcopino: Daily Life In Ancient Rome – Gives good understanding of the Roman context related to physical/moral background of Roman Life as what a typical day looked like for the average Roman. Rather invaluable information for unpacking Acts and other Biblical lit


  2. Thanks for the list! Schnabel and Ferguson are particularly outstanding. I really enjoyed Hubbard, and you will too!

    I’d also add the following:

    In the “Historical Fiction, Christian” category:
    A Distant Presence: The Story Behind Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, Narrative Commentary Series, Tim Woodruff.

    Non-fictional, original sources (each of the following three works gives numerous readings from the literary context of the NT)

    Barrett, C. K. The New Testament Background: Writings from Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire That Illuminate Christian Origins. Revised edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.

    Harding, Mark. Early Christian Life and Thought in Social Context: A Reader. London/New York: T&T Clark, 2003

    Elwell, Walter A. and Robert W. Yarbrough, eds. Readings from the First-Century World: Primary Sources for New Testament Study. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.


    Non-fiction, Technical and Textbooks

    Samprey, J. Paul, ed. Paul in the Greco-Roman World: A Handbook. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity, 2003. Outstanding collection of essays examining Paul vis-à-vis adaptability; adoption and inheritance; boasting; commendation; rhetorical comparison; hardships and suffering; Greco-Roman education; exemplification and imitation; families and households; frank speech; friendship; games and the military; indifferent things; marriage and divorce; maxims; pater familias; patrons and clients; self-mastery; shame and honor; slavery; virtues and vices. Includes significant bibliographic resources for each topic.

    Evans, Craig A. and Stanley E. Porter, eds. Dictionary of New Testament Background. Downers Grove: IVP, 2000. A standard reference work compiling numerous scholarly articles.

    McRay, John. Archaeology and the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991. Not many book-length treatments of this subject. A good buy.
    Stambaugh, John, and David L. Balch. The New Testament in Its Social Environment. LEC. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986. A bit dated, but a standard work.

    Burge, Gary, Lynn Cohick, and Gene Green. The New Testament in Antiquity: A Survey of the New Testament within Its Cultural Context. Zondervan, 2009. Wonderful pictures!

    I post on NT backgrounds at Orchard Keeper:

  3. I honestly don’t know how you read so much.
    I love to read but you are superhuman. How do you do it? It takes me a month to finish a 400 page novel.

  4. Thanks for these.

    A slight correction: The Tom Holland book is popular narrative history, not historical fiction. It’s also a bit before our period.

  5. Not sure if you are still looking for suggestions. But here are a few that have helped me in understanding the ancient world.

    Persian Fire, Tom Holland, 2005
    Rubicon, Tom Holland, 2003
    Rome and Jerusalem, Martin Goodman, 2007

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