Scripture is, by its very nature, history. Naturally, then, an understanding of the historical and cultural environment of Scripture can assist the exegete and preacher in making sense of the text (indeed, if I may be so bold, a lack of historical and background knowledge of the Bible is the single weakest part of many preacher’s sermon preparation). As such, I hope to draw the reader’s attention to 3 worthy history books by secular authors relate, in way or the other, to biblical studies. I have chosen one for the NT, one for the OT, and one for ecclesiastical studies.
1. New Testament studies: Mark Antony’s Heroes: How the Third Gallica Legion Saved an Apostle and Created an Emperor, by Stephen Dando-Collins (Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley, 2007)
Of all the books on the list, Dando-Collins’ work makes the most unique contribution. Collins, an Australian researcher, actually specializes in studying legions of the Roman empire. Mark Antony’s Heroes focuses on the 3rd Gallica Legion, a unit which has quite the glamorous history, having fought for both Mark Antonys, mentioned by Plutarch and Tacitus, and responsible for putting down the Jewish revolt in AD 69-70 (pp. xiii, 1). One of the book’s main arguments, however, is even more significant for NT studies. Dando-Collins’ argues that it was this very legion that would have rescued the Apostle Paul from Jewish mobs. In fact, Dando-Collins devotes multiple chapters (chs. 9-14) to basically retelling the stories in Acts (including Paul’s shipwreck), only from the perspective of the 3rd Gallica. The result is a fascinating supplementary account to that in Acts.
I cannot tell if Dando-Collins is essentially correct in his perspective on the role of the 3rd Gallica Legion in the New Testament, and I certainly won’t agree with everything he says about early Christianity. Yet Dando-Collins has done extensive research in this area and has a fairly good grasp of the history and culture of 1st century Israel under the Roman empire. Furthermore, he actually treats Scripture as a primary historical source (along with Josephus, etc.) rather than as a strictly religious text! This stands in stark contrast with secular archaeologists who treat Scripture with a “hermeneutic of doubt” (the reader should note Hershel Shanks’ cogent comments in “First Person: When is it Okay for an Archaeologist to Speculate,” BAR Magazine, http://www.bib-arch.org/bar/article.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=37&Issue=5&ArticleID=8 [online; cited 8/31/2011])
Dando-Collins weaves excellent storytelling in with extensive research and knowledge of his specialty. The result is a fascinating account both of a particular Roman military unit and of its (often violent) interaction with 1st century Judea (as well as other parts of the Roman empire). This is a book that future evangelical commentaries on Acts should at least take note of.
2. Old Testament Studies: Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West, by Tom Holland (New York: Doubleday, 2005)
Tom Holland, who has a ph.d. from Oxford, has written an extensive and fascinating account of the Persian empire and its invasion of Greece under Xerxes. The scope of the book is actually much broader than that, dealing with Persian-Greek relations, the cultures of both societies, etc., all leading to the great showdowns at Marathon and Salamis. In the process, he also deals with Persian rule over its subjects, and here is where Holland’s work contains much of value for OT studies (see esp. p. 147 for a regrettably brief discussion of Cyrus’ interaction with the Jews). Unfortunately in a couple places Holland resorts to some vulgar language in his historical narrative (e.g. when he describes what “Corinthiazein” means), but overall the book provides a well-written and fascinating discussion of both ancient Persia and Greece.
3. Ecclesiastical Studies: How Rome Fell, by Adrian Goldsworthy (New Haven: Yale, 2009)
Adrian Goldsworthy (also with a ph.d. from Oxford), challenges the popular consensus that barbarian hoards were primarily responsible for Rome’s downfall. Rather, How Rome Fell focuses on the internal conflict and civil wars that plagued the Roman Empire. For Goldsworthy, Rome’s problem wasn’t that its outside enemies suddenly got stronger, but rather that Rome itself become progressively weaker due to internal struggle. Thus,
“Perhaps we should imagine the Late Roman Empire as a retired athlete, whose body has declined from neglect and an unhealthy lifestyle. At times the muscles will still function well and with the memory of former skill and training. Yet, as the neglect continues, the body becomes less and less capable of resisting disease or recovering from injury. Over the years the person would grow weaker and weaker, and in the end could easily succumb to disease. Long decline was the fate of the Roman Empire. In the end, it may well have been ‘murdered’ by barbarian invaders, but these struck at a body made vulnerable by prolonged decay” (pp. 414-415)
Goldsworthy’s book (somewhat larger than the other two I spoke of) provides a very extensive, well-documented account of the later Roman Empire. As such, much of the book deals with the existence of Christianity in the empire, including the influence of Augustine and the ‘conversion’ of Constantine (who, by the way, does not come across as particularly “Christian” in the sense of “love your enemies”!) The result is a treasure trove of knowledge not only for ecclesiastical history but also for social and historical studies from the 2nd century onward.
4. Bonus (just for fun): Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi, by Neal Bascomb (Boston: HMH 2009).
Hunting Eichmann may not have much to do with Biblical studies per se (except that, perhaps, from a dispensational perspective even the history of modern Israel is still relevant). Nevertheless I mention this book primarily because it is one of the most well-written, fascinating accounts of history I have ever read. Bascomb blends his own primary source research (with access to key documents, interviews, etc.) with incredible skill as a story-teller. Despite being history, this book is, quite frankly, more enjoyable than the latest fictional spy-thriller. Bascomb narrates how a young Israeli intelligence agency pursued and ultimately captured Nazi murderer Adolf Eichmann (right out from under the Argentinean government’s nose).
A couple interesting tidbits. After Eichman was sentenced to death, Canadian missionary William Hull met with him 13 times, trying to get him to repent and trust Christ, yet “this was a tall task given that Eichmann had spent the past seventeen years convincing himself exactly why he did not need to seek forgiveness for what he had done” (317). Sadly Eichmann states that “he did not fear God’s judgment. ‘There is no Hell,’ he declares. What was more, he refused to confess: ‘I have not sinned. I am clear with God. I did not do it. I did nothing wrong. I have no regrets.’ Hull pressed him on this, but Eichmann was rigid in his self-made faith” (318). Tragic and unbelievable, then, that one of the greatest mass-murderers of the 20th century would cling to his own supposed self-righteousness.
Eichmann’s wife, Vera, is an interesting study. Bascomb states, “In 1935, Eichmann and Vera were married in a church, despite the derision of his SS comrades, who looked down on religious rituals. An innocent, uncomplicated Catholic girl, Vera shared her husband’s taste in classical music but did not much care for politics and declined to join the Nazi Party . . . [Eichmann’s] infrequent visits and numerous infidelities had created a distance between them. Despite their strained marriage, Vera remained devoted to her husband” (25). Years later, when Eichmann’s wife and sons joined him in South America, Bascomb recounts how “once Eichmann and Vera [his wife] were alone, she brought out the pile of newspaper clippings she had collected over the past seven years about the terrible crimes he had committed. She wanted an explanation. Eichmann grew frighteningly angry, his face turning into a hard mask. ‘Veronika,’ he said bitingly, ‘I have not done a single Jew to death, nor given a single order to kill a Jew.’ She never asked him about the past again” (79-80). In addition to raising up interesting questions about a [possibly] Christian wife’s relationship with an unbelieving husband, I think this anecdote underscores the sad yet tragic tendency of humans to deny or justify our sins. Yet ultimately all will be revealed before the Almighty God who judge the living and the dead, and it indeed a fearful thing to fall into His hands.
Finally, I leave the reader with this humorous anecdote from Bascomb’s excellent book. In describing the planning and training in preparation for the operation to capture Eichmann, Bascomb focuses on agent Peter Malkin:
“To distract himself from painful memories and his fear of failure, Malkin
focused his every waking moment on the mission ahead, examining the smallest details of the operation and his role in it. He spent hours crafting different disguises for himself and the team and many more practicing the exact moves needed to grab Eichmann. He did much of this at the gym, but he also practiced on his Shin Bet colleagues at work, grabbing them without warning from behind and cutting of their ability to scream. Nobody asked what had come over him—partly because they were used to his antics—but instead just gave him a wider berth in the hallways” (p. 170).
Yeah, try that on your co-worker in the office!
Feel free to discuss in the comments section any other history books that might be relevant for Biblical Studies.