Robert Seesengood’s review of Everett Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed., is an effective reminder of how a good piece of writing can have varied effects over the course of time. Seesengood briefly mentions his first encounter with the work as a graduate student when the book was in its second edition, then his meeting with Ferguson himself, and finally, seeing this third edition later in life with a fresh take and newly discerning eye for the work. He initially comments:

Backgrounds is a general survey and introduction. Certainly one of the most charming results of reading surveys–for novice or expert alike–is the serendipitous discovery of correlations between the “biblical world” (or, perhaps better, the narrative world constructed and presumed by biblical text) and the larger history and culture of the Mediterranean basin. Such encounters always provoke pleasant (if largely irrelevant) minor epiphanies; on this reading, I realized for the first time that the biblical text of Esther and the plays of Euripides were likely contemporary (as were First Isaiah and the Odyssey). The test of any introductory survey is whether it can offer more substantial insights for exegesis.

Seesengood highlights this, which I appreciate:

Still, Ferguson’s awareness of this subtle but critical problem and his own forthright attempt to open discussion upon it deserve credit. Backgrounds remains conservative when compared to the syncretistic impression of Christian origins drawn by Helmut Koester or the evolutionary/developmental model of Christian thought and practice found in John Dominic Crossan, Burton Mack, and others.

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