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The books of the Bible were written within a specific context, at a specific time, in common language. The New Testament was written in Koine (common) greek language, to a people under Roman Rule, living in a hellenized/greek culture. Ronald H. Nash wrote his book, The Gospel and the Greeks, to look at whether the Bible (the New Testament in particular) depended upon the culture for its composition. Nash looked at the influence of Greek philosophy, the influence of mystery religions, and the presence of gnosticism in the New Testament. Nash completely demolishes the hypothesis that the New Testament is any way syncretistic literature and dependent upon greek thought.
One major area of strength in his book was the delineation he makes between dependence, influence, and contemporaneous (my word not his). Nash is quick to point out that just because an author may have been familiar with an idea or notion, does not mean that it effected the ideals of the autor. In the same voice, just because an author uses similar language as a mystery religion or philosopher, does not indicate that he was dependent upon the teaching or understanding of the culture. Nash takes great care to show that common language does not prove dependence.
Nash also takes initiative to point out that most of the similarities found in philosophy and other religions and Christianity are either misunderstands or oversimplification. Whether it is the cult of Mithras, Isis and Osiris from Egypt, or other ancient supposed “resurrection” stories, Nash patiently and deliberatly points out the oversimplifications and the problems contained within the similarities of the accounts. In the same way, Nash deals with the supposed dependence of Christianity on the sacraments (the Lord’s supper and Baptism) of the mystery religions. He thoroughly debunks these as well.
His largest argument for the independence of the NT from the philosophies and religions of the ANE is chronology. For most of the religions of the ANE, the forms , the beliefs, and the teachings and sacraments, come from the 3rd or 4th century. Most would argue that at the time of the writing of the NT these religions and philosophies were taught and lived out much differently. Nash takes great pains to show that these thoughts were actually dependent upon the teachings of the NT to form their own beliefs.
This book was a great read; however, a basic understanding of philosophy would have been helpful in understanding some of Nash’s arguments. But all in all I really enjoyed this book. It was a through demolishing of biblical dependence on pagan religion and philosophy.
Most books are meant to be read from start to finish. Others are works of reference. Kregel Publications has delivered to us one of those rare books that is both. The classic work of William M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen edited by Mark Wilson was re-released by Kregel in 2001. This modern edition complements the original text with color, charts, indexes, and maps.
There are few authors that match the intellectual genius of the late Oxford professor of Archeology, Sir William Ramsay (1851-1939). In his book St. Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen, Ramsay unpacks the life of Paul in meticulous detail. Ramsay begins his great work with the following introduction,
The aim of our work is to treat its subject as a department of history and literature. Christianity was not merely a religion but also a system of life and action; and its introduction by Paul amid the society of the Roman Empire produced changes of momentous consequence, which the historian must study.
When you open up this book to read – make sure your Bible is close by. As I read it I began to understand how rich the biblical text really is, especially the writings of Luke. The details that he gives, or in some cases leaves out, tells us much about the life of Paul and the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. The book is laid out to follow the chronological life of Paul through the text of the book of Acts and his own letters.
One of my favorite sections of the book gives a clear and plausible understanding of Luke’s usage of the names Saul and Paul to describe the man who met Jesus on the road to Damascus. I won’t spoil the excitement of discovery – you will have to read it for yourself.
The chapter titled The Apostolic Council was most informative. Ramsay describes in great detail with razor sharp distinctions the events leading up to the Jerusalem Council and how the account in Acts 15 is enlightened by Paul’s writing in Galatians 2. Ramsay’s meticulous interaction with the biblical text produces a grand story of how the events unfolded.
The magnificent work of Ramsay has answered many critics of Doctor Luke and the accuracy of his writings. Once a skeptic himself, Ramsay writes this,
Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy…this author should be placed along with the very greatest historians.
If you are looking for a book that reads like a fast paced novel, this is not it. I was only able to read a few pages at each sitting for two reasons. One, I’m a slow reader. Two, the detail and depth Ramsay packs into each sentence is quite astonishing. If you use this book as only a reference you will certainly be rewarded. But if you also take the time to plow through it, it will change the way you look and understand the text of Scripture. A seminary professor of mine would often refer to books of high importance that any serious student of the Bible and Christianity should read. My friend and nicknamed those books, the uninformed-until-you-read-list. St. Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen is one of those books.