Sunday, November 17, 2013

Reading Philippians in light of its historical context: Rome

Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why It Matters Today. By Joseph H. Hellerman. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications. 2013. 320 pp. (List price $17.99)

Joseph Hellerman offers profound insight into power and authority in first-century Roman society and the early church. He also offers some obligatory thoughts on their use in the church today. By far, the most important parts of this book are the first two sections dealing with Roman culture and the historical context of Paul's letter to the Philippians, a full 200 pages' worth.

When it comes to biblical interpretation, context is king. Understanding a biblical passage in light of its textual, historical, and cultural context is vital to achieving a personal understanding of the passage and correctly applying it to oneself and one's congregation. Hellerman's meticulous survey of power and authority, and specifically the honor culture, of Roman society in the first third of the book is solid gold. It squarely places the letter to the Philippians in context and provides detailed descriptions of Roman society that will help shed light on other passages and books in the New Testament. His descriptions of Roman parties and clothing as status symbols, drawn directly from first-hand accounts, will certainly color my reading of Paul's admonition to put off the old self and put on the new as well as James's admonition to not show partiality in the gathering of the church.

Further, his exegesis of key passages in Philippians in light of this historical context indirectly teaches how to apply historical and cultural context to our Bible reading, and directly expounds the Scriptures.

His last section on the church today left me a little disappointed, so I am basing my four-star review on the first two thirds of the book. This section did not have enough positive examples of church leadership to counteract the plethora of negative ones he gave. Additionally, he does not build strong link between this section and the first two, which seems to be a common problem for those of us with teaching ministries. It is necessary to highlight these links so others can arrive at the same conclusions.

Overall, I was blessed by the book, and plan on referencing it again and again for the historical perspective on Roman society.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purposes of review.

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