This week we received our first copies of The World of the New Testament edited by Joel B. Green and Lee Martin McDonald (Baker Academic). It is a beautiful book featuring some of the finest scholarship on the cultural, social, and historical contexts of the New Testament. Five parts separate the 44 chapters: 1) Setting the Context: Exile and Jewish Heritage, 2) Setting the Context: Roman Hellenism, 3) The Jewish People in the Context of Roman Hellenism, 4) The Literary Context of Early Christianity and 5) The Geographical Context of the New Testament. (See here for a complete list of chapters.) Since I got home late last night I only had time to give it a cursory look but I was struck with this part from an essay by Lynn Cohick called “Women, Children, and Families in the Greco-Roman World.”
“Parents in the ancient world eagerly anticipated and were greatly anxious about the birth of their child. Although there might be a slight preference for sons, epitaphs for children (most of which were commissioned by parents) reveal a similar love for daughters . . . The birth itself was fraught with danger for the mother and infant; the mortality statistics are alarming. About 30-35 percent of all newborns did not survive their first month, and 50 percent of children died by the age of ten. Some estimate seventeen maternal deaths out of a thousand births. A woman who survived to fifty years of age probably gave birth to six children, with perhaps two or three living to adulthood. If the newborn seemed strong and healthy to the midwife, she would present the child to the father for acceptance or rejection. If the father embraced the newborn laid before him, the child was raised in the house; if the father rejected the child, he or she was put out. Jews did not practice infanticide. . . . The baby was fed breast milk until five months, and then cereal or bread moistened with milk, honey, or wine might be introduced to supplement breast milk. The average age for weaning was two to three years. Young children’s diets were often lacking in nutrition, especially protein and vitamins A and D, contributing to the high death rate among children less than five years of age. (184-85)
Why is this important to know? Here’s part of her conclusion:
“Having a more complete picture of the family in the Greco-Roman world, especially relating to women and children, enables the NT reader today to better appreciate the NT’s teaching and descriptions of the family. For example, Elizabeth (John the Baptist’s mother) and Mary the mother of Jesus likely faced their pregnancy and labor with some trepidation, knowing the dangers involved. . . . Turning to Jesus’ interaction with families, we find that when Jesus teaches in homes, children might be present (Matt. 18:1-5; Mark 9:35-37; Luke 9:46-47). Statistics show that life was precarious, and Jesus’ healing of Jairus’s son (Luke 7:11-17) links his story to that fact. Notice that the parents welcome with great joy their restored children.” (186)
This is just the tip of the iceberg of a volume which is rich in material. Each chapter concludes with an annotated bibliography. I look forward to spending more time with this book.
The World of the New Testament is from Baker Academic. It is a hardcover with 640 pages and sells for $49.99.