Review of “What Was the World of Jesus?” by Carl E. Roemer

Carl E. Roemer, What was the World of Jesus? A Journey for Curious Pilgrims (Bloomington: True Directions, 2014), 635 pp.

What Was the World of Jesus? by Lutheran theologian Carl E. Roemer promises to have current appeal for at least two reasons. In the first place, it follows on the heels of a 2014 New York Times #1 bestseller by Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus. While Roemer covers much of the same ground as Aslan does, in keeping with more traditional scholarship he reaches a totally different conclusion.

Secondly, although many popular volumes have addressed various contexts in which Jesus came to prominence, few have the vision which Dr. Roemer’s breadth provides. One can read about the Greco-Roman or Jewish backgrounds to the New Testament in books by Metzger (2003), Luke Timothy Johnson (2010), or J. J. Scott (2000), but this volume’s 600 plus pages cover historical, theological and social contexts in one tome.

Most importantly, Roemer’s larger vision assures that not only will the reader be familiar with the world of Jesus at the end of this first volume, but she/he will be prepared to understand in a new way the focal point of a projected Volume II, Who in the World is Jesus?

Carl Roemer graduated from Concordia Theological Seminary in Springfield, Illinois (1964) after which he studied New Testament at Friedrich Alexander University in Erlangen. Subsequently, he earned a Ph.D. in intertestamental literature and history from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (1978). He taught in the Judaic Studies Department at the State University of New York ten years. He also served as a chaplain in Binghamton State Hospital in New York and remains a member of the Professional Chaplains Association. Dr. Roemer has continued to serve as both a preacher and teacher in Lutheran congregations, building his competency and interests in Second Temple Judaism, Late Antiquity and the general context for the world of Jesus.

The secondary source bibliography for this volume shows that Dr. Roemer’s reading interests have continued through the years, encompassing classics by von Rad, Weiser, Pritchard and Reicke, new directions led by Sanders, Grant, Finnegan, Bright and Brown and more recently by Crossan, Borg and Witherington. Jewish scholarship from Netzner, Neusner and Yadin are included as well. In his years of study and teaching, Dr. Roemer came to believe that too much scholarship was either narrowly focused or directed primarily to scholars. Laity were not invited into theological discussions either because technical language was prohibitive or, quite simply, because readers were not addressed in a personal way. Further, he believed that stereotypes and prejudices developed over centuries within Christian communities not only distorted the needed worldview, but also the message and work of Jesus.

As a good Lutheran, Dr. Roemer decided to reposition the question, “What does this mean?” For him,  it meant that a greater use of introductions, summaries, detailed outlines, charts, tables, maps, and photos (many taken by the author himself) might make the content more accessible.

Additionally, he decided to construct the reading/learning experience as A Journey for Curious Pilgrims (the subtitle). Departing from traditional third person usage, Dr. Roemer often speaks in the first person singular or plural and addresses the readers personally in the second person. Following his lead, I will have to admit that such usage occasionally appears awkward to me. When he writes, “So, here then, dear pilgrim,” or, “we’ll delve into factors…,” as he hints at new directions, I’m not sure if I’m ready to accept the embrace of the scholar from his podium. Alternatively, he may be encouraging a trend.

The six chapters of the volume are neatly summarized in a detailed index that helps the reader find specific topics. Chapter One explores the three models of leadership used in the biblical era under discussion: judges, prophets/kings and priests. Chapter Two demonstrates the “universes of meaning” that undergird the leadership models when faith and survival itself were threatened, namely the Torah, the Wisdom tradition and Apocalyptic perspectives.

In Chapter Three, a detailed progression of dates, names, bios and places emerges in order to prepare the reader for the coming world of Jesus. Beginning with the Maccabean Revolt in 167 B.C. and concluding with the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., readers are helped to understand the numerous biblical references to rulers and kingdoms, to Herods, Herodians, Roman procurators, Samaria, Idumea, Decapolis, Judea as well as Syria, Tyre, Sidon, Galilee, Caesarea, Capernaum, and Jericho. In general, “pilgrims” are encouraged to understand how a first-century Jew understood the world and how the message of the Kingdom of God sounded to contemporaries.

Chapter Four explores the social and economic context, more specifically, the stories of the little people. Within such a context, judges, prophets, messiahs and zealots are analyzed. One can understand from this perspective why Jesus of Nazareth was not, despite Resa Aslan’s claims, a zealot.

Chapter Five delves into the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. And Chapter Six shares the physical contours of the Holy Land, inviting readers into the towns and villages of Galilee and Judea. The values, language, and synagogues are discussed. Importantly, women and family life are addressed. Last of all, the Greek world in late antiquity with its Cynics, Stoics and Epicureans are introduced.

One must decide whether such rich detail is to be read straight through in several sittings or whether this book is meant to be a reference tome in a personal, church or seminary library. Certainly, the latter purpose is supported with the detailed Table of Contents and the Index. Whether for preparing sermons, teaching or participating in a Bible Class, this volume does in an updated way what Alfred Edersheim, George Lamsa, Robert Grant and others did for previous generations seeking to understand the New Testament in its context. However, there are those sections that readers will find compelling, making it difficult to end a session for the night.

Particularly meaningful are the excursions that provide insights into the reasons for developing theologies or political and social attitudes. For example, Dr. Roemer helps readers understand the rationale for the growth of apocalyptic views (453). Cross-fertilization with other religions like Zoroastrianism helped the Jews make sense of the destruction of Jerusalem while at the same time maintaining integrity with their own heritage and belief. Additionally, the End notes are filled with fascinating information making them worth a good read on their own.

Given the breadth and scope of this volume, typographical and spelling errors can be forgiven in a first edition. Readers may want to send these and numerous others to the publisher: “phelgematic” (606), “salvivic” (34), “Ptolomy” (49) and “through story” (37).

Given the current appeal of books exploring the context of Jesus in Judaism and in world religions in general, this contemporary study by a Lutheran theologian deserves its place in church, seminary and personal libraries. Readers will be encouraged through their study to prepare for the next volume, Who in the World is Jesus?

David J. Zersen is President Emeritus of Concordia University Texas, Austin, Texas.


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