Exploring the New Testament World by Albert A. Bell, Jr.Inspired by Happy Catholic's upcoming trip to the Holy Land (there's probably still time to get in, find out here), I read this.
Albert Bell provides a comprehensive overview of the Roman world just before, during, and after the time that Jesus Christ lived on the earth. He covers the big picture elements, like the Roman government and how they exercised control (or mostly didn't) over provinces in their vast empire. He looks at the legal, moral, religious, and philosophical ideas (from the Greeks and Jews as well as the Romans) that dominated the overall culture of the time and how those ideas affected the lives of everyone in the empire. Some things are quite familiar to us living 2000 years later, such as people in big cities like Rome not going out at night for fear of robbers. Other things are completely unfamiliar, such as people being executed in barbaric ways during the games held at places like Rome's Colosseum. Bell also discusses minor, everyday things, like meals, social outings, dress, and the mingling of various classes together.
The point of this review is to give readers of the New Testament a better understanding of the context in which the gospels and epistles were written. Little details become more significant (like Paul's use of terminology from Greek philosophy and religious cults in order to speak more clearly to his listeners). Things which are not described because any first century AD reader would automatically understand are explained. For example, dates are not mentioned in the writings because many towns and kingdoms had their own numbering system based on when local rulers reigned. I found this book very helpful in laying out what the world was like back then.
The author is especially sensitive to the difficulty of his task, i.e. presenting the world as it was two thousand years ago. He gives fine overviews but also advises readers to use his bibliographies to find out more, especially in areas readers find interesting or are uncertain about. He challenges us to learn more about the foundations of Christian faith so we can believe and understand more fully.
Sample quote on women's hair, which is too fun to pass up:
Jewish women wore such elaborate hairstyles, involving braids and hairpieces, that "it was forbidden to undo a woman's hairdo on the Sabbath because it involved transgressing the prohibitions of 'building' and 'demolishing'" (Encylcopedia Judaica 5:981). [p.246]