The Urban World and the First Christians is an edited volume comprised of revised essays first presented at a conference hosted by the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible at St Mary’s University, Twickenham in 2015 (p. xii). The book demonstrates a multi-disciplinary approach to early Christianity in its urban context, with contributors including New Testament scholars, classicists, and human geographers. This approach provides an interesting mix of insights into the subject matter. In the case of the cities dealt with in numerous essays such as Philippi (Walton, Brélaz) and Jerusalem (Sleeman, Leonhardt-Balzer, Runesson), multifaceted portraits of the cities and their churches emerge.
The book is divided into two sections, approaching the relationship between the early Christians and the urban contexts from opposite directions: Part 1 considers how an understanding of the urban context(s) can shed light on the early church and its texts; Part 2 considers how early Christians viewed and wrote about cities.
Part 1 begins with Anthony Le Donne’s presentation of the category of nation (ἔθνος) as poliscentric. He argues that Jerusalem loomed large in the identity of Jews (in Judea and the Diaspora) of the Second Temple Period. This insight is developed further in Jutta Leonhardt-Balzer’s essay considering the attitudes of Diaspora Jews to Jerusalem as their mother-city and their diaspora locations as their father-city. Her essay also has much to contribute to current discussions utilising “exile” terminology in relation to the church in the post-Christian West.
Volker Rabens provides a helpful discussion of the opportunities the urban context afforded Paul in his mission, but he underplays the relevance of the presence (or lack thereof) of a synagogue on Paul’s selection of cities to evangelise, and overplays Paul’s focus on large cities such as Corinth and Ephesus (pp. 111, 122). Many of the missionary opportunities afforded to Paul by the large cities were also available at the smaller centres.
A large proportion of the essays focus on aspects of particular cities and how they shape our understanding of the early Church and the related canonical and non-canonical texts. The studies by Joan Taylor on Caesarea and Cédric Brélaz on Philippi provide very interesting material that enriches our understanding of the role of these cities in Acts, particularly the way that Christianity and Rome met in these locations. Helen Morris explores Paul’s use of body imagery in 1 Corinthians in light of the use of body imagery to maintain social order in the polis. David Gill focuses his attention on how the material remains of Pisidian Antioch illuminate Acts, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians.
Paul Trebilco’s exploration of the differing attitudes towards the city of Ephesus between the Pastoral and Johannine epistles, a revisitation of his work in chapter 8 of The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), convincingly demonstrates the differing approaches of the letters. His acknowledgement of the debated provenance of these texts (p. 185), and the lack of specific urban references (especially in the Johannines), limits the extent to which he can ground his analysis in the context of Ephesus. The outcome of this is that the chapter would belong as naturally in a book focusing on the first Christians and the pagan world, or the Greco-Roman world, without any particular urban emphasis.
Part 1 concludes with a pair of essays exploring the impact of the urban environment on the education, literacy, and literary production of early Christians. Chris Keith uses the writings of Justin Martyr and Hermas to argue that class distinctions were more determinative for literacy rates than urbanisation, while Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski demonstrates the ways that the educational infrastructure and cosmopolitan nature of Alexandria offered a fertile context for early Christian education and literature production. Both chapters offer a launch pad for further research into the production and authorship of early Christian texts.
In Part 2, the focus changes from the Early Church’s context to how it wrote about its context. Anders Runesson proposes that the Gospel of Matthew’s rejection of the city of Jerusalem reveals an alternative early Christian community to that of Luke-Acts: a community based in Galilee that eschewed the urban context (pp. 234–35). Steve Walton discusses how Paul’s use of citizenship language in Philippians encourages his readers to be a “city within a city” (pp. 251–52).
A number of chapters apply critical spatial theories to New Testament texts: Matthew Sleeman (in Part 1) considers Paul’s return to Jerusalem; Paul Cloke explores “spiritual landscapes in Colossae” (p. 253); and David G. Horrell and Wei Hsien Wan write complementary chapters on the Christian construction of space in 1 Peter. These chapters are thick with the jargon of their theoretical approaches, and the value of each is impacted by the author’s control in that area. Wan’s and Horrell’s essays were both illuminating, demonstrating how 1 Peter uses spacial imagery to create a new identity for Christians, one built on Christ rather than the overwhelming imperial ideology of the first century context.
Ian Paul’s discussion of the cities in Revelation draws a distinction between the seven cities’ “function as the arena of discipleship,” and the function of Jerusalem and Babylon as “the telos of discipleship” (p. 319). He observes that while the arena may change, Christians today face the same choice of which telos to pursue.
In a final chapter, the editors offer some suggestions for further research into urban Christian communities. They invite their readers to participate in this research because it is “vital to our understanding of earliest Christianity in its city settings, and will inform and inspire Christian engagement with city life today” (p. 324). This engaging volume is a valuable contribution to that field, and while it is primarily an academic text, frequently points to possible applications of this research for the church today as it grapples with gospel ministry in the urban context.