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The City in Biblical Perspective. Biblical Challenges in the Contemporary World. London: Equinox, 2009. 132pp. $26.95..
The City in Biblical Perspective explores what the Bible has to say about cities and how that presentation can inform the practice of Christians with respect to cities. The book is divided into two parts, covering the city in the Old and New Testaments, followed by a brief epilogue.
J. W. Rogerson, Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield, wrote part 1. Rogerson’s brief introduction notes that one cannot simply transfer modern conceptions of the city to Israelite cities in the Bible, and the city in the OT is an “ambiguous symbol” (4).
In chapter 1, Rogerson uses biblical and archaeological data to describe the physical and social aspects of the Israelite city. He shows that the Israelite city was a place of power, control, and class distinctions. Thus, the city provided a platform for the OT writers to critique the abuses that arose from these aspects of the city.
Rogerson shifts to the biblical perspectives on cities in chapter 2, showing that the OT does not present a unified view of the city. He uses the stories of Cain as the first city builder, the Tower of Babel, and Sodom and Gomorrah. He also draws on the Song of Songs, Psalms 12 and 55, and Lamentations. In all these texts the portrayal is generally negative or ambiguous. But with Micah 4:1-4 and Isaiah 2:2-4, he shows the city can represent future hope of peace and justice for all.
In chapter 3, Rogerson wants to show how we can make connections between cities in the OT and our own cities. The OT helps us both critique the failures and injustices of the city while offering images of hope, and, so, “issuing a call for creative thought and action” (43).
Rogerson is strongest when he shows how understanding the Israelite city illuminates the biblical text and when he draws out the ambiguous portrayal of the city. However, his presentation is clearly weighted toward the negatives of the city, and his sample of texts is so narrow that it is not clear that this is a fair representation. In addition, some of Rogerson’s choices of texts are questionable. For example, nothing in Psalm 12 indicates a city setting or problems unique to cities. He also makes leaps that are not warranted by the text and then draws conclusions from them; for example, that slave labor was used for the Tower of Babel. Finally, the brevity (two pages) of the “connections” section and its lack of concrete suggestions may leave those interested in this book for missional purposes disappointed.
John Vincent, a Methodist minister and founder of the Urban Theology Unit in Sheffield, wrote part 2. Vincent begins with an introduction (chapter 4) of the historical setting for the New Testament, and focuses on Greco-Roman cities as centers of power and control over the surrounding countryside. He also notes a shift in perspective that accompanies the transition from the OT to the NT. In the OT, those in power in Israelite cities were presumed to be God’s people and, hence, subject to him. But, in the NT, foreigners controlled Israel from the cities. The concept of the kingdom of God presented a challenge to those powers, but only to those with “the Gospel-informed eye” (51).
In chapter 5, Vincent discusses the city in the context of Jesus’ world, including cities within Galilee, Capernaum, and Jerusalem. He examines the various social classes, as well as the place of women and outsiders in ancient cities, and he highlights how the “Jesus movement” created an alternative community that subverted the traditional roles and expectations. Vincent also presents the unique perspective of each Gospel account on the city, and shows how each can provide resources for “making connections” to the city in our day.
Vincent shifts to the followers of Jesus and the mission to the cities in chapter 6. He discusses the social structures of the cities, the social makeup of the early church, and, again, how the Christian community subverts the traditional view of community.
In chapter 7, Vincent argues for an embrace of the alternative vision of community presented by Jesus and Paul in light of the challenges of today’s “global city.” He notes ways disciples today have sought to connect “God’s Project” of the NT to today’s society: embodiment (Jesus), subversion (Jesus), compliance (Paul in Rom 13:1-2), and replacement (Revelation). He finds the last two troublesome.
Vincent also wrote the epilogue, which offers guidance on “making connections” between the biblical text and our contemporary situation. He presents three movements in this process: (1) from our situation to the text; (2) movement within the text; (3) movement back to our situation. This process is designed to imaginatively draw us into “God’s Project”: what God is doing and how that calls us to respond, especially in light of Jesus as the embodiment of the kingdom of God.
Vincent’s discussion of the social world of the NT is helpful, and he rightly reminds us that the four Gospels offer different perspectives, and hence, different resources for engaging the contemporary city. He also helpfully highlights the alternative community created by Jesus and his followers. However, much of his discussion of the social realities of the period would not have been specific to the ancient cities. That is fine, and these general social issues can have relevance for addressing issues of the contemporary city. But in a book on the “biblical perspective” on the city, I would expect a more focused treatment. Also, in places, he needs a more careful, nuanced look at texts that he appears willing to dismiss as largely irrelevant to connecting to the modern city. This is particularly true of his treatments of Romans 13:1-2 and Revelation. Surely there are creative and imaginative ways to see these texts as working in concert with texts pointing to embodiment and subversion.
Associate Professor of Old Testament
Nashville, Tennessee, USA