Sunday, March 20, 2016


David L. Balch, Contested Ethnicities and Images: Studies in Acts and Art. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 345. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015. Pp. xx, 479, CD-ROM. ISBN 9783161523366. €159,00.

Reviewed by Davina C. Lopez, Eckerd College (

Version at BMCR home site


[Full disclosure: I am a contributor to a festschrift honoring David L. Balch entitled Text, Image, and Christians in the Graeco-Roman World: A Festschrift in Honor of David Lee Balch, ed. Aliou Niang and Carolyn Osiek (Princeton Theological Monographs 176; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011)].

In the academic study of the New Testament and related literature, two contentious methodological issues include a) the relationship of the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles to ancient biography and historiography and b) the connections between ancient visual representations and literary materials as related to early Christian discourses. Over the course of nearly half a century, the New Testament scholar David L. Balch has made significant contributions regarding both issues. Contested Ethnicities and Images: Studies in Acts and Arts collects his essays that focus on understanding Luke-Acts in its ancient literary milieu and assessing the utility of ancient art (especially Roman domestic art) for New Testament studies. As the texts of the New Testament do not serve solely as ancient artifacts but also as "scriptures" for a variety of communities, a critical component of these essays is their potential applicability in contemporary conversations in which biblical texts are used to carve out, and contest, claims to identity formation and cultural status.

Contested Ethnicities and Images is divided into two major sections: "Part One: Luke-Acts" comprises Chapters 1-11 and includes Balch's essays concerning the origins and development of early Christian discourses and communities according to Luke-Acts; "Part Two: Roman Art and the New Testament" includes Chapters 12-18 on the utility of Roman domestic art for reimagining the contexts and contents of the New Testament texts. A brief final section, "Part Three: Book Reviews," includes two reviews of books on topics central to Balch's work in New Testament backgrounds.

Many of the essays in this volume have been previously published; Chapters 1, 12, 14, 18, 19, and 20 are newly published here. Chapters 1 ("The Contested Movements in Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem toward Citizenships/Memberships of Multiple Ethnicities [Introducing Chapters 2-11]") and 12 ("Image and Text in Luke-Acts: Subverting Roman Imperial Images [Introducing Chapters 13-18]") set the stage for the two major sections of the book, noting, where relevant, updates to bibliographical and methodological concerns such as those posed by Emma Dench on Roman ethnicity and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and John Clarke on Roman domestic spaces. As far as other new material is concerned, in Chapter 14, "Artists in Pre-Roman Corinth and Sicyon," Balch provides a provisional sketch of evidence supporting Pliny's observation that "some say painting was discovered in Sicyon, others in Corinth" (NH 35.15) and attempts to ask whether the presence of such visual representations should make a difference for studies of the Corinthian correspondence. In Chapter 18, "Women's Fatal Loves in Art and Text: Helen, Medea, Phaedra, Thecla, Perpetua, and Felicitas," Balch builds on the work of Bettina Bergmann to suggest that early Christian martyr stories featuring women may best be read in light of Roman domestic art depicting women in violent situations vis-à-vis male partners and public spectacles. Herein the "challenge" to gender roles and stereotypes offered by early Christian women becomes more visible than in his previous essays on the topic.

Chapters 19 and 20 comprise the final section of the book and are extended book reviews of N. Wiater's monograph The Ideology of Classicism: Language, History, and Identity in Dionysius of Halicarnassus (2011) and Frederick Brenk's With Unperfumed Voice: Studies in Plutarch, in Greek Literature, Religion, and Philosophy, and in the New Testament Background (2007). In his review of Wiater, Balch contextualizes Dionysius and his modern interlocutors for scholars of the New Testament, and in his review of Brenk, he outlines the benefits of engaging Plutarch in early Christian studies.

Balch's early essays in Part One hold in common his attempts to "interpret the contested, political, plural ethnic origins of Christianity as narrated by Luke-Acts in the context of political debates around citizenship of multiple ethnicities in the early Roman Empire" (1). These essays are, on the whole, more thoroughly and coherently argued and edited than those in Parts Two and Three. Chapter 2, "Two Apologetic Encomia" is an early and decisive contribution wherein Balch compares the rhetoric of civic and domestic virtues in the encomia of Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Josephus, with some attention to the rhetorical structure in Menander, in the service of illuminating quite similar discourse in the New Testament's First Letter of Peter (1 Peter). This essay, drawn from Balch's dissertation in New Testament studies at Yale (completed in 1974, under the direction of Abraham Malherbe), discusses how ancient rhetorics of political and social change concerning ethnicity and inclusion/exclusion were not just relevant for civic matters, but that such discourses constituted religious problems as well during the early Roman Empire, and especially in those territories deemed "peripheral" to the imperial center (e.g. Asia Minor, Alexandria, Judea). Comparing and contrasting the politics, poetics, and theologies of ethnocentrism, on the one hand, and cosmopolitan universalism, on the other, has been a feature of Balch's scholarly work at the crossroads where Greek and Roman literature (especially Dionysius and Josephus) and New Testament texts (especially Luke-Acts) meet. That said, the terms on which Balch understands "ethnicity" as an ancient (and modern) category tend to be fairly opaque, despite his citation of much of the vast modern scholarship on the issue. While he appears to insist that Roman "plural ethnicity" challenges both the Greeks and the Jews and Christians (e.g. pp. 28-31), it is not quite clear what constitutes such a "challenge" and on what terms.

Nevertheless, Balch's interest in investigating "ethnic conflict and cooperation" in ancient Christian literature is traceable throughout the essays in Part One. In Chapter 3, "The Areopagus Speech," and Chapter 4, "Rich and Poor, Proud and Humble in Luke-Acts," Balch realigns the background of Paul's speech to the Athenians in Acts 17 and the rhetoric of wealth and poverty in Luke-Acts, respectively, asking what is possible when Stoic philosophers such as Poseidonius, alongside writers such as Dionysius, are consulted for their numerous parallels with early Christian discourses. Similarly, in Chapter 5, "Paul in Acts: 'You Teach All the Jews…To Forsake Moses, Telling Them Not to…Observe the Customs' (Acts 21:21)," and Chapter 6, "Political Friendship," as well as Chapter 7, "Attitudes toward Foreigners in 2 Maccabees, Eupolemus, Esther, Aristeas, and Luke-Acts," Balch extends his comparative work with Dionysius and Josephus, positing that, contrary to much New Testament scholarship suggesting a unilateral attitude of animosity toward foreigners among Jews, which is then opposed to a Christian openness toward "the other," a range of attitudes toward ethnic difference in most ethnic groups can be observed. This theme is also explored in Chapter 8, "ἀκριβῶς ... γράψαι (Luke 1:3)," and Chapter 9, "The Cultural Origins of 'Receiving All Nations' in Luke-Acts: Alexander the Great or Roman Social Policy?," wherein Balch reflects on the nature of history-writing in Dionysius, Plutarch, and Luke-Acts, focusing on the rhetorical construction of speeches and social/civic virtues in each case. Chapter 10, "ΜΕΤΑΒΟΛΗ ΠΟΛΙΤΕΙΩΝ: Jesus as Founder of the Church in Luke-Acts: Form and Function," represents Balch's most sustained contribution on the parallels between Dionysius and Luke-Acts. Focusing on political themes and problems common to these materials, rather than the genre questions that have received the most New Testament scholarly investment, allows Balch the freedom to focus on "contested values" concerning the evaluation of ethnic selves and others across texts. For example, Plutarch compares Greeks and Romans in a manner similar to Luke's comparison of Pharisees and others; in both cases one can notice an argumentative strategy involving the terms on which communities might welcome foreigners into their midst. For the Christians in Acts, this means, according to Balch, that positioning Jesus as a "founder" signifies a desire to persuade the churches to acculturate to Roman society, rather than remain separate from it; such is the prophetic stance of the Israelites as well. The final essay in this section is Chapter 11, "Accepting Others: God's Boundary Crossing according to Isaiah and Luke-Acts," in which Balch relates his research in Luke-Acts and ancient historiography to contemporary struggles for LGBT rights, specifically within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Part Two (Chapters 12-18) comprises a smaller section of Contested Ethnicities and Images that concerns possible intersections between Roman domestic art and the New Testament. Turning his later scholarly attention to the interface of material and literary artifacts as a site where contested identities might be better illustrated, Balch proposes some intersections between the New Testament texts and household frescoes and statuary in places such as Pompeii, Herculaneum, Corinth, and Rome. Though the interface between literary and material cultures is an issue of methodological interest, one will find in these essays not the delineation or application of a consistent identifiable approach but rather a series of observations and questions that often seem disparate and disconnected. For example, in Chapter 13, "Women Prophets/Maenads Visually Represented in Two Roman Colonies: Pompeii and Corinth," and Chapter 15, "Values of Roman Women Including Priests Visually Represented in Pompeii and Herculaneum," Balch argues that attention to visual representations of charismatic and priestly women in domestic scenes should greatly enhance considerations of the status of women in early Christian communities, and yet does not fully argue how that should be the case. Balch issues challenges to certain consensuses in Chapter 16, "The Church Sitting in a Garden," and Chapter 17, "Cult Statues of Augustus' Temple of Apollo on the Palatine in Rome, Artemis'/Diana's Birthday in Ephesus, and Revelation 12:1-5a." In the former, Balch uses Roman domestic art portraying patrons sitting in taverns and in open gardens to argue against the modern scholarly consensus that early Christians always reclined at their meals, and in the latter chapter he deploys images of the Apollo/Leto myths as found in the House of Livia on the Palatine Hill in Rome as well as in other Augustan monuments to propose a deeper imperial subversion at work in the New Testament's Apocalypse of John. Still, even as there are many quotations of ancient literature provided, and many possible resonances and connections mentioned, in these essays Balch does not flesh out the implications for New Testament interpretation, either rhetorically or exegetically.

Those familiar with Balch's earlier work will find his later essays on domestic art and the New Testament to be more experimental in tone and style. Nevertheless, readers of this collection will be well-served by having access to the bulk of Balch's essays in one place, as well as by the extensive indices detailing ancient authors, modern authors (divided further by section), and architectural structures and decorations. However, for a book whose author is ostensibly concerned with the interplay of literary and visual representations, it appears that the publisher of Contested Ethnicities and Images chose to include its numerous discussed images not in its pages, but in a PDF burned onto a CD-ROM included with the book. This format's advantages include PDF searchability, color reproduction of images, and capacity to zoom in on visual details. But a reading experience wherein one needs to have both book in hand and PDF on screen can be confusing at best and daunting at worst (though perhaps this issue is rectified in the e-book format) and on many devices CD-ROM technology is obsolete.

Ultimately, this collection of David Balch's essays provides an eclectic chronicle of what has been, is, and could be possible as a result of sustained critical interdisciplinary conversation between New Testament scholars, classicists and ancient historians, archaeologists, and art historians. Clearly, much has been accomplished. And yet one is reminded, while consulting these essays, that there is still much work to be done regarding questions about religious and civic discourses, contested and contestable (ancient and modern) identities, and how we might use ancient texts and objects toward imagining more robust engagements with ancient rhetorics, histories, and cultures.

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