One of the books I have found most helpful for background in biblical study is Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Malina & Rohrbaugh). Now Malina has done the same kind of commentary on the letters of Paul, with the seven generally accepted authentic epistles (1 Thessalonians; 1 & 2 Corinthians; Galatians; Romans; Philippians; Philemon). Malina reminds us that as modern readers we must enter the world of Paul. ‘Modern Christianity in all its forms has little to do with the ancestral expressions in the Jesus groups of Paul’s day’ (p 3). Malina points out that when we read the Pauline claim that ‘in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek’, we do so from our modern experience of Jews and non-Jews. But this is inadequate; in Paul’s day there were no Greeks, since there was no Greek nation, but there were people who accepted Hellenistic values. Similarly, for a 1st century farmer to say ‘I farmed this plot this year, he is really saying he is a tenant farmer in debt to a patron for seed, using a shallow plow, planting right before rainy season’ (p 5).
A few examples. When Paul starts his letter to the Thessalonians with ‘to the church of the Thessalonians’ (1:1), ‘church’ translates the Greek ’ekklesia’; it is a Greek word referring to a gathering of the entitled residents of a ‘polis’, Greek for ‘city’. This is why ‘church’, referring today to institutional christianity, lacks the social identity and calling aspect of ‘ekklesia’, and is better rendered by ‘gathering’—‘church’ as the gathering of those called by G-d. Malina and Pilch identify the cultural and historical details of Paul’s writing to a 1st century ‘gathering’; by the 21st century we have filled the biblical terms with so much theology we find it difficult to see what those terms would have meant to Paul’s readers (eg ‘slavery’, ‘Son of G-d’, patron-client). A wonderfully illuminating book.