An eloquent social history of first-century Palestine by Horsley (Religion/Univ. of Massachusetts) and Silberman (The Hidden Scrolls, 1994). As the authors often reiterate, they are historians, not theologians; their goal is not to bolster or debunk the claims of the New Testament, but to contextualize them. They accomplish this by setting the stage of Christian beginnings in the first century, an era of profound social changes, such as escalating tenancy, spiraling indebtedness, and overtaxation by the burgeoning Roman bureaucracy. In Galilee, an obscure outpost of the empire, it became increasingly difficult for Jews to make a decent living (even fishing was transformed in this period from a seasonal, family occupation to a year-round export business, as enthusiasts in Rome developed a taste for the piquant). The region was ripe for social protest, and the authors claim this is how Christianity, ""a movement that boldly challenged the heartlessness and arrogance of a vast governmental bureaucracy,"" began. Jesus, the heart of this movement, constantly challenged Roman rule as illegitimate; the authors persuasively argue that even the ""render unto Caesar"" remark was Jesus' cryptic way of saying that everything belonged to God. The tenor of the movement changed markedly after Jesus' death, becoming more an urban than a rural phenomenon, but even under Paul it remained a social protest. Paul's remarkable missionary success was expedited by audiences' continued discontent with the Roman government, which made the promised immediate demise of all worldly principalities an attractive option. Paul displayed his protest by insisting on equality among persons; he took collections for the poor and even advocated the immediate abolition of the Roman institution of slavery. Paul's ideology was wildly popular, but not with the Roman authorities, who imprisoned him several times and eventually beheaded him for sedition. Stylishly written and rich in memorable detail, this is a rare find that actually offers fresh insight into the overstudied New Testament.