The Pauline Epistles as historical-sociological documents: a balanced, meticulous, fabulously learned study suggesting (despite itself) that when all is said and done Paul still belongs to the believers and theologians. Meeks (Religion, Yale) has organized and analyzed a vast amount of scholarly material here, and no advanced student of the New Testament can ignore his work. But the sad fact is that Paul's letters, even when read in the light of contemporary Jewish and pagan sources, really don't tell us much about the first Christian communities, and so the non-specialist reader will likely find Meeks' book, despite its richness, paradoxically thin. Thus, Meeks begins by establishing that Pauline Christianity grew up in a band of cities (ranging in size from the very small Philippi to the very large Ephesus and Corinth) that stretched from central Asia Minor westward to Macedonia and the Peloponnesus, among a population that was linguistically Greek but politically Roman. This raise en scÃ¨ne is marvelously detailed, but reaches no radically new conclusions. Meeks then goes to great length to argue that ""a Pauline congregation generally reflected a fair cross-section of urban society"" (by and large skipping the highest and lowest levels). His case is carefully made, but seems to have no earthshaking import--except for Marxists and others who maintain that Christianity had its roots in the proletariat. Similarly, Meeks surveys the formation of the ekklesia and its governance, early Christian ritual, and finally ""patterns of belief and patterns of life."" Here again he offers a masterful review of current scholarship, but his broad theoretical insights are necessarily little more than guesses. (E.g., judging from some 30 people mentioned in the Epistles, Meeks speculates that they suffered from ""high status inconsistency"" and hence might well lend a willing ear to the apocalyptic-eschatological element in Paul's message.) Still, within the limits imposed by the sketchiness of the evidence, a fine performance.