Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Book Write-Up: What the New Testament Authors Really Cared About (Second Edition)

Kenneth Berding and Matt Williams, ed.  What the New Testament Authors Really Cared About: A Survey of Their Writings.  Second edition.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

What the New Testament Authors Really Cared About is an introductory textbook for undergraduates.  The goal of this book is to highlight the concerns of the New Testament authors, as they are laid out in their writings.  Fifteen New Testament scholars contributed to this book.

The first chapter of the book lays out the historical background and context of the New Testament.  It narrates the experience of the Jews from the exile up to and including the first century C.E.  It also defines the Jewish groups and movements that existed in the first century C.E., including the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Qumran community.  The final chapter of the book concerns the canonization of the New Testament.  It discusses the development of Christian tradition from an oral stage to a written stage, as well as the attempts by certain church fathers to identify books as inspired and authoritative.  The chapter plausibly maintains that the desire on the part of early Christians to set up a canon may have proceeded from controversies—-with Marcionites, Gnostics, and Montanists.

The chapters in between the first and the last chapter are about the New Testament books themselves.  A page introduces each book, and the page discusses ideas about authorship, date, the locations of the author and the audience, and the purpose of the writing.  Overall, the pages are conservative.  They rely on patristic tradition in identifying the authors of the books.  In contrast with a number of critical scholars, they believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote the Gospels that bear their names, that the apostle John wrote the Book of Revelation, and that Paul wrote Ephesians, Colossians, and the pastoral epistles.  They tend to date the New Testament writings rather early, as in prior to 70 C.E., even though the Revelation chapter accepts a date for the Book of Revelation in the 90s.  At times, these pages briefly mention liberal scholarly views and interact with them, or they mention debates within scholarship, such as the debate over whether Paul wrote to Northern Galatians or Southern Galatians, or the debate about what Papias meant when he said that Matthew wrote a Hebrew source.

In the chapters themselves, there are occasional references to scholarly debates.  One of the chapters about Paul, for example, succinctly differentiates the Old Perspective on Paul from the New Perspective.  The main focus of this book, however, is on the religious themes that are in the New Testament books themselves.  Some chapters delve more deeply into the historical context than other chapters.  The chapter on the Book of Revelation discusses Emperor Domitian and the belief that Nero would return.  The chapter on Philippians states that ancient Greeks and Romans did not value humility in their honor-shame culture, as the apostle Paul did (I did some reading on this, and I find that to be partly true).  Overall, however, the chapters focus on the content of the books themselves.  Some books on the New Testament that attempt to do this can be pretty boring, in that they regurgitate the details in the text and fail to offer any fresh insight.  I did not find this particular book to be boring, however, because it did attempt to clarify the text: the chapter on Mark offers possible reasons that Jesus wanted to keep his Messiahship a secret; this chapter also explained details of Mark 13 (e.g., why Jesus said that false prophets, wars, famines, and earthquakes do not indicate that the end is yet); the chapter on John interprets Jesus’ changing of water into wine in light of what Old Testament prophecies say about wine in the eschaton.

What concerns me is what students will not learn from this book.  Students will not learn about Q, the source that Matthew and Luke supposedly used.  Students will not learn that many scholars believe that Jesus expected the end of the world to come soon.  More than one chapter says that the early Christians taught that Christians should always be ready for the end because it could come soon, but that is different from saying that Jesus had an imminent eschatology.  There is nothing about contradictions between the Gospels.  The book mentions that there are scholars who doubt the historicity of certain things in the New Testament, but, overall, it does not wrestle with that issue.  I am not suggesting that the book should have a liberal perspective.  What I am saying is that, at the very least, a student should leave an introductory New Testament class knowing about Q, since that will enable him or her to understand New Testament scholarship better.

When I first took an introductory New Testament class, I heard and read that the Gospels were diverse in their portrayal of Jesus.  How did this particular textbook handle this?  It did so fairly well.  It was not as heavy-handed about New Testament diversity as were the more liberal New Testament classes that I took as an undergraduate.  But it did not try to force a high Christology (i.e., one that sees Jesus as God) onto the synoptic Gospels.  It highlighted the particular themes in each Gospel, such as the Gospel of Luke’s emphasis on prayer.  It said that the Gospel of John had a realized eschatology—-one that believed that the blessings of the Kingdom exist now—-and yet it did not preclude John from also having a futurist eschatology.  The chapter on John did say that John’s Gospel had the concept of a new covenant, which is not a term explicitly mentioned in that Gospel, and that did disturb me somewhat; plus, I wish that the chapter on Matthew explicitly highlighted the scholarly view that the Gospel of Matthew was a Jewish-Christian Gospel, since that would make sense of so much of what the chapter said.  I suspect that the book was trying to present the New Testament writings as diverse yet not contradictory, and that probably influenced the extent to which it was willing to acknowledge diversity within the New Testament.  Overall, however, the book was not that bad in its treatment of New Testament diversity.

I give this book four stars because I did enjoy it.  I did learn things from the book, and there were parts of it that religiously edified me.  In terms of whether I recommend this book for undergraduates, I do think that undergraduates will learn something in reading it, but not enough to prepare them for more advanced studies in the New Testament.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Kregel Academic, in exchange for an honest review.

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