Dictionary of New Testament Background

  • Craig A. Evans, Stanley E. Porter
  • Jan 1, 2001
  • Series: Volume 4 - 2001

Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, eds., Dictionary of New Testament Background. Downers Grove and Leicester: IVP, 2000. xxxiv + 1328 pp. $39.95 ISBN 0-8308-1780-8.

The latest in IVP's series of New Testament dictionaries is the most prodigious to date. After largely reviewing matters of introduction and theology in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, and the Dictionary of Later New Testament and Its Developments, now we have wide-ranging and masterful articles on just about any topic of historical background one could imagine. Approximately 300 articles from 150 contributors range from as few as 500 words to over 10,000 in length.

All of the major Old Testament apocryphal and pseudepigraphal books, along with many major and minor sectarian documents from Qumran receive individual articles. So too does Josephus, Philo and, treated in one article apiece, since they largely postdate the New Testament, the apocryphal gospels, the apocryphal acts and epistles, the Gnostic literature, and the Apostolic Fathers. The Rabbinic literature is surveyed in four treatments-on midrashim, Mishnah and Tosefta, targumim and Talmud. There are entries on genres and forms of literature (e.g., apocalyptic, vice and virtue lists), as well as rhetorical devices (e.g., diatribe).

Contributors and topics well represent the explosion of social-scientific approaches to the New Testament. One can learn about patronage and benefaction as well as more well-known social institutions: marriage and the family, children, women, slavery or friendship. Short articles treat interesting sidelights such as banquets, circuses, and the arenas as well as major social forces on ancient culture (e.g., education or economics).

Almost every major Roman city and province related in some way to the New Testament receives an article, many by long time Wheaton professor John McRay, who also pens the overall detailed study of archaeology. Major articles appear on numerous large topics of philosophy, history, politics, literature, interpretation of Scripture and scholarship more generally. under headings beginning either with "Jewish," "Hellenistic" (or "Greek") or "Roman."

Occasionally articles seem more theological than the rest, but even then background issues come to the fore, as with the Holy Spirit, the Law or resurrection. Special topics not as commonly studied by New Testament students often have particularly useful surveys, as with art and architecture, music and coinage.

A preponderance of evangelical scholars punctuates the list of contributors, but the editors do not hesitate to enlist experts on each topic regardless of their theological persuasion. For example, Mormon BYU professor Stephen Robinson writes on the pseudepigraphal apocalypses of Abraham and Zephaniah. A number of the authors are world-class experts in their areas (e.g., John Collins on apocalyptic and eschatology, David Aune on Greco-Roman religion or Jacob Neusner on the Mishnah and Tosefta), while many are newer scholars still in the process of making an impact on their respective fields but with all the prospects of doing so (e.g., Clayton Croy on Epicureanism and Neo-Pythagoreanism, Bruce Fisk on the Rewritten Bible in Pseudepigrapha and Qumran and Wendy Porter on creeds, hymns and music).

Not surprisingly, the two editors and several of their colleagues at their respective institutions write the largest number of articles: Craig Evans, long distinguished in the field of Qumran research, along with fellow Trinity Western professors in their Dead Sea Scrolls Institute, Martin Abegg and Peter Flint (and Michael Wise who does not teach there), account for a substantial majority of the articles on Qumran and its literature. In keeping with his far more widely ranging interests and previous writings, Stan Porter (husband of the aforementioned Wendy Porter) pens treatments of topics as diverse as NT chronology, Greco-Roman festivals and holy days; Greek grammar, inscriptions and papyri, Latin language, ancient versions of the New Testament in languages other than Greek, the Septuagint and textual criticism. Porter's junior colleague at the University of Surrey in London, Brook Pearson, also contributes a substantial number of shorter pieces with considerable acumen (Alexander the Great, Antioch, Aristobulus, Associations, etc.).

Some of the entries prove simply outstanding (e.g., Craig Keener's overviews of adultery and divorce, family and household, friendship, marriage and head coverings, replete with the voluminous references to primary source material for which his scholarship has become known). Most are very solid and informative, state-of-the art in coverage, ample in bibliography and even-handed in assessing the evidence. Some represent the drastic abridgment of book-length works (e.g., Scot McKnight on Jewish proselytism); others reflect fresh research that could merit expansion into book-length works (e.g., D. A. Carson on pseudonymity and psuedepigraphy).

Occasionally an author will tout his idiosyncratic perspective in a way that makes the article less what one would expect in a reference work like a dictionary (e.g., Bruce Chilton in his understanding of Jesus and the early church with respect to the purity laws of Judaism). Interestingly, with a couple of Chilton's articles and a handful of other pieces scattered throughout the volume, the editors did not hesitate to compose additional paragraphs and intersperse them throughout the articles with brackets at the end of each author's section letting one know who wrote what.

Occasionally, too, the choice of a scholar generates a perspective with which most evangelicals would at least partially disagree; it is curious, for example, why Harry Gamble was asked to write on the formation of the NT canon or on literacy and book culture. The former article reads like the product of the standard liberal consensus, which is significantly flawed at several points; the latter is unaware of recent scholarship (particularly by Alan Millard and Richard Bauckham) that provides considerable evidence for a greater amount of literacy and use of books in the first-century Roman empire than is usually suspected.

With 300 opportunities one can always quibble at the selection or omission of a particular topic. Do we really need an individual article on Maria the Jewish alchemist. How many New Testament scholars have ever heard of Maria, I wonder? While other major Greco-Roman philosophies get individual treatments there is no entry on the Sophists (despite Bruce Winter's major recent work on that group). Are Tacitus and Suetonius that much more important for NT interpretation that they deserve individual articles when Herodotus and Thucydides do not? And why do we read about "Kissing" and "Milk" in separate articles, good though they are? (Love and water appear far more commonly in the New Testament, in theologically loaded texts, but do not have discrete discussions surrounding them.)

Perhaps more substantively, do so many of the newly translated Dead Sea Scroll fragments, some so corrupt that we are unsure even of their plots or contents in any detail, deserve separate articles when several of the shorter works in Charlesworth's standard two-volume translation of the pseudepigrapha are passed over without comment? The editors' response no doubt would be that pre-Christian datings are at best precarious with the latter, while the new Qumran material has not yet received adequate coverage. And overall, the choices of material do remain outstanding.

There is also some inevitable repetition. The basic historical information about Palestine from Alexander the Great to Herod the Great reappears in varying lengths about a dozen times. But few readers will probably ever read even a majority of this massive tome; they will simply look up select entries, so that such repetition is probably necessary.

Abundant cross-references do already appear within existing articles and between entries, and a detailed subject index further ensures that the persistent researcher should be able to find a discussion, even if brief, of just about any topic relevant to this anthology, even if not under the first heading she tries.

This big book, then, is a one-stop-shopping reference tool for student, pastor and scholar alike and should become a high priority in one's book-buying budget. It will be a long time before anything of its magnitude, coverage, quality and "up-to-dateness" comes along again, or before anything like it will again be needed. An interesting closing sidelight is that one gets a glimpse into how long this project has been in the works when one comes across an article by Robert Guelich on the "Destruction of Jerusalem," updated by editor Evans, and recalls that Guelich passed away in the early 1990s!

Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary, Denver CO
January 2001

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