Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology

  • Paul J. Achtemeier, Joel B. Green, Marianne Meye Thompson
  • Jan 1, 2003
  • Series: Volume 6 - 2003

Achtemeier, Paul J., Joel B. Green, Marianne Meye Thompson Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans. 2001 xii + 624 pp. $ 35.00. ISBN 0-8028-3717-4.

It has been twelve years since Donald Guthrie's classic evangelical New Testament introduction was last revised. Carson, Moo and Morris' widely-used, scaled-down equivalent is now a decade old, though a revision is in the works. So a highly- touted, fresh, conservative New Testament introduction immediately raised my hopes that I would have an excellent, new textbook to use for my year-long introduction and survey required for all our seminary students. My anticipation rose even higher when I read that historical-critical concerns were to be abbreviated with much more of a focus on theological and literary questions, precisely the balance I already try to create in my classes.

This nicely laid-out hardback is handsomely furnished with black-and-white photographs, maps, charts. Numerous sidebars often present very interesting and relevant excerpts from intertestamental or Greco-Roman literature that help us put a given text or theme from the New Testament into cultural perspective. There are almost no footnotes but well-chosen items for further reading in brief bibliographies at the end of each chapter. There is the inevitable unevenness of quality of a book with three authors, but only rarely did I detect marked changes in style or statements from one part of the book that did not cohere well with those from another.

The opening three chapters are very clearly written with the introductory student obviously in mind. "What Is the New Testament?" accurately describes the contents, historical, literary and theological nature of this collection of Scriptures, though one wonders how it is possible to describe letters like Hebrews and James as providing "few clues regarding their intended destinations" (p. 4), especially in light of the ample material later in the book on these very topics. "The World of the New Testament" treats the most essential historico-political, religious and sociological background material, though the first two of these are treated much more briefly than one is accustomed to in a book of this genre. "The Nature of the Gospels" surveys the three quests of the historical Jesus, discusses gospel genre, and introduces source, form and narrative criticism. Matthew, Mark and John are labeled biography, but Luke by adding Acts as a sequel to his Gospel writes "historiography." (Our writers regularly use "historiography" not in its usual sense of "the study of the methods of writing history" but as a synonym for "history" itself.) The selection of Gospel forms chosen for detailed scrutiny overlaps with traditional presentations only via parables. Proverbs, pronouncement stories, miracle stories, "I"-sayings and sentences of holy law are all eschewed in favor of the genealogy, symposium, type scene, farewell discourse, passion narrative and summary.

The next four chapters introduce the four Gospels, one at a time, in their canonical sequence. Here is one place where the level of writing suddenly seems noticeably more advanced. By far and away the largest subsections of each of these chapters are surveys, section by section and subsection by subsection, of the contents of each Gospel, sometimes merely paraphrased, sometimes interpreted, but the promise of focusing on literary and theological concerns is not entirely fulfilled. Very little from the helpful overview of narrative criticism just presented is ever applied, while clearly laid out summaries of the major redactional themes of each Gospel never appear, though one can find most of them interspersed within the larger narrative summaries of the contents of each book. The promise to do very little with historical questions, the staple of standard introductions, is however fulfilled. Usually this material appears last, ending with a statement about our inability to know for sure the authors, accompanied by disclaimers as to how little it matters anyway! The authors do seem somewhat more confident, however, that Luke wrote the two books traditionally assigned to him.

Chapter 8 may be the strongest in the book. In considerable detail, the most secure results of a moderately conservative study of the historical Jesus are summarized, with particular sensitivity to placing him in his Jewish context and presenting the issues as they would have appeared to his original audiences. "Kingdom" is both reign and realm as in the English "dominion" (following Ben Witherington?); Jesus radically redefined the Law by having little concern for traditional issues of ritual purity (contra Bruce Chilton?). Without coming out and explicitly saying so, the authors also apparently believe in Jesus as having understood himself to be (a significantly unconventional) Messiah, offering his life as a substitutionary atonement for the sins of humanity, and genuinely resurrected from the dead.

Chapter 9 treats the Acts of the Apostles, but its summaries of the book's contents are dramatically briefer than with the four Gospels. The question of historicity, however, is given greater treatment, but the conclusion is simply that there is some substantial historical substratum, but by no means as much as conservatives are used to finding.

Two very short chapters next introduce the topics of letter-writing in the ancient world and "Paul and his world," respectively. The former is a helpful introduction, especially to conventional form; the latter seems unnecessarily agnostic about several historical details of Paul's life.

Subsequent chapters deal in turn with each of the Pauline epistles in canonical order, with 1 and 2 Corinthians, Colossians and Philemon, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and the Pastorals each grouped together in a single chapter. Here greater unevenness of treatments emerges. Romans and Galatians are summarized in great detail; the two Corinthian epistles, far more quickly. "Justification by faith" is helpfully explained as "righteousness by trust" in light of Old Testament covenantal backgrounds. But none of the recent flurry of scholarship on patronage in Corinth makes its way into the treatment of Paul's letters to that city. The authors lean toward the North Galatian hypothesis and a later date for Galatians.

Our trio doubts that the case for dating 1 and 2 Thessalonians to the early 50s is strong. They are quite sure that Ephesians was not first of all intended for Ephesus and doubt that Paul wrote it, but they show no acquaintance with Clinton Arnold's or Peter O'Brien's recent, strong arguments to the contrary (indeed this is a rare chapter where no evangelical literature appears in the select bibliography). They are somewhat more agnostic with respect to Colossians, but curiously think the most decisive issue is if Paul could ever have spoken of Christians as sharing in Christ's resurrection in this age. Still, Philemon and Colossians must have been composed "at roughly the same time and place," and the authenticity of Philemon is not in question (p. 421), so it is hard to see how they can even leave the door open for a deutero-Pauline Colossians. Philippians probably comes from an Ephesian imprisonment in the mid-50s. The authenticity of 2 Thessalonians seems to be left entirely in the air, while the Pastorals are all but certainly pseudonymous.

The proposed outlines for each of the biblical books vary greatly in plausibility. But beginning with the Pastoral Epistles, in several instances, the authors give up making sense of the narrative flow as it stands and propose thematic outlines, combining passages otherwise out of sequence. The only place where a really plausible case for doing this exists is with 1 John but at this point they revert to following the book's sequence! With Hebrews and the General Epistles, the pattern of leaving typical introductory information until the end of each chapter is reversed, without any explanation. There is also less thorough and less consistent actual summarizing of contents and more thematic subdivisions. Even then coverage is spotty; the detailed chapter on Hebrews manages to avoid the issues surrounding the apostasy passages altogether!

The treatment of James is the best in this part of the book, stressing the coherence of this letter with other parts of the New Testament and avoiding the caricature of its author, probably the elder of the Jerusalem church, as a thoroughly Law-abiding Jewish Christian. The parallels between 1 Peter and other parts of the New Testament are also helpfully canvassed, but we read nothing of the recent sociological approaches--whether of John Elliott or of Bruce Winter--so highly touted in the beginning of the book. 2 Peter is assuredly pseudonymous, not least because of its testamentary nature. But Revelation is not; though its author is not necessarily the same as for the other "Johannine" literature, our authors do believe the text's claim that his name was John. Their helps for interpreting Revelation are inherently sound and general enough that post-, a- and historic pre-millennial interpreters could largely all agree.

A final chapter rapidly surveys the formation of the New Testament canon, but ultimately adopts a self-consciously circular argument that usage in the church was the most fundamental criterion of selection. But even in so doing the survey does not adequately reflect the substantially greater support for every book that ultimately was included than for any of the books sometimes proposed but eventually left out. A combined index of names and subjects rounds out the volume.

There are a few glaring mechanical mistakes in the volume. The outline of Matthew is missing 1:1-4:22 (p. 96). In the sidebar on "Taking a Letter," what should have been "primary responsibility" appears as "primary responsible" (p. 273). "The strikingly similarity" appears on p. 308. The attempt to show in a sidebar what Philippians 1:12-13 would look like if all the letters were run together, as in ancient Greek, results in an extraneous "st" stuck between "and to all there" and "that my imprisonment is for Christ" (p. 404).

There are also several surprising factual errors. It is not the case that "in the last two centuries. . .almost all students of the Gospels [have posited] Johannine independence from the Synoptic Gospels" (p. 74); that view became a consensus only after the 1930s. It is not true that, apart from the feeding of the 5000, "all the other miracles narrated in John are found only in that Gospel" (the walking on the water appears in Matthew, Mark and John; and the healing of the official's son/servant is usually taken to be the same incident as the Q-passage involving a centurion). Paul's letters are not entirely arranged in descending order of length (p. 281)--Ephesians is slightly longer than Galatians; 2 Thessalonians is notably shorter than 1 Timothy. Tiberius' dates as emperor should be 14-37, not 17-37, as printed, leaving a gap in the chart after Augustus' death in 14 (p. 287)! 1 Corinthians 9:5 does not imply Paul was married (p. 289); he could be referring only to Barnabas and/or speaking hypothetically.

Assuming that "secular" means "non-Jewish" (as on p. 295), it is not the case that Paul only once quotes secular authors (p. 294). The explanation of 1 Corinthians 14:33-38 claims that Paul chides certain women for "seeking to dominate the worship services," an interpretation that is suggested by neither the details of the text nor any of the major, recent explanations of it. That the masculine generic plural of v. 36 must refer to men only shows an appalling ignorance of fundamental Greek grammar (p. 345).

More common than outright errors are noticeable overstatements. It seems presumptuous to call the interpretation of Romans 7:14-25 as the description of Paul's Christian life "impossible" (p. 317), when it is such a vexed crux with at least half of today's commentators finding it the most compelling solution. To say "we know of no such phenomenon" as "Jewish Gnosticism" (p. 414) is to ignore considerable evidence from Nag Hammadi that at the very least looks like such a thing existed. On all the problematic "gender roles" passages, the authors take an egalitarian perspective, but normally not a very typical one, and do not even acknowledge the existence of the historic, Christian (i.e., complementarian) interpretation. In 1 Timothy, they believe that "elder" and "bishop" "clearly represent two different orders of church leaders," their equation in Titus notwithstanding (p. 459). They are convinced that Acts 20:25 and 38 "clearly imply that Paul never returned to the churches in the East" (p. 462), notwithstanding the fact that these verses are couched as predictions by Paul about his future, a future that elsewhere took unexpected turns. Clearly the adverb "clearly" is being substituted for a convincing argument!

I applaud the desire to produce a New Testament introduction that does somewhat less with historical-critical issues than typically and that discusses theological and literary concerns considerably more. But this volume has swung the pendulum too far away from classic "introductory" questions, what it does include is often too vague or unconvincing, and what passes for literary and theological treatments is often merely a survey or paraphrase of a book's contents. For classes of truly introductory students (say the typical college freshman one-semester survey), such paraphrase is probably needed, but this book is too demanding for most college freshmen. More advanced students (and even most beginning seminarians) can gain much of the survey from guided Bible reading; what they need in a textbook are genuine discussions of historical, literary and theological issues and the main scholarship supporting the various schools of thought reflected. With only a handful of exceptions, no one will learn the names of any major scholars or the labels for various theological perspectives from this book. For all these reasons, I seriously doubt that it will become the standard introductory textbook that the hyperbolic blurbs on the book jacket claim it will. At any rate, I cannot see how I would use it in any of my classes. I'll stick with Carson, Moo and Morris, thank you very much, and await their revisions, especially since they promise to come soon and to come with an added focus on the content of each New Testament book!

Craig L. Blomberg
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary

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