The following review first appeared in Scripture Bulletin 28/1 (January 1998), p. 52. It is reproduced here with permission.
Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S. J., The Semitic Background of the New Testament: A Combined Edition of Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament and A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays (The Biblical Resource Series; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Michigan: Dove, 1997) 854 pages ISBN: 0-8028-4344-1 $23.99
The Semitic Background to the New Testament is a volume that combines two earlier collections of articles by Fitzmyer, Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament (first published in 1971) and A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays (first published in 1979).
The book has an odd appearance. It is truly two books in one, each a reprint and not a revision, reproduced in their contrasting type-faces, indexed and paginated separately, the whole flanked only by a short new preface and a nine page appendix of extra notes. The oddity, however, should not deter the reader. This is a timely reprint of two great books by one who has contributed immeasurably to New Testament scholarship. Every page is packed with erudition and although several of the articles now look somewhat dated, not one of them is superfluous.
To pick out any one article is difficult, but a particular highlight for me was Fitzmyer's analysis of "The Oxyrhynchus Logoi of Jesus and the Coptic Gospel According to Thomas", almost eighty pages of careful, balanced weighing of the papyrus fragments found at Oxyrhynchus which parallel the Coptic Gospel of Thomas found at Nag Hammadi. Its last line, "In no way can it [the Gospel of Thomas] enter the canon as 'the Fifth Gospel'" (p. 419) raises a smile in the light of recent publications that treat Thomas as precisely that.
One of the values of such a volume is its ability to speak to this generation from another generation, and to issue a warning. Here is a reminder of a fine form of scholarship which stresses the proper, detailed study of original materials in their original languages, a form of scholarship, let us hope, that still has its practitioners, scholars who will find in Fitzmyer's articles here many a long hour of rewarding study.
University of Birmingham