Recent Books in . . . New Testament Studies


A Review Article by Mark Goodacre


This article first appeared in Reviews in Religion and Theology 1997/1 (February). pp. 77-81.
It is reproduced here with permission.


R. Alan Culpepper and C. Clifton Black, eds., Exploring the Gospel of John: In Honor of D. Moody Smith (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)

Majella Franzmann, Jesus in the Nag Hammadi Writings (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996)

A. E. Harvey, Renewal Through Suffering: A Study of 2 Corinthians (Studies in the New Testament and Its World; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996)

The Social Ethos of the Corinthian Correspondence: Interests and Ideology from 1 Corinthians to 1 Clement (Studies in the New Testament and Its World; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996)

C. J. den Heyer, Jesus Matters: 150 Years of Research (translated from the Dutch by John Bowden; London: SCM, 1996)

J. C. O'Neill, Who Did Jesus Think He Was? (Biblical Interpretation Series, Volume 11; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995)

Luke Timothy Johnson, Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)

Udo Schnelle, The Human Condition: Anthropology in the Teachings of Jesus, Paul, and John (Translated from the German by O. C. Dean, Jr; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996)


Three recent books illustrate well the sheer diversity in contemporary scholarship on that most controversial of topics, Historical Jesus research. For those not familiar with the key issues, C. J. den Heyer's Jesus Matters provides a good introduction. Its subtitle 150 Years of Research is something of a mystery - most would date 'modern' Jesus research from the publications of Strauss (1835) or even Reimarus (1778), both of which den Heyer himself considers. But the book is well-written - it tells its story in an attractive manner, avoiding superfluous detail and punctuating the narrative with the odd personal anecdote (e.g. p. 150: Ridderbos's joking suggestion 'that we should vote on a complicated exegetical problem' provides a subtle comment on Funk's Jesus Seminar). The author avoids the increasingly popular trend of schematizing Jesus research into three distinct 'quests' and so manages to make each section flow naturally out of the previous one. The discussion of Bultmann and Käsemann (Chapter 7), in language that all can understand, is exemplary.

Other important issues are covered, Nag Hammadi and Qumran, Jewish portraits of Jesus and the effects of Nazism on the scholarship, but one of the most enjoyable parts of the book is den Heyer's 'pause' for an 'unscientific "intermezzo"' (Chapter 10) which includes discussion of Jesus in film and the sensationalist literature (Jesus in India, Japan, not dying etc.). Recent Anglo-Saxon scholarship is given special weight in the latter part of the book and although the author is not opinionated, he wisely implies a preference for Sanders over Crossan. He concludes with a 'mini-biography' of 'Jeshua of Nazareth' and some reflections on the Gospels.

Jesus Matters is not perfect, of course. There is an inevitable oversimplification (e.g. p. 82, 'Neither evangelist is writing "history" but "theology"') and the discussion of criteria for Jesus research (Chapter 11) is probably too superficial to be of much help. Further, it is a great shame that given its virtues as an introduction to Jesus scholarship, it has no Indexes or Bibliography. (Return to top)

One area covered by den Heyer is the focus for Majella Franzmann's thoroughly researched Jesus in the Nag Hammadi Writings which works carefully and methodically through the Nag Hammadi texts, grouping material together according to theme, 'Origin and Entrance of Jesus' (Chapter 2), 'The World to Which Jesus Comes' (Chapter 3) and so on. Overall, this will be a most useful resource for future students of the origins and development of Christianity. One cannot help having mixed feelings about Franzmann's first chapter, though. 'It is no longer possible,' she claims, 'to assume uncritically that the historical Jesus is the one most closely aligned to the canonical Jesus' (p. 13). Given the weight that Thomas receives in much contemporary scholarship, this is partly true. But the phrase 'the canonical Jesus' (and others like it, throughout Chapter One) is unhelpful - reputable scholars like Sanders, Vermes and Meyer rely on 'canonical' material because of a historical, not a 'confessional' judgement and all sit lightly towards the 'canonical' John. (Return to top)

J. C. O'Neill's Who Did Jesus Think He Was?, our third Jesus book, is startlingly different from the other two - and from all other contemporary approaches. It is not often in critical scholarship that one sees Origen (p. 175) and Athanasius (p. 18) quoted to support one's position. Nor is it usual to find the claim that 'Jesus himself shared the beliefs about the Messiah, the incarnate eternal Son of God, which are to be found in the classical creeds of the church' (p. 190), the climax of a book filled, by its author's admission, with 'astonishing conclusions' (p. 73).

The volume is, as one has come to expect from O' Neill, highly-informed and marvellously researched, providing along the way a wealth of interesting insights and useful parallels. What, though, of the fundamental argument? The book is arranged in such a way that the thesis becomes steadily less plausible as one progresses through it. Thus, Chapter One - 'A Basic Assumption' - provides a relatively weighty challenge to the standard readings of Acts 2.36 and Romans 1.1-4; Chapter Two - 'Jewish Messianic Expectations' - is a less convincing but still useful corrective to literature like Judaisms and Their Messiahs; Chapter Three - 'the Hidden Messiah' - provides shakier ground for its thesis; Chapter Four on the Teacher of Righteousness (dies shamefully; was believed to be Messiah; would come again as Son of God / Melchizedek / God) will, I imagine, convince very few; and Chapter Six, 'the Trinity and the Incarnation as Jewish Doctrines' will persuade nobody.

Nevertheless, the key section, Chapter Seven, from which the book takes its title, provides a brilliant subversion of the consensus position by arguing that 'What generations of scholars have relied on to indicate that Jesus did not think he was the Messiah, the silence of Jesus, is part of the case for saying that he knew he was the Messiah.' (p. 118). This is the most bizarre thing about O 'Neill's case - he does not utilise the Fourth Gospel (except to argue that this too witnesses to Jesus' silence, Chapter Nine) but rather makes his inferences precisely from the lack of direct Messianic claims on Jesus' lips. Will people buy this thesis? I doubt it very much. Will people buy the book? I hope that they will - it is a wonderful read. (Return to top)

New from T & T Clark are two books on the Corinthian Correspondence, both in the 'Studies in the New Testament and Its World' series. The first is by an established scholar: A. E. Harvey's Renewal Through Suffering is subtitled A Study of 2 Corinthians and focuses on 1.8, which refers to a traumatic, near-death event in Paul's life. Harvey speculates little on what actually happened but explores in detail the probable effects on Paul's character, theology and writing. Harvey's far reaching conclusion is that 'for the first time, certainly in Paul and possibly in the history of religious thought - suffering is not regarded as evil in itself, as something irrational or challenging to faith' (p. 129). Harvey is non- committal on the integrity of the letter but offers some useful insights along the way, especially a fresh reading of 1.15ff ('Paul was really talking about money', p. 41). This is a welcome study, a good companion to the author's seminal article 'Forty Strokes Save One'. (Return to top)

The second of the two is by a newly-appointed Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of Exeter. David G. Horrell's Social Ethos of the Corinthian Correspondence supplements other sociological approaches to the New Testament by applying Anthony Giddens's 'structuration theory' to 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians and 1 Clement. The conclusions are largely favourable to Paul - 'However aggressively Paul uses, or attempts to use his personal authority, it is not used to support the dominant social order to promote the subordination of the weak' (p. 235) but less sympathetic to 1 Clement in which 'The interests of the socially strong and the theological resources of the Christian symbolic order had formed a close alliance in the form of a powerful religious ideology' (p. 295). Although a revised version of a recent Cambridge University PhD thesis, the book is surprisingly easy to read (even if the word 'trajectory' appears rather too often). A well- researched and rewarding study. (Return to top)

Another book from T & T Clark deserve mention - The Human Condition, an English translation of Udo Schnelle's important Neutestamentliche Anthropologie: Jesus, Paulus, Johannes, published in 1991. The translation seems to have been well done but it is a shame that it gives all its references to German originals even when an English translation is available, not only for recent books like Luz's Matthew 1- 7 (pp. 12, 21, 25 etc.) but also for classics like Jeremias's Parables (pp. 27, 30 etc.) and Bultmann's Theology (pp. 47, 50, 51, etc.). (Return to top)

Also worth noticing is Luke T. Johnson's Scripture and Discernment which takes forward the author's work on the importance of 'narrative' for the understanding of Luke-Acts and applies these insights to the issue of Decision Making in the Church. Part One of the book ('Theory') is quite heavy-going and involves, along the way, a dubious understanding of 'midrash' (pp. 38-40). The reader might with profit jump straight to Part Two (Exegesis) where Johnson starts discussing Acts 10-15. The theory is then applied in Part Three (Practice) with some examples: 'Choosing between new hymnals and a new heating system may test the church's values in a powerfully searching way. The way the members express, by narrative, their experience of God in this church will enable the community to discern which of these choices best articulates its faith' (p. 136). Some will, no doubt, find this book helpful; and scholars of Luke-Acts ought to enjoy the discussion which makes up Part Two. (Return to top)

Finally, the Festschrift for Moody Smith distinguishes itself from other honourary volumes - Exploring the Gospel of John is not a hotchpotch of unrelated articles of differing quality. It focuses purely on the Fourth Gospel and includes pieces by many of the heavy- weights in the discipline, W. D. Davies, C. K. Barrett, J. Louis Martyn, Alan Culpepper, Eduard Schweizer, James Dunn and Wayne Meeks among them. This is an important book full of important contributions to research - Moody Smith must be thrilled with it. (Return to top)


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© 1997 Mark Goodacre
M.S.Goodacre@bham.ac.uk