Recent Books in . . . New Testament Studies

A Review Article by Mark Goodacre

This article first appeared in Reviews in Religion and Theology 1998/1 (February). pp. 71-6.
It is reproduced here with permission.

Paul Q. Beeching, Awkward Reverence: Reading the New Testament Today (London: SCM, 1997)

Pierre-Antoine Bernheim, James, Brother of Jesus (English Translation by John Bowden, London: SCM, 1997)

Bruce Chilton, Pure Kingdom: Jesus' Vision of God (Studying the Historical Jesus; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; London: SPCK, 1996) pp. x + 178, £12.99

John M. Court, Reading the New Testament (New Testament Readings, London & New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. xiv + 170, Hb £35.00, Pb £10.99

A. J. P. Garrow, Revelation (New Testament Readings, London & New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. xii + 140, Hb £35.00; Pb: £12.99

Morna D. Hooker, Beginnings: Keys that Open the Gospels (London: SCM, 1997)

Morna D. Hooker, The Signs of a Prophet: The Prophetic Actions of Jesus (London: SCM, 1997)

Simon Légasse, The Trial of Jesus (English Translation by John Bowden; London: SCM, 1997)

J. Louis Martyn, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul (Studies of the New Testament and Its World; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1997), pp. xviii + 334, [no price given]

Joan E. Taylor, The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism (Studying the Historical Jesus; Grand Rapids / Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1997), pp. xvi +360, $30.00

Étienne Trocmé, The Childhood of Christianity (English Translation by John Bowden, London: SCM, 1997)

One of the questions that I am often asked by undergraduate students is, 'What is the one book that I need to read on the New Testament?'. It is a difficult question to answer, not least because the motivation behind it (the desire to get away with reading as little as possible) is not something that one would like to foster. But the question does get one thinking. What book on the New Testament is comprehensive enough, recent enough, accessible enough and interesting enough (and, perhaps, cheap enough) to be ideal for the new student? If such a book exists, I have not yet found it. But one recent book comes close - John M. Court's Reading the New Testament. Designed as a companion volume to Routledge's New Testament Readings series, this is a book for the twenty-first century. Its style is lively, its judgement is sharp and its scope, for a paperback of only 170 pages, is commendable. Where in the past introductions to the New Testament would be wholly based on historical-critical methods, this book devotes just one chapter to 'historical reading' and then proceeds with chapters on diverse matters including 'narrative theology', 'intertextuality' and 'the text in a social context'. Court avoids arid surveys of trends in New Testament study, preferring to take a few snap-shots, often with the liberal use of quotation. The overall effect is an encouraging one, a plea for an integrated approach to studying the New Testament, one in which different readings do not vie against each other but talk to and inform each other. In a culture in which there is increasing anxiety about the discipline of New Testament studies breaking up altogether, this can only be a valuable move.

There is one real oddity in the book. Court laments the lack of 'instances in modern fiction of a fresh and critical retelling of a New Testament narrative', finding only The Robe to come close (pp. 24-25). What then of Lagerkvist's Barabbas, Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation, Rice and Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, or the films based on them? If these are a little long in the tooth, what of Gerd Theissen's novel Shadow of the Galilean (1987) or Denys Arcand's French Canadian film Jesus of Montreal (1989)? Court's omission here is all the more surprising in that the book is both highly culturally literate and at the same time not afraid to deal with popular culture, including the use of 'texts as slogans' (Chapter 9) and the parables of popular piety (especially Chapter 8, 'Allegory or Spiritual Reading'). [Back to Top]

In this, Court's book is similar to another introductory work, Paul Beeching's Awkward Reverence: Reading the New Testament Today, in which references to Kierkegaard, Philip Larkin and James Joyce are tempered by comments on Billy Graham and 'Charles E Fuller's Old Fashioned Revival Hour'. Like many a New Testament scholar, Beeching is concerned about the limited extent to which 'the person in the pew' (p. 59) is acquainted with critical study of the Bible, at whom this book is partly aimed. The book is full of enjoyable reflections on the current scene. He says with dismay, for example, that 'I have often found myself rearguing some point that nearly caused a riot in the college classrooms of my youth, only to lower my eyes from the ceiling to the puzzled faces of the blue-jeaned pagans in front of me who are trying to look politely concerned' (p. 2).

But Awkward Reverence is descriptive as well as reflective and I have several qualms over its summary statements: 1). Scholars like me who do not believe in Q will be troubled to hear that the two-source theory 'is fundamental to all New Testament scholarship' (p. 59); 2). Many scholars of Paul will be unhappy to see that 'the great principle of Pauline Christianity' is 'salvation by faith alone' (p. 149); and 3). Lukan scholars will be surprised to see that 'if you lift out of Luke's Gospel all that is in neither Mark nor Q and view it as a whole . . . you will find that almost every remaining anecdote deals in some way with women' (p. 97). The Good Samaritan? The Friend at Midnight? The Prodigal Son? The Dishonest Steward? The Ten Lepers? Zacchaeus? Awkward Reverence is an enjoyable read, though. Its greatest strength will be for some its weakest feature, its anecdotes, its emotion and its informal lecture-like style. I often found myself smiling and thinking that I would have liked to have been one of Prof. Beeching's students. [Back to Top]

Meanwhile, Morna Hooker has published two books of lectures. The first is a little book called Beginnings: Keys That Open the Gospels . . ., with a chapter each on the 'beginning' of each Gospel (taken as Matthew 1-2, Mark 1.1-13, Luke 1-2 and John 1.1-18). This book would be ideal for the new student of the Gospels and its thesis, that these introductions provide us with 'background information, guidance as to the way in which each evangelist expects us to read his book, and hints of the dénouement of the story' (p. xiv), is more than amply demonstrated by the profile of each evangelist, and his book, that emerges from the study. [Back to Top]

Hooker's other recent work, The Sign of a Prophet is subtitled The Prophetic Actions of Jesus and it draws on and complements her late husband David Stacey's work on Prophetic Drama in the Old Testament. It is a useful corrective to the many studies of Jesus which use the category 'prophet' without paying adequate attention to symbolic, 'prophetic' actions. But although the book makes a contribution to historical Jesus research, it seems most at ease with itself when it is talking about the portrait of Jesus in the Gospels, not only in Chapter 4 (on 'the different ways the four evangelists interpreted Jesus's prophetic actions') but also in the main body of the book (for example p. 44 on the fig tree, 'Whatever its origins, as it stands in Matthew and Mark the story is an example of a prophetic drama'). [Back to Top]

Hooker's is by no means the only recent work to appear on Jesus. Those who still advocate the abandonment of the 'quest' will find little comfort in the continued stream of books including now a new series Studying the Historical Jesus. Its editors are Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans and Chilton himself has contributed a volume entitled Pure Kingdom: Jesus' Vision of God. Dedicated to his recent co-author Jacob Neusner, this book has all the marks that have made Chilton's name -- the mixture of the erudite and the idiosyncratic, with careful attention to Jewish texts and especially the targumim, in the attempt to re-evaluate Schweitzer's legacy. Throughout, Chilton refers to 'early Judaism' and one cannot help being struck by how far scholarship has come from the days of Käsemann and company, when the term 'late Judaism' was used to refer to precisely the same period. [Back to Top]

In the same series is a thorough investigation by Joan E. Taylor, The Immerser: John the Baptist Within Second Temple Judaism, a book which shows its author to be conversant with both Judaica and New Testament studies (though she is stronger on the former). The material from the Gospels and Josephus is analyzed in the light of studies of other first century material with the conclusion, among other things, that 'John's baptism was wholly in keeping with Jewish immersions of the time in that it was not symbolic, or an initiation rite, but for purification of the body from ritual uncleanness' (p. 318). This is an important and valuable study which at times might, however, have profited from a slightly more sceptical attitude to the sources. Taylor is confident about the historicity not only of the relevant Q material on John (including that in Matthew 3.7-12, so replete with Matthean themes and terminology), but also of the special Lucan material that appears in Luke 3.10-14 with its pervasive Lucan stamp. Further, Taylor claims that 'Jesus seems to have thought that John was Elijah' (p. 321). Perhaps this is right, but the typological and apologetic motivation for Mark and Matthew to have cast John in this light give us at least room for doubt. [Back to Top]

Another key first century figure is the subject of Pierre-Antoine Bernheim's James, Brother of Jesus, a fine antidote to the recent excesses of Eisenmann (to whom Bernheim never refers). Bernheim's study, translated from the French by John Bowden, is balanced, carefully researched and lucidly presented. Its scope, too, is broad. There is a fine chapter on first century Judaism (Chapter 3, 'What is a Jew?') and there are studies of the historical Jesus (Chapter 5, 'A Famous Brother'), Paul's letters and Acts (Chapters 6-8) and the epistle of James (Chapter 9). In a way, the scope of the book makes its author's point forcefully, that this is a figure not only worthy of study in his own right but also essential for anyone attempting to understand Christian origins. [Back to Top]

Covering some of the same material are two more French books translated by John Bowden. Étienne Trocmé's The Childhood of Christianity distils a career of fruitful investigation into early Christianity in an informative, readable paperback. This book is a fine addition to an already distinguished career, many of the works of which have been greatly underrated. Few, for example, have taken seriously Trocmé's strong case for a liturgical origin for the passion narrative. Indeed Trocmé here (Childhood, p. 126) criticises our next book, Simon Légasse's The Trial of Jesus on this very point, for many of the 'problems' considered by Légasse (especially in Chapter 6, 'Days and Hours') are solved by the liturgical theory. One more criticism of Légasse's otherwise helpful survey is that he constantly refers to 'the Sanhedrin' as if it were a fixed body in Jerusalem with a fixed membership. One's perspective on the Gospels, Acts and Josephus changes substantially when sunedrion (synedrion) is translated more naturally as 'council' and the evidence from the Mishnah is played down. [Back to Top]

Finally, a little Paul and a little Revelation. J. Louis Martyn's Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul is an anthology of contributions to Pauline studies, some of them revisions and reworkings of earlier articles. Much of this is essential reading for students of Paul, perhaps especially the first chapter, a timely reproduction of a key article, 'A Law-Observant Mission to Gentiles' featuring Martyn's enjoyable reconstruction of Paul's opponents' 'Sermon on Abraham' in Galatia (pp. 20-4). There is, though, one real disappointment. In a book so dominated by study of Galatians, it would have been rewarding to see how Martyn deals with Paula Fredriksen's important and weighty challenge to the consensus on the background to the Galatian controversy. [Back to Top]

A. J. P. Garrow's Revelation brings us back to Routledge's New Testament Readings series. Garrow's claim is that we do not understand Revelation because we do not know how to read it. If we pay proper attention to signals in the text we will see that the book was designed to be heard in six separate instalments (1-3; 4-7; 8.1 - 11.18; 11.19 - 15.4; 15.5 - 19.10; 19.11 - the end). The book is easy to read for it is full of diagrams, charts and summary statements -- many an author could learn from Garrow's approach. The thesis itself, though, suffers from the same thing that afflicts all studies of Revelation's structure. Why has no-one read the book in this way before? Why did no-one else see the same markers in the text? Garrow provides some help, in one of the book's best moments, by discussing Revelation alongside other serialised texts like The Pickwick Papers and Doctor Who (pp. 35-8), analogies which suggest that while Garrow may be wrong about the author's intention, he may be right that this is a legitimate literary reading in an age that enjoys digestible instalments and 'cliff-hanger' endings. [Back to Top]

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