THE NEW TESTAMENT IN ANTIQUITY (a short review)

Recently, Zondervan has come out with a new NT survey textbook called THE NEW TESTAMENT IN ANTIQUITY: A SURVEY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT WITHIN ITS CULTURAL CONTEXTS. The authors all come from the same institution – Wheaton College – Gary Burge, Lynn Cohick, and Gene Green.

Does the world need another survey book? That’s a difficult question to answer because the line between ‘want’ and ‘need’ is unclear. Nevertheless, the authors do attempt a justification for their decision to pen yet another survey book.

First, they wished to offer a survey book that is ‘academically rigorous’. That is, they wanted something that is informed by the latest scholarship; accessible without being too dumbed down. Next, they wanted to focus specifically on the historical and cultural (and religious?) context of the first century. One attractive feature of the book is the frequently-appearing photographs of ancient coins. You can learn quite a lot from a coin that contains important images and phrases (we will return to this in a moment). Finally, they wished to write a work that stands firmly within an evangelical tradition. In their own words, ‘We wanted a scholarly text that treated the pages of the New Testament as Scripture, which has spoken to the church through the centuries’.

One selling point of the book is that the authors are all seasoned scholars and lecturers who have taught undergrads for years,

PROS

The book is beautiful – literally from cover to cover. There are scores of high-res pictures of statues, landscapes, manuscripts, and more.  Secondly, it truly is good, fair scholarship.  Often times I am disappointed with evangelical scholarship that is geared towards an introductory level because there tends to be defensive tone about any new or seemingly provocative theories.  In general, the chapters are well constructed.  There is always a tough decision to make about how to develop chapter content on a bibical book.  Should it be literary-chronological (following the chapters of the epistle or gospel) or should it be just thematic/theological?  Personally, I think a chronological (by chapter) approach is better, but either way could work if it is well done.

One thing that was especially impressive was the use of numismatic findings.  For instance, the cover of the book bears the picture of the Judea capta coin which depicts a female Jews sitting on the floor and mourning the destruction of Jerusalem.  Vespasian also appears standing in military dress, holding a spear in one hand, and he has one foot stepping on his helmet on the ground.  This is a particularly striking both artistically and when one thinks of the history behind this coin.  This sort of thing is very helpful for students who live so far geographically, historically, and socially from the original events behind and surrounding the NT.

CONS

There is always a matter of what was left out and that list could go on and on.  That would be a fault with any intro book and this one is already 400+ pages.  Nevertheless, I would have liked more on theory of interpretations/hermeneutics and exegesis.  We often teach students what to think, but I believe it is more important to teach them how to think – critical analysis with good exegetical tools and an awareness of presuppositions and the history of interpretation.  There is also a question of consistency.  The gospels are (presumably) dealt with in canonical order (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), but the Pauline corpus is handled in a time-oriented chronology (beginning with Galatians, 1-2 Thess., 1-2 Corinthians, etc..).  This can be a bit confusing for students.  Finally, there is the matter of uniqueness.  Is there really enough new stuff here (or a new enough approach) to warrant the need for a new book?  In terms of the main content of the book (the chapters actually on NT books) I would say there is little new material or a fresh approach.  But, again, some people might really love what they do here.

CONCLUSION

Would I use this book?  I haven’t look at the price, but I might be willing to give this one a try.  The end-of-chapter bibliographies are quite good (and endorse some non-evangelical books, which I appreciate).  I would supplement this book with some other hermeneutic-y kinds of articles/book and/or some more ‘theology of the NT’ stuff.  But, overall, this book is more than eye-candy.

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