Basic Resources for NT History Pt. 2

Getting Started with a NT Introduction

In the previous post, I briefly described the usefulness of the New Testament introduction and why a reader shouldn’t be concerned to select only from what is newly published. I mentioned that I would introduce what I think are three solid New Testament introductions as good places to start to understand the historical contexts of the New Testament. Of course, you will find much than that in a New Testament introduction (and many other volumes dedicated to New Testament history itself), but each of the volumes I discuss here contains a good amount of information and enough documentation to keep you busy for a very long time.

Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament

My copy of Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament

Bruce Metzger endorsed Raymond Brown’s Introduction as being a “magnum opus,” and said of it that “if a person could own only one book on the New Testament, this is the one to have” (back cover). It’s not without good reason: Brown was one of the major figures in New Testament scholarship in the twentieth century; he pioneered biblical criticism among Roman Catholics (despite no shortage of controversy–to his credit), and he secured a reputation of respect and admiration from scholars of all stripes. His introduction deserves its place among the classics of the genre.

A few of the points made in Brown’s foreword about his Introduction are worth sharing (pp. vii–xii):

  • it is written for students, not scholars
  • it focuses on the New Testament documents which we have, not on hypothetical sources (i.e., it does not offer too much source-critical commentary [this doesn’t mean he does not believe in hypothetical sources: he seemed to consider Q to be valid; p. 122])
  • it deals extensively with “religious,” “spiritual,” and “ecclesiastical” issues raised by the New Testament texts

The payoff of the first point is that knowledge of Greek is not required in order to read and understand Brown’s book, nor is knowledge of modern research languages such as German or French. While the second and third points may make it seem that Brown does not deal with historical-contextual material, this isn’t the case. “The work’s most impressive features” the back flap claims, include “a historical overview of the Greco-Roman world” and “appendices,” one of which is on the historical Jesus, and one of which is on the Jewish and Christian writings pertinent to the New Testament (there are only two appendices).

Brown claimed to try not to be “idiosyncratic” in his introduction, but rather sought to be “centrist.” As such, he tried everywhere to report the consensus view of scholars with pretty fair result, whatever someone makes of the particular position. This makes Brown’s Introduction very useful: A lot of students or laypeople wonder about the “consensus” of “critical scholars,” and while it is a concept fraught with problems, it is helpful for the beginning student to know what the majority of scholars have thought about an issue, so long as they remember that these positions are not therefore necessarily going to prove to be the most probable on the other side of sustained research.

I don’t agree with Brown on a number of issues, but I think his is one of the best introductions to the New Testament and would recommend it to any beginning student to read. It was published in 1997, and so is not too old: the majority of the positions taken remain consensus positions (Q; Markan priority; skepticism with respect to traditional Gospel authorship; the standard separation of disputed and undisputed Pauline letters, etc.). Below is a link to a freely accessible .pdf scan of Brown’s Introduction.

You don’t need to read an entire New Testament introduction to benefit from it; I am highlighting one kind of information which can be read from this and the others below, but you may be inspired to read other sections, and you might indeed be inspired to read the whole thing; it wouldn’t hurt. My suggestions are to consider Brown’s introductory chapters, appendices, and to scan material under each sub-section relevant to historical contexts for the book/corpus being discussed.

See: Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament

Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction

My copy of Guthrie, New Testament Introduction

Donald Guthrie’s New Testament Introduction is a classic work of evangelical/traditional scholarship, and received multiple editions, over multiple decades. Here, I am referring to the one-volume edition (the third and fourth editions were one-volume, prior to these editions, Guthrie’s Introduction was a three-volume work).

Guthrie sticks to the primary texts as the object of introduction even more so than Brown, and so he has less clearly defined sections dealing with historical-contextual data. However, sub-sections of each major section deal with the kind of contextual information Brown does above, where you can find discussions of sources, authorship, historicity, and backgrounds of each biblical book. Furthermore, Guthrie has four appendices each of which deal with historical-contextual data: “The Collection of Paul’s Letters,” “The Chronology of the Life of Paul,” “Epistolary Pseudepigraphy,” and “Further Reflections on the Synoptic Problem.” Together with the chapters on the “Synoptic Problem” and “Form Criticism and its Developments” (the only chapters in the main work not dedicated to a specific biblical book), these sections basically supply good general historical information relevant to study of the Gospels and Paul’s letters from an evangelical perspective.

Guthrie, in contrast to Brown, represents more conservative positions, and offers the “consensus” of evangelicals around the time of writing (the volume I have is the fourth revised edition, published in 1990). Perhaps the greatest usefulness of Guthrie’s edition is the documentation: the volume is very well documented, with copious notes citing critical and conservative scholarship alike. Below is a link to a freely accessible .pdf scan of Guthrie’s Introduction. My suggestion is to read Guthrie’s four appendices, his chapter on the Synoptic Problem and Form Criticism, and to scan his chapters for historical-contextual information related to each book (authorship, sources, historicity, etc.).

See: Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction

Lee Martin McDonald and Stanley E. Porter, Early Christianity and its Sacred Literature

My copy of McDonald and Porter, Early Christianity and its Sacred Literature

This volume is the most recent of the three (but only three years more so than Brown’s), written by two major scholars, and is one of the more interesting and more useful New Testament introductions available (but is out of print). It is not as well-known as Brown’s or Guthrie’s volume, but a survey of its contents reveals differences with those volumes which warrant attention.

McDonald and Porter begin with two chapters on methodology which themselves deal with the theory and method of interacting with various sources, and following these they have a sizable chapter on the historical context of early Christianity (~ 50 pages). Four subsequent chapters (“The Quest for the Historical Jesus,” “The Story of Jesus,” [two chapters, part a and b] and “The Emergence of Early Christianity”) make this one of the more data and information-rich New Testament introductions with respect to historical contexts and related issues.

There are other introductions, like one I honourably mention below, which are closer to this than the others are, but McDonald’s and Porter’s volume is superior for the depth and breadth of coverage, which is also a reason why it’s one of the better resources for getting one’s bearings as to the historical contexts of the New Testament.

This volume, it should be noted, is different in its framing than the other two, as it approaches the “sacred literature” from the perspective of “early Christianity.” So, while the volume covers the traditional areas that New Testament introductions do, less space is devoted to each book of the New Testament, and more space is devoted to methodology and contexts. Because of this, it is probably the best volume for the beginning student looking to understand historical contexts for and approaches to the New Testament.

It was said by one scholar that this book is in general more conservative than mainstream critical scholarship but less conservative than more traditional viewpoints, and that is probably a strength of the book, as it reflects some more independent convictions (Brown tries to be “centrist” and not “idiosyncratic” – that has a kind of use, but the “idiosyncratic” is desirable for many reasons). Nonetheless, the mainstream positions of the field are all surveyed.

I have no link for this volume, but it can still be purchased online.

Other Resources and Honourable Mentions

My copy of the second edition of Ehrman, The New Testament

Bart Ehrman’s introduction to the New Testament is one of the most popular introductions on the market, now in its seventh edition, and is among the highest in quality in terms of production (OUP can produce nice books). I actually like Ehrman’s introduction for the same reasons I like both Brown’s (its expression of standard positions) and McDonald’s and Porter’s (its layout), but find it to be a little too concise when compared with the others above. If you have the means, it’s an item worth having.

F. F. Bruce, New Testament History

A book like F. F. Bruce’s New Testament History seems to cover exactly the subject matter which I mentioned in the previous post: the historical contexts of the New Testament. So why not consider a book like this first? The only reason I recommend starting with a New Testament introduction is because books in that genre (New Testament introduction) discuss New Testament history in a little more streamlined of a way in the context of a systematic introduction of the New Testament books themselves. This makes it easy for the beginning student to reference more direct information about the content of the New Testament itself in the same volume. For your time or your buck, they will be the best to start with.

For those with the time and/or money and/or desire, by all means, pick up a book like Bruce’s. In fact, there are others like this, and I will cover a number of them in a future post.

My suggestion is, however, to pick one resource–whether one of these or others–and stick with it until you sense you have a good grasp of the major issues. You will be much more prepared for continuing the quest if you do this, than if you inundate yourself right out of the gate with a dozen different sources, none of them given a serious go on its own.

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