Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Review of Starting New Testament Study (UK edition)

This is the first review I've seen of the UK edition. It's from Scripture Bulletin January 2010.

Starting New Testament Study: Learning and Doing.
Bruce Chilton and Deirdre Good, London: SPCK 2009, pp. ix+174

There is a rising demand, from many quarters, to know more about the New Testament, and especially what kind of thing it is, and what one may sensibly say about it. Here now is a perfectly sensible book to put in the hands of those who are starting the critical study of the NT, looking both at the 27 individual books and at their cumulative impact; the authors tell the story of how the New Testament developed, and exercises at the end of each chapter (the best part of the book, in this reviewer’s judgement) help the neophyte reader appropriate the text; the great advantage of these is that they drive the reader back to the text and to other relevant ancient documents. Chapter 1 offers sensible accounts of Source Criticism, Social Scientific Criticism, Redaction- and Tradition- Criticism, as well as Reader-Response approaches, and it includes some helpful thoughts about dictionaries and concordances, and some 101-level reflectionson theories of translation, as well as very helpful directions towards on-line dictionaries. Chapter 2 offers an intelligent outline of Jesus and his social world, and his several ‘environments’, although they are not all of equal weight, since they are listed as: rural Galilee, the Baptist movement, the towns visited by Jesus, Herod Antipas and the Temple in Jerusalem. Chapter 3 shows the authors as strikingly confident on Pauline chronology, without indicating the complexities of it, and put forward the interesting idea that in Colossians and Ephesians Timothy (the author, in case you had not guessed) preserves Paul’s poetry which otherwise would have remained purely oral. Sadly, not a shred of evidence is offered for this very striking notion (although there are some useful indicators in the bibliography). Chapter 3 is good on the usefulness of the gospel genre, though once again assertion triumphs over argument built on evidence, though the authors do admit that ‘scholars can and do differ on their findings’. They are also notably confident on the reconstruction (and early date) of Q. In general one would have to say that our authors are sound enough on the gospels, without ever giving the feeling that they inhabit them; it may be significant that they give to the Gospel of Thomas as many pages as they do to any of the canonical gospels. The bibliographical indicators in this chapter offer, however, a reasonably wide-ranging account of current approaches to the gospels. Chapter 4 is on the Catholic and apocalyptic writings, and was perhaps
the best chapter in the book, very interesting on James (though too allusive in its conclusions), and decidedly helpful on the Synoptic Little Apocalypse, and they are correct to stress the disagreements within the NT about the details of the end-time. And the book ends with a helpful glossary.

So it is a helpful piece of work, and will do no harm if put into the hands of beginners in academic study of the New Testament; but in the end I found myself wondering why it was written. The excellent section on apocalypse needed more copy-editing to make its meaning(s) a bit clearer, and chapter 1 was sometimes needlessly obscure. In the end, the reader is left with a feeling of slight disappointment that two such well-known NT scholars should have written in (apparently) such a hurry, so that what might have been a distinguished book is less than it might have been. There is the occasional exaggerated claim, for example on John the Baptist and Merkabah mysticism (p. 30), and one or two claims that a newcomer to NT might regard as better founded than is in fact the case; probably the book will do no harm, but a beginner will not be aware how speculative are some of its claims.

Nicholas King SJ Campion Hall, University of Oxford

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