AN INTRODUCTION TO THE NEW TESTAMENT AND THE ORIGINS OF CHRISTIANITYWritten by Delbert Burkett Reviewed By Christoph Stenschke
Burkett presents a fine introduction to the NT and other early Christian literature. Designed primarily for undergraduate courses in NT, biblical studies and early Christianity, the author assumes no prior knowledge of his subject on the part of the readers.
The volume consists of seven parts. Part one (3–118) gives, after an introduction, a helpful survey of the historical and religious background to the NT. Part two (121–260) covers Jesus and the Gospels, including a chapter on the Synoptic problem, the apocryphal Jesus and the quest for the historical Jesus. Part three (263–85) deals with Acts, while part four (289–376) is devoted to Pauline Christianity. Part five (379–403) covers Judaic Christianity (James, Didache) and part six (407–20), ‘Gnostic Christianity’, including the Gospel of Thomas. The last part (423–515) surveys ‘proto-orthodox Christianity’, including the Pastorals; the Catholic epistles; 1 Clement; and the letters of Ignatius and Barnabas. Burkett focuses on conflicts within the churches, the relation of Christianity and Judaism and the conflict with the Roman world.
Each chapter consists of an introductory section that raises and discusses critical issues, themes and other features of the texts under consideration. The following section is a reading guide designed to be read concurrently with the primary text. Several review questions and suggestions for further study are provided at the end. Fourteen appendices in which the author ably introduces his readers to non-Biblical primary sources, including helpful bibliographies, round off the volume, which includes eighty pictures and illustrations of high quality.
The strength of this well-presented, lucidly written volume lies in its comprehensiveness, clarity and the extensive citation of primary sources. Unfortunately, Burkett presents a onesided picture. In his introduction he draws a decided distinction between the historical critical method and what he calls the ‘confessional method’ of studying the Bible (9–13; ‘The NT can be studied either confessionally, i.e. religiously, theologically, devotionally, or academically’, 9). His attempt to separate strictly between historical issues and faith issues is in many ways questionable. As if the confessional method were not interested in history and as if the historical-critical approach would not have its own set of presuppositions! In the few lines on the Christian response to historical criticism (12) Burkett seems almost out to patronisingly convert ‘the disturbed Christian students’ who believe ‘that every writing in the Bible is inspired by God verbally’ and praises the more mature readers who have progressed from an error-free Bible to the recognition of a human element in the Bible. Ten out of ten for a simplified black and white presentation of complex issues! There is no mention of the fact that the classical historical critical method is severely questioned today in many quarters, and certainly not only by Evangelicals!
In addition, Burkett often presents exclusively critical positions; evangelical positions—which are no less historical in their argument—are not even mentioned. The author, for instance, lists five reasons why Peter’s authorship of 1 Peter is unlikely (488–90), yet there is not the slightest indication that other scholars have held and hold different positions and that there are likewise good historical reasons for Petrine authorship (cf. e.g. the much more balanced discussion in P.J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter: A Commentary on First Peter, Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, 1–43).
This volume offers an excellent and easy to understand overview of the current state of historical critical research and is helpful as such. As the only textbook for a course on the NT or early Christianity or for personal orientation it is too one-sided and certainly needs to be supplemented by volumes which provide other perspectives, e.g. J. Drane, Introducing the New Testament, rev. ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg/Fortress, 2001) or S. Walton, D. Wenham, Exploring the New Testament I: Gospels and Acts (London: SPCK, 2001), I.H. Marshall, S. Travis, I. Paul, Exploring the New Testament II: The Letters and Revelation (London: SPCK, 2002).
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