New Testament HistoryWritten by Richard L. Niswonger Reviewed By Harold W. Hoehner
Dr Niswonger, an Associate Professor of History and Bible at John Brown University, has written a history of NT times from 332 BC to AD 100. The first four chapters cover the historical background up to the time of Jesus, chapters 5–8 revolve around the ministry of Jesus, chapters 9–12 deal with church expansion within the framework of the book of Acts, chapters 13–14 discuss the last four decades of the church reconstructed from the canonical literature (pastoral epistles of Paul, the general epistles, and Revelation) and from extra-biblical literature (Josephus, Roman historians, early church fathers), and chapter 15 is a brief conclusion dealing with the geographic spread of Christianity, church doctrine and government, and reasons for Christianity’s growth. The book is interspersed with many illustrations and nine maps and also has four appendices, a bibliography, and indices of persons, subjects, and biblical references.
The author is straightforward in his introduction by stating that ‘to claim total objectivity is to be a victim of self-deception’ and one should admit his or her presuppositions and then seek to be fair with the evidence in that light. Subsequently, he has done a splendid job in this respect throughout his work. He explicitly states that he is writing within the conservative and traditional framework and views the gospels as reliable historical documents. On controversial issues he lays out the options and carefully weighs the evidence and then states his conclusions and yet is very open to the objections raised against his views. In attempting to answer the objections, he discusses the issues fairly and without rancour. On the whole he has worked with original sources, although there are times when he uses secondary sources (e.g. ch. 4, n. 4, he states Cicero’s view on the Epicurean philosophy and cites George Panichas rather than Cicero; ch. 7, n. 1, he mentions Tacitus’ description of Tiberius’ position in the empire but cites Jack Finegan).
There are a couple of areas that need examination. First, on p. 132 the author uses the terms ‘governor’ and ‘prefect’ interchangeably and then states that ‘procurators’ took over the administration of the province in AD 44. Admittedly there was confusion of terminology at that time but it would have been beneficial to the reader to give a short explanation of the problem and why Josephus used all three terms while the NT only used ‘governor’. Furthermore, it is more likely that the provincial rulers were not called ‘procurators’ until Claudius’ reign after AD 50 rather than in 44.
The second area concerns the year of Christ’s crucifixion (pp. 121–122, 140–141, 150–157). The author has accepted the popular AD 30 date. The issue is not the date per se but how the author arrived at this conclusion. He bases it on Luke 3:23 which is a non-technical chronological note stating that Jesus was ‘about’ thirty years of age at the commencement of his ministry, rather than basing it on Luke 3:1 which has a specific chronological note indicating that the commencement of John the Baptist’s ministry was in the fifteenth year of Tiberius. Since Tiberius’ reign began in AD 14, John’s ministry would have begun in AD 29. However, since Jesus had at least a three-year ministry the author suggests that one needs to reckon the commencement of John the Baptist’s ministry from the beginning of Tiberius’ co-regency with Augustus in AD 11 or 12 rather than from the death of Augustus in AD 14. This is mere mathematical gymnastics because there is no shred of evidence that anyone ever reckoned from Tiberius’ co-regency but, on the other hand, there is much evidence that the Roman historians reckoned from AD 14. Furthermore, if one were to count from his co-regency why would one reckon from AD 11 or 12? There is nothing in these dates to suggest the commencement of the co-regency. A more likely time would be when Tiberius received tribunicia potestas and imperium proconsulare in AD 13, which would mean that the earliest possible time for the commencement of John the Baptist’s ministry was in AD 28. However, there really is no evidence that it was ever reckoned from AD 13.
A few minor details need only to be mentioned. Dr Niswonger states that Paul was converted in AD 33–4 (p. 200), but in Appendix E this is listed as occurring in AD 32–3. In Appendix C there needs to be a vertical line drawn from Son of Cleopatra to Herod Philip. Furthermore, the author was not careful in his dates in the bibliographical entries: for example, in ch. 8, n. 1, Edersheim’s work was not in 1971 but in the 1880s; in ch. 11, n. 3, Conybeare and Howson did not publish in 1949 but in 1853; in ch. 10, n. 16, Machen published in 1921, not 1947. Others could be cited. It is important to have precise dates so that the reader may know when the scholar made his or her contribution to the discussion at hand.
On the whole the author is to be commended for his work. It is written with clarity and generally with a fair handling of the evidence. His dealing with the extra-biblical material in the Roman period was most interesting.
Harold W. Hoehner
Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas