The New Testament: An Introduction

Written by Norman Perrin Reviewed By Donald G Guthrie

If the reader expects to find in this book a careful survey of scholarly opinions on the various problems of New Testament Introduction he will be greatly disappointed. For this is no general introduction, but a quite specific account of Perrin’s own approach to the New Testament. The author does not hide the fact. On p. 4 he warns the reader that he will find ‘that the book exhibits a particular understanding of the New Testament, based on a particular kind of New Testament scholarship’. Nevertheless the serious student would have to conclude that in Perrin’s mind there is no other kind of New Testament scholarship worth bothering about. The bibliographies for further reading are in the main astonishingly one-sided, an example of obscurantism of the worst kind. Perrin is an obvious admirer of Bultmann and clearly thinks that anyone who differs from that school of thought has no right to be heard. This is the only explanation for his not infrequent claims that the view he is advancing represents the consensus of scholarly opinion (see p. 279). One is tempted to ask at several points, how does Perrin arrive at his consensus? It is easy enough to find a consensus to support one’s views if those who oppose have already been excluded from ‘scholarly’ opinion.

We turn first to some aspects of Perrin’s methodology. He is given to making dogmatic statements as if they were assured facts, when they are at most only speculative opinions. It seems that most of the New Testament problems are already neatly buttoned up in his mind and leave no room for any further discussion. In the beginning of the book, he declares his conclusions about each New Testament book, before he gives what little attention he does to demonstration of those conclusions. This almost amounts to a tour de forcesince the reader is not permitted to reach his own conclusions. He tells us that much of the Gospel material was created by the Christian communities (p. 5). He splits the Epistles into three groups—the genuine Pauline epistles (1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon), the deutero-Pauline Epistles (2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, Hebrews) and the literature of emergent catholicism (James, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude and the Pastorals). The Johannine Epistles he classes with the Gospel as literature of the Johannine school. The book of Revelation he includes with the Synoptic Source Q and the apocalyptic discourses under ‘apocalyptic Christianity’. The books of emergent catholicism he at once pronounces to be pseudonymous and confidently tells us (p. 7) that they were written between ad 90 and 140. It is hardly conducive to an impartial examination of evidence to be confronted at the outset with conclusions which in Perrin’s mind leave no room for doubt, in spite of the fact that many of them are based on tenuous reasons which are open to serious criticisms.

Another feature with which the author at the outset confronts the reader is the concept of myth in the New Testament. He appeals to the old approach of Strauss (whose opinions strongly influenced Bultmann), who considered myth to be ‘the narrative expression of an idea’ (p. 21). He enlarges this idea by appealing to the further definitions of myth by Eliade and Ricoeur. For instance, he finds in the passion story three aspects of myth—the primary symbol (redemption), the secondary symbol (the cross) and the narrative myth. In this way the reader is prepared for the full process of demythologization advanced by Bultmann and his school. Perrin admits that myth has distorted history, but this does not worry him ‘unless it is claimed that the history embodies the myth’ (p. 31). He considers that it is ‘the functioning adequacy of the myth’ that counts, not the distortion of the history.

In view of this it is perhaps not surprising that Perrin does not even consider ‘Jesus’ until the last chapter, which he significantly entitles ‘The Presupposition of the New Testament’. When he deals with the life of Jesus, he can muster no more than half a page to exhaust all we can know, in his opinion, of the historical facts (pp. 277f.). The teaching of Jesus fares slightly better, for he concedes the genuineness of some of the sayings, covering the following four themes—the proclamation of the kingdom, the parables, the proverbial sayings and the Lord’s prayer. All the rest of the material, whether acts or words, are the creation of the church.

On pp. 281ff., Perrin lays down the criteria for authenticity, on the basis of which he judges the genuineness of the sayings of Jesus. He follows the general Bultmannian line of appealing to dissimilarity, coherence, multiple attestation, linguistic and environmental tests (in agreement with R. H. Fuller). He admits that the first of these may lead to a distorted picture, but he makes no mention of the acute criticisms brought by Morna Hooker against these criteria. He does not seem to be aware of their arbitrary basis. We would have expected that a serious scholar would at least have given contrary opinions even if he did not agree with them. Perrin’s persistent unwillingness to do this is a very serious weakness of the whole book.

Some of Perrin’s confident statements will be singled out, almost at random, to illustrate other aspects of his lack of impartiality in the presentation of evidence. In discussing the historical background of Paul, he gives scant attention to the book of Acts (p. 93), for he regards the missionary journeys in that book as probably literary devices (p. 215). There is no careful setting out of the pros and cons of the case. The reader is clearly expected to take Perrin’s word for it without raising too many questions. It is perhaps when he is discussing the so-called ‘genuine’ Epistles of Paul that he is most constructive. He devotes considerable space, for instance, to exegesis of the Epistle to the Romans. Nevertheless he does not regard either 2 Corinthians or Philippians as a unity. In neither case does he give any reasons for his opinion. He leaves the reader with the impression that there is no doubt about the correctness of his statements.

He throws out a few more reasons for his opinions when he deals with the deutero-Pauline letters, although even here his method of treatment is markedly uneven. Colossians earns most attention, presumably on the grounds that, according to Perrin, most scholars decide in favour of it, whereas he opposes the authenticity. When he feels himself to be in the minority he gives a more careful presentation of the evidence. In the case of 2 Thessalonians, we are told that this Epistle is a ‘deliberate imitation’ of 1 Thessalonians (p. 120). Another matter which may be noted as significant is Perrin’s complete ignoring of early Christian traditions as data in assessing New Testament problems. He speaks of gnosticism as a factor in the Colossian situation, but does not bring out a sufficient distinction between pre-Christian gnosticism and its later developments.

When dealing with Matthew’s Gospel, Perrin considers that the author is ‘not preaching the gospel, but organizing an interpretation of the revelation given in Jesus Christ, the Son of David’ (p. 176). The interpretation is presumably Matthew’s idea, which he wants others to accept and on the basis of which a church will be built. Having dispensed in his mind with the majority of the recorded acts and sayings of Jesus as being unoriginal, he is obliged to attribute their creation to the community or to the author, and their selection to the latter. In seeking an occasion for the book, Perrin finds it in Matthew’s coming to terms with the fall of Jerusalem. Indeed Perrin is convinced that this event precipitated a major crisis for the Christian church as it did for the Jews, ‘sending a shock wave through the Jewish-Christian world’ (p. 41; cf. also pp. 56ff.). But it is a debatable point how significant the fall of Jerusalem as an event was to the Christian church. This catastrophe has left little imprint on the New Testament literature, which suggests that most Christians had ceased to see Jerusalem as being as central as it was for Judaism. This is another issue on which it would have been better if Perrin had allowed for some difference of opinion.

In commenting on Matthew’s birth narratives, Perrin declares, ‘It would be all but universally agreed that the birth and infancy stories in Matthew’s gospel were created from the Old Testament texts they are held to fulfil’ (p. 280). This is a further example of a sweeping claim made without any reasons being cited. In view of the strong promise-and-fulfilment motive which runs through this Gospel, it is unbelievable that Matthew created events in order to be able to appeal to fulfilments. Perrin does not apply the same process to all the quotations from the Old Testament, but claims that each event or narrative detail ‘has to be investigated on its own merit’. It would have been helpful if he had given us the benefit of his investigation into Matthew’s birth narratives. All he does is to say that Matthew’s procedure is ‘in keeping with ancient Jewish practice’. The reader is entitled to know what support can be cited for such a claim, but none is given.

Because the position adopted over some of the New Testament books involves theories of pseudonymity, Perrin includes a brief section on this subject (pp. 271ff.), in which he adopts the view that in the early church pseudonymity or anonymity was the rule, and personal authorship the exception. The evidence he cites is remarkably frugal. He appeals to Plato’s writing in the name of Socrates and to Christian prophets putting church sayings in the form of sayings of Jesus. He considers this sufficient to establish his point, but the evidence establishes nothing. The former point provides no guide to Christian procedure, while the latter is speculative and debatable. In support of anonymity, Perrin appeals to the works of the Apostolic Fathers, another dubious comparison. There is far less evidence than Perrin supposes for the Christian use of pseudonymity. In fact there is none prior to the mid-second century at the earliest. Moreover, since in all the cases which he holds to be pseudonymous the literary form is epistolary, it is all the more striking that such forms are almost entirely nonexistent in post-apostolic times, even among the mass of apocryphal pseudepigraphic literature.

The few appendixes which are added to this book are useful in giving brief (although in most cases, far too brief) accounts of historical background in the Hellenistic and Jewish world, of the canon and text of the New Testament, and of the English versions.

In his section on the canon we might note that Perrin tends to overrate the influence of Marcion on the development of an orthodox canon. He assumes, for instance, that Marcion included all the Pauline Epistles which he possessed, although Tertullian reports that Marcion cut out the Pastorals. Perrin shows some inconsistency here for he admits that the Pastorals were ‘effective weapons against Marcion’ (p. 331), but does not even consider that this would have been a strong reason for him to exclude them. There is no doubt that Marcion was a contributory factor in urging the orthodox Christians to define more closely their own authoritative books, but it is going too far to say that it was Marcion who caused the combination of Gospel and apostle in the Christian canon. High regard for both the teaching of Jesus and of the apostles was not the brain child of a heretic. The orthodox church, which so strongly condemned Marcion, was hardly likely to have followed his lead if it was not already deeply rooted in this established practice.

To sum up, Perrin’s book leaves much to be desired as an adequate handbook to New Testament Introduction. It is not even a particularly good representation of the Bultmannian position, if it is intended to commend that position to those not already committed to it, since it states rather than demonstrates, and too often treats theory as if it were fact.

Donald G Guthrie

Author of the Tyndale commentary on the Pastoral Epistles