Book Reviews

The New Testament in Antiquity

A Survey of the New Testament within Its Cultural Contexts

Gary M. Burge Grand Rapids 2009-02-17

Burge, Cohick, and Green have produced a helpful introduction/survey of the New Testament. Like most similar volumes, this book includes information on background,  surveys the contents, and provides specific information on each New Testament book. The authors have succeeded in providing a survey that is (a) academically rigorous, (b) accessible to students, (c) sensitive to the context of the New Testament, and (d) evangelical (p. 9). However, in light of the many quality New Testament surveys and introductions available, why would one consider this survey over others? In the case of a classroom text the choice of an introduction depends on the needs of the course. But for individuals, factors such as time constraints, academic background, and the purpose for reading such a volume will influence choice. Thus the introduction that meets the needs of one person may not meet the needs of another. To some extent the value of this volume is reflected in the four goals mentioned above. This review will generally center around these.

First, Burge, Cohick, and Green’s survey is the product of sound scholarship. Together the authors have over fifty years of teaching experience and each has contributed to sections that reflect his or her area of expertise. In dealing with controversial issues this volume attempts to give all sides of a debate.

Second, although relatively long (almost 500 pages), compared with many introductions, it is of manageable size for study within a semester course. To further enhance its value, this volume is full of pictures, maps, and sidebars with helpful information. Some sidebars include interpretive information on a specific phrase or verse (e.g., “thorn in the flesh,” 2 Cor. 12:7; p. 312; Tertius as the writer of Romans, Rom. 16:22; p. 326).

Third, in recent years New Testament scholars have become more aware of the value of understanding the historical and cultural contexts in which the New Testament was produced. Understanding the value of this material, the authors devote over 20 percent of the book to historical and cultural information. This makes it a more complete introduction than many others presently available. Chapter 1 is an excellent brief discussion of the role of  contexts in biblical interpretation.

Fourth, Burge, Cohick, and Green are explicitly evangelical. Their high view of Scripture is clear. Also the authors are sensitive to debates among evangelicals. For many current issues (e.g., the millennium, pp. 434–35), the authors describe all sides. If readers are looking for a volume that reinforces their own specific theological system, they will be disappointed. Rather, the discussions fit within a broader evangelical context.

Other helpful features include questions for discussion and bibliography at the end of each chapter. Also, three indexes are given at the end of the volume: Scripture, noncanonical, and subject. The noncanonical index is brief and does not include references to the sources in the sidebars.

The first four chapters discuss contextual and background material; chapters 5–7 are related to Jesus studies; chapters 8–26 provide specific discussions of New Testament books, and chapter 27 is on the preservation and communication of the text. Each Gospel is discussed in detail, and issues of date, authorship, and related matters are presented with discussion of a range of options. Also questions on authorship of disputed books such as Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles are handled in detail. The authors seem to support Pauline authorship for Ephesians and Colossians, but they leave the issue open. They conclude that Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles in A.D. 65/66–67/68.

Despite the obvious value of this volume, a number of potential improvements could enhance the book. The sidebars often include interesting and helpful related material. However, some sidebars are too brief to be helpful, and others do not cite their source. The note on the imperial cult (p. 426) is too simplistic. In light of the importance of this topic, it would have been helpful to have more on this in chapter 4, “The Mediterranean World of the Apostle Paul.” At least one photograph is mislabeled (p. 232 includes a picture of the temple of Romulus, who is incorrectly identified as the founder of Rome instead of the son of the emperor Maxentius, who was also named Romulus). At times the authors are so noncommittal in their discussions that their conclusions appear weak and without support. For example after mentioning two possible dates for the Book of Revelation, they only conclude, “A date in the 90s is fully plausible” (p. 438). For Matthew, dates in the 60s and 80s are suggested (p. 177). Such reticence is an advantage in cases where a certain conclusion is probably impossible at this time (e.g., the date of Matthew).

One advantage of the openness of these conclusions is that readers can think through the issues. This is sometimes more important than the conclusions themselves. However, some readers may become frustrated because of a lack of firm or precise solutions and will desire more certainty with stronger support. Many issues could have been discussed in more depth. However, the sources in the bibliography can be utilized to supplement this, as needed.

These criticisms are minor, for readers will be greatly rewarded for time spent in this book. The strong emphasis on backgrounds should be a model for future works of this type.

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Joseph D. Fantin
Dr. Fantin believes an accurate understanding of God's Word will enable the believer to grow in his or her relationship with Christ, to love God and others, to bring Christ's love to a lost world, to build up the church, and most importantly, to glorify God. He is committed to teaching exegetical method in order to help students understand, apply, and teach the Bible in order to achieve these goals. His research interests include the prison epistles, the first-century world, Greek, linguistics, and relevance theory. He and his wife, Robin, have two children: Jillian and David.
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