In my previous post I began to discuss how I chose, back in the mid 1990s, to conceptualize my New Testament textbook, not as a theological/interpretive introduction to the NT, or as a literary introduction, but as a rigorously historical introduction. Among other things, that meant treating the books of the New Testament as *some* of the early Christian wriitngs, which needed to be discussed in relation to other early Christian writings produced at about the same time. In this post I’ll talk about one other feature of a more historical approach to the New Testament.
Almost all the other introductory textbooks available at the time, as I indicated yesterday, began with a kind of obligatory appendix on the “background” to the New Testament – information on the historical, political, social, and religious matrix out of which the New Testament sprang (first the Greco-Roman context and then Jewish). Once all *that* was over with, these textbooks typically moved to talk about the writings of the New Tesatment without incorporating any insights from the world in which they arose, as if the context didn’t matter for anything really.
I thought that was completely wrong. The Greco-Roman world, and Judaism within that world, were not simply “background” to the New Testament. They deeply affected the New Testament at numerous profound levels. The Roman and Jewish worlds should not be seen as something to be gotten out of the way so as to get to the real business at hand. They are very much a *part* of the business at hand. And so I decided to do my book differently.
Of course, I did have to start with the world of the New Testament, and so yes I did have to talk about the historical, cultural, and religious environment in which it arose. So I devoted data-packed (but interesting I hope!) discussion to that, one on the Greco-Roman world and one on Judaism. But I wanted this information to *inform* my entire treatment, and so I chose to integrate important aspects of the world of the New Testament into my book at every relevant point.
Let me give just one example. The early Christian writings were made in the form of established literary genres at the time. In order to understand these writings, one has to understand these genres. And that means understanding how such genres “worked” in their own historical contexts.
In order to explain this to my readers, the following is what I said, in a chapter just before discussing the NT Gospels. I am quoting here from my book (this particular discussion is about the genre of the Gospels, but I actually discuss the other genres of the other books of the NT as well in the appropriate spots in the book):
Before examining the Gospels individually we should say a few words about them as a group. What does it mean to call a literary work a Gospel? We may begin by asking a preliminary question of why the literary genre of these books might matter for our investigation.
The Question of Genre
The question matters because….
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