Here is this week’s Reader’s Mailbag (well, last week’s; I took yesterday off from work) (and it was glorious!). This time around I will be dealing with just one question, about the new edition of my New Testament textbook
You say you first published your textbook on the New Testament about 20 years ago. I see that it is in its 5th edition (or more?). You’ve studied a lot, published a lot, no doubt learned a lot
Actually, as it turns out, this past year I published the sixth edition of the book. Who would-a thought? To explain what is different about the new book, I need to say a few things about how I imagined the book when I first wrote it, back in the mid 1990s. And then I can talk about what I changed for this new edition.
Let me say before detailing all that that even though the book is meant for college and university students, it could be useful for anyone interested n the study of the New Testament. It not only talks about what scholarship says about each of the 27 books (as well as issues of how we got them in our canon, as opposed to other books; and how scribes copied these texts over the centuries; and what we can say about the historical Jesus and the history of the early church after his death; and lots of other things), but it also provides annotated bibliographies for each topic at the end of every chapter. Anyone who wants an overview of biblical scholarship – this would be a good place to turn.
To explain what the original concept of the book was, and what is different in the sixth edition, here I give my comments from the Preface.
When I started doing research on the first edition of this textbook, twenty years ago now, I had very clear ideas about what I wanted it to be. First and foremost, I wanted to approach the New Testament from a rigorously historical perspective. It is not that I had any difficulties at the time, either professionally or personally, with introductions that were more geared toward theology, or exegesis, or literary criticism. But I wanted my book to be different. I wanted to situate the writings of the New Testament more thoroughly than was typically done in the historical, cultural, social, political, literary, and ideological worlds from which it emerged; I wanted it to plow beneath the surface to find clues not only about such traditional issues as authorship, sources, and dates, but also about what was then still a vibrant field of study, social history; I wanted it to ask historical questions of the texts and of the events that they either narrated or presupposed. I was interested in the history of the text and the formation of the canon of the New Testament. In the historical Jesus. In the historical Paul. In the history of the Johannine community. In the historical realities lying behind Matthew, and 2 Corinthians, and Revelation.
Relatedly, wanted the book to be highly comparative: how does John compare with the Synoptics? How do they compare with each other? How does the preaching of Jesus compare with the accounts of the Gospels? Or the theology of Paul? How does Paul’s theology stack up against the letter of James? Or the book of Hebrews? How does the book of Revelation compare with everything else? And on and on. In my view these questions are central to the historical study of the New Testament, and are inherently interesting.
I also wanted the book to be critical, engaged in rigorous scholarship so that students reading it could see what the critical questions were and what evidence was typically adduced in order to answer them. I absolutely did not want to emulate some of my predecessors in trying to introduce students to the prominent scholars of the past who took one position or another, and pretend that this is the same thing as introducing them to actual evidence. In my experience, 19-20 year olds are simply not all that interested, and do not need to be, in the different positions taken on the nature of Justification in Paul by Bultmann, Käsemann, J. Louis Martyn, E. P. Sanders, N. T. wright, and Douglass Campbell. They’ve never heard the names of these scholars (fine ones, all of them), and, so far as I’m concerned, in an introductory class, they have no need to hear of them. Far more interesting than a list of names of modern scholars is a grappling with the texts themselves, to try to make sense of Romans or Galatians.
Finally, I thought this kind of approach could be achieved at a level that a 19-or 20-year old might appreciate. The really difficult task was satisfying that audience and the other audience of a textbook: the university professors who decide whether to use it. My goal was to make the book interesting, even intriguing, for beginners and yet fully competent in its scholarship. As far as making it interesting, I realized that the choice of content was fundamental: the study of the New Testament is absolutely fascinating if you know where to look, but dreadfully dull if you look elsewhere. At least as important was the style of writing and the layout of the page.
In any event, those were some of my guiding principles when I first imagined this book. I am now ready to present it in its sixth iteration. Every time I set about to do a revision, I wonder if it is really necessary. And every time I have the same experience. I read through the book carefully for the nine thousandth time, and I start finding problems and mistakes. These start out small: badly worded sentences, ambiguities, faulty reasoning, minor factual errors. (Surely these are typos. Aren’t they?) But then I start seeing larger issues and bigger concerns, and I begin to imagine ways to make the book better than it was. And as I work on it, these things add up. What results is a book that, in my opinion, really is much better. So too this time around.
I can explain the changes in this sixth edition in short order. I have added a number of features to the book without making it noticeably longer:
- A brief Introduction that asks the student why it is important to study the New Testament in the first place. (I give religious, historical, and literary reasons.)
- Twelve new “boxes” on important issues ranging from “Key Figures in Israel’s Past” to “How Scholars Determine the Dates of the Gospels” to “New Testament Views of Slavery.”
- An excursus on various methods (feminist, post-colonial, liberationist, etc.), written for the purpose by my student Shaily Patel (at the end of chapter 11).
- A new photo essay dealing with material remains for the “Cities and Roads of Paul”
- Sundry other additions here and there, such as a brief discussion of the Gospel of Mary (inexplicably absent from earlier editions’ discussion of other Gospels).
There are other things that I have altered or rewritten in this new edition, very much, in my opinion, to its improvement:
- I have finally yielded to the pressure of many reviewers, and moved the discussion of the book of Acts from its old position, immediately after the chapter on the Gospel of Luke, to follow all the chapters on the Gospels and the historical Jesus. This arrangement does indeed seem to me to work better, as it causes less interruption in the flow of the narrative and serves as a better introduction, then, to the writings of Paul. (Of course, anyone who wants to teach Acts directly on the heels of Luke can simply assign the chapters out of sequence.)
- I have completely rewritten the section on Gnosticism. The field has changed drastically over the past twenty years, and it is time the textbook caught up to it. That important discussion (in chapter 12) now tries to reflect current views — which are by no means unanimous! But the position I stake out strikes me as the least problematic one in light of the most recent developments.
- And I have made other smaller but still significant changes, including the renaming of one of the critical methods I use for studying the Gospels, especially Mark. Until now I have called it the “literary-historical method,” since it establishes the “literary” genre of a writing and sees how that genre worked in its own “historical” period. But students never could get their minds around the term, since it seems that all the methods I use are, in some sense, literary-historical. And so, to give it a more descriptive name, I now simply have labeled this method “genre criticism.”
I go on at this point to name the other scholars who were so helpful to me in reading the fifth edition of the book and suggesting (sometimes insisting on!) changes to be made.
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