Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Want to finally really study the New Testament? This is maybe the best place to start.

Review of: Steven L. Davies, New Testament Fundamentals
Polebridge Press: 250 pp.

Published as a textbook for teaching the New Testament, Stevan Davies' New Testament Fundamentals also serves as an excellent study guide for those who want to work through the New Testament on their own. Many have praised it as the best guide of its kind available, and for good reason. Brilliantly organized and written in a clear, persuasive style, Davies' book strikes a perfect balance between textual detail and the larger points being made. Whether he treats of the Q document, the historical reliability of Acts, or the four evangelists' positions on Torah observance, he stays solidly grounded in the biblical texts while managing to show the modern reader just what was at stake in terms of the historical struggles of the first-century church. He brings the reader to a quick grasp of what the texts, cryptic as they often are, can tell us of the early development of Christianity.

New Testament Fundamentals offers brief introductory sections on pertinent subjects: Davies summarily presents the tools of analytical study, the Roman Empire and Judaism, different movements within second-Temple Judaism (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, etc.), and different first-century religions (Roman imperial religion, mystery religions such as Mithraism, hearth religion, etc.). The main body of the text, however, is taken up with a chronological presentation of the major New Testament books. Each book is given a chapter of its own, preceded by a diagram showing where it fits in terms of the growth of the New Testament canon. An appendix includes the complete text of the extra-biblical Gospel of Thomas, which is brought into the discussion in various places.

I find Davies especially strong in his treatment of the four gospels and his analyzes of their differences. Why does Mark present the apostles as bumbling and repeatedly misconstruing Jesus, whereas the other gospels do not? Why do the earliest manuscripts of Mark end so abruptly? Why does Luke's nativity story put so much stress on Mary and Elizabeth, while Matthew stresses Joseph, the Magi and Herod? What of the very different style of discourse given Jesus by John? Davies compellingly analyzes all these problems and many more, showing how they may relate to different ways of understanding Jesus in the earliest decades of Christianity. Readers of these chapters should come away with a renewed appreciation of the evangelists' subtlety as writers.

Whether used as a tool for teaching or a primer for individual study, New Testament Fundamentals offers a carefully thought out, well-balanced approach to the task of interpreting the New Testament. I highly recommend it.

Check Davies' New Testament Fundamentals at Amazon.com

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