This rather modest book, just 220 pages encompassing seven individual chapters by half a dozen British scholars, deftly challenges one of the central presuppositions underlying a vast mountain of New Testament scholarship for much of the past quarter century. Led by Richard Bauckham who teaches at St. Andrews in Scotland, these scholars quite literally pull the rug out from under prevailing work on the Gospels which almost universally assume that each individual Gospel was written for and intended only for an almost hermetically sealed "community" and that close reading of the texts gives us enough information to draw a fairly detailed picture of that same community. This assumption, Bauckham argues, despite the fact that it has become foundational to work in the field has really never been proven or even extensively argued as a theory with independent proof and testing. Like so many other "foundational" assumptions of recent New Testament scholarship, this structure upon which so many elaborate edifices have been attached rests not on the solid rock of historical or comparative literary evidence, but on sand.
Once Bauckham has cut through the knots of assumptions and the clumsy misuse of "social scientific" argument, an enormous stack of scholarship--commentaries, journal articles, Ph.D. theses, and monographs--suddenly seems to be standing on the shakiest of theoretical grounds.
For that reason, most New Testament scholars will either ignore, sniff, sneer, or simply brush aside this challenge. In fairness, no one who is thoroughly published on Gospel issues wants to have years or decades of their life's work challenged on foundational grounds.
The inimitable Loveday Alexander, adds an incisive chapter on book production and distribution in the Roman world, drawing on her extraordinary command of classic sources, and demonstrates that one did not tend to write a book in the Roman world unless that work was intended for what in those times counted as wide circulation. If one wanted only to communicate to a small, geographically fixed community one tended to use oral communication which was much more powerful and much more effective given the generally lower levels of literacy.
Richard Burridge of King's College London applies his well-developed thesis about gospel genre (see his erudite and comprehensive WHAT ARE THE GOSPELS?) to the question of who wrote the Gospels and why. Ever since Bultmann--the source of an almost endless series of utterly unfounded theories about the New Testament--the Gospels have be argued to be the products not so much of brilliant individuals but of "communities". (Having been a magazine and book editor for 25 years, I can hardly contain my astonishment when scholars point to a work that has stood for twenty centuries and argue that it was authored by some kind of committee.)Burridge addresses a series of these key questions in a powerful show of logic.
There is such a refreshing show of finely honed common sense and willingness to ask the most fundamental questions about matters that have become immutable articles of faith in the "scholarly guild" that the book is an exhilirating and heady read.
It is impossible to overrate the importance of this diamond-sharp gem of a book.