Helpful review, Phil.
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This review is from: New Testament History (Library of Theology) (Hardcover)
Although written forty years ago F F Bruce's New Testament History remains a classic scholarly study of the political and philosophical background before, during and after the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. In this book Bruce traces, in infinite and objective detail, the context of the Jewish Messianic Hope prevalent at the time of Jesus. He also identified the sources and interpretations of that Hope amongst the various Jewish groups living under Roman rule.
Bruce specialised in the study of Paul the Apostle and there are plenty of references to Paul's influence as an early convert to the Christian faith. However, the book is also a brilliant description of Judaea during the Roman occupation, the philosophical schools prevalent at the time (including the different Helenistic influences) and the Jewish politico-religious groups including the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots. The political nature of these sects (which Josephus referred to as schools, "after the Greek fashion") was expressed in their doctrine and attitude towards Roman authority. Bruce's own characterisation of each of them is masterful.
Bruce was a member of the Plymouth Brethren but did not share the dispensationalist outlook sometimes associated with their teachings. He also differed on the nature of Biblical inerrancy taking the view that the Bible was historically accurate but not necessarily precise. However, in his view, a lack of precision did not invalidate the historical record. Neither did any passages open to debate invalidate the Christian gospel or its theological implications. As he pointed out, "Apart from the New Testament writings and later writings dependent on these our sources of information about the life and teaching of Jesus are scanty and problematic" However, he noted, this is not surprising using the example of Haji Mirza Ali Khan, Fakir of Ipi, to illustrate his point superbly.
Bruce draws attention to the non Christian sources of information about Christians including Suetonius, Josephus, Tacitus and others and he is not averse to questioning original works where he thinks they may have been modified to suit Christian tastes. He also makes reference to the Gospel of Thomas pointing out, "it may well be genuine" but drawing attention to the difficulties involved in authenticating a document which appears without any life-context.
However, there is clear life-context for Bruce's description of the primitive Jerusalem church, the conflict between Christians and orthodox Jewish authority as well as conflict between Jews and Gentiles all of which is set in its political, social and religious context. His description of time and place is an essential read for anyone seeking to establish the truth about early Christianity whether as an apologist or critic. Bruce was an expert in his subject and an objective historian of the highest quality. Where matters are uncertain he states so quite specifically.
Bruce would not have accepted the claims put forward by those who suggest that Paul created Christianity (a view developed in Germany theologians during the nineteenth century and whose supporters included Adolph Hitler). For Bruce, Paul preached the gospel of the risen Christ - whatever the consequences. Everything else (including pastoral duties) were secondary to that evangelical role. All this is described with the scholarly detachment expected of a Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis.
New Testament History is a book of the greatest integrity which demands to be read and has stood the test of time. A five star rating well deserved.
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Initial post: 17 Apr 2011 09:47:31 BDT
K. Moss says:
Helpful review, Phil.
In reply to an earlier post on 17 Apr 2011 13:31:05 BDT
Professor Bruce remains the touchstone for anyone who is interested in establishing the integrity and limitations of the written evidence we call the Bible. His acceptance of those limitations in particular contrasts sharply with the caricature of blind faith evangelical believers often forwarded by those whose prime motive is to attack Christian belief and deny the historical existence of Christ.
By the same token, of course, it also contrasts with those Christians for whom the word "problematic" equates with heresy. Professor Bruce was a member of the Open Brethren but did not accept the dispensation interpretation of Biblical or world history professed by some Brethren members. Those who heard him shared his view.
In reply to an earlier post on 17 Apr 2011 14:31:03 BDT
K. Moss says:
You are absolutely right. I first read Prof. Bruce when I was at Uni, although the copy I now have is a more updated version. It is certainly solid and robust in its approach to the NT narratives.
A book which does much the same, with a similar degree of academic robustness is: The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant?.
I had an opportunity to study under Dr. Kaiser in Cambridge in 2008, and he was a fascinating man. Even at 75, he had an energy on his feet whilst lecturing, and a penetrating mind when it came to distinguishing between competing theories in relation to the OT documents. My only criticism of his book would be the typesetting, which for some reason appears to impede the easy flow of one's reading.
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