on 30 November 2012
As with others in the series, this tight volume packs a lot of knowledge and understanding into a relatively short book.
It is divided into clear, useful chapter headings: some of these are overall questions, how the New Testament got put together, or what hermeneutics are applied to it; others are on individual sections: one on the Synoptic Gospels, one on Johannine literature, one on St Paul's letters etc..
The challenge here is that there can be a blur between when we are reading Johnson's summary of received opinion, and when we are reading Johnson's own personal take on something. For example, he describes the Gospel of Mark as in its essence a piece of Apocalyptic literature, with a few stories and life incidents of Jesus thrown in: his argument comes from emphasisising the otherwise slightly out of place Mark 13, full of wild apocalyptic imagery. Now Johnson may be right, and his view is well-argued, but I would say that his take on it is well left of centre in terms of how scholars in general view Mark's Gospel. (Yes, Mark 13's apocalpytic imagery is important, but there is a human truth in the Passion story and a focus on the kingdom of God in most of it that doesn't square with the book being primarily apocalyptic.)
When one picks up "A very short introduction", I believe one is looking more for scholarly consensus than an author's own hobbyhorses.
That said, I may have slightly overstressed this aspect. Johnson is excellent at compressing information and argument into a tight format, and - when one is writing this concisely - inevitably one cannot be entirely evenhanded as otherwise the book would be tedious and overlong.
He is very balanced in terms of commitment to faith: this can be read by believers and non-believers without alienating either and would be good for keen A-level students, undergraduates just starting the New Testament who need a bit of a basic overview, or just anyone with an interest. It might especially be good for someone who goes to church, listens to sermons but wants a little more learning to go with what they hear.
Very good, but not perfect.
on 7 May 2014
This "Very Short Introduction" is written by Luke Timothy Johnson (LTJ), a former monk who is now a professor of New Testament studies, and does exactly what it says on the tin.
The work is divided into 11 Chapters.
Chapter 2 contextualises the NT in its contemporary setting, explaining the difference in belief and lifestyle of Jew and Gentile.
Chapter 3 focusses on the resurrection, and whilst not suggesting exactly what happened, LTJ lets the reader know that *something* significant must have happened in order for the Christian faith to begin. That *something*, he claims, is that the disciples of Jesus came to believe he had risen from the dead, but he refrains from passing personal comment on that issue.
Chapters 6-9 provide an overview of most of the documents of the NT, with only Jude and 1 + 2 Peter being passed over.
Chapter 6 looks at the Synoptic Gospels, going through each in turn.
Chapter 7 focusses on the life and works of Paul, and as a representation of his work provides a great mini-exegesis of his theology in 1 Corinthians and Romans.
Chapter 8 "Two Hidden Treasures" provides an exegesis of James and Hebrews.
Chapter 9 finishes this section looking at a Johannine school of thought as found in the Gospel of John, 1,2,3 John and Revelation, again, providing a mini-explanation of these works and their contexts.
Chapter 10 discusses the creation and importance of the NT canon in brief detail. Readers should then be aware of CE Hill's "Who Chose the Gospels?" for more info on this one.
Chapter 11 provides a neat summary of the continuing importance of the NT in contemporary society, despite the personal failings of Christians, and the ambiguities of the text that have led to oppression in Christ's name.
Overall this book is a brilliant introduction, fair and balanced, that presents a broad scholarly consensus of the relevant issues involved, whilst retaining some individual perspectives. However, because of this "catch-all" approach, there are several things that both liberal and conservative historians and believers may find disagreement with.
A liberal audience won't like (among other things): A. his suggestion that Paul made use of an amanuensis, so that the Pastoral Letters may indeed be genuine, B. his understanding that the "Gospel" of Thomas is most likely late 2nd century and C. that the canon of the NT represents the best and earliest of our documents about the initial phase of Christian history.
A conservative audience probably has more things to take issue with, but hopefully by reading will learn the difference between accepted church tradition and the current position of NT scholarship. For example: A. he dates 2 Peter to the 2nd Century, B. suggests that Millenialism is a gross misreading of the genre of Revelation, C. calling the Holy Spirit an "energy field" several times, D. dating the Gospels 'late' EG 70AD or later, E. suggesting that Daniel was actually written c.167BC and not during the Babylonian exile.
There is much of use in here, and it overall provides a fair introduction to key themes and topics of NT studies that both Christian and non-Christian, layman and scholar will find of use.