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NT scholars digging around

by
17 April 2012

John Court considers studies of literary and archaeological issues

TIM DOWLEY/PETER WYART

TIM DOWLEY/PETER WYART

No small stir: the great amphitheatre at Ephesus, identified as the site of the silversmiths’ riot in Acts 19, in the Candle Atlas of the Bible by Tim Dowley: 79 colour maps of Bible lands, with photos, charts, diagrams, and notes, for schools and Bible study (Candle Books, £5.99 (£5.40); 978-1-85985-924-7)

The Later New Testament Writers and Scripture
Steve Moyise

SPCK £15.99 (978-0-281-06386-4)
Church Times Bookshop £14.40

Jesus and His World: The archaeological evidence
Craig A. Evans

SPCK £12.99 (978-0-281-06097-9)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

BOTH these books are concerned with excavation, in a metaphorical or a literal sense. The former is ex­ca­vat­ing words in a New Testa­ment text, to establish a literary relation­ship with the Old Testament (scrip­ture). The latter is excavating the earth, to find a historical context for New Testa­ment narratives about Jesus.

The title of Steve Moyise’s volume is modelled on the third of the InterVarsity Press Bible Diction­aries (published in 1997). The “later” writings are respectively the Acts of the Apostles; 1 Peter; Jude, together with 2 Peter and James; Hebrews; and Revelation (including the Johannine letters).

Moyise devotes his five chapters to each of these in turn. “What we see in the later writings is both tradi­tion and innovation” — quota­tions from the basic scriptural texts, and also the freedom to improvise. If the New Testament is to be seen as a model for how scripture should be interpreted today, “such a model would have to embrace both tradi­tion and innovation.”

The student is faced with critical questions: which text (Hebrew or Greek) is being quoted? Are canon­ical and extra-canonical sources of equal value? Which came first, the scriptural text or the theological idea? Does the writer take liberties with the quoted text? If so, how can this be justified? Are Christian methods different from Jewish exegesis? Would Jesus himself have used biblical quotations?

There are interesting variations in the ratio of dependency on the Penta­teuch, the Psalms, and the Prophets. The intention in quoting varies between prophetic fulfilment, typology, and allegory. Some writers used direct quotations, others a larger number of indirect allusions. Moyise is very successful in decod­ing the multiple allusions in Revela­tion to provide a thematic interpre­tation of the biblical language in an often puzzling book.

Craig Evans seeks “to present the most important archaeological discoveries pertaining to Jesus of Nazareth in a way that can be accessed by non-experts.” In five main chapters, he treats five import­ant topics, sometimes offering clari­fication rather than historical proof of the biblical text, but seek­ing to go further and establish verisimilitude within the Gospel narratives.

The topics are the Galilean context of Jesus and his Jewishness, with reference to Sepphoris as well as Nazareth; the evidence for syna­gogues before 70 CE; the extent of literacy and the availability of books in Jesus’s world; the nature of the religious and political authorities apparently challenged by Jesus in Jerusalem; and finally Jewish and Roman burial traditions as applied to a convicted criminal.

Evans writes with clarity and enthusiasm, and the archaeology is well-illustrated by black-and-white photographs. More detail on devel­op­ments in modern methods of archaeology would have been help­ful. Each chapter could be free-standing, and some are more reminiscent of academic articles.

The concluding chapter, “Sum­ming Up”, makes clearer how the author sees the continuity between these studies. Sometimes he en­thuses after the manner of Werner Keller, and doubts and negative critic­ism are dismissed somewhat prematurely. Elsewhere, the content is more academically cautious, even weighed down — for example, in the lengthy description of Jewish tombs in Jerusalem, presumably con­­trasted with what happened to Jesus.

But there are certainly gems to treasure. There is the significance of dung in Sepphoris as an indicator of the Jewish population. The discus­sion of literacy leads to the issue of how long books last, and then the implications for the autographs of the New Testament. Herod’s build­ing programme is related to the in­creased use of ossuaries, given the avail­ability of stonecutters with spare pieces of limestone. Jewish attitudes to burial can illuminate the reference to Lazarus’s four days in the tomb in John 11.17.

Dr John Court is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

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