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The Cambridge Companion to the New Testament, edited by Patrick Gray

20 August 2021

Henry Wansbrough on scholars’ approaches to the New Testament

IT WOULD be a mistake to expect the solid learning of the great University of Cambridge in this exciting volume. Of the 21 authors of articles, only one is currently teaching at Cambridge, though the author of the masterly final chapter won his doctorate there. Only one other author is based in England; 15 (and the editor) are from the United States, and five teach in Scottish universities.

Most of the authors are younger scholars who have been publishing only in the past ten years. They were obviously instructed to avoid settling on the usual introductory material to the books of the New Testament, and only one felt himself senior enough to disobey. The editor emphasises in his introduction that the book is a Companion, not an introduction, so concerned not so much with new facts as with new methods; it is not a book for beginners.

First come four substantial articles on background. Helen Bond gives a laudably unreligious picture of the Social and Political Milieu, emphasising the background in slavery or destitution of many of the adherents to the new group, and painting Judaea as just like any other troublesome little province of the Empire, remarkable only for the devotion of its inhabitants to the Temple.

Next comes a broad-brush historical account of the Religious and Philosophical Milieu, neatly tabulated, ending with a sketch of the six principal philosophical schools discernible in the background to the New Testament. The balanced essay on the Historical Jesus perhaps deserves more emphasis on the renewal of interest in the Jewishness of Jesus. Margaret Mitchell contributes an authoritative, if slightly negative, picture of the Life and Letters of Paul.

These are followed by an introductory sketch of each book of the New Testament. I found those on the Gospels slightly disappointing; is a Gospel really “best described as a kerygmatic biography written up in an apocalyptic mode”? There is no full discussion of the interrelationship between the Gospels, nor is there any conclusive treatment of the so-called confusions and inconsistencies in John.

On the other hand, there is a thorough and perceptive comparison of Paul’s rhetorical and personal techniques in the speeches of Acts and Paul’s own writings. An outstanding article is Matthew Novenson’s on Galatians and Romans, which not only explains the thrust of these letters, but also unfolds their importance for reception history, both in Martin Luther’s protests and also in the 20th-century movement of the so-called New Perspective on Paul. There are good discussions on the authorship of the disputed Pauline letters, which need to be supplemented by a more general estimate of pseudepigraphy.

Some of these articles are carelessly phrased, but more shocking is the carelessness of the University Press in missing the identical typographical muddle on pages 178, 180, 182, and 186.

In a way, the heart of this book is on the outside, both in the four early articles and in the five wider-ranging articles of the third part. These latter are the discussions on method promised by the editor in his introduction and so central to the task of a Companion rather than an introduction, opening out the whole subject and its arcane techniques to the (persevering) outsider.

Julia Snyder (the single Cambridge voice) contributes a detailed, learned, and cheerful article on the complicated process by which some writings and not others won their place in the Canon(s) of the New Testament — a process so lacking in logic that one is almost driven to suppose that the Holy Spirit was at work. In the longest article of all, James Barker makes a valiant effort to explain to non-specialists the processes of the Historical-Critical Method of exegesis; this pulls together or rounds off a number of subjects touched in earlier particular essays, such as the Synoptic problem and the New Perspective on Paul.

In the shortest article of all, Elizabeth Shively then outlines the contribution of Literary Approaches to New Testament studies, emphasising the important contribution of rhetorical criticism and the whole approach and technique of reader-response criticism. Another unexpected but highly enlightening sideshow is James Crossley’s comment on the transient influences of such social-history phenomena as Marxist and Nazi ideology, and even anti-imperialism and global financial crises.

Finally, Kevin Vanhoozer crowns the book with a discussion on the nature and purpose of New Testament theology. Is the New Testament a textbook of talk about God or a sourcebook of religious belief and practice? Are we attempting to discover what the New Testament authors thought about God, or are we thinking about God with those authors? What is the objective of reading and interpreting the Bible?

Echoing the joint Roman Catholic and Protestant desire to bring together again biblical studies and theology, Vanhoozer quotes Josef Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), “the faith of the Church is a form of sympathia without which the Bible remains a closed book.” For that matter, can we do New Testament theology without reference to the revelation of God as a whole? These are radical questions with which to conclude such a Companion.

Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.


The Cambridge Companion to the New Testament
Patrick Gray, editor
Cambridge University Press £26.99
Church Times Bookshop £24.30

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