At the present time there are at least a dozen biblical commentary series in progress.
We are hardly lacking for books on the life and teachings of the Apostle Paul, but when the leading evangelical biblical scholar of our time writes a tome—nearly five hundred pages—on the subject, we must take notice. F. F. Bruce, recently retired from a distinguished career as John Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism at Manchester University in England, has spent more than half a century studying Paul and teaching about him. One happy result is a definitive study of the mission and message of the Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Eerdmans) is the American title of Bruce’s fine work. (The British title, Paul: Apostle of the Free Spirit, needed “translating.”) In his characteristically lucid and flowing style, Bruce works his way systematically through the life of Paul, interweaving the major themes of his thought with information on the Hebrew, Greek, and Roman worlds in which he moved. Paul is treated with affection, but not idolatry. He remains a man of his time and circumstances, though he obviously belongs to that “select company who leave their mark on their time, who mold their contemporaries and exert an influence that stretches far into the future.” A strength of Bruce’s exposition is his detailed treatment of each of the letters as a means of exploring Paul’s theology rather than the more frequent custom of looking at what Paul says topic by topic. Often such topics come from systematic theology. Hence they tend to lose contact with the historical circumstances underlying Paul’s teaching and neglect some of the contents of his letters. Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free is a book that will be read with profit by all who have an interest in the primitive church—from the armchair student of the Bible to the most advanced biblical scholar. This will certainly remain a standard text for years to come.
Some scholars in recent years have spoken of the end of the biblical commentary as a literary form. They could not be farther from the truth. At the present time there are at least a dozen commentary series in progress just in English. A massive and excellent work on The Gospel of Luke (Eerdmans) by I. Howard Marshall inaugurates The New International Greek Testament Commentary. The series focuses on the needs of theological students and pastors, seeking to guide them through the maze of modern biblical scholarship on the individual books and to offer the fruits of the most careful exegesis. In keeping with the aim of the series, Marshall’s work is concerned as much with the theological interpretation of Scripture as it is with the historical and critical interpretation. In contrast to the normal pattern, very few pages are used to discuss introductory matters related to the third Gospel, since the author has dealt with these at some length in an earlier monograph, Luke: Historian and Theologian (Attic). For nearly nine hundred pages, he carefully examines the twenty-four chapters of Luke. Marshall’s book is the first English commentary on the Greek text of Luke in nearly fifty years. It is a thoroughly evangelical work, but does not isolate itself from the main body of scholarship.
The celebrated ten-volume Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT, Eerdmans) edited by Kittel and Friedrich was not completed in English until nearly fifty years after it began to appear in German. Less than fifteen years ago a similar work was begun by a German evangelical publisher. This work attempted to make the information in Kittel accessible to a wider audience, especially those who have not had extensive training in biblical languages. This work forms the basis of The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (NIDNTT, Zondervan) edited by Colin Brown, which is now complete in three fat volumes. (The first two appeared in 1975–76.) While the TDNT will remain an essential reference tool for those who use Greek and Hebrew, the NIDNTT has a number of advantages. First, it is more up-to-date; the comprehensive bibliographies accompanying the various entries are current up to the date of publication. Second, it organizes its information concerning Greek word-groups under English headings, which are, in turn, thoroughly indexed and cross-referenced. This makes it a fundamentally more usable work than its prototype. Third, the NIDNTT contains a number of comprehensive articles that are quite different from the kind of material in the TDNT; for example, Volume 3 contains valuable essays on “The Resurrection in Contemporary Theology,” “Language and Meaning in Religion,” and “Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament.” The NIDNTT is not simply a translation of the German original; it is a thorough revision and adaptation with about 25 percent new material. The mammoth task of translating and editing has been superbly executed by Brown. I warmly commend this most useful work to all. The price is high, but the value is greater.
Books on Jesus continue to pour from the presses, some of them very good, others very bad. An example of the former is Robert H. Stein’s The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teaching (Westminster), which provides an introduction to the subject much as I would have wished to have written it. Stein, professor of New Testament at Bethel College in Minnesota, focuses on Jesus as teacher, the form of his teaching, the parables, his proclamation of the kingdom of God, his teaching concerning God as Father, his ethical teachings, and his christological claims. Perhaps most illuminating is his treatment of Jesus’ use of such literary devices as hyperbole, pun, simile, metaphor, proverb, riddle, paradox, questions, poetry, and the like—all of which will be most enlightening to those who have previously read the Gospels from the point of view of the Western mode of thinking. The author has provided college and seminary teachers of the New Testament with a much-needed introductory text on how and what Jesus taught, but he has also provided the general student of the Bible with a fascinating and instructive overview.
Homing in on the literary device characteristically used by Jesus, Dan Seagren’s The Parables (Tyndale) is a model of popular writing that is theologically responsible. Grounded in the important scholarly works, the author communicates the meaning of parables in Jesus’ teaching and the message of twenty-two of them to contemporary men and women. What is a parable? A parable is not a fable, nor an allegory, nor an analogy, nor a metaphor, though it may include elements of the last three. Positively, a parable is “a picturesque form of speech created to make an impact upon the listener,” a figure of speech, usually taken from everyday life, “which teaches spiritual truth, as well as [sometimes] suggesting subordinate truths.” From this introduction flows a series of expositions of the more important parables of Jesus, divided into two groups: “kingdom parables” and “people parables.” Once again I must confess, this is a book that I wish I had written!
Toward the end of my seminary training, I began to discover that some of the best work in biblical studies was being done by Roman Catholics. I also found some Catholic writers heralding the Word of the cross to which I was accustomed in evangelical quarters. One of the first books of this nature I read was entitled, A World to Win: The Missionary Methods of Paul the Apostle by Joseph A. Grassi. The effect of this book on my personal life was exhilarating. The Secret of Paul the Apostle (Orbis) by the same author is a recent book that incorporates some material from that earlier work but which has been thoroughly recast, and to which new material has been added. When he wrote A World to Win, Grassi was, I believe, a priest. Now he is a married member of the “laity.” But his work still exudes the same sense of urgency for the proclamation of the gospel and the discipling of new believers I found before. Paul is regarded (in the words of Augustine) as “the man who knew Christ best.” When he wrote the earlier book, Grassi had in mind the application of the message and mission of Paul to the work of professional missionaries. Here, he is concerned to apply the principles that may be learned by the ordinary Christian who is concerned to recover the essential apostolic element in the Christian message: the impetus that prompts the believer to share his faith with others by example and words. Emphasis is upon the qualities of life style exemplified by Paul. A helpful feature is the author’s applications of the lessons learned from Paul to contemporary Christian life and witness.
Several years ago Gerhard Hasel, professor of Old Testament and biblical theology at Andrew University, gave us an admirable overview of the history and present state of Old Testament theology. This has now been followed by an equally impressive survey of New Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate (Eerdmans). Hasel begins with the origin and development of New Testament theology as a discipline. This is followed by a discussion of the search for an adequate methodology, the problem of the unity of the New Testament, and the relationship between the two Testaments. He concludes with his own proposals for “a multiplex approach” to understanding New Testament theology today. It is difficult to imagine how this book could be improved. It is an essential prolegomenon to doing New Testament theology and a most useful textbook on the subject. It also stands as a tribute to the mature contributions to biblical study by a growing band of Seventh-Day Adventist scholars.
Fuller Seminary’s Ralph P. Martin has established himself as one of the most prolific as well as important contemporary evangelical scholars. Author of several standard commentaries and influential theological monographs, he has now completed his two-volume New Testament Foundations: A Guide for Christian Students (Eerdmans). The first volume, covering the four Gospels, was published in 1975. Its second and companion volume finishes the task by treating Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation. The two volumes give an account of the results of scholarship on introductory matters for each of the writings in the New Testament. Martin’s work is more selective in its marshaling of the material than traditional textbooks. It includes a number of excursus that illustrate the way to do exegesis and that touch on matters of theological and practical concern. Some of Martin’s conclusions will be disputed, but the author tries to take his stand as a teacher within the church, not merely as a scholar in the classroom. He returns time and again to matters that are vital for the proclamation of Christian truth. The theological student will still need to return to the standard introductions by Kümmel, and, especially, Guthrie for many matters. But Martin has provided a worthwhile and more readable initiation into the intricacies of New Testament scholarship.
The Relationships Among the Gospels: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue is a rather dull title for a very stimulating book. Edited by William O. Walker, Jr., and published by Trinity University Press, it contains papers and discussions from a colloquy at that school in 1977. More than forty distinguished scholars from a cross section of the academic and religious community divided themselves into four seminars investigating the areas of oral tradition, classical studies, Judaic studies, and literary criticism in an attempt to understand the implications of each area of studies for the study of the Gospels.
What sets this collection of essays apart from most others of similar nature is the fact that the papers and viewpoints represented stem from a wide variety of disciplinary perspectives and not simply from the narrow confines of academic New Testament scholarship. One of the most interesting essays is by literary critic Roland Mushat Frye. He accuses New Testament critics of using an introverted form of literary criticism, which has developed in isolation from the study of literature in general. The issues that are raised in these reports suggest that the “assured results of criticism” are not as “assured” as they claim.
I. Howard Marshall has the distinction of publishing not one but two major commentaries on New Testament books in the same year. The Epistles of John (Eerdmans) is a replacement volume in the well-known evangelical New International Commentary on the New Testament series, which is now nearly complete. It is not as thorough or technical as his major work on Luke (mentioned above), but it is a substantial work all the same. An interesting feature of the commentary on the Johannine letters is the inclusion of an “invitation” to the reader as well as the normal “introduction” to the book. Here and elsewhere in his comments Marshall is vitally concerned to communicate the message of these letters to the church of our day. These concluding words from the commentary on First John 5:21 give the flavor of the whole: “Today, it is fashionable to imagine that religion and morality are separable and independent; one can be good and righteous without believing in Jesus as the Son of God. John would remind us that apart from Jesus Christ there is no real understanding of the truth and no power to live according to the truth. But Jesus Christ is the true God and the way to eternal life.”
Before considering more briefly many other recent books on the New Testament, mention must be made of an old reference tool now much improved. If you want something done, give it to a busy man—so the saying goes. Ralph Winter, formerly professor at Fuller Seminary School of World Mission, more recently founder of the United States Center for World Mission, writes extensively in the area of missionology, runs a publishing company to make books in this area widely available, and has also prepared a more useful edition of an old New Testament concordance. The Word Study New Testament and its companion, The Word Study Concordance (both from William Carey Library or Tyndale), are designed to greatly facilitate Bible study. The former is a large print edition of the King James with a key number assigned to every noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. By turning to the key number in the Word Study Concordance you can find the Greek word transliterated, and, in English, excerpts from all the verses where it occurs. In addition, you will find the number of times the word is used, and handy references to the word in the Greek student’s standard tools by Arndt and Gingrich, Moulton and Geden, and Kittel.
Now it should be obvious that these useful tools open many possibilities for the student of Scripture who has not done formal theological study, and even the expert will find that use of the Word Study Concordance will greatly reduce the time involved in looking up references in the standard tools. However, two warning notes must be sounded. First, there is the danger that the student without Greek will receive the impression that he knows more than is actually the case and think that he no longer needs to make the effort to learn biblical languages or to seek the advice of experts. It must be emphasized that there is simply no substitute for a knowledge of Greek for advanced students of the New Testament. Secondly, it should also be noted that the tools upon which these two word study aids are based—Strong’s and Bagster’s concordances and the King James translation—are quite dated and often need to be corrected in the light of modern research. However, if the limitations are properly understood, these tools can be a great boon for both the beginning and mature student.
COMMENTARIES In addition to the two commentaries by Marshall that have been mentioned already, many others appeared in 1978. The indefatigable William Hendricksen pushes toward the completion of his multi-volume commentary on the whole New Testament, this time with more than a thousand pages on The Gospel of Luke (Baker). Although it is not as technical as Marshall’s commentary on the same Gospel, it is a very impressive work, which will undoubtedly be of great help to pastors who are concerned to systematically expound the Word to their congregations. Volume 11 (the second to be published thus far) in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan) edited by Frank Gaebelein covers the Epistles to the Ephesians (A. Skevington Wood), Philippians (Homer A. Kent, Jr.), Colossians (Curtis Vaughan), Thessalonians (Robert L. Thomas), Timothy (Ralph Earle), Titus (D. E. Hiebert), and Philemon (Arthur A. Rupprecht). The text used is the NIV.
The new series of popularly-aimed paperback commentaries based on the Jerusalem Bible and published by Doubleday, which began last year, continues with Invitation to Mark by Paul J. Achtemeier, Invitation to John by George W. MacRae, and Invitation to Acts by Robert J. Karris. The Intimate Gospel (Word) by Earl F. Palmer is an exposition of the fourth Gospel by a master communicator. An interesting feature is an appendix, which provides a study guide for individual and small group study. The Law That Sets You Free (Word) by David H. Roper and A Handful of Pearls (Westminster) by Addison J. Eastman are two short, practical guides to the Epistle of James and its message to the church of our day; each is, in its own way, an inspiring and challenging study. The Apostle Peter Speaks to Us Today (John Knox) by Holmes Rolston and Exploring the Christian Way (Broadman) by Vernon O. Elmore are sermonic treatments of First Peter and Paul’s letters to Colossians, Philemon, and Philippians respectively. Mark: A Study Guide Commentary (Zondervan) by Howard F. Vos and Titus: Patterns for Church Living (Tyndale) by James T. Draper, Jr., are brief, nontechnical introductions for the lay person. Geoffrey B. Wilson comments on Ephesians (Banner of Truth) from the perspective of a strongly Calvinistic Baptist; the style is most attractive, as is the price. James M. Boice continues in the footsteps of his mentor, the late Donald Gray Barnhouse, by adding a fourth volume to his expository commentary on The Gospel of John (Zondervan), which covers John 13:1–17:26.
Three studies which seek to interpret the Apocalypse to the general reader are What Are They Saying About the Book of Revelation? (Paulist) by John J. Pilch, Revelations on Revelation (Word) by Douglas Ezell, and Understanding Revelation (Moody) by Gary Cohen. Each has weaknesses.
A valuable aid for the student of the Greek New Testament is A Translator’s Handbook on Paul’s Letters to the Colossians and Philemon (American Bible Society) by Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene A. Nida.
A widely-heralded standard commentary, The Gospel According to St. John (Westminister) by C. K. Barrett, is now available in a fully revised second edition with one hundred more pages. Barrett interacts with the literature on John that has appeared since the first edition of twenty-five years ago. In particular he is critical of much recent “redaction criticism” of the Gospel.
SURVEYS Ronald A. Ward has written a Survey of the New Testament (Word), which accents the message of the individual writings rather than simply their historical background and contents. The same writer has produced the first part of a comprehensive theology of the New Testament entitled, The Pattern of Our Salvation (Word); the Gospels will presumably be treated in the subsequent volume. Reading the New Testament Today (John Knox) by Brian E. Beck and Reading the New Testament (Paulist) by Pheme Perkins are lay introductions, as is Francis Foulkes’ Pocket Guide to the New Testament (InterVarsity); the volume by Perkins has the interesting feature of including an audio-visual bibliography for the aid of Bible study leaders. Evangelical scholar E. M. Blaiklock covers the whole of the New Testament in a 260-page Commentary on the New Testament (Revell).
An Introduction to New Testament Literature (Abingdon) by Donald Juel with James S. Ackerman and Thayer S. Warshaw is a handbook for use in teaching the New Testament in the context of literature classes. Judaism and Christian Beginnings (Oxford) by Samuel Sandmel is a fascinating study by one of the leading Jewish biblical scholars in North America. Beginning with an introduction to the history, institutions, and religious ideas of Judaism during the centuries surrounding the New Testament era, he then turns to the New Testament itself. All Christians should benefit by seeing how a non-Christian who has immersed himself in both the teachings of the rabbis and the teachings of the New Testament interprets the latter. Finally, yet another book from the pen of the late William Barclay: The Men, the Meaning and the Message of the New Testament Books (Westminster) epitomizes the chief idea of each book and suggests questions for discussion.
JESUS AND HIS TEACHING Jesus: Lord and Saviour (Eerdmans) contains the sometimes speculative testimony of veteran exegete A. M. Hunter of Scotland concerning the life and work of Jesus. As always, Hunter combines faith and scholarship, a warm heart, and a clear head; not least of his virtues is his highly readable style. Jesus Before Christianity (Orbis) by Albert Nolan paints a portrait of Jesus that is clear, convincing, challenging, and compelling for the person who either has no faith or is unsure. The attempt seems at times a bit too clever, but the task is a worthy one. Jesus Now (Concordia) by Leslie Brandt is a well-known writer’s recasting of the teaching of Jesus into the twentieth century idiom. The book is illustrated by Corita Kent. Not my cup of tea, but many will like it. Understanding the Gospels: A Different Approach (Grace Publications [2125 Martindale, S.W., Grand Rapids, MI 49509]) by Charles Baker is indeed a different approach to the life and teaching of Jesus because of the staunch (ultra) dispensational stance.
Jesus, Politics and Society by Richard J. Cassidy (Orbis) takes a fresh look at the Gospel of Luke in an attempt to answer the question, “Was Jesus dangerous to the Roman Empire?” The answer is an emphatic yes. Your Kingdom Come by C. Leslie Mitton (Eerdmans) expounds the New Testament teaching concerning the kingdom of God; a valuable feature is that each specific reference in the New Testament to the subject is individually discussed. The Sermon on the Mount (Baker) is the subject of “an evangelical exposition” by D. A. Carson that attractively combines a concern for careful exegesis and practical application. The perspective of the Pannenberg School is applied to biblical data concerning the Resurrection and its significance in Ulrich Wilcken’s monograph, Resurrection (John Knox); evangelical theologians will disagree with many things Wilckens concludes, but his discussion is stimulating. A Harmony of the Gospels (Moody) by Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry arranges the material of the four Gospels in what the editors regard to be the probable chronological sequence, using the text of the NASB. There is nothing particularly new about the attempt and its execution, and many Bible teachers do not approve this approach, as Thomas and Gundry are well aware. For this reason they explain their work by a series of twelve “essays related to harmonistic studies.” For teachers who do use harmonies, this edition is likely to win wide acceptance.
Ernest Martin has made a careful case, deserving of consideration, for the birth of Christ in 2 or 3 B.C. (three or four years later than usual) in The Birth of Christ Recalculated (Foundation for Biblical Research [Box 928, Pasadena, CA 91102]).
REFERENCE Among recent tools to note are A Complete Categorized Greek-English New Testament Vocabulary (Attic) by David Holly, The Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised (Zondervan) by Harold K. Moulton, and a small Greek New Testament Insert (Baker) containing a summary of useful information for the student compiled by Benjamin Chapman. The reprinting of Adolf Deissmann’s celebrated Light From the Ancient East (Baker) is also worthy of note in this context.
SCHOLARLY ESSAYS The New Testament Student and Bible Translation (Presbyterian and Reformed or Baker) edited by John Skilton contains an interesting collection of essays and comments by a variety of well-known translators and theologians, which describes both the problems involved in translating the New Testament and the strengths and weaknesses of some of the recent translations.
At a more technical level is Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity (Eerdmans) by E. Earle Ellis, containing seventeen essays. If you want to see what primary New Testament research is all about, this would be a good place to begin. Studies in Paul (Augsburg) by Nils A. Dahl is an equally stimulating, though not as balanced, collection of essays by a professor of New Testament at Yale. The Romans Debate (Augsburg) edited by Karl P. Donfried brings together a number of essays by leading authorities on the meaning and purpose of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, which illustrate the contours of recent research in the area.
Recent Festschriften in honor of New Testament scholars include Saved by Hope (Eerdmans) edited by James I. Cook, Essays on New Testament Christianity (Standard) edited by C. Robert Wetzel, and God’s Christ and His People (Columbia University) edited by Jacob Jervell and Wayne O. Meeks. The first of these is dedicated to Richard C. Oudersluys of Western Theological Seminary and contains important studies on the fourth Gospel (H. Ridderbos, L. Morris, M. de Jonge, V. H. Kooy), the infancy narrative of Luke (B. Reicke), the parable of the good Samaritan (B. Van Elderen), 1 Corinthians 15:20–28 (E. Schweizer), and other subjects. The second is dedicated to Dean E. Walker, formerly president of Milligan College, the eleven essays being written by former students and colleagues. The contents of the latter collection point to the winds of change that are blowing in the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ (instrumental). The third honors Nils A. Dahl of Yale and includes essays from the pens of nineteen prominent European and American scholars on a variety of themes.
MISCELLANEOUS John: Evangelist and Interpreter (Attic) by Stephen Smalley is one of the finest studies devoted to the fourth Gospel in recent decades and will certainly be significant in academic discussions of the future. Evelyn and Frank Stagg are a husband and wife team who have written Woman in the World of Jesus (Westminster); the survey is adequate, perhaps even illuminating, for those who have not read very widely on the subject, but it adds little that is new. Ellis Rivken is a distinguished Jewish scholar who traces the origins of the Pharisees in A Hidden Revolution: The Pharisees’ Search for the Kingdom Within (Abingdon), a study that casts a great deal of light on the pages of the New Testament. Understanding Spiritual Gifts (Moody) by Robert L. Thomas is a sane discussion of 1 Corinthians 12–14 from a dispensationalist point of view. Despite his attempt to demonstrate that Paul viewed certain of the gifts of the Spirit as belonging only to the earliest period of the Church, readers will find many helpful comments with which to agree.
An attempt to allow creatively contemporary sociological and psychological studies to shed light on the New Testament is found in Gerd Theissen’s Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity (Fortress). Jesus and Scribal Authority (Lund, Sweden: C.W.K. Gleerup) by Stephen Westerholm is concerned to elucidate the nature of the scribal traditions that came to be regarded as of equal authority to the written law in Pharisaic Judaism and to understand Jesus’ response to it. The author is a young evangelical scholar from Canada who recently completed his doctoral studies under the Scandinavian theologian, Birger Gerhardsson. Redactional Style in the Marcan Gospel (Cambridge) by E. J. Pryke is an extremely technical analysis of Mark’s use of source material.
The First New Testament (Nelson) by David Estrada and William White, Jr., is a spirited defense of the hypothesis of a Spanish Jesuit papyrologist, José O’Callaghan, that fragments of six New Testament documents are to be found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, the claimed identifications of O’Callaghan have been almost totally rejected by those who are able to evaluate them. Even if the claims were valid, this would not justify the extravagant apologetic claims made by the authors. An equally eccentric book, coming from the opposite theological camp, is Jesus the Magician (Harper & Row) by Morton Smith. I give due respect to the “mordant wit and incisive, lucid mode of thought for which,” according to one scholar quoted on the dust jacket, “Smith is justly famous.” Nevertheless, the conclusions of the author, a learned professor at Columbia University, are patently absurd.
G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more