Thursday, August 11, 2005

Studying the New Testament

There has been much discussion on the top ten books for both Jesus and Paul and then an insightful post by Stephen C. Carlson on What Books to Buy for Biblical scholarship. This has prompted my cognitive activity quite a lot, as I have friends who read my blog who have no formal biblical studies training but like amateurs just read what's been recommended. And that's ok. But for those who want to delve into the depths of the New Testament, and not just drown, here's some tips from someone learning to swim in the deep end... And what's best, all the primary sources you need are available online!
Primary Sources: New Testament
I could not agree with Howard Marshall, noted by Michael Bird, that the primary sources are to become your mistress. [Sorry for the gender biased language, but I can't find another equivalent way of saying that...?]. Although it is obviously preferable to have the original languages, it is simply not the end of the world if you don't know Greek. I would recommend reading several good versions of the New Testament simultaneously. It is also helpful, when doing gospel studies to read them alongside each other.
Background Sources: Christian and Jewish
There is a vast collection of Christian writings in the first centuries which provide a much needed context within which to understand the New Testament. This corpus includes the writings of contemporary writers of the New Testament as well as the early Church leaders and Fathers. There is also the relatively unknown collection of Jewish writings that add much weight to our understanding of the early Jewish movement and it's roots. This corpus includes Josephus, the Pseudopigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls and other writings of relative importance.
Context Sources: Rome and the Hellenistic World
The more I study the New Testament the more I realise that it is impossible to ignore and neglect the pervasive Roman Empire in which the New Testament documents were penned. While I am not convinced that the New Testament Student needs to master these texts as well as say Josephus, there is a large corpus that adds to and enhances our understanding of the socio-historical context in which our primary documents of interest were formed. Writings like Tacitus' The Annals of Imperial Rome and Suetonius on The Twelve Caesars are must reads. Especially the chapters on Augustus and Tiberius. I would also recommend Dio Cassius' Roman History, especially books 44-58. For those who just want a quick tour, see the PBS special: The Roman Empire in the 1st Century.
Lexicons and Dictionaries
Well, if you're working with the original languages then BAGD is the standard lexicon along with Louw & Nida's Greek English Lexicon Based on Semantic Domains. Unfortunately, these are not available online. The Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament is proving useful. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology edited by Colin Brown is very good. and then the standard Theological Dictionary of the New Testament is a wealth, though dated but still good, of solid information.
Commentaries
The Word Biblical Commentary set is very helpful. It provides a wealth of textual, historical and exegetical reflections by leading scholars. The International Critical Commentary is excellent, but assumes all the primary languages and then often German and French! There are also many helpful stand alone commentaries like that of Craig Keener on The Gospel of Matthew and John. Read different commentaries, and not just in the same series either. These will help you get a grip on the discussions and problems facing students and lecturers as they grapple with the text whom many believe to be inspired.
Secondary literature
It really depends on what area you want to study here. Mark Goodacre has put us in his debt with The New Testament Gateway which offers a wealth of articles, and links to further reading. Craig Blomberg also offers a New Testament bibliography for further study which is somewhat helpful. I think the IVP Dictionaries in the Reference Collection are fantastic. Especially the Dictionary of New Testament Background. This book alone should be devoured as a course text by every New Testament Student!
I like to read books about which other books will be written. For instance, Jesus and the Victory of God is a landmark book because it shaped and influenced an array of scholars, students and pastors. It has stirred discussion and made people think and rethink many of the things we thought we knew about Jesus. Whether you end up agreeing with Wright or not is almost irrelevant because he has made us think about the gospels and Jesus afresh. Read books by people that make you think, rethink and almost get mad because you can't stop thinking about their arguments, statements and positions.
This is the life of a New Testament student. And that furthers this great conversation into action and devotion. Well, hopefully.

1 comment:

eddie said...

"I like to read books about which other books will be written"

Me too! And books which have had books written about them. I had a discussion about this with George a while back and he said that this, although good, is not always the best thing to do. Especially outside of your subject area (e.g. biblical scholar reading linguistics). Sometimes the later works which build upon the earlier and have been able to read them critically are more helpful...

What you think?

"Read books by people that make you think, rethink and almost get mad because you can't stop thinking about their arguments, statements and positions."

Yes, read those with whom you do not agree, but be open to hear, understand, and be turned around by their arguments.