- Invitation to the New Testament: First Things by Witherington III, Ben
The list of available elementary introductions to the NT is long and varied, and instructors searching for just the right text book for their Introduction to the New Testament course are hard pressed to make the right selection. What speaks in favour of the present volume? It offers an easy to read, comprehensive and inspiring example of this genre. Witherington, a senior North American NT scholar with an impressive array of publications to his name, provides a balanced overview of the current discussion. The positions that he argues fall in the evangelical half of NT scholarship and reflect the emphases of his previous contributions to the field, for instance, his socio- rhetorical commentaries on several books of the NT.
The book is divided into five parts. Part one, "Background and Foreground," starts with the "texture and text" of the NT (1–9). The author surveys the materials used and explains the use of scriptio continua in early Christian manuscripts as well as the significance of literate readers who knew the documents and were able to read them out to the whole congregation. A brief description of the oral and rhetorical world of the NT is also offered. Witherington goes on to present a survey of the literature of the NT (13–21). After emphasising that the NT constitutes a compendium, Witherington discusses the genre of the Gospels and Acts—"the Gospel writers were following the ancient biographical and historical conventions and genre of their day in writing about Jesus" (14)—and of the letters of the NT, suggesting that "the so-called letters of the New Testament owe far more to oral speech conventions than to letter-writing conventions. What 19 of the 21 so-called letters are NOT is like ordinary ancient letters" (15). Witherington also briefly discusses the genre of the Apocalypse, and suggests that,
one could make the case that this final book of the New Testament sums up all the different kinds of literature that came earlier in the New Testament: It is one part story, one part history, one part visionary prophecy, one part letter, and one part exhortation or sermon—all of which are presented with the use of amazing apocalyptic images and symbolic numbers.(16) [End Page 585]
He further describes the foundational story that the NT seeks to convey and explains what kind of story this is ("theological history telling," 19). For Witherington, "[t]he writers of the New Testament were saints standing on tiptoe eagerly waiting for the author of the human drama to come on stage once more and conclude the story, for they believed that the future was as bright as the promises of God" (19).
Witherington goes on briefly to present Jesus in his early Jewish setting (23–39; biblical and extra-biblical evidence for the existence of Jesus, "What Manner of Man was he?"—one of the answers being that Jesus was not a peasant—and the definition and nature of miracles). The author closes with an astute discussion of the question of whether there were "lost Christianities," and of the implications of this quest. Witherington explains: "The idea that earliest Christianity was like duelling banjos when it came to basic theology and ethics is largely a myth. The arguments within the Christian movement had to do mainly with 'how shall we all live together as Jews and Gentiles united in Christ?'" (38). A separate chapter is devoted to first-century family values (41–53; the legacy of Greece and Rome and its significance for understanding the NT, and issues of social history and ordinary life, with an emphasis on dyadic or collectivist personality).
Part two deals with the Gospels and Acts (57–156), while part three presents the Corpus Paulinum (157–268). This part opens with an introductory chapter on the life and letters of the apostle (173–191), where Witherington discusses Pauline chronology and the "trinity" of Paul's identity as a Roman citizen, a...