A bumpy journey through the New Testament

A detail from Rembrandt’s depiction of St Matthew

T&T Bloomsbury Study Guides to the New Testament
T&T Bloomsbury, £14.99 each

There are three things one ought to know about this series. The first is that these guides are not as new as they appear to be, and this is because they are reissues of a series originally published by Sheffield Phoenix Press. This is not a serious problem, and some of the volumes are more recent. But if you are expecting the very latest in biblical scholarship, as the publication dates might suggest, you may be disappointed.

Similarly, you may think that Bloomsbury sounds very British, and of course T&T Clark has a long association with Edinburgh, but the vast majority of authors in this series are from America.

Again, there is, of course, nothing objectionable about this – it is only that even today, when (for example) the great majority of graduate students in New Testament studies in Oxford are from abroad, mostly from North America, there is nevertheless a different style, a different approach to the subject, with much greater interest in such things as feminist and post-colonial readings.

Perhaps I am old-fashioned. I did, after all, complete my doctorate nearly seven years ago, and at Oxford, where time moves more slowly. I say this because the third reason for the buyer to beware is that these books are not, for the most part, what I had expected from the strapline “an introduction and study guide”.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Sheffield and T&T Clark published a series of introductory guides to every book of the New Testament. These remain invaluable, being highly readable, accessible and genuinely introductory volumes. Any undergraduate with a week to grapple with Mark’s Gospel or the Letter to the Hebrews, say, would be enormously grateful for them.

In fairness, some of these new offerings explicitly depend upon their readers to have already read something along these lines. For example, in the volume on Matthew (one of the most useful, in fact), we are given a substantial amount of homework to do before reading the guide, which is intended only to introduce us to the scholarship of the past decade or so. This is fair enough, and as a supplement to the old Sheffield Guide this new volume would indeed be most helpful. Really it functions as a survey of literature on Matthew since around 2000, introducing us in particular to some of the more recent emphases of Matthean scholarship.

Particularly helpful is the chapter that looks at how social-scientific criticism has been used to “hear” the Gospel of Matthew in the context of its original hearers in the Roman Empire. It asks: “How has Roman imperialism, as the context surrounding the Gospel’s production and early reception, impacted not only the shaping of the document but also some of its central themes and tenets?”

We go on to see how the Gospel might be re-read in the light of modern concerns, including feminism and queer theory, ending with an ecological reading of the Beatitudes.

Much of this is genuinely of interest, even if, to me, it feels to be of marginal importance or rather quirky compared either to mainstream historical-critical scholarship or the way the Gospel is read in my confessional context.

It does not, however, go to the extreme of Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s volume on 1 Peter, where the particular biblical text firmly takes second place to the author’s desire to engage in a (useful and interesting) discussion of feminist biblical hermeneutics. Read it to learn about feminist criticism, but not to learn about 1 Peter.

At the other end of the scale, though, are very worthwhile contributions on Mark’s Gospel and the Letter of St James. The former, by Abraham Smith, is by no means an introduction and does feel a little like a buffed-up doctoral thesis, but a very good one. The author defends the understanding of the Gospel as a particular kind of bios, a life story of a heroic teacher written in order to inspire hope and endurance in the disciples of Jesus in the face of the abusive power of Rome. This volume would form an excellent basis for a set of Bible study group sessions.

The volume on James by Margaret Aymer both offers a clear and balanced general introduction to the Letter and makes a distinctive contribution, showing how this text, so despised by Luther, in fact plays a vital role in forming the Christian identity as slaves of Christ and of no earthly master. It is a careful and yet powerful piece of scholarship.

A mixed bag, then. I suppose it was inevitable that this would be the outcome of reviewing a whole series of books. There is some really excellent stuff in here, but let the buyer beware – you may end up with something quite unhelpful, deeply uncongenial, or perhaps much better than you could ever have expected.