Book Review: Encountering the New Testament (Elwell and Yarbrough)

PrintFirst impressions matter. Whether at a job interview, social function, or classroom, the initial picture people paint tends to color all subsequent interactions with that person. To a large degree, this is true of non-personal interactions as well, with institutions, places, and subject matter. And while a bad first impression can be overcome (often through much hard work), nothing sets the stage for future success in any relationship like getting off on the right foot. When it comes to education, this is one of the reasons why introductory level courses are so foundational for future learning.

To help set the stage for a successful introduction to the Christian New Testament comes the third edition of Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough’s Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013). This textbook is designed to facilitate an understanding of the theology and history of the New Testament that enables students to undertake an honest and informed reading of the New Testament text for themselves.

Church-HistoryPerhaps the greatest strength of this textbook comes in its balance of history and theology. Some introductions to the New Testament are primarily historical or textual in focus and many others (especially explicitly Christian introductions) are primarily theological in nature. This volume, however, presents the history and the theology of the New Testament together, at times emphasizing an aspect of one discipline or the other, but ultimately offering an encounter with both fields. Understanding history helps inform theology and understanding theology makes better sense of history—Encountering the New Testament does an admirable job striking and maintaining this balance.

Another strong point of this textbook is that the theological contents are essentially ecumenical in their presentation. While there are some occasional indicators of the authors’ Protestantism, the contents of this text will benefit students of any background. On the issue of varying Christian interpretations of the New Testament, the chapter on Revelation stands out as an area which could be improved. Although Revelation may be the hardest New Testament book to introduce, it would be beneficial to have seen more information of the varying ways in which this book has been and continues to be interpreted by Christians around the world. Given this book’s design for the classroom setting, even a basic outline of the four major ways in which the Apocalypse of John is interpreted would be a further stimulant to fruitful discussion.

Model of the Second Jewish Temple

Model of the Second Jewish Temple

The contents of Encountering the New Testament are laid out in canonical order. After an especially excellent encounter with the Second Temple Jewish context of the New Testament, students are introduced to each of the Gospels, the life and teaching of Jesus, and approaches to Biblical Studies. Each of these subsections contains a wealth of information and more than adequately provides an overview of the areas in consideration. While some may disapprove of “doing” Biblical Studies and then being introduced to the history of the field and the methods commonly employed by scholars, this presentation accords well with the authors’ conviction that one need not be a contemporary Biblical scholar in order to properly understand the meaning of the New Testament.

Next comes an introduction to the Acts of the Apostles and the early Church, which is (somewhat surprisingly) broken up into three chapters. These chapters trace the development of the church throughout its earliest years, providing not only an introduction to Acts but also offering an introduction to the study of Church History. A considerable section on Paul follows. Of the Pauline corpus, only Romans receives its own chapter and the rest of the letters are collected somewhat oddly. It may have been better to consolidate chapters along the lines of 1-2 Corinthians; Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians; 1-2 Thessalonians and Philemon; and 1-2 Timothy and Titus. As it is, some of Paul’s longer letters received less treatment than collections of his shorter letters.

RevelationContinuing to follow the canonical order, the Catholic Epistles are considered together, followed by Revelation. This section is far and away the shortest of this introduction, a feature not unique to this textbook, but regrettable nonetheless. Unfortunately these writings feel tacked on to the end of the canon, relatively unknown afterthoughts to the charismatic personas of Jesus and Paul which dominate the rest of the New Testament writings. However, there is much to be commended from these sections, as—like the rest of this text—they incorporate numerous (very helpful) images, maps, and timelines, lists of suggested resources for further reading, and a selection of key terms and study questions. These tools assist in making Encountering the New Testament a superb tool for all levels of New Testament study.

Additionally, this entire text does a fine job incorporating historical information from non-canonical sources throughout the narrative, making it less disappointing that these writings were not introduced in an end section of the text. The lack of such a section was somewhat surprising, as one of the major themes of Encountering the New Testament is that of canonization. Indeed, in the introductory chapter the question is posed, “Why these 27 books?” Additionally, references to now-canonical books in the writings of the early Church are noted on several occasions throughout the text. Certainly the topic of canon is one that looms large in the minds of the authors, though it does seem possible to have drawn out the issue with additional clarity. This is especially true for the introductory chapter of this text, for while this section contains much valuable information for beginning an engagement with the New Testament, it felt disorganized and overcommitted.

Bible CommentaryOverall, Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey serves as a fine foundation for introducing the New Testament in a classroom setting. The historical and theological balance attained in this text makes it an especially valuable tool for student and instructor alike. One of the keys to a good textbook is finding the middle ground between “informative enough to use” and “bland enough to not taint discussion.” Encountering the New Testament is an excellent example of this type of introductory text and is a text that will spend many years informing classrooms full of students encountering the New Testament.

 

I received this book from Baker Academic in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

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