Book Review: How We Got the New Testament (Porter)

How We Got the New Testament (Porter)The question “How did we get the New Testament?” continues to underlie many contemporary theological issues, for rarely do we discuss the social concerns of our day without recourse to the words of Jesus, the Biblical narrative, or history of Christianity. Understanding the history of the New Testament, then, may not only demonstrate the integrity of the New Testament but may also include ramifications for how to understand the entire Bible-worldview more holistically and accurately. Whether you are Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Mainline Protestant, or Evangelical, understanding how the New Testament came into being perseveres as an important foundation for Christian faith today. In this vein, Stanley E. Porter has written How We Got the New Testament: Text, Transmission, Translation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. 222pgs.), a guide to how the Christian New Testament came into existence and how understanding this process can enliven contemporary expressions of Christianity.

In How We Got the New Testament, Porter examines three facets of the Bible’s journey from the apostles of the early Church to our pulpits and homes: the text, the transmission, and the translation of the New Testament. Chapter one looks at the text of the New Testament, outlining the history of New Testament textual criticism and contemporary debates surrounding the text of the New Testament, offering a history of printed Greek New Testaments, and advocating a reconsideration of the “reasoned eclectic” approach to New Testament textual criticism. In each of these considerations Porter displays an impressive command of both past and present scholarship. Porter’s overview of “traditional” textual criticism is one of the most concise yet accurate retellings of this often onerous field, as he highlights important developments without falling into overly technical jargon. Similarly, the consideration of contemporary issues clearly demarcates what is at stake in current discussions. Porter evenhandedly explains the varying perspectives on important text-critical issues, only in the end of his survey offering his own arguments and conclusions. He is not above disagreeing with particular scholars—Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus is not favorably reviewed in this section—but Porter argues respectfully and in light of balanced academic evidence.

John Ryland's Fragment, P52
John Ryland’s Fragment, P52

Chapter two examines the transmission of the New Testament. This section primarily investigates the manuscripts of the New Testament along with their writing materials, handwriting, and usage. Much of this chapter involves a genre-based examination of the writings of the New Testament, their collection, transmission history, and important manuscripts. Porter does an especially admirable job in this chapter not merely outlining bare manuscript evidence but rather incorporating historical and social evidence for a well-rounded presentation of New Testament manuscript transmission. Another major portion of this chapter details the major early codices of the New Testament and their contents. Finally, this section contains what may be Porter’s most unique contribution from this work, namely his argument that manuscripts be re-categorized according to continuous and non-continuous text in order to raise awareness of how early Christian texts would have been used and transmitted as liturgical materials.

Chapter three considers the translation of the New Testament—both ancient translations and modern translations into English—as well as an extended excursus into translation theory and methodology. In examining ancient translations, Porter begins with the history of the Septuagint and the necessity of understanding this translation’s paradigmatic function for early Christian texts and translations. He then considers in some detail the New Testament’s translation into Syriac, Latin, and Coptic. As with other portions of How We Got the New Testament, Porter’s discussions of these translations are easy-to-understand and technically savvy. Skipping some thousand years of Bible transmission and translation, this chapter next turns to English translations of the Bible, tracing developments from Wycliffe and Tyndale through 2011 NIV. This overview helpfully presents the major developments and approaches in English Bible translation and—while likely continuing to upset members of the KJV-only crowd—serves as a solid introduction to the history of the English Bible. This is followed by an extended section on translation theory and method, a realm often ignored by or treated simultaneously with the history of the Bible in English. After discussing (and problematizing) numerous approaches to translation, Porter posits the need to move beyond the formal/dynamic equivalence debate and to transition to a discourse-level (rather than clausal-level) style of translation. While the end of this discussion is somewhat unsatisfactory—for Porter offers little in way of how to move forward—the discussion of translation theory marks an important development for works of this genre.

Stanley E. Porter
Stanley E. Porter

Those familiar with Porter’s other works will find many themes and arguments consistent with his perspective on the origins and importance of the New Testament. However, those new to the study of the history of the New Testament will find themselves immersed in an easy-to-understand yet academically sound introduction and investigation of critical issues surrounding where we got our New Testament. Additionally, Porter includes two caveats in his work. First, he indicates that his intended audience includes Christians with some theological training who are interested in learning more about the history of the New Testament. Second, he notes his preference to have written an extensive monograph on each of sections of this work rather than shorter treatments of each. He is successful in fleshing out both of these considerations, for How We Got Our New Testament constitutes a rare work which remains accessible and convincing to a wide audience of scholar and student alike.

Porter is extremely successful in his goal of examining the process by which modern New Testaments have been made available. This book is engaging, insightful, balanced, and commends itself to readers of all backgrounds. Porter touches on a wide variety of topics with skill and vision, synthesizing a variety of concerns into a cogent discussion of how we got the New Testament. Although the organization of each chapter may have been improved somewhat—perhaps through the use of sections and then shorter chapters—overall Porter does a masterful job of setting up his project, weighing historical and literary evidence, and coming to critical-yet-faithful conclusions about the development of the New Testament. This comes highly recommended for those studying the history of the Bible, the New Testament and early Christianity, and textual criticism, as well as for non-specialists interested in learning about any of those fields.

In summary, How We Got the New Testament; Text, Transmission, Translation comes highly recommended to anyone interested in learning more about the history of the New Testament. Not only do the contents of this book offer valuable observations for those seeking to better understand the New Testament and early Christianity, but How We Got the New Testament also addresses penetrating issues at the heart of all Christian faith. May Porter’s acumen here motivate many to take up and read with greater understanding.


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


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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