An Introduction to the New Testament and the Origins of Christianity

2nd Edition

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Delbert Burkett
Introduction to Religion
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , January
     2019.
     642 pages.
     $60.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781316624944.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

An Introduction to The New Testament and the Origins of Christianity, 2nd Edition is a revised edition of an original book published under the same title in 2002.

In the preface to the first edition, Delbert Burkett describes this work as a text for a course on the New Testament or the origins of Christianity, as well as a way to make available a selection of sources from outside the New Testament (NT), which remain pertinent to Early Christianity (xiii). In The New Testament and the Origins of Christianity, 2nd Edition, Burkett does this in 541 pages of main text divided into 40 chapters, along with an additional 70 pages in 14 appendices of source material from outside the NT. Each of the chapters on the NT provides a discussion of authorship and historical background as well as an outline and reading guide for key points of the book being discussed. Each chapter of the main text is followed by a set of discussion and review questions, and there are also relevant pictures, diagrams, and maps in black and white.

Burkett’s book appears to be positioned for upper level undergraduate or introductory graduate level reading. Individual chapters are self-contained but relate to the overall purpose. Burkett begins by distinguishing between a confessional treatment of the NT text and his own historical critical reading (9-13). As an historian who needs to evaluate the authenticity and accuracy of his sources, Burkett examines them as religious and literary documents situated historically, rather than as scripture verbally inspired by God. Here he indicates that he is working without a theory of inspiration (10-13). 

For each book of the NT, Burkett includes a brief discussion of the internal and external evidence for authorship. Though not held by all scholars practicing historical criticism, the judgments he makes are fairly common. Addressing different source hypotheses, Burkett argues that the Gospel of Mark was written first (Markan Priority). Mark was then used by Matthew and Luke, who both used a hypothetical Q document for material not found in Mark, but common to Matthew and Luke. He also commends the possibility of a proto-Markan document, prior to the known version of Mark’s gospel, to partially explain agreements and disagreements in Matthew and Luke’s handling of Q material (130). Burkett considers all four NT gospels as anonymous works, without internal evidence explicitly identifying authorship, including John’s Gospel.

There is also a chapter discussing Apocryphal gospels, such as the Infancy Gospel of James, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Peter. Burkett concludes that these authors knew and used canonical traditions, while imaginatively expanding on them (245). On the question of the historical Jesus, he recognizes that scholars often pre-suppose a non-supernatural Jesus, consequently finding a Jesus different from the one the gospels present. Burkett also recognizes the scholarly disagreement with that approach from authors such as N.T. Wright (259-260). Based on either Early Christian writing against it, or from the Nag Hammadi texts, Burkett notes that most scholars consider Christian Gnosticism to be a 2nd to 4th century development (419). Burkett questions the assumed authorship of manybooks of the NT, including Hebrews, James, Peter, Jude and John’s epistles, and Revelation. On Pauline authorship, Burkett disputes 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians and considers 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus to be pseudonymous (297).

One strength of this book is the inclusion of the Appendices, which provide additional background material to the NT, including selections from Josephus, NT Apocrypha, the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, and more. The first section of the book also provides helpful—though brief—overviews of Second-Temple Judaism, Jewish Eschatology, and background information on the Hellenistic Worldview. Finally, the various diagrams—from maps to comparisons—are helpful, and the photos are usually relevant to the chapter’s discussion. 

If there is a weakness in the text itself, it is could be with insufficient documentationand footnoting. There is only one general index (615-629), and references cited are minimal and placed within the text. There are short bibliographies at the end of the chapters which are oftennot cited in the text and yet there is no comprehensive bibliography at the end of the book. An inevitable question involves the authors own presuppositions which are brought to the research and writing by taking an historical-critical approach rather than a confessional (faith standpoint) one. As Burkett himself points out, certain assumptions made by critical scholars—such as the denial of the supernatural—presume that much of the reality depicted in the gospels and the NT is false. Though making a distinction between historical critical and confessional readings may be a fair distinction, other scholars who use historical critical methods have not been as skeptical in their own approaches in NT introductions and surveys. Oher readers, especially those of the Christian faith, may prefer an alternative text that does not make such sharp distinctions between confessional (faith based) and historical critical approaches. Introductions have been written by authors such as Mark Allen Powell, David de Silva, Luke Timothy Johnson, and Raymond E. Brown who do not arrive at all of the same conclusions as Burkett. Bart Ehrman’s Historical Introduction of the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 1996 + Edition updates) does appear to be more similar in conclusions as Burkett. Nevertheless, Burkett’s book has its noted strengths and this reader profited from its engagement.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John Mauger is a doctoral student in Religion at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Delbert Burkett is Seynaeve Professor of Christian Origins at Louisiana State University.

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