The New Testament in Its World
An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians
- ISBN: 9780310499305
- Published By: Zondervan
- Published: November 2019
The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians is a nearly 1,000-page introductory study of the New Testament in its context. The book grew from Michael Bird’s proposal to distill N.T. Wright’s massive Christian Origins and the Question of God series into one volume. The project took almost a decade to develop and complete; Bird condensed Wright’s work in conversation with Wright, who also rewrote some of his own work and adapted it for the new mode and audience. Due to this dynamic, Wright and Bird call the book a “joint effort” (26). They mark their comments throughout the book using their initials (MJB and NTW), which reinforces the collaborative nature of the book.
The result of their joint labor is a “unique” (26) resource that functions as both an N.T. Wright “reader” and an introduction to the study of the New Testament. The book explores the historical world and literary details of the New Testament thoroughly and vividly. It also contains portions of Wright’s series Christian Origins and the Question of God and Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2007), as well as pieces from Wright’s contributions to the series The New Testament for Everyone. In the preface, Wright and Bird describe the book as “robust” and “user-friendly” (26)—both appropriate appellations.
Indeed, the book does provide a robust study of the New Testament within its early Christian context. In Part 1, the book introduces its methodological approach, unpacking the significance of studying the New Testament in its historical context, considering it as literature, and pondering its theological implications for today. Part 2 delves into the historical context of the New Testament—describing the world in which Jesus walked and the early church grew up.
Part 3—titled “Jesus and the Victory of God” (beginning a pattern of using titles from the Christian Origins series)—turns attention to the person of Jesus. This part includes a chapter on the search for the historical Jesus as well as a chapter that explores who Jesus thought he was. Part 4, “Resurrection and The Son of God,” begins by setting expectations and understandings of resurrection in the 1st-century context. Wright and Bird then turn to the New Testament’s understanding of Jesus’ resurrection by first exploring Paul’s words about the resurrection before delving into the Gospel accounts.
Part 5 is titled “Paul and the Faithfulness of God.” This part begins with Paul’s life, moves to Paul’s theology, and then turns to the Pauline corpus letter by letter. Part 6 gives attention to the Gospels. Unlike many introductory textbooks, Wright and Bird first consider each Gospel individually, exploring them as literature and for their theology, before addressing the scholarly discussions about Gospel sources and development. Part 7 covers the Early Christian Letters (Hebrews, James, Jude, 1-2 Peter, and 1-3 John) as well as Revelation. In Part 8, Wright and Bird discuss the formation and development of the New Testament, introducing both textual criticism and canonization. Finally, Part 9 turns to the theology of the New Testament. It is by far the briefest of the nine parts at only thirteen pages. The brevity of this final theological section seems abrupt after the detail and depth provided in the rest of the book.
In addition to providing a “robust” approach to the New Testament, the book is “user-friendly” (26). In the preface, Wright and Bird indicate that the book is designed for teaching within the academy and the church (27). They have developed resources to support this end: there is a workbook, online resources, and both video and audio lectures to accompany the book. Within the book itself, the number of instructional aides demonstrates the book’s pedagogical orientation. Each chapter provides a “Chapter at a Glance” with the main objectives and goals. There are sidebars with detailed maps, timelines, family trees, chronologies, and outlines. Other sidebars (“Emails from the Edge”) engage difficult textual and theological questions that students (as well as more experienced and mature readers) often ask by showing an ongoing email conversation between a student and professor. The sidebars entitled “Portals and Parallels” bring to life literary and historical connections to the New Testament, while still other sidebars called “Blasts from the Past” include interpretations from across the history of the Christian church. Finally, the book presents side panels with poetry and art for further reflection. The choice of art enriches this book and helps illustrate key aspects of the New Testament.
Despite all these excellent pedagogical nods, the book occasionally throws in an untranslated Latin phrase—something which my students both in the academy and the church would find challenging. The book also lacks a glossary, which would greatly help beginning undergraduates, seminarians, and lay persons. However, the book does have a thorough bibliography and a wealth of indices. Additionally, while the concluding overviews of each Gospel and letter offer brief reflections about how the texts connect to the current world, the final section could use more concluding words about how the New Testament speaks to our contemporary challenges and hopes, especially since the book targets church audiences. At the same time, it is already a substantial tome.
Regarding audience, the book is especially well-suited to a church or seminary context. While the pedagogical resources appear geared toward undergraduate audiences, the book’s theological interpretive moves limit the book’s use to those with biblical and theological backgrounds. Although the length of the book demands much from a church audience, the number of instructional aides offer support to the busy pastor or bi-vocational church leader. A seminary introductory course would likely prove the best place for the book’s pedagogical and theological orientation. The course instructor would need to make sure to balance the “N.T. Wright reader” dimension with more voices—while Wright and Bird take great care to introduce debates and discussion within the field of biblical studies, seminary students should also hear other voices in the field. In short, The New Testament in Its World provides a rich resource for the church and the academy.
Amy Whisenand Krall is assistant professor of biblical and theological studies and assistant program director in the School of Humanities, Religion, and Social Science at Fresno Pacific University.Amy Whisenand KrallDate Of Review:August 31, 2022