Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.01.27

Delbert Burkett, An Introduction to the New Testament and the Origins of Christianity.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2002.  Pp. 600.  ISBN 0-521-80955-X.  $80.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-521-00720-8.  $29.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Peter Oakes, The University of Manchester (
Word count: 1634 words

This is a text-book for a one-semester undergraduate course and it is well written for such students. However, it covers a myriad of topics and, because of the effects of this, I think it would be better used as a course reference resource than as a main text-book.

About a quarter of the book consists of chapters on introductory topics (e.g., 'varieties of Second-Temple Judaism', 'Paul, his letters, and his churches', 'Proto-Orthodox Christianity'). Half the book provides specific introduction and a reading guide for each of the New Testament writings, mixed together with other texts from the apostolic and early post-apostolic periods. The final quarter consists of extensive translations of sections of the non-canonical texts, together with other useful contemporary writings. There are also dozens of illustrations. Burkett's style is well targeted at his intended audience, and he supports his presentation with discussion questions and brief suggestions for further reading at the end of each of the book's forty chapters.

Burkett's aim is to help students learn to think for themselves. He is conscious of the need to avoid simply substituting 'one set of authorities (critical scholars) for another (parents and church leaders)'. With this in mind, Burkett sets out careful and clear explanations for the conclusions that he reaches, especially where they challenge the conservative orthodoxy from which many students begin an encounter with New Testament scholarship. As can be seen from the book's contents, Burkett has a particularly clear aim in terms of presenting the New Testament as just one selection of texts from among a range of early Christian writings. He is also keen to show Christianity as a number of developing strands, each of which generated writings, whether genuinely apostolic or pseudepigraphical. Burkett conveys his arguments, on a vast array of topics, effectively and would probably carry many of his students with him.

This raises a paedagogical problem, one that is inherent in any attempt to write a comprehensive textbook for introducing the New Testament and which is particularly evident in Burkett's book. The problem lies in the great number of issues to be dealt with: everything from Graeco-Roman domestic religion (seven lines in the book) via 'Q and its community' (two pages) to the idea that Philippians consists of two or three letters joined together (one page). The flip-side of the problem is that the book's otherwise very helpful index includes no names of scholars. For Burkett to be able to give his clear, measured arguments on his book's myriad topics, he has to adopt a general policy of writing, 'Some scholars believe X but the following arguments support position Y'.

The result of this seems to me likely to be not the development of independent thinking among the students but their resocialization into a world where, despite Burkett's avowed wish to avoid it, critical scholars (in a rather vague mass) simply supplant the students' previous authorities in Biblical matters. I remember once spending quite a lot of time counselling one particularly conscientious conservative student. His problem was that ideas that challenged his preconceptions were coming at him at simply too great a rate for him to have time to sit down and evaluate them. A course based on Burkett's textbook would seem likely to raise such problems in an acute form.

If, as an example, we look at Burkett's treatment of Paul's letter to the Romans, we can get a picture of the strengths and limitations of the book. The chapter covers twelve pages: one fiftieth of the book. This in itself shows Burkett's desire to avoid letting later Church use of the New Testament dictate the shape of his course and book. Romans has dominated much of Christian theological discourse down through the centuries so, if historical significance was the criterion for shaping an introduction to the New Testament, one would expect Romans to occupy a space more proportionate to its historical weight. This historical perspective is a strength of Burkett's book, but also a weakness.

Incidentally, the most astonishing example of this is Burkett's handling of Philippians 2:5-11 in only three lines. This passage is generally viewed as the most important expression of very early beliefs about Jesus. The passage has probably been the subject of a greater amount of scholarly work than any other text of comparable length, anywhere in world literature. The rationale for including an introduction to the New Testament in a liberal arts course would seem to centre on the cultural significance of the New Testament. One might, therefore, expect particularly careful attention to be given to passages that have been of prime cultural significance. From a historian's point of view too, passages such as Philippians 2:5-11 touch on one of the central historical enigmas of early Christianity: how did a Jewish reform movement led by Jesus become a religious group who identified Jesus with God? Burkett gives very little space in his book to issues of the development of early Christology. He is similarly light on the development of early Christian ideas about salvation. Burkett's chapter on Romans is complemented by a general chapter about Paul but, even there, Paul's ideas are dealt with very briefly. Justification by faith fills only a single paragraph.

Returning to the chapter on Romans. After a summarising paragraph it begins with a page on Christianity in Rome (and a picture of the well-known model of Rome). This paints an effective sketch of the complexities likely to have arisen from movements of Gentile and Jewish Christians to and from the city. Burkett opts to present as fact the expulsion of the Jews, described by Suetonius. Burkett must have faced tricky decisions on hundreds of issues like this, where some scholars raise doubts which make an introductory course potentially confusing. I think Burkett's assessment of the degree of such complexity to bring in is generally good, although in this case I would have qualified the description of events in Rome.

There follows a paragraph on date and provenance, helpfully focusing on aspects that aid in interpreting the letter. There are then two pages on possible different versions of the letter, intended for different audiences. A particularly useful table sets out which parts of the letter appear in various manuscripts. Burkett concludes that there were three versions of the letter, the longest of which was sent to Ephesus, not Rome. The absence of any scholars' names in such a detailed discussion rather grates (being in Manchester, I think particularly of T.W. Manson). The argument also seems likely to bemuse first-year undergraduates. In particular, no indication of the dates of the manuscripts is given. When Burkett gives his first argument as being that 'a few manuscripts omit "in Rome"' at the beginning of the letter, his readers are unaware that these manuscripts are from the ninth century, whereas all those from earlier centuries include the words. Burkett's readers are not really in a position to evaluate the arguments for themselves.

Burkett does not advocate a particular conclusion on every issue. The next page of the chapter of Romans gives five options for the purpose of the letter and does not suggest which is most persuasive. This seems good, although, for an introductory course, it would have been helpful to have added some discussion of the types of evidence that students ought to consider in weighing the options. Avoidance of naming of scholars in this section seems particuarly odd, particularly since one cited option is to 'serve as a last will and testament': this is so specific to Günther Bornkamm that it seems bad practice not to name him. I can see Burkett's difficulty. His students will, very reasonably, not be interested in learning the names of scholars. He therefore names scarcely any (the main exception is in a useful survey on scholarship on the historical Jesus). The difficulty with that is that the history of scholarship is a story into which everything that Burkett writes is implicitly keyed. Scholars write in historical contexts, as parts of movements, as people with particular interests. Burkett speaks repeatedly of 'some scholars', 'many scholars', 'most scholars'. At the current state of awareness of how situated ideas are, an attempt to introduce students to New Testament scholarship, without keeping the students' eyes firmly on the question of which scholars belong where, seems unhelpful.

This is nowhere more clear than in the remainder of the chapter on Romans: a brief outline; a page on Jews and Gentiles in Romans; a four-page reading guide; discussion and review questions; suggested reading (Donfried, Fitzmyer and Gamble). The reading guide is helpful, but mainly just summarises sections. The particular problem lies in the handling of Jews, Gentiles and the interpretation of Romans 9-11. Burkett simply gives his own description of what Paul said. But this material has been the scene of epic scholarly movements in the period since the Holocaust: the contribution of Jewish scholars to the study of Paul; Krister Stendahl's reevaluation of Paul's attitude to Judaism; E.P. Sanders 'Copernican revolution' in the study of Paul. On Paul's relationship to Judaism, as on so many topics in NT study, telling something of the story of scholarship seems essential to introducing the New Testament to students in 2003.

I would not make Burkett's book my main text book for an introductory course on the New Testament. I would prefer a book which covered fewer topics but did so in more depth, relating both the texts and the scholarship to their contexts. However, I would use Burkett's book as a reference tool and source of discussion points for students on such a course, alongside other books with different approaches. Burkett's book is well written and well argued for this audience and his insistence on treating New Testament texts equally with other early Christian texts is a valuable contribution to introductory study.

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