The “Best” NT Introduction(s)?

I have not taught a basic NT survey in more than a decade, but I am now supervising an independent-study NT survey and am both thinking about writing a NT survey text with a theological bent and possibly teaching the course again.

So I am wondering (1) which NT intro(s) others like, or dislike, and why, and (2) whether you think there is a need for another one (of the making of NT intros there is no end!). If you say yes to #2, what would be the elements of the ideal NT intro, or at least the one you think needs to be written?

Here are some thoughts about the ones I have known and used:

1. Luke Timothy Johnson’s second edition from Fortress is my favorite because he attends so carefully and richly to the NT text in its literary and theological dimensions. It is not at all user-friendly, however—no illustrations or even maps—but I hope the third edition, soon to be out, will correct that problem.

2. The one I am using with the student this term is Mark Alan Powell’s new book from Baker. I always like Powell’s work, and this book is no exception. It has tables (I love tables!) and art and maps galore. It’s very user friendly, but it is a bit thin for a text at the seminary or graduate level, so I am supplementing it with some videos by Luke Johnson, NT Wright, and Bart Ehrman.

3. My old friend Bart Ehrman’s Oxford intro, now in its 77th edition and 17th form (abridged, abbreviated, condensed, full-length, etc.) ( :-) ), is a model of clear writing and user-friendliness, with tables, art, and other graphics. It’s good as far as it goes, but it deliberately displays no theological interests.

4. I used Raymond Brown’s massive Doubleday tome with a class when it first came out and was surprised at how well it was received, especially since it looks like an encyclopedia. Brown was a good writer and master of the secondary literature. There are good summary tables of basic data (who/what/when/where, etc.) for each writing but only a few other graphics. His treatment of the gospels is basically a mini-commentary on each from beginning to end; the rest of the NT is treated differently and more topically. I would not use it again as the main text, however.

5. I have only skimmed parts of David deSilva’s equally massive IVP NT introduction, with its stress on application to ministry. I’ve had some former students use it with him in the D.Min. program at David’s school, but I think it would only work in certain settings. (Our student body has more lay people than current or future clergy.)

6. The Eerdmans NT survey by Joel Green, Marianne Meye Thompson, and Paul Achtmeier is solid and well done, though less thorough than some and not as theologically rich as, say, Johnson.

So what do you all think?

20 Responses to “The “Best” NT Introduction(s)?”

  1. Luke says:

    Interesting. You definitely didn’t leave many out. On the evangelical side there is Carson & Moo, but I found it quite tedious, mainly concerned with historical-critical issues & defending conservative dating & the like. I wouldn’t use it unless I wanted the conservative viewpoint on dating, authorship, etc. Same with Guthrie. Good on historical-critical issues, but far too narrow in scope.

    The NT intros I have purchased are Brown’s & DeSilva’s. I actually just recently purchased DeSilva’s on the Libronix platform and it is quite good, though a bit daunting. I appreciate his desire to include ministerial issues & not leave it at historical issues alone. Also, exegetically he is very holistic, so he has sections on methods like rhetorical criticism, social-scientific criticism, epistolary analysis, literary criticism, etc. He also has many helpful pictures & tables. The size isn’t really the problem b/c a good NT intro should include a lot of basic stuff, but the chapters are just entirely too long

    I figured Powell’s was good since he is such a good scholar. I’ve thought about purchasing it but am currently undecided. I have a tough time deciding just how many NT intros one needs. Ideally, there should be just one really good one that covers it all very briefly, but that’s just not the case.

    Is there a need for another one? I’m ambivalent here. I want to say “yes” just because I feel that NT intros are so helpful since they can & should serve as a “one-stop-shop” for NT matters, but I want to say “no” just because there are now so many, and a handful are quite good. The problem is that some do some things better than others, & what most people look for is one that does all things quite well. It is at least good to see NT intros that deal with much more than historical-critical issues now.

    What I believe the ideal NT intro should involve is certainly a discussion about the Second Temple period, the history of NT times (e.g. Roman emperors, etc.), the political context, and the socio-cultural context. I believe it should also include a section on various criticisms for how to read the NT (e.g. genre criticism), such as narrative analysis, epistolary analysis, apocalyptic literature, along with theological interpretation, missional hermeneutics, post-colonial criticism, historical criticism, rhetorical criticism, feminist criticism, etc. The emphasis here should lie on the complimentary & unifying way to utilize all these methods as opposed to viewing them as fragmentary, which is so often the case in academia. Examples should also be given as to how these look in practice. I would also look for an emphasis about the discourse level and getting people acquainted with the big picture of both the individual books & the NT as a whole (maybe a concluding NT theology chapter). In saying this I would also include somewhere a discussion about the unity & diversity of the NT, since this is so crucial for NT theology.

    Then I would look for an overview of each individual book. What I would look for here is nothing too daunting & overwhelming, which is often the case I run into. I would just want basic critical issues such as dating, authorship, & location, followed by a big picture of the book (simple outline & discussion of discourse structure), a discussion of the major themes involved, and a heavy emphasis on things in the 1st century world that would be foreign to us (e.g. honor shame, cultural issues, concepts, etc.). The goal should be a heuristic to view the book through. If it has a theological bent, then maybe concluding each chapter could be a theological analysis or something (again, nothing too overwhelming & long). And of course, any NT intro. should include helpful charts, tables, & pictures to orient the student to the world of the NT & help give them the big picture of the books, themes, etc. In the Gospels there would need to be something describing the peoples therein (Judaic sects, etc.). Something quite novel would be to include a chapter at the end of the book about the century after the NT, discussing how Christianity spread, the Apostolic Fathers (this is a growing interest anyways), heresy/orthodoxy, etc.

    While it is fine for a NT intro. to be quite large, I think the most important issue is to keep the chapters somewhat simple and short (no more than 15-20 pgs.). People use them before they embark on a study of a particular book or want a basic intro into the NT world, so anything too overwhelming will turn them off. They want a quick reference & basic intro for things to look for & major issues, they don’t want to spend 3 days reading the chapter on Romans. This is the shortcoming with most NT intros & is something I think you could help with.

    So overall, some things not dealt with in NT intros that you could help with & that would validate this project are: (1) concise chapters; (2) one-stop-shop for all things NT; (2) discussion of NT theology & unity & diversity; (3) theological & missional readings as well as intro to various criticisms with emphasis on complementary nature; and (4) discussion of era after NT canon such as Apostolic Fathers.

    Practical & ministerial things are always helpful & what people look for, so I would look for this as well, but again don’t make it too overwhelming. DeSilva’s sections on this are much too long. I would say no more than 2 pages on these issues. The concern should be on both cognitive knowledge & praxis (making the connections between the two), unless you want it to be solely for the academy.

    Sorry this is so long. Hope it helps :-)

  2. Mike. Have you seen/considered The History of the Christ: The Foundation of New Testament Theology and The Theology of the Apostles: The Development of New Testament Theology both by Adolf Schlatter and available in English translations? I highly recommnd them. I remember finding Tenney’s New Testament Survey helpful in my first year too.

  3. Nijay says:

    Mike – I definitely think that there is room and would be interest in an intro to the NT with a theological focus. I think of the Birth, Fretheim, and Breuggemann’s OT intro that is very theological. Perhaps a NT version is in need. The issue is – are you going to cover the stuff like authorship and various critical issues of original audience, background, etc…. Do you assume students will use yours in companion with a more traditional kind?

    Also – you could have included Porter’s Early Christianity and Its Sacred Literature – a different kind of intro, but very useful!

  4. Jo-Ann says:

    I’ve been teaching NT introductions in seminaries for years, and agree with your assessments. I like Johnson best, but am using the Eerdman volume now because it is more accessible for students. I do think it is somewhat uneven–better in some sections than others. I looked at Powell and thought it would be great for an undergraduate setting. Ehrman’s book is good, but more historically focused than I think is useful as a primary text in a theological context. When I used Brown (in a RC setting), I also was surprised at how well students responded to the book, but agree with you that it is like an encyclopedia. I’ll be interested to see what changes the 3rd edition makes in Johnson’s book; I don’t really like the way he divided the work for a theological commentator–how does Acts belong with synoptics? Canonical structure seems more important to me.

    So is a new one needed? I think if one were going to try to write one with a theological bent you would need to assess carefully whether all the traditional material was needed or whether it just makes the book too long. Maybe the state of the intro reflects the state of the discipline–one book won’t do the trick anymore; too many audiences. I know I am being increasingly fussy what I put into the course, working harder at larger theological questions and questions of genre, selecting only some of the NT to consider, and giving little attention to what I was taught were the critical questions. I suppose in the end I wonder if the days of the intro survey are numbered because the task has become so big.

  5. Bacho says:

    From someone recently out of a seminary and starting in a PhD program…

    1.Top three NT intros I enjoyed the most:

    a.Luke Timothy Johnson

    b.Carson, Moo, Morris

    c.David de Silva

    2.Is another intro needed? There will never be a silver bullet text-book. I think the combination of textbooks is needed [gets expensive, but our theological libraries need good fundraisers so that students do not always need to buy all the textbooks]. Theological reading needs to be balanced, exposing students to various perspectives, methods, and tools. I guess the question is not wether another intro is needed, rather does the author have a new voice to bring to the table. I enjoyed your ELEMENTS OF BIBLICAL EXEGESIS in seminary. It was well written, simple to understand and practical to use. There was in high insight room for that book.

  6. MJG says:

    Dear all,

    I will respond further to these interesting comments later. In the meantime, I should clarify that I have been asked to consider writing such a book and am just pondering who is crazier, the one asking or the one considering saying yes?

  7. Brian says:

    I would say go the theological/thematic route like Johnson has done (and I like Nijay’s suggestion about complementing Brueggemann, et al, Theological Intro to the OT).

    There are enough NT Intros out there that deal with provenance issues if you chose to deal with them, maybe limit it to a side bar or chart/graph).

    Considering a different take such as the theo/thematic approach would be good, maybe in the likes of Sandra Gravett, et. al. An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible: A Thematic Approach (WJK). Something that can take the middle road and not be perceived as too conservative or too liberal (not withstanding the irrelevance of such labels).

    Hope this helps some.

  8. I would go with the Green, Thompson, and Achtemeier intro. I think you are right in that it is not as theologically rich as some other text’s, but it is very historically rich and I think that is essential for an intro NT class. If anything it forces students to better understand the historical context in which the NT was written.

  9. Ken Berry says:

    Another recent introduction not yet mentioned is the one by Carl Holladay. Abingdon is the publisher.

  10. James Grant says:

    Mike,

    For what it is worth, I want to encourage you to write it. Your intro to Paul is perhaps my favorite one in that category. The connection of cruciformity to the Gospels (take up your cross) and Acts (seeing that in particular churches) with some of what you said in the Pauline epistles sounds exciting. Then add Hebrews-Rev to the mix and the theological themes that correspond to your points in Paul’s theology, well, sounds exciting to read. I’ll pray for you in this project. It will be a gift not only to the academy but to the church as well.

  11. Leland Vickers says:

    I saw that Ken Berry had mentioned the “Critical Introduction to the NT” by Carl Holladay. Does anyone else have comments on that book? I have gone to it on a couple of occasions and was pleased with what I found, but this was a very small sample–probably only 20-30 pages.

  12. adhunt says:

    I love Brown’s for, as you said, “his command of the secondary literature.” I know that when I go to his book, he’s going to point me to 20 other commentators to check up on.

    But it is sorely lacking in a “theological” approach. Though, at this stage in my study I don’t need a new and “updated” intro.

  13. MJG says:

    Dear all,

    Thanks for all this; a few responses:

    Luke,
    Thanks for such a thoughtful and thorough response. Your description of the ideal NT intro is quite comprehensive, and I am very sympathetic to it, but it also demonstrates why such a book is in fact so often so long. It could be a life’s work! (Or at least what one has left in life!) I wonder if there should be two different genres: the comprehensive NT intro and the more specialized NT intro that emphasizes a particular approach or perspective without discounting others. (See Jo-Ann’s comment, too.) In any event, thanks for all that.

    Jason,
    I’ve read some Schlatter (including some in German—ugh!) but not those two volumes; interesting ideas. I will have to take a look. I suspect Tenney’s questions and perspectives might feel a bit dated now.

    Nijay,
    The comparison to Birch et al is interesting; I don’t think there is an NT intro that is quite parallel to that. I would certainly advocate including at least some discussion of traditional introductory matters. Not to do so seems irresponsible.

    Jo-Ann,
    Thanks for the echoes of my own experience! I used Brown with an ecumenical class and later (I forgot about this) parts of it with RC classes. I think you are right that there is probably a need for more focused intros; the comprehensive, encyclopedic NT intro has its place, but will students read it, and will it accomplish what one wants to accomplish in a theological classroom?

    Bacho,
    Thanks for the words about Elements. You raise the right question—is there a new voice to be articulated and heard.

    Brian,
    Thanks for the ideas; I especially agree with the “middle road.” I don’t know Gravett and will have to look at it. Does she do themes for the whole HB or book by book?

    Andrew,
    I agree that the historical perspective should not be lost, but neither should it be exclusive. I wonder if a more theological Intro can be complemented with something that grounds the NT in its historical and social contexts.

    Ken (and Leland),
    I’ve only looked briefly at Holladay. Thanks.

    James,
    Thanks for the encouragement and the ideas. You’ve probably hit most closely upon the approach I would take if I were to write such a book. You articulated it better than I have so far!

    Anthony (and others),
    Thanks for the thoughts about the number of NT intros out there or on our shelves. I guess the question one always thinks about is the next generation of students, whether college, seminary, or other. What will they need to be academically, theologically, spiritually, and pastorally prepared to engage the NT? Does what they need (from one’s own perspective) already exist?

  14. Angela says:

    Hi, Mike,
    I’d like to encourage you onward! I believe you would bring a unique, fresh perspective to NT intros. Not only have you physically digested the culture but your writing voice lends to learning, application, and transformation!!!

  15. MIke: DO IT!

    Peace,
    Daniel

  16. MJG says:

    Angela and Daniel,

    Thanks for the encouragement. Can you bottle and send some time to go with the encouragement?

    Mike

  17. Brian says:

    Sir, Gravett et al does themes for the whole Hebrew Bible she seems to focus more on the religious function of the Hebrew Bible within the context of the cult ofIsrael – how would they have read it, how did it shape them as a people and so on. She focus on two themes mainly: idenity and power and how these two things shaped and formed Isreal and how they lived and so on. It seems like a good companion to a more traditional approach to OT Intros. I hope this helps some. I just got it recently and haven’t got through it all the way so I can’t say much more than I know. Blessings.

  18. Mike,

    Sorry. The only thing I bottle is beer wort, usually with a little sugar to carbonate it along the way. But if this would be of any help I’ll see about sending it instead of time… :)

  19. Angela says:

    And Mike,

    I have a bunch of pictures and audio that might save some time and encourage. : )

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