The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric

By David E. Aune
Louisville, Ky : Westminster John Knox (2003). xii + 595 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
15.1 (Spring 2004) : 107-109

The author of this new reference work is a widely regarded NT scholar and long-time professor at the University of Notre Dame. His writing credits are extensive and well-regarded, including a three-volume commentary on the Book of Revelation in the Word Biblical Commentary series (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998) and The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox, 1987).

This work, which has been under development for ten years (xi), focuses on providing a reference source for the literary and rhetorical dimensions of early Christian literature from its beginnings, about 50 C.E., through the mid-second century C.E. (ibid). O ne note, albeit perhaps a quibbling one, must be made at this point. This reviewer understands that the conventions of secular scholarship have now made the shift from the chronological identifiers B.C. (‘before Christ’) and A.D. (anno Domini, or ‘year of our Lord’) to B.C.E. (‘before the common era’) and C.E. (‘common era’). This shift is an unwelcome intrusion by secularism, and it has no place in writings or works that purport to center on biblical and theological studies (although in this work that style is used throughout). The author acknowledges that, unlike typical reference works, he has authored the overwhelming majority of the articles. He notes that 21 articles were completed by ‘eight current or former students’ (xii). Though this might tend to render the work a little idiosyncratic, that is far from the case. The author’s breadth of research and noted scholarship has created a well-rounded and highly useful reference work.

The basic format follows standard conventions with two columns and a generous use of ‘see also’ notations at the end of the articles. Also plentiful ‘see reference’ entry points appear throughout the work, although more careful editing might have helped this feature. For example, a ‘see’ for ‘Luke, Gospel of’ points the reader to the very next entry (‘Luke-Acts’; 280); however, no ‘see’ entry for Acts of the Apostles directs the reader to the correct entry. Additionally, one ‘see also’ entry points the reader to a non-existent article on ‘Rhetorical Theory’ (424). Other examples could be cited. A unique feature is the manner in which the author handled the bibliographies for the articles. Instead of a short reference that is often difficult to look up, he has simply listed a last name and date. The reader can then go to an extensive (112 pages) bibliography in the back of the book and find the desired work. The articles range from a few paragraphs to several pages. The use of charts is judicious and quite helpful to the reader. Remarkably, in a work this complex, almost no editing or typographical errors of note occur.

In terms of content, this work centers on literature and rhetorical issues rather than personalities. All the NT canonical works and the non-canonical works in the stated time scope (see above) have articles and normally an extensive outline as well as a discussion of normal introductory issues (authorship, d ate, etc.) and a more detailed rhetorical analysis of the works. Some individuals such as Irenaeus (234-37) and Justin Martyr (257-62) have dedicated articles, but others such as Clement (99-102) and Tatian (211) are mentioned only in articles related to their works. A few more ‘see’ notations, especially for an individual like Tatian who appears mainly in the article on ‘Harmonies (of the Gospels)’ or in a wider index of persons, would have been helpful. Other helpful main articles deal with the terminology of literary and rhetorical studies. The one general criticism of this work is the manner in which the concept of ‘inspiration’ is handled, or better, not handled. In a reference work concerned with Early Christian Literature, it is amazing that not one article on ‘inspiration’ is included, although without a doubt this is a central concept in the early church’s view of the NT (see ‘Bible, Inspiration of the’ in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell [Baker, 1996]). Even in the article on the ‘Canon’ (85-88) inspiration as a factor in how the early church viewed the canon is unmentioned. Clearly, the author rejects the evangelical concept of biblical inspiration. He rejects Pauline authorship of the Pastorals, questions it in Ephesians, rejects Petrine authorship entirely, rejects James and Jude as authors of their respective works, and denies an apostolic connection in the Gospels (88). In the article on the Book of Titus, the references to both Paul and Titus are regarded as ‘fictitious’ and the entire basis of the letter and setting in Crete is regarded as a ‘fictive rhetorical setting’ (475). Even an article in which the author ‘laid his cards on the table’ regarding inspiration, even if his conclusion categorically denied it, would have had more scholarly integrity than simply skirting the issue.

Historical and rhetorical critical examinations as well as comparative Greco-Roman literature serve as the starting point for the author in examining and interpreting the NT. The weaknesses in this approach are evident, especially when combined with a rejection of biblical inspiration (and by extension inerrancy). In many respects this is one of the better reference works that has been produced for this field, and when the reader understands the underlying philosophy of the work, it can be very useful.

Reference works are, in general, a ‘first stop’ in research, and reference works that match this volume in terms of research and scholarship while supporting an inspired and inerrant Scripture that this volume rejects, are a much needed commodity so that evangelical theology does not become more obscured, such as the apparent fait accompli of B.C. and A.D.