The New Testament in Antiquity: A Survey of the New Testament within its Cultural Contexts

By Gary M. Burge, Lynn H. Cohick, Gene L. Green
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (2009). 479 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
20.2 (Fall 2009) : 255-257

Of the writing of many books on NT survey there is no end. This reviewer thought up that paraphrase of Kohelet’s lament when he heard of yet another NT survey textbook to hit the already overcrowded market of academic publishing. Why would Zondervan issue yet another book of this type when it already publishes the fourth edition of Gundry’s survey and the second edition of Carson and Moo’s introduction? Such a book must justify its existence by its unique contribution to the many similar books in the market. The reviewer’s concerns were answered when he began to peruse this truly unique and quite helpful volume. The co-authors teach undergraduates at Wheaton College and I would not be surprised if this text came out of a collaborative course surveying the NT writings.

This volume is worthy of serious consideration by teachers and students because of two great strengths. First, the work fulfills the goal expressed in its title and sub-title. The authors work hard at placing the NT writings firmly within their historical and cultural contexts. They devote over one hundred pages to the historical setting of the NT, the world of Jesus in His homeland, and the Mediterranean world of the apostle Paul before anything is mentioned about the written and oral sources for the Gospels. In their discussions of the individual biblical books, they still attempt to provide the historical context of each writing. The volume concludes with a helpful chapter on textual criticism, canon issues, and some balanced ideas on translation theory. Though the authors utilize the TNIV, their comments about translation theory avoid any attack on the formal equivalence approach favored by advocates of versions like the NASB and ESV.

The second great strength of this volume is the absolutely stunning visual layout. This book has more high resolution photographs than any other similarly sized book that this reviewer has ever surveyed. The “photo credits” extend to three finely printed pages (477-79). Many of the photos are the work of TMC/TMS grad Todd Bolen on his web site. I had not previously seen many of these photographs. Some superbly done and accurate maps also illustrate the written explanations. The visuals do not just serve as decoration, but enhance one’s mental image of the items, places, and people mentioned in the NT writings. This marvelous feature causes this volume to stand above other NT surveys. The downside of this visual feast is its inevitably more expensive price tag.

The authors maintain a high view of Scripture and generally espouse conservative positions on most all the issues that concern evangelicals. While explaining the various theories proposing Mark as the first Gospel, Burge cautions the reader that all of the views are hypotheses. “Q particularly is hypothetical, for no such document has ever been found” (117). Some will be dissatisfied that the authors do not espouse the ancient chronological order of the Gospels. They do recognize, however, the theoretical nature of all such synoptic theories. They affirm Pauline authorship of the Pastorals (370-72) as well as the Petrine authorship of 2 Peter (405-7). Such issues have become something of a litmus test for “conservative” introductions to the NT. For the differences in style and vocabulary in those books, they suggest that amanuenses may have played a role in their final composition.

Though one may disagree with an item here and there, this reviewer was pleased with the degree to which the authors affirm traditional positions on controversial issues. For example, in her controversial discussion about the role of women, Lynn Cohick carefully maneuvers her discussion of complementarian and egalitarian positions in her explanation of 1 Timothy 2 (367-69). Discerning eyes can see that she favors the latter approach, but she does not unduly prejudice her presentation. Gene Green explains the controversial issues surrounding the “New Pauline Perspective” in a fairly even-handed manner (264). One may guess that an editorial hand may have taken a sharp edge off some of these discussions. Some critics will feel that leaving many conclusions on controversial issues for the reader to decide is not wise. Here, however, the important role emerges for the professor who must guide his students through the issues raised by this and any other textbook.

Even though the field is crowded, this book should be near the top of the reading list in any NT survey syllabus. There will be a need for more detailed discussion of certain “introduction” issues. Some professors may want to sharpen areas that the authors leave a bit “fuzzy.” For most students, however, the material included is more than adequate for them to come away with a good presentation of each individual book and its historical/cultural context. If used in a graduate school setting, perhaps the material could be supplemented by information in a more academic introduction like Carson and Moo.

But it is the visual beauty and helpfulness of the volume’s graphics that are unequalled in other books surveying the NT.