Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times

By Paul Barnett
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (1999). 448 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
12.2 (Fall 2001) : 250-252

For thirty years, New Testament History by F. F. Bruce has been the standard evangelical work in its field. Now, Bruce’s classic work has been supplemented by this important work from the pen of Paul Barnett, currently the Anglican bishop of North Syndey, Australia, and previously Master of Robert Menzies College, Macquarie University. In Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity, Barnett expands and amplifies his previous book, Behind the Scenes of the New Testament (see review in TMSJ 5 [1994]:101-2). Barnett is also the author of the valuable NICNT volume on The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Eerdmans, 1997) and Jesus & the Logic of History (Eerdmans, 1997) in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series.

Barnett has high praise for Bruce’s “great” volume. He writes, “The strength of Bruce’s history is the sheer quantity of historical detail that he amasses and that thereby establishes inferentially the historical character of Christianity and its rootedness in the soil of those times” (24). Bruce wrote his history as a historian, not as a theologian. His goal was to describe the history of the NT era from Jewish and Roman sources and then fit in the data found in the NT. In contrast, Barnett writes as a theologian and historian. He states, “I have attempted to grasp the meaning of the primary texts from the inside, as it were, with only selected reference to secondary literature” (10). His main purpose is to describe the theological truth of the NT as seen in its historical development enlightened by extra-biblical documentation. For Barnett, “A New Testament history . . . must be the story of Jesus and the unfolding story of his followers in the next generation after him” (17). The author states that his goals are to show that the Christ proclaimed by the apostles was one and the same as the Jesus of history and to demonstrate that the events recorded in the NT were nothing less than God fulfilling His promises made in the OT, particularly those made to David (10).

The first two chapters of the book lay the foundation for what follows. Chapter one, “The New Testament as History” (13-26), affirms the possibility of writing a NT history. “The historical context of the kerygma written in the Gospels and Acts and the rootedness in history of all of the literature of the New Testament make possible an attempt to retell the story of Jesus and the rise of his movement” (14). Further, Barnett lays out a chronology based upon biblical references correlated with extra-biblical data that is followed in the remainder of the book. In chapter two, “The Impact of Christ” (27-46), the Davidic ancestry of Jesus as the Messiah/Christ is shown as confirmed in Christian and non-Christian sources. The author concludes, “The earliness and the breadth of the witness to Jesus (the) Christ/the Son of God suggest that this idea did not derive from the early church but from Jesus himself” (44).

The main thrust of the work is to relate the story of Jesus and the rise of Christianity, which is narrated in chapters three through seventeen (47-375). Particularly valuable are the sections that describe the historical and theological context in which the events of the NT took place. The reader is given well-outlined, succinct summaries of information with bibliographic resources from which he can pursue further study. These chapters go over the same ground as Bruce’s history utilizing Barnett’s “inside” approach, which gives a more readable presentation, especially for the beginning NT student.

Chapter eighteen, “The Four Gospels” (376-99), has a good discussion of the historical nature, scriptural status, purposes, and dissemination of the written Gospels. Unfortunately, the author follows the four-source theory concerning Gospel origins, one of the sources being “Q,” “a Greek written document” (379). Chapter nineteen, “The Kingdom of Christ” (400-414), gives an introduction to the book of Revelation. Though information on the historical background of the book is helpful, Barnett does not espouse a futurist perspective toward the book. Chapter twenty (415-22) is an epilogue summarizing the main points of the entire volume. A select bibliography (423-29), author index (431-32), subject index (433-36), and Scripture index (437-48) add to the usefulness of this book as a reference tool.

Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity is a valuable resource for the student and expositor of the NT, especially when consulted together with Bruce’s New Testament History.