Readings from the First-Century World

By Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough
Grand Rapids : Baker (1999). 223 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
10.2 (Fall 1999) : 291-293

This book is the first volume to be published in the “Encounter Biblical Studies” series of textbooks especially designed for Bible courses in Christian colleges. The publisher and authors have sought to produce a basic-level NT survey text that reflects a high level of evangelical scholarship, written to be understood by today’s college freshman, pedagogically sound, and visually oriented (12). They have achieved these goals with excellence in this work.

Every chapter begins with an outline of its contents and a statement of its objectives, the tasks the reader should be able to perform after reading the chapter. The main content of each chapter includes boldfaced key terms that are defined in a glossary at the end of the book (395-406), sidebars that contain primary sources quotes and contemporary concerns, and focus boxes that present practical application of the material. Explanatory charts conclude with a summary statement of its content, review questions with answers in the back of the book (407-8), and suggestions for further reading.

Fourteen of the book’s twenty-four chapters introduce the reader to the books of the NT. A summary of basic evangelical conclusion concerning authorship, date, place of writing, destination, outline, and purpose introduces each biblical book. That is followed by a more extensive discussion of the major themes of the book. The other ten chapters deal with matters such as historical background, canonicity, the study of the Gospels, the life of Christ, and the teachings of Jesus and Paul.

Although this textbook contains much valuable information for the beginning NT student, two cautions need to be sounded. First, the authors view the church in continuity with the OT people of God; for them, the church is the new Israel (21, 203, 266). Second, the book waffles on issues where there is evangelical diversity, particularly when dealing with historical criticism. The history and assumptions of historical criticism are well stated. However, the application of critical methodologies to the study of the New Testament is endorsed if practiced in what the authors call a historical-theological approach. Yarbrough writes, “At a more advanced level, scholars and serious students make use of a number of critical methods and measures designed to arrive at the proper interpretation: textual criticism, source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, literary criticism, canonical criticism, sociological criticism, and structuralism. These modes of analysis are normally just one step in a larger process of arriving at the right understanding of a text” (161).

Included with each textbook is an interactive CD-ROM that serves as a supplemental resource to the text. Designed by Chris Miller, Associate Professor of Bible, and Phil Bassett, Associate Professor of Education, both of Cedarville College, the interactive CD-ROM is a unique and innovative addition to the Encountering text series.

Happily, the designers shunned the “Windows Only” temptation and rendered the CD accessible in both the Windows and Macintosh platforms, utilizing Macromedia’s Shockwave and Apple’s QuickTime technologies. The CD operated extremely well in several different machines ranging from a Macintosh G3 (266 mhz) to a Power Mac 6100 and from Pentium III (300 mhz) down to an older P-100 (utilizing CD-ROM’s ranging from 4x to 24x speeds). The CD supplements the text in several ways: (1) movie clips of site locations and interview s with the authors on various topics; (2) Hypertext (HT) formatted pages with outlines and main points, often verbalized; and (3) maps, diagrams, and pictures.

Though innovative and extremely easy to navigate, the CD-ROM nevertheless was observed to have several poor qualities. The first and perhaps the most noticeable defect relates to the overly simplistic summaries contained in the various windows. For instance, in the section covering the Book of Revelation a button appears entitled “eschatology,” presumably dealing with the eschatology of the Apocalypse. However, that button takes you to a page that simply lists “The Suffering Servant: Trial” and “The Ruling Sovereign: Triumph,” w hich apparently is deemed to suffice as a summation of the eschatological issues of the book. As another example in the section of introductory material, a button exists for the discussion “Why Study the New Testament.” Upon entering that page, the student will encounter three reasons: (1) To avoid the tyranny of preformed personal opinion; (2) To avoid misguided reliance upon the Holy Spirit; and (3) To enable historical-theological interpretation. Valid reasons, but clearly superficial, lacking any reference to knowing God and His will for life (2 Tim 2:15; 3:17) as a reason for study. The reference to “historical-theological” interpretation instead of “historical-grammatical” interpretation should not go unnoticed. A student who simply scans the CD material without consulting either the text or other resources, may be able to pass the overly simple quizzes provided for the benefit of an instructor, but the reviewers doubt they will come away with a thorough working knowledge of the NT.

A couple of technical problems also arose. Again, in the section on the Book of Revelation, the blue HT numerals, which when clicked upon display the respective lines of the book’s outline, do not line up properly with each line in the outline. In the glossary areas, the audio pronunciations of technical terms are extremely well-done, but in the written definition there is amazingly no HT link to the “see also” references that are contained in the definition.

The authors have also prepared an additional companion to the main text: Readings from the First-Century World. The reason given for this volume by the authors is that “nothing comparable exists to serve the needs of younger college students taking basic NT survey, history, or background classes” (10). The authors admit that this collection is not comprehensive (11); however, it serves as an excellent addition to the text. Unlike the text, the Readings book lacks all of the visual features, containing only a few black and white photos. The Readings provide the student with an introduction to a wide-range of extra-biblical literature and background material that is certain to pique the interest of the motivated student. As expected from any work in which Elwell is involved, the indexes in both works are thorough, well-designed, and accessible.

This initial offering of the Encountering series seems to be an encouraging beginning to a long-term project. It delivers everything it promises, albeit perhaps too expensively, and for the most part delivers it well. For those who cut their teeth on Tenney, Gromacki, or even Gundry, the diet of the Encountering the New Testament may seem a little on the “lite” side, but it is certain to take a prominent place in many Bible colleges across the country.