Book Review: The New Testament – A Literary History

Title: The New Testament: A Literary History

Author: Gerd Theissen

Bibiographic Info: XVI + 290 + 20

Publisher: Fortress, 2011.

Cover: Hard with dust jacket

Buy it at Amazon

With thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy!

The book is a translation of Gerd Theissen’s 2007 volume, Die Entstehung des NeuenTestaments als literaturgeschichtliches Problem.

It begins with a chapter on the oral prehistory of early Christian literature, followed by a chapter on the sayings source Q, and a chapter on the Gospel of Mark. The chapter on Q was quite a good overview, discussing such things as its structure, genre, theology, dating, and provenance. Though, the author only mentions in a footnote how some (e.g. Hengel, Bowden) dispute the existence of Q. So for those who reject Q, you will be disappointed if you are expecting to find any interaction with non-Q hypotheses (e.g. Farrer-Goulder). I liked Theissen’s brief treatment on the messianic secret in the Gospel of Mark. He says:

The traditional interpretation of the “messianic secret” is thus correct: in Mark’s Gospel the worship of Jesus as Son of God, which was originally tied to his resurrection, was projected back into the life of Jesus. Jesus was the Son of God, but during his lifetime he was so only secretly. Jesus and his followers had to wait for God’s decisive action in order to be able to acknowledge him as Son of God. (51-52).

The following five chaptersare on the epistolary literature of the apostle Paul, touching upon matters such as pre-Pauline oral traditions in Paul (i.e. pre-Pauline Jesus traditions), the literary form of Paul’s letters, and the collection, sequence, and development of the Pauline corpus. The next two chapters are concerned with the pseudepigraphic phase in the early church, with a particular focus on the Deutero-Pauline epistles. At one point, the author discusses for a couple of pages the question of whether early Christians knew that many of their writings were pseudepigraphic. He concludes that “we find in early Christianity a pseudepigraphy in good conscience” (115).

 There is a brief excursus on the Catholic Epistles, which the author correctly sees (IMO) as a correction to Paul, though in such a brief excursus I don’t think the author was able to provide a thorough and compelling case for this. At one point the author makes an interesting (overstatement?) that, “without Paul, the letter form would not have achieved literary status in early Christianity. All early Christian letters are form-critically dependent on him” (127).

What follows is four chapters on how the various gospels transformed the Jesus traditions to a particular interpretation of him. The first chapter deals with the Synoptics; the second with the Gospels of John, Thomas, and the Egyptians; the third with the Jewish-Christian Gospels of the Nazareans, Ebionites, and Hebrews; and lastly, the fourth chapter deals with the Gospels of Egerton, Peter, and the Unknown Berlin Gospel. This is followed by chapters on Acts, Revelation, and Hebrews.

The book finishes with two chapters on canon. While rightly noting that the construction of the New Testament canon is “one of the most obscure phases in the history of New Testament literature” (205), the author provides his own theory as to how it all came about. Like many others who have written on the formation of the NT canon, the author believes that Marcion played a crucial role. He states that while Marcion did not create the first NT canon, he served as a “common heretic” that the early Christians had in common, and that he “was a catalyst for a consensus about the canon already in process and independent of him” (211).

The author presents a succinct overview on the formation of the NT canon, though it is hard to deal with such a topic in only one chapter. There were various things that I didn’t agree with regarding canon formation. For example, the author says: “The letter of Jude has been used as a source and adapted [by the author of 2 Peter], but is scarcely regarded as canonical, as witnessed by the corrections made to it” (224) [the corrections being the excision of Jude’s references to the texts of 1 Enoch and the Assumption of Moses]. Contra to Theissen, I think that the intertextuality between the 2 Peter and Jude, when seen in light of the compositional practice of imitatio, goes to show that the author of 2 Peter considered the epistle of Jude to be canonical and authoritative enough to emulate (though, this depends on how exactly you want to define “canonical”).

All in all, though, despite some disagreements here and there throughout the book, it is quite a good primer on the literary composition and history of the New Testament.

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