An Introduction to the New Testament by Raymond Brown

Book Review by Michael Mates

Weighing in at 310 pages (including two appendices), this medium-sized book is an encyclopedia-in-brief of the backgrounds (social, historical, theological) of the books, writers and editors of the New Testament, with basic section-by-section summaries, with comments, of each book. The maps and charts are marvels of concision and completeness: typical of all the charts is the four-page chronology of Roman emperors, Jewish and Roman leaders in Israel, and relevant events (pp. xix to xxii) from 6 BC to 138 AD, which gives a book’s worth of information in a small space.

Information-packed essays provide background on everything else needed to understand the contexts of NT writing, including the styles of Greek rhetoric (p 115) and the formats of letters (pp 146-147).

The register of the book is scholarly, though not weighted with footnotes, and appears to be aimed at an educated reader who is new to the subject, defining, for example, criticism as analysis and apocalypse as the revelation of God’s present and future actions. Although Introduction claims not to be a text of church history, it occasionally cites the early church fathers for their views. In addition, sections on the Book of Revelation dismiss as entirely mistaken those Christians in the last two centuries who attempt to see in Revelation a blueprint for current geopolitics, and the date of Christ’s return.

Not only does the book nourish the reader’s understanding of all aspects of the NT, it also provides the questioning mind with questions to address to the works and their authors (pp 12-13): “What kind of Judaism” did the authors represent? “What was their mother tongue? In what language did they know Jewish Scriptures? How much of the world had they seen and did they know? Did they write with actual knowledge, or did they write with imagination or on the basis of what they had heard?”

In terms of the theological “sides” (conservative vs liberal, traditional vs modern), the book is self-confessedly “centrist.” This can be seen in Introduction’s presentation (on the “left”) of early-second-century authorship of some of some epistles attributed to Paul, and easy acceptance of conflicting accounts in different books (particularly the Gospels), and of textual variants among the many manuscripts of the New Testament, which show “no slavish devotion to their exact wording” (p 17). These positions on the “left” are balanced by statements on the “right,” such as the criticism of the “frightening complexity” of Semiotics which produces results that “could have been obtained by commonsense exegesis” (p 10), and the problems that occur when we over-speculate and fail “to accept Jesus as a first-century Jew” (p 49). Above all, on the conservative side is the devotional bent of the authors (both seminary professors), who describe the NT as “the single most important instrument in bringing untold millions…into contact with Jesus of Nazareth” (p 6).

Only a few changes could be welcome. There is no explanation of the remark that Mark got some geographical details about Israel wrong (p 45). (Introduction, by the way, uses the anachronistic “Palestine” to refer to Judea and surrounding territories in the 1st and 2nd centuries.) Initiates into the cult of Mithras “underwent a bath in blood” (p 30), but the book should have specified that it was bull’s blood, lest readers new to the subject call up images of human sacrifice. But that’s about it for needed changes, apart from the one spelling mistake I was able to find between the covers, but not in the text itself: on a page between the dedication and Table of Contents, Pope Pius XII, writing about biblical studies in 1943, is rendered Pope Pious.

In short, there is likely to be no better one-volume introduction to the New Testament. If you read this book, you will have the background and foreground of each of the NT books; in other words, the context. This is important, for as a wise preacher said, “A text without the context is generally a pretext.”

Michael Mates earned his PhD in 1982 at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena CA, writing his dissertation on St. Patrick and the British Church. After seminary, he taught in Pakistan, and then worked as a U.S. diplomat with the Department of State, serving in Islamabad, Canberra, Karachi, Cluj (Romania), Columbia (District of) and Chisinau (Moldova), before retiring in 2011 to Monroe, Washington State, and starting a new career as co-landscaper at his hectare of gardens, lawns and forest, and brewer of black-fudge garden compost.

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