A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Studies: Understanding Key Debates, by Nijay K. Gupta. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020. Pp. 196. $24.99 (softcover). ISBN: 978-0810097575. [Reviewed by Douglas J. Kuiper]
Nijay Gupta, professor of New Testament at Portland Seminary, presents a beginner’s guide to New Testament studies. Emphatically, this is a beginner’s guide: “This textbook aims to aid the uninitiated in understanding, in a simple way, some of the most important and hotly debated issues in academic study of the New Testament” (xi). And: “It is written for relative newcomers to the world of New Testament studies, not experts” (xi). The layperson who reads this book will get an overview of various issues in New Testament scholarship today.
Gupta’s Valuable Overview
The first four chapters treat issues related to the gospel accounts. Chapter one deals with the synoptic problem: how do we explain the close similarity and, at the same time, the significant differences in Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Chapter two treats the historical Jesus. Do the gospel accounts make Him larger than life, or do they give an accurate historical picture of who He was and what He did? Chapter three addresses the question whether John’s gospel account is true history, or whether it is only a story that serves to explain the view that Jesus is divine. Chapter four asks regarding the relation of Jesus’ teachings to Paul’s: Did Paul stick closely to Jesus’ teachings? Did Paul develop Jesus’ teachings in a positive direction? Or is Paul’s theology radically different from Jesus’?
Chapters five through eight deal with issues related to the epistles and Revelation. Chapter five is entitled “Paul’s Theological Perspective” (What was Paul’s theological starting point?), and chapter six “Paul and the Jewish Law” (Why was Israel given the law, and why was Paul opposed to the Mosaic law?). Chapter seven regards “Interpreting the Book of Revelation” (Is it a prophecy of the whole New Testament era? Or is it prophecy only of what will happen immediately before Christ comes? Or does it speak of events that are completely past?) And chapter eight treats “Pseudonymity and the New Testament Letters” (Who really wrote 1 and 2 Timothy, 1 and 2 Peter, James, and Jude? The letters claim to be written by Paul, Peter, James, and Jude–but did other lesser-known men write them, and claim to be Paul, Peter, James, and Jude in order to sound more authoritative and gain an audience?)
The last five chapters address themes and issues that are found throughout the entire New Testament. They include treatment of “The New Testament and the Roman Empire,” “Women in Leadership in the New Testament,” “Justification by Faith and Judgment according to Works,” “The Old Testament in the New Testament,” and “The Application and Use of Scripture.”
In each chapter Gupta gives a brief overview of the issue, presents arguments pro and con, includes his own reflections, and provides a bibliography for additional reading. Gupta’s reflections do not state his personal position on the issue, and his goal in presenting them is not to convince the reader. His goal is to show that underlying each issue are matters of interpretation, presupposition, or methodology, and that scholars of every perspective have good reason to hold their views.
Without question, each of these issues is debated in New Testament scholarship today. And Gupta certainly fulfills his goal of introducing beginners to these issues. He also writes clearly, simply, and concisely. In this respect the book has value.
The Sad State of New Testament Scholarship
Renewed, believing, Spirit-filled Christians ought to have a high view of Scripture. Particularly, the confessions of Reformed and Presbyterian Christians permit nothing less. After all, Scripture is God’s testimony to His people, written by the inspiration of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit inspired the writing of every word, so that no book or passage can really contradict the Holy Spirit’s meaning in another book or passage, and so that we have in Scripture the inerrant Word of God. In revealing the gospel of grace in Christ Jesus, and doing so in every book, Scripture has an organic unity. What the Holy Spirit meant to teach the original recipients of these words, and what He means to teach us today, is the same thing. Scripture is normative for all of faith and life.
The reader with this high view of Scripture will realize that many New Testament scholars today do not share that high view. First, some of the issues that are faced today underscore this. Is the fourth gospel account historical? John claims they were (John 20:30-31), and the Holy Spirit inspired that account using the genre of history. Do Jesus and Paul contradict each other? How can they, if they both reveal the same God, and if the written record of their words are, in every instance, inspired by the Holy Spirit?
Second, in other instances the questions raised are fair questions, but some of the answers given are bad answers. Chapters one, five through seven, and eleven through thirteen address issues that, in themselves, do not indicate a low view of Scripture. That one must understand Paul’s view of the Old Testament law in order rightly to understand his epistles is a given. But the explanation of the New Perspectives on Paul scholars (73-77) is not, and cannot be, the right explanation. Likewise, that one must know how rightly to interpret the book of Revelation is clear. But many of the approaches given are not the correct approach.
Third, the book underscores a problematic methodology of many scholars today. Many scholars take a position on an issue, defend it, and then say that an opposing view is as valid as their own. But with regard to some issues this book raises, such really cannot be: Is it as valid to say that John does not give us a historical view of Jesus as it is to say he does? Is it as valid to say that women may be leaders in the New Testament church as it is to say that they may not? The believer may not take this approach. Many New Testament scholars do.
This book’s value is that it concisely explains the various issues that New Testament scholars are discussing today, and some answers that they give. But because it betrays the low view of God’s Word that prevails today, let him who reads do so with understanding and discernment.