Study Resources for New Testament Interpretation

On this page, we will offer multiple recommendations of books that are useful for the reader in interpreting the New Testament. Books are grouped according to NT sections and books (general, Gospels, Paul's letters, etc.).

General Interpretation

D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies

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Not all of us can be expert exegetes of the Bible; some of us are downright bad at it. Unfortunately, in some cases aided by the prevailing postmodern spirit of the age, even average people with their hearts in the right place often assume that a plain reading of a Biblical text can give them meaning that the Biblical writer never dreamed of. D. A. Carson does his willing best to stem this tide of subjectivism with Exegetical Fallacies, but does so in a way that will be helpful only to advanced students of the Bible. (Others will be better served by Stein's book, Playing By the Rules, see below.)

Following a carefully worded introduction, the bulk of Carson's book consists of samples of types of exegetical fallacies. Many of the samples are obscure; only a few are familiar (for example, the supposed discrepancy between Matthew 5:1 and Luke 6:17, for which Carson offers a much better explanation than the standard one). Unfortunately, the familiar examples are so few and far between as to make Carson's book almost inaccessible to the layman.

Thus, we recommend this book with a caveat, that it should only be seriously considered for purchase by those already advanced in apologetics or seeking to be, or by those whom Carson targets: Seminary students and "others who take seriously their responsibility to interpret the Scriptures."

As for others, perhaps drawn by this book's accessible price: You may at least appreciate from Carson's work that those who blatantly misinterpret the Scriptures to their own ends are proved to be far from competent in their dealings.

Richard Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period

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The objections of Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, and others has been standard fare from Skeptics concerning the New Testament's use of the Old for years. You can reply to these claims once and for all with the detailed thunderclap provided by Richard Longenecker. Longenecker shows that such objecting is simply anachronistic -- the NT writers were interpreting and explicating within an established paradigm and methodology consistent with Jewish hermeneutics of the period, as evidenced in the works of the rabbis, Philo, and the Qumranites.

This hermeneutic did not sit simply with the literal reading of the text, but assumed a sensus plenoir (fuller sense) that could be unlocked by events of the day. The twin principles of corporate solidarity (which allowed Matthew to apply prophecies about Israel to Jesus, in the view that Jesus was, in a real sense, representing Israel) and typological correspondence (which also allowed the NT writers to see fulfillment in the repetition of themes), are a key here, and while Western, wooden minds will scoff nevertheless, the charge that the NT writers manipulated the texts for their own purposes is thereby reduced to the level of a whispered whine in substance.

Of course, the NT writers could have done none of their interpretation of the OT without the fact of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, with Longenecker in your corner, you will have the unanswerable answer to Skeptics on this point.

The Gospels

Richard Bauckham, The Gospels for All Christians

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Ever since Rudolf Bultmann, who insisted that the Gospels were of a unique genre, critics of the New Testament have supported their arguments by making all manner of contrived propositions about the first-century church without even glancing at the social context of the NT writings. This set of essays nails the Gospels firmly in first century society, and thereby serves to refute one of the key arguments precious to critics: That each Gospel was written by, and for, a specific community to serve their needs and present their views, in specific opposition to each other.

The initial essay by Bauckham sets the pace. He shows that it is only assumed - yet never actually proved - that the Matthean community, Lukan community, etc. existed, and that these communities all more or less disliked each other and viewed each other as rivals. Bauckham convincingly argues, rather, that the Gospel writers intended their works to be read by a much broader audience that their own community. (One will readily see interlocking application to Dunn's Unity and Diversity in the New Testament and recent Gospel research focusing on the evangelists as writing individuals.)

The rest of the essays supplement Bauckham's thesis by showing that, in the context of first-century Roman society, the "community" view of the critics is an absurdity of their own creation. Thompson's "Holy Internet" establishes that there was a "feedback loop" in the early church, and adds some informative data about ancient travel that counters the idea of closed and isolated communities. Loveday Alexander then addresses more practical matters of the distribution of literature in this time; this chapter serves to summarize and supplement the findings of Gamble's Books and Readers in the Early Church.

The fourth essay by Burridge recapitulates much of what is said in his What Are the Gospels? and applies it to Bauckham's thesis - needless to say, Burridge finds no parallels to ancient biography used in the way that the critics suggest. Bauckham then returns with a persuasive argument that John was written for folks who had already read Mark.

Stephen Barton plugs in two cents from the social anthropology circle by pointing out just how vague and conspiratorial critical "community" theories have become, with their notions of "subtle literary character assassination" being found in the slightest comment. Finally, Watson wraps the production with a revisit to the man who started all this "community" nonsense in the first place: Rudolf Bultmann, and the concept of the Sitz in Leben that served, rather than actual history, to create the texts of the Gospels.

This book is a powerhouse. I took immense pleasure in reading it and I am certain that you will as well.

Paul's Letters

In order by Pauline book, ending with general books.

Mark Nanos, The Mystery of Romans

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Every once in a while a book comes along that makes a convincing case for a paradigm shift in understanding the Bible: David Rohl's Pharaohs and Kings, for example. And I may have found another in Mark Nanos' The Mystery of Romans.

It is Nanos' contention that modern exegetes have fallen into a "trap" (originating with Martin Luther) of seeing the "weak" in Romans as Jewish Christians tied to the Law, and the "strong" as Gentile Christians. Nanos only agrees generally with the latter, but suggests that the former were not even Christians at all, but rather, non-Christian Jews with whom Christians shared the synagogue prior to the time when a definitive separation was made between the two groups as a whole. Thus, the "authorities" referred to by Paul in 13:1-7 are the synagogue rulers, whom Paul encourages the Christian Gentile converts to obey; thus the "strong" are encouraged to temper their behavior, and respect Jewish sensibilities...why? So that they will not be a "stumbling block" to those who have remained Jews. So that these Jews will find the gospel more attractive. Intriguing...and very difficult to counter once the material is explained and placed in context.

My only reservations are that Nanos' writing style tends to be tedious and repetitive, and he offers for the same interpretation of the Apostolic decree as most others, relating them to the Noahide commands, where Ben Witherington has argued that another interpretation fits the evidence better. However, practically speaking, this does not affect Nanos' overall case. You may find that this book overturns much of what you thought about Paul, but I don't think you'll find a way to shift out of the new paradigm that Nanos establishes.


Bruce Winter, After Paul Left Corinth

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We recommend a lot of books that tell us all about contexts; this one zeroes in on the letters to Corinth, and solves a great many passages that critics have targeted.

How is this for a surprise? The "present distress" in 1 Cor. 7:26 is not eschatological, but is a famine; 1 Cor. 11 is in part toward men wearing veils, and it is a cultural issue; Paul and Apollos were helpless victims of rivalries established by their own church, against their will, imitating local sophists.

There are plenty of surprises here, and although the focus is narrowed on to just the Corinthian letters (and mainly the first one), you will learn a lot by picking this one up. At the very least it is exemplary of the sort of contextual study that we all need to do.


Mark Nanos, The Irony of Galatians

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When we last visited Mark Nanos above, he had propounded a convincing case for the letter to the Romans being to a group comprised of both Jews and Christians (Mystery of Romans) in a way that made great sense and also happened to upend numerous critical arguments. Now he does the same for the letter to the Galatians.

Although his former shortcomimg remains intact (a very tedious writing style, and an unerring ability to say in 500 words what could have been said in 50), this does not detract from Nanos' basic case: That those desiring that the Galatians be circumcised were not Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, but local (Galatian) Jews who (with good intentions) wanted to initiate the Gentile Christians into the Jewish community. Thus we also have these points, which take the usual view to task:

Nanos offers yet another plausible paradigm shift. This book is recommended for serious students.


John Mauck, After Paul on Trial

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It is not often that a non-specialist gets some special insight, but here we have one example. Mauck, an attorney, looks at Acts (and Luke) through his attorney's eyes and comes away (informed by much, but slightly not enough yet not contrary, Biblical scholarship) with the idea that this book was written as a sort of evidentiary document to defend Paul in his trial at Rome.

This has important implications for proving several traditional arguments (the early date of Luke-Acts), affirms the argument that Rome did indeed take a major interest in Christianity (to the point of doing a special investigation), explains why Luke wrote some things that others did not, and in ways they did not (including why he did not mention Paul's letters -- they would have been legally useless, partly because they amounted to self-declarations of the accused), and adds a few surprises that make sense (Theophilus was NOT a Christian, but a Roman investigator).

Mauck ties in other points neatly (such as the character of Nero, and of his aides Seneca and Burrus) that glue the puzzle together in a way that is astounding. Most of the book goes through Acts section by section, showing how what Luke reported defended Paul from the indicated charges (preaching an illicit religion, stirring up riots). This is a very clever thesis, one critics will be hard-pressed to countermand, and the average reader will appreciate Mauck's understandable prose. We recommend Paul of Trial as a highly readable apologetic resource.


Frank Thielman, Paul and the Law

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Understanding Paul's view of the Law is a complex task. One excellent work to start with to understand it should undoubtedly be this work by Thielman, Paul and the Law: A Contextual Approach.

After a survey of views on this subject, Thielman proceeds with the working assumption that Paul's view of the Law can be best understood by examining the context of each epistle; thus, we must recognize, for example, that Galatians is written as a specific reaction to one view of the law, whereas Romans is not reactionary at all.

It is impossible to do justice to this extensive survey in a few words, but we may relate these basic points: Thielman concludes that Paul views the church as the sanctified community of God (Ezek. 36:25-29), and Christ as fulfillment of the Law, which is now part of an old order that must pass away. For this reason, Paul still demands the highest standard of ethics from his churches --- and in that sense has not discarded the higher Law behind the Law.

We may close with this point: To sum up where Paul finds the Law has gone, compare Leviticus 19:18 with 1 Thess. 4:9. How telling that Paul says that his church learns directly from God what was once commanded in the Law! This is a perfect summary for Thielman's case.


David Wenham, Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity?

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Should 'Christianity' be renamed "Paulianity"? It is the opinion of some that Paul, not Jesus, was the true founder of modern Christianity, and that Paul cared or knew little of the historical Jesus and His teachings. But does the evidence support this view?

David Wenham, in his bookPaul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity?, answers this question with a resounding NO. In this detailed work, Wenham examines the record of the Gospels and the Pauline corpus, seeking both verbal and conceptual similarities that make hard the case for a Paul with no interest or knowledge in the historical Jesus.

Because this is an area of some contention, it is good that Wenham takes care in putting his case together. He does not overstate the implications of the data, which is quite strong enough as it is. Material is categorized by subject matter with a regularized structure that looks at the teachings of Paul and Jesus individually before making comparisons and drawing conclusions.

We would have liked to have seen more development in the area of why Paul makes use of Jesus' teachings in the way he does, and the reader is forewarned that Wenham's prose, and the inevitably necessary structure of the arguments make reading this book something of a jalopy ride. Nevertheless, we highly recommend it as the latest and most effective salvo in the war over the relationship between Jesus the Teacher and Paul His disciple and follower.


Ben Witherington, The Paul Quest

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I may as well just grant it: Any book by Ben Witherington is going work hard to lose a positive rating on this page. But that's only because it turns out that every book by Witherington I have read so far has been meritorious (well, all but his commentary on Mark, now), and the The Paul Quest fits the majority of the tradition.

If you have read The Jesus Quest, don't let your expectations be led by the similarity in title and in cover design (so similar that the two books might easily be confused from a distance). The format of PQ is entirely different; it is less about scholarly opinion about Paul and more about Paul as a multi-dimensional personality in his social context -- in opposition to views of Paul that attempt to understand the last Apostle with modern psychoanalysis. To achieve this end the book opens with a very helpful chapter on ancient personality and how it was viewed; and there we learn one reason why Paul had so much trouble convincing people he was a genuine convert: Unlike this day when people change religions frequently, it was thought impossible/incredible in Paul's time that ANYONE could undergo any sort of change of heart. Paul's radical conversion would have seemed like either a clever trick or severe mental illness -- no wonder the church was still scared of him.

Following this necessary introduction are chapters which examine Paul's many dimensions -- as a writer, prophet, radical, storyteller, exegete, theologian, etc., as well as examinations of various Pauline issues and social stances -- and the average reader will need to be patient, as such studies are inevitably more plodding than plot. Nevertheless, the depth of Witherington's scholarship makes it every bit worthwhile. Do as I do if you get bored, and intersperse reading The Paul Quest with some light reading. You won't be sorry you missed it, even if you have to take it in spoonfuls.


N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said

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Was Paul, as A.N. Wilson suggests in his book, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, more Hellenist than Jew, influenced by the pagan religions around him, notably the Mithra cult where followers bathed in the blood of a sacrificed bull, drawing divine strength from it? Did this same Paul, a tormented soul, incorporate the Mithraic sacrifice, blending it with the crucifixion of Jesus, creating a unique cocktail, known as, what was to be 'Historic Christianity'? N.T. Wright believes it's unlikely enough to write What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?

Wright begins his book with a summary of some key figures in 20th century Pauline scholarship; from Schweitzer to Sanders, in which he refers to for occasional comparisons. His goal is to reaffix Paul to his uncompromising Jewish roots. Wilson's view of Paul as a Roman collaborator and servant of the high priest does not stand up under scrutiny. Paul, his self-described 'zeal', and pre-conversion actions place him squarely in the strict Shammaite camp of Pharisaism. The Shammaites were the polar opposite of the 'live and let live' attitude of Hillites. The Shammaites were intent on speeding God's eschatological fulfillment of Israel's vindication and national sovereignty by adhering firmly to Torah, and quashing deviations of Judaism, more specifically, the spread of a new superstition (which was his pre-conversion view of Christianity).

Paul's experience on Damascus road, and conversion could hardly be a product likened to 'mania which took possession of the initiates into a mystery'. Paul's continual condemnation of paganism itself should constitute a sufficient reason to look for other explanations; Paul says it was nothing less than being confronted by the risen Jesus himself. Paul's previous expectations in the way eschatology would pan out were turned upside down. Israel's suffering at the hands of the pagans was to be vindicated by God at the end of time. Instead, Jesus' suffering and death by the pagans was vindicated by God in the middle of time.

This meant that the Age to Come was arriving in two stages with new believers fitting in the middle; a novelty that can be understood within Pharisaic Judaism, without having to postulate the mystery religions as an outside influence. To suggest that Paul's focused ministry to the Gentiles was a direct result of Jewish rejection of his gospel, or his being secretly in love with a Hellenized Judaism, tailoring the Jewish message to Gentile (pagan) listeners, misses an important point: The resurrection of Jesus meant to Paul that the promises of Israel's return from exile and restoration had been fulfilled. This New Age, told of in the Old Testament, would be a time when the Gentiles were admitted in to share the blessings. Paul's mission was to facilitate that process.

Wright shows the compatibility of Paul's Christology with Jewish monotheism. Far from having pagan tendencies, Paul's message of 'one Lord' went against the grain of Rome's like claims for Caesar. This message of subversion throughout Paul's letters thoroughly highlights Yahweh's sovereignty, and does nothing to support a Hellenistic picture of the Apostle.

Other points of interest in Wright's book are treatments of 'God's righteousness' as covenant faithfulness, and law court justification. There are many illuminated nuances which make for a rewarding study. This book is highly recommended.

-"V. Meister"


Not Recommended

In most cases, we prefer to simply not post reviews of books we do not recommend. But these exceptions are warranted.

Robert Thomas and F. David Farnell, The Jesus Crisis

I have to warn you of something you don't realize. Top evangelical scholars like Ben Witherington, Craig Blomberg, etc. are all causing a "crisis" that is reducing confidence in the Bible. Also, Glenn Miller of the Christian ThinkTank and I are heretics. Stop reading this immediately.

I am being facetious, but not so much as you think I am. When this book came out I had a certain stark foreboding that it would not kind to many scholars whose work I respect. And indeed this is so, and it is fair to say that not all of the criticisms are unjustified. I have never understood why many evangelical scholars continue to work with the bankrupt Q/Markan priority hypotheses; it may be because it is more convenient to work within the framework than to investigate the matter afresh, for it is a morass to wade through.

But to say, as these fellows do, that evangelical adherence to this thesis is causing a "crisis" of confidence in the Bible and in the words of Jesus? Nay: The average churchgoer isn't reading Blomberg, Witherington, et al. (though they need to), and those who understand their writings will be a little better off than to allow a literary dependence theory to cause them a "crisis" of confidence in Holy Writ.

Let me highlight this book's points that I do agree with. Many (perhaps the majority) of actual points made against the QM hypothesis are excellent. These folks fight tooth and nail for "no literary dependence at all" -- not even Luke using Mark and Matt; though they seem to assume that any dependence would be "all or nothing" -- they apparently don't know about the ancient practice of note-taking. They are right to get on the case of evangelicals who use some of the same techniques as the Jesus Seminar: It does not, as they say, cause a crisis, but I certainly cheer all efforts to expose inconsistencies and errors in this kind of thinking.

They make some points that suggest refinement on a Lukan usage of Mark paradigm; the essay on Luke's prologue is especially relevant, although it does not occur to the author that Luke was referring to all sources he used in one section and was only being critical of some of them, not including Mark and maybe Matthew. On the other hand, devoting an entire chapter to a special defense and analysis of Eta Linnemann clearly shows that there was a perceived need to fill space.

But it is possible to take this sort of criticism too far, and co-editor Robert Thomas is the one responsible for the worst arguments in this book. I have argued regularly against critics who read the Bible like it was written yesterday, never mind the social, literary, historical, etc. context; some of Thomas' arguments, I regret to say, would look just as comfortable on the pages of McKinsey's old Biblical Errancy newsletter.

Let's take the prime example. I've answered points claiming contradiction between Matt and Luke's versions of the Sermon on the Mount by noting that Matt's version is likely to be an anthology -- a collection of Jesus' teachings, organized by Matthew according to his purpose as the composer of a handbook of faith; whereas Luke is more on the historical side, and reports what was actually said on that occasion.

No big problem. Both writers were following standard literary and historical practices for the time. But Thomas insists that such an approach "inevitably leads to diminishing historical accuracy in the Gospels" -- for you see, Matthew 5:1-2 "indicates Jesus began at a certain point to give the Sermon's contents." And what of the literary-device explanation above? Thomas wonders, then, "why would (Matthew) mislead his readers" into thinking that Jesus made this full sermon on one occasion?

What is missing here: This was a normal practice for the day. No one would be "misled" into thinking this was a full sermon because no one would have thought it was meant to be recorded as such in the first place. But Thomas, clearly, does not agree, with comments like this in response to Blomberg's assertion that Biblical writers followed the typical practices for composers of the day: "Despite what the practice of ancient historians may have been, Matthew's intention to cite a continuous discourse from a single occasion is conspicuous. Was he mistaken?" "No matter what the alleged motives of the writers in so doing, that kind of action is fundamentally problematic at best and dishonest at worst." (!) The only difference between these comment and comments like C. Dennis McKinsey's "read the Bible like a newspaper" is that McKinsey is nastier in his formulations. And yet we are told that it is we who propose such solutions who are "run(ning) roughshod over the historicity of the Sermon's introductory and concluding formulas".

You might wonder, of course, how Thomas suggests that we resolve the differences in the Sermon, and his answer is: By harmonization -- of an extreme, unnecessary sort. Put it this way: Did Jesus say, "Blessed are the poor" or "Blessed are the poor in spirit"? Thomas replies: He said both, and on the same occasion. Matt and Luke just chose to report one or the other: "Most probably Jesus repeated this beatitude in at least two different forms when he preached His Sermon on the Mount/Plain, using the third person once and the second person another time and referring to the Kingdom of God by different titles." Odd here how omission is not a sin; but commission is. I thought it was Matthew's intent to show he was citing a continuous discourse? If that is the case, isn't he "misleading" his readers by not giving a full report and leaving things out?

Thomas is also responsible for a great deal of the book's panic-polemic, and some of his claims (and others in the book) are either misrepresenting their source or are just plain wrong. "(Craig) Blomberg attributes a higher degree of accuracy to modern historians than to Spirit-inspired writers of the Gospels in ancient times." If by this you mean, Blomberg says that modern historians revere "accuracy" in the sense of not being inclined towards literary practices that we would consider "inaccurate", but the ancients would NOT consider "inaccurate," then you are right: But to frame the matter in a way that suggests that Blomberg thinks that the Gospels contain fabrications is off base.

One claim against literary dependence is that is that the Gospel writers would have acknowledged their sources directly: The idea that ancient writers did not give credit to their sources "runs counter to available evidence" (32) Tell that to the Tacitean scholar I quoted as saying that "Ancient historians generally felt no obligation to reveal their sources." -- the only "counter" evidence offered is Eusebius, several hundred years after the time of the Gospels.

You know Mark's "sandwich" literary technique? Those who acknowledge the existence of this are accused of saying that "...Mark has constructed an artificial chronological sequence for a literary purpose, but his doing so gives the impression that events happened together when actually they did not." Sure, he gives the reader, reading his work out of its socio-literary context, that "impression"; and it is not the case, as Thomas supposes, that this was "a sort of secret code that only the intellectually elite could break." People in oral and pre-literary societies; people familiar (as Paul was) with rhetorical techniques; didn't think of this as a "secret code" and knew exactly what was going on.

Thomas tells us: "Critics ignore the convincing principle that God intended the average reader to understand the Bible." What's so hard to understand about the principle of literary and topical rearrangement? It certainly never caused any oral, pre-literate societies any problems? Maybe we're just more rigid and stubborn in saying how things "ought to be", arrogantly imposing our own preconceptions on the works of ancient writers?

And where's that bit about God catering to the "average reader" just so found in the Bible? What about "levels of understanding"? According to the milk/meat principle, which is laid out in the Bible, God certainly doesn't want us to stay average.

The theme for the book is evident in that it contains the usual misinterpretation of Col. 2:8, using it for the purposes of a denigration of scholarship. It is supposed that literary dependence is unlikely on the grounds that the gospel authors would have had no chance to share their work with one another, in part due to the "slow communications of the time". Really? What about multiple copies? What about the ancient document delivery system (not exactly Fed Ex, but it sure could get your mail around)? I find it hard to muster any respect for Biblical scholars when they show no sign of having understood the world that the Bible was written in; as it is it seems they assume like the Bible's critics that ancient people were incapable of anything productive.

I could say a great deal more and delineate further errors along the same lines, but there is no need. Despite some bright spots, The Jesus Crisis is marred beyond usefulness by Thomas' obscurantist approach to exegesis. It is bad enough that we have to correct the Skeptics on such matters; we don't need professed evangelicals making the same mistakes and impeding progress.

-JPH