Book Write-Up: New Testament Introduction, by Donald Guthrie

Donald Guthrie.  New Testament Introduction: Fourth Edition.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

Donald Guthrie (1915-1992) had a Ph.D. from the University of London, and he taught New Testament at London Bible College.

In New Testament Introduction, Guthrie goes through each book of the New Testament, discussing its authorship, date, purpose, and contents.  Guthrie also has chapters that address the genre of the Gospels, the Synoptic Problem (i.e., ideas about sources that were used in the composition of the Gospels), and Form Criticism.  The book also contains appendices: “The Collection of Paul’s Letters”; “The Chronology of the Life of Paul”; “Epistolary Pseudepigraphy”; and “Further Reflections on the Synoptic Problem.”  In the last appendix, Guthrie offers a scenario for how the synoptic Gospels came to be: how oral and written traditions came to be organized into Gospels, as well as the possibility that Matthew used sources while offering his own eyewitness testimony.

The book is from a conservative perspective, which means that Guthrie takes certain stances.  He believes that the New Testament books were written by those to whom they are traditionally ascribed: Matthew the tax-collector wrote the Gospel of Matthew; Luke the physician wrote Luke-Acts; the apostle John wrote the Gospel of John, 1-3 John, and the Book of Revelation; Paul wrote Ephesians, Colossians, and the pastorals; and the apostle Peter wrote 1-2 Peter.  Guthrie’s approach is to accept what Papias and the church fathers say about the books, unless there is reason to do otherwise.  Guthrie tends to date the New Testament books rather early, as in prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E.  Often, he approaches the books synchronically rather than seeing all sorts of editorial hands in each book.  While the vast majority of what Guthrie says can stand on its own within the realm of naturalistic, secular New Testament scholarship, there are occasions when he appeals to the supernatural: the divinity of Jesus, or the role of the Holy Spirit in Scripture.

The book is over a thousand pages.  It is practically a compendium of New Testament scholarship.  Going through the footnotes was a treat in itself, as I got to see the various (sometimes peculiar) ideas that New Testament scholars have had.  Guthrie also engages perspectives that are different from his own, and he addresses questions that have been asked within New Testament scholarship: Could fishermen such as John and Peter have written the books in the New Testament that bear their names?  Why do Colossians, Ephesians, and the pastorals appear to have a different style from epistles that many scholars regard as genuinely Pauline?  Why does the Gospel of John differ in style from the Book of Revelation?

Guthrie passed on in 1992, so, obviously, his book does not contain the twenty-plus years of New Testament scholarship that occurred after his death.  This would include such things as social memory, and Richard Bauckham’s interpretation of the Gospels as eyewitness testimony in light of other ancient sources.  Still, Guthrie’s book can be useful to current students of the New Testament.  Guthrie’s engagement of source criticism is probably still relevant today, since Markan Priority and a belief in Q have not totally fallen by the wayside.  Plus, it can be helpful to see where New Testament scholarship has been and the pitfalls it encountered in the past.

To give you an idea of what the book is not, it did not really discuss the meaning of things in New Testament books, or the diverse ideologies or peculiarities of the New Testament writers.  Guthrie does believe that, say, Matthew and John have their own points-of-views and theological perspectives, even though (unlike some New Testament scholars) he does not see the perspectives in the New Testament as discordant with one another; Guthrie tends to see consistency or complementarity, as each New Testament writer was inspired by the same Spirit.  But Guthrie’s focus was not so much on ideologies within the New Testament or the meaning of New Testament passages; rather, his focus was more on arguing against liberal biblical scholarship on such issues as authorship, date, and whether the New Testament has genuine contradictions.  One could perhaps argue that his sections on the purpose of each New Testament book touched on meaning and ideology, and they did; still, meaning and ideology were not exactly the focus of this book.  I am not necessarily saying that Guthrie should have added to his 1000-plus pages, but I am giving you an idea of what the book had, and what it did not have (at least not so much).

Did I find Guthrie convincing?  He did make interesting arguments.  For example, he showed similarities between the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation, and he even argued that the two books contain similar peculiarities, indicating (to him) that they came from the same author.  In many cases, however, it seemed to me that he was trying to arrive at his conservative conclusions, come hell or high water.  It did not matter what the challenge was: Guthrie would find some way to arrive at his conservative conclusions.  Paul’s epistles contradict Ephesians and Colossians?  Not necessarily.  The styles differ?  Well, that could indicate that Ephesians and Colossians are actually by Paul, for would not a forger try to make his style sound more like Paul to accomplish a successful forgery?  Concerns were raised about II Peter?  Well, at least it finally made it into the canon, in a time when orthodox Christians were largely skeptical about things attributed to Peter!  That shows it was probably authentic!  Certain New Testament books were not in the Muratorian Canon?  The Muratorian Canon could be corrupt (and Guthrie is not the only scholar who thinks this).  The Epistle of James was rather controversial, or not widely-used?  That could be because a number of Christians thought it was too Jewish.  And one can appeal to an apostle using a secretary to account for the different styles in the writings attributed to him!  Guthrie does not appeal to that too often, but he does seem to fall back on that as a last resort.

Guthrie does raise important points.  There are times when I read liberal arguments and wonder, “Is this necessarily the case?”  Still, I wondered if perhaps Guthrie would have done well to have laid out a consistent methodology.  Guthrie believes that there are ways to distinguish one author from another: for example, he argues that the person who wrote the Epistle of Barnabas did not write Hebrews because they are, well, different.  The same goes for his arguments about why Paul may not have been the one who wrote Hebrews.  Guthrie also argues that there are Christian beliefs and structures that are primitive, and Christian beliefs and structures that came with evolution.  But my impression was that these criteria went out the door when Guthrie was trying to argue that Paul wrote Ephesians, Colossians, and the pastorals.  Guthrie argued that what Paul said in Ephesians, Colossians, and the pastorals does not necessarily contradict what Paul wrote in the epistles that scholars think are genuine, and that Paul could have had legitimate reasons to use a different writing style or to talk about different topics.  Guthrie said that the pastorals do not necessarily reflect an advanced system of church government, for there could have been bishops, deacons, and elders in the time of Paul, meaning that Paul could have written the pastorals and they did not come later.  Fair enough, but, in that case, how will we determine if two things were written by the same author, or by different authors?  How will we determine what reflects a primitive stage of Christianity, and what reflects a later stage?  How about laying out some criteria, rather than reaching for whatever one can to support one’s predetermined conclusions (which, it seemed to me, Guthrie was doing)?

While Guthrie does raise important considerations, I do not think that he overthrows liberal New Testament scholarship, which is not to say that liberal New Testament scholarship is perfect or insulated from challenges of its own.  The picture of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels and the picture of Jesus in the Gospel of John are different, and I have my doubts that both can be historically-accurate.  Either Jesus kept a Messianic Secret, or Jesus was open about who he was and made lofty, exalted claims in public.  (I am not convinced by Guthrie’s argument that John depicts what Jesus said in smaller settings.)  The Gospel of Matthew presents the Sermon on the Mount, and the Gospel of Luke presents the Sermon on the Plain, and both are similar, yet different.  I do not think that Jesus spoke both in different settings; rather, I believe that Matthew and Luke are drawing from common material and are conforming that to their own ideologies and emphases.  And I still wonder why Matthew, an eyewitness to Jesus, would use Mark’s Gospel, even though Guthrie does try to address this question.

I did learn a lot from this book.  It is informative about what church fathers said about the New Testament books.  The different ideas about the audience and context of the Epistle to the Hebrews were interesting to me.  Guthrie’s discussion of the synoptic problem was also informative: How, for example, can one say that Luke used Mark’s Gospel, when there is a huge part of Mark’s story that Luke’s Gospel does not have?  According to Guthrie, some suggest that Luke was using an earlier version of Mark’s Gospel.

Notwithstanding my areas of disagreement, I still give this book five stars, for it is a comprehensive survey of scholarship about the composition of the New Testament.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from IVP Academic, in exchange for an honest review.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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One Response to Book Write-Up: New Testament Introduction, by Donald Guthrie

  1. Pingback: Donald Guthrie’s Discussions of Pseudepigraphy and the New Testament | James' Ramblings

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