Book Write-Up: An Introduction to the New Testament, by David A. deSilva

David A. deSilva. An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods and Ministry Formation. Second Edition. IVP Academic, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

David A. deSilva has a Ph.D. from Emory University and teaches New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary.

As the title indicates, this book is an introduction to the New Testament. It is over 800 pages, and this review will not do it justice. Here are some of my thoughts, impressions, and observations of it.

A. The book is thorough. It extensively covers the historical context of the New Testament writings, as well as various methodological criticisms: form, text, source, literary, feminist, and rhetorical. It uses examples to illustrate what these critical methods entail, explains the basis for them, and evenhandedly evaluates them. deSilva also brings up more recent scholarly trends when it comes to the Gospels, such as social memory. The methodological discussions serve to elucidate the biblical text, however, meaning that the content of the New Testament writings take center stage. deSilva discusses their theological perspectives and how those perspectives interacted with their historical setting; an able teacher, deSilva paints a picture of what it was like for Christians to live in those days. At times, deSilva delves into scholarly debates about the perspectives within the New Testament, such as the debate over whether Paul stresses the faith OF Jesus or faith IN Jesus. There are also discussions in the book about the practical or ministerial application of New Testament insights.

B. In terms of authorship of the New Testament writings, the book is largely conservative. deSilva defends at least the possibility that Paul wrote Colossians, Ephesians, and the pastorals. He argues that Peter may have written I Peter, and that his words may have formed the basis for II Peter. He holds that Acts and the Pauline epistles are not necessarily contradictory in their historical presentation. On the Gospels, deSilva is more moderate. He embraces source criticism, such as Markan priority and Q. He does not buy into some arguments in favor of Matthean or Lukan authorship, but he offers a plausible reason that Matthew, an eyewitness to Jesus, would use Mark’s Gospel (i.e., the priority of Mark’s Gospel and the respect it had within the church). deSilva does not believe that John the son of Zebedee wrote the Gospel of John or the Book of Revelation. Where deSilva is conservative, he does not look like he is trying to force the evidence into a preconceived confessional mold, but rather as one presenting plausible models.

C. The book leans heavily towards the New Perspective. If you find comfort in the idea that you are saved by Christ’s free grace through faith (trust) alone, even if you fall drastically short of God’s righteous standard, then this book will probably disappoint you. deSilva stresses good works, avoiding sin, following Jesus’s example, and living in a self-sacrificial manner. These are the appropriate responses to God’s grace and are enabled by God’s work within believers, and deSilva at times seems to suggest that they are necessary to retain God’s favor. The book is not comforting, but it does effectively present Christianity as a noble and righteous way of life, far better than pursuing sin and selfishness.

D. At times, deSilva stresses the communitarian nature of Christianity, as if Christians are to see the church as their family. That may be a challenge for some, in this individualistic age in which many feel disconnected, even in church. Still, deSilva effectively illustrates how families functioned in antiquity—they recognized the value of mutual love and forgiveness—and why the church needed to be a family to Christians who, on account of their faith, were cut off from the support of their own natural family.

E. deSilva somewhat presents early Christianity as a step up from paganism and Judaism. At the same time, deSilva also acknowledges pagan beliefs in divine goodness and grace, and Jewish emphases on love, mercy, and forgiveness.

F. There are times when deSilva helpfully explains biblical passages that I have found perplexing. For example, why did Jesus curse a fig tree when it was the wrong season for figs? deSilva proposes that, in Mark, Jesus exhorts his followers to be continually ready for his return, since Jesus may return when we deem it the “wrong season.”

G. One area in which the book is lacking is that it never (as far as I can recall) engages Jesus’s imminent eschatological expectations: the idea that Jesus expected the imminent end of the world. deSilva states that Luke repudiates such an idea, and he refers briefly to Albert Schweitzer’s picture of Jesus, but he does not deal with passages that appear to suggest an imminent eschatological expectation in Mark’s Gospel and Matthew’s Gospel. The same is true with deSilva’s treatment of Revelation (at least in this book). deSilva places Revelation within the context of other apocalyptic literature, but he never seems to engage that literature’s imminent apocalyptic expectations, or passages in which Revelation appears to manifest an imminent apocalyptic expectation.

H. In more liberal New Testament introductions, you will find the idea that the New Testament is diverse: that, say, Mark has a low Christology, whereas John has a high Christology. I do not recall that in this particular book. This is not to suggest that deSilva’s picture of the New Testament is flat, for deSilva presents particularities in the New Testament writings in terms of the issues addressed and their emphases. But deSilva seems to depict the New Testament as largely unified in its core message. In one place, deSilva extensively summarizes the view that blood atonement is lacking in Luke-Acts. He acknowledges that is puzzling, then says that this does not necessarily mean Luke did not believe in blood atonement.

I. In terms of whether this would be a good introductory textbook for undergraduates, that is a good question. On the one hand, students will learn a lot from this book, and deSilva shines in fleshing out the historical context of the New Testament writings. On the other hand, the book may not be as successful in gently easing undergraduates into the heavy material.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. 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. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also 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.
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