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Author focuses on bold theology

Carl R. Holladay. A Critical Introduction to the New Testament: Interpreting the Message and Meaning of Jesus Christ, Nashville, Tenn.; Abingdon Press, 2005. ISBN 0-68708-569-1; 542 pages; $49; (800) 251-3320 or www.abingdonpress.com.
This is a unique andsignificant work within the churches of Christ. To my knowledge, it is thefirst advanced introduction of the entire New Testament in a single volume thatis written by a scholar in the churches of Christ. It is published by a majorpress.

The book’s titlehints at the challenge that Holladay was given — write a critical introductionto the New Testament (addressing the standard issues of date, authorship,audience, etc.) plus provide insight for students, ministers and Bible teachersinto how to interpret the theological message of each book for Christianstoday. What clearly comes out is the extent Holladaywants his introduction to move beyond the questions customarily structuringbooks in this genre. Immediately in the first chapter, “Theology andScripture,” readers are led to see the interactions between the interpreter oftexts and his or her contexts of tradition, culture and the operation of theliving God at work in Christ. Students who have been exposed to other criticalintroductions will note this focus which is more often found in books exploring“biblical theology,” Holladay’s focus on the New Testament’s theology is alsoevident in his declaration that the New Testament is centrally about one thing— to explain the significance of Jesus Christ and what his death andresurrection means for his followers.
In order to write acritical introduction that most ministers and Bible teachers would findstimulating as well as useful for them and their congregation’s understandingof the New Testament, Holladay knew to integrate the literary and historicalquestions with the questions being raised in the pews. He accomplishes this byconsistently maintaining a focus on how the message of the book brings to lightthe faith convictions of the author and his reader or readers.
New Testament booksin Holladay’s introduction are grouped in atypical fashion around similar genre features before examining each oneaccording to when they are generally thought to have been written. Forinstance, Holladay starts with the gospels and begins with Mark, following thescholarly consensus of Markan priority, Matthew, Luke and John’s gospels followand are carefully examined in light of their literary characteristics, how theyreshaped (or had “conversation” with) previous material about Jesus and theirvision of Jesus for their communities. At the end of each chapter is a helpfuloutline of the progression of the gospel’s content.
Moving on to thePauline corpus, Holladay introduces first the letters to the Thessalonians,followed by those to the Corinthians, the Galatians, the Romans, then theso-called “prison epistles,” “pastoral epistles” (with Titus treated first) andfinally Hebrews (though certainly not attributing it to Paul). Each letter’stheological content is accentuated and treated under headings that make anapparent connection with the letter’s themes (e.g. “Coming of the Lord’s Battle” — Thessalonians;“Authentic Ministry”).
Readers will want tonote especially that Holladay accepts as Pauline authorship of 2 Thessaloniansand partial authorship for Colossians, But they will find particularlychallenging his convictions that the internal evidence for the authorship ofEphesians and the “pastoral epistles” point more convincingly to disciples ofPaul and Pauline Christianity. Holladaycontends that although significant portions of these letters move theologicallybeyond Paul (a contention which is certainly not shared by other respected NewTestament scholars) in no way are they less authoritative for Christiantheology. Since Holladay states earlier thatthis introduction is designed for those that have read casually the NewTestament, it seems that it would be important for him to explain the practice,function and presupposition of pseudonymous works in the first century.
The next divisionexamines the letters attributed to James, Peter, Jude and John. Readersunfamiliar with the genre of “testaments” during this period may find Holladay’s classification of 2 Peter as one somewhatconfusing. However, it is an important genre for the serious student of the NewTestament to know when attempting to understand fully the literary world inwhich the New Testament is written.
Before the finalchapter on the formation of the canon, Holladayintroduces John’s Revelation, dating the composition around the time ofDomitian in the mid-90s and ascribing authorship to a Christian prophet namedJohn. But he rejects, for lack of evidence, any interpretation that seesRevelation as a response to a systematic persecution of Christians in Asia Minor. Holladaysees that central to the theology of Revelation is the image of Jesus as theslaughtered lamb who has victory over death.
Holladay is well prepared for this challenge. Educated at AbileneChristian, Princeton and Cambridge, his interest in Scripture in the life ofthe church is evident from his previous books written for ministers on how toexegete and preach Scripture and his special lectures on preaching Scripturegiven on several Christian University campuses. Although readers mightjustifiably complain that many of the chapters would finish better with aconcluding summary and that the black-white images of Woodcuts from the 16thcentury give the book an archaic feel, they will certainly appreciate theaccompanying CD-Rom with its additional in-depth material that makes the book’ssize manageable and price competitive. Serious Bible students will also come torealize that with this introduction they have no parallel for its boldtheological reflection about the meaning of Jesus Christ.

April 1, 2006

REVIEWS EDITOR JOHNHARRISON is associate professor of New Testament and Ministry at Oklahoma ChristianUniversity, Oklahoma City.

Filed under: Reviews

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