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Book Notes: An Introduction to the New Testament (DeSilva)

DeSilva, David A. An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods, and Ministry Formation. Downers Grove, IL, 2004. ISBN 0-8308-2746-3. 974 pp. (904 without front matter and indexes).

This is a bit out of place for review here and by me, but I wanted to write a few notes about it anyhow.

If I were to teach an course in New Testament Introduction, admittedly not all that likely, I would want to use this text. I’m not an NT specialist, and this book is not well suited to the groups I usually teach. It’s designed for the seminary student, and I wish I’d had it as a text at that time. Alas, that was the 70s, and the copyright date is 2004.

Why do I like it? The primary reason is that it covers issues in New Testament criticism effectively and practically. By “effectively” I mean that various critical methods are described briefly and clearly so that the student can grasp both the origins of the method and how the method might be applied even by those who don’t accept all the presuppositions of those who originated it. The description is rounded out by examples. By “practically” I mean that each such section concludes with practical exercises.

I had to figure a great deal of this stuff out by working backward from commentaries. There are, of course, a number of rather good books which I discovered along the way (Augsburg Fortress’ series Guides to Biblical Scholarship comes to mind), but both my undergraduate and graduate experiences generally involved hearing or reading the claims, struggling with the material, and then finding the good explanations afterward.

These sections don’t just cover a few traditional critical skills. They range from textual criticism to feminist criticism with the positive and negative aspects of each, and all those between.

A secondary reason to like this book is the emphasis, indicated in the subtitle, on ministry formation. I work largely with lay audiences, but I do frequently get to talk with pastors, and one great weakness of seminary education, from my unscientific survey, is a lack of practical application. I can do [something taught in seminary], but how will I use it? Each book of the New Testament has a discussion of how it can be helpful in ministry formation.

These sections are good. I would think that a good seminary student would want to keep this one for his library shelves. If he or she did not, it would set off alarm bells for me.

Just to give an example of the types of topics, let me look at the book of Romans, since it’s one I’m studying for personal devotions at the moment, as well as at church. We encounter a full page excursus on the literary integrity of Romans, a slightly longer one discussing faith in Romans, another titled “Grace and Justification in Jewish Sources”, one on “Paul’s Hermeneutics and the Pesharim of Qumran”, another on “The Enigma of Romans 7:7-25” (he and I would disagree in part there, but it’s a pretty thorough discussion), and “The Law: Catalyst for Sin or Divine Remedy.” The “EXEGETICAL SKILL” section is a bit over 2 1/2 pages on social-scientific criticism discussing analysis of ritual. The Ministry formation section covers a bit over seven pages. All of this is the extras that frame an excellent introduction to the book and to tendencies in interpretation. DeSilva even manages to discuss homosexuality, though doubtless due to the nature of the topic, nobody will be satisfied!

Not being a specialist in this area, I really haven’t surveyed the full field of New Testament introductions–there are quite a number of them–but I have read a few, and none matched the quality of this one in all ways.

I should note that DeSilva is clearly more conservative theologically than I am and more negative on the values of some of the older forms of criticism–form, redaction, and source, for example. But that does not prevent him from presenting both the positive aspects and the nuts and bolts methodology, within the scope to be expected of a work of this size. I would not be uncomfortable basing a class discussion on his material on any of the topics, even homosexuality.

Unfortunately, as I said, I won’t get much opportunity to use this book, but I did enjoy reading it, and I do recommend it as a way to kind of round up your New Testament exegetical skills, especially if you’ve gotten stuck a bit in a specialist’s rut. If you are an NT specialist about to teach NT introduction, check it out.

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