A Critical Introduction to the New Testament: Interpreting the Message and Meaning of Jesus Christ

By Bassler, Jouette M. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

A Critical Introduction to the New Testament: Interpreting the Message and Meaning of Jesus Christ


Bassler, Jouette M., Journal of Biblical Literature


A Critical Introduction to the New Testament: Interpreting the Message and Meaning of Jesus Christ, by Carl R. Holladay. Nashville: Abingdon, 2005. Pp. xxiv + 609 + Expanded CD-ROM Version. $49.00 (paper). ISBN 0687085691.

This is a slightly revised version of comments presented at the session of the 2005 SBL Annual Meeting (S20-57) devoted to a review of this book. The oral nature of the presentation is preserved.

Make no mistake about it. Carl Holladay has dropped a bombshell on NT scholarship and pedagogy, or at the very least fired a warning shot across the bow of the ship of the status quo. I am not referring to the technical innovation of including an expansive CD version of the text, but to the hermeneutical innovation of excluding what has been, up to now, a standard feature of NT introductions. There is no chapter on "The World of the NT"! All recent introductions that I consulted have at least one chapter-and often several-on the cultural, political, social, and religious worlds of the NT. Holladay has none.

This is clearly not a decision mandated by matters of space. The CD version opens up almost limitless possibilities for broadening the scope of the introduction, but it contains no chapter on the world of the NT either. Holladay's radical departure from the introductory canon was fueled by conviction, not expedience. He writes, "Biblical scholarship over the last century or so has called for reading the NT like any other ancient writing. Placing the NT writings within their larger Greco-Roman context arose out of the Renaissance and Enlightenment as a corrective to dogmatic construals of the NT. While this has been a helpful corrective, in its more extreme forms this approach downplays the sacred character ascribed to these texts within Christian communities" (588). Holladay's Introduction, I believe, is intended as a corrective to this corrective. He is not, of course, returning to pre-Enlightenment naivete, and he is certainly not ignoring the culture and history of the Greco-Roman world. Cultural and historical information is presented at appropriate points throughout the various chapters on the NT writings. But by eliminating an introductory chapter (or chapters) on this topic, he is symbolically (and emphatically) "backgrounding" the historical context. He is also making it difficult for readers to access historical and cultural information if they feel it is important at different points of the discussion (see below on the index).

Holladay is interested in the "foreground" of the text-the way the NT now functions and has historically functioned for believers as an authoritative dialogue partner in the ongoing task of theological reflection. This is clearly signaled by the bookends that he provides for his discussion of the NT writings. Instead of an opening chapter orienting readers to the world of the NT, his opening chapter orients the reader to the task of theological reflection; and his closing chapter picks up the same theme with its reflections on the formation and function of the canon. The message conveyed is that these are not documents whose meaning is imbedded in the past, but writings whose meaning is actualized in the ongoing life of the church and of every Christian believer. Thus he is not primarily interested in, for example, how the Gospel of Mark represented and challenged the first-century Mediterranean world (cf. Paul J. Achtemeier, Joel B. Green, and Marianne Meye Thompson, Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001], 20)-though Holladay does (occasionally) mention challenges to this world (122). Holladay is interested in how Mark engaged in theological sense-making almost as an activity unto itself, that is, without frequent reference to the cultural or political or communal issues that may have precipitated it. (It is worth noting here that Holladay reports, with apparent approbation, the suggestion of some scholars that the Gospels were written, not to discrete communities with discrete problems, but to the larger church [69]). …

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