The Text of the New Testament by Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman
A classic work chock full of information. Not any easy book to read through, but you’ll learn quite a bit along the way. The first chapter “The Making of Ancient Books” was very informative and probably the easiest chapter to read from front to back. Other chapters are so full of information that it is challenging to take it all in at once. The book covers topics such as important witnesses of the New Testament text (manuscripts, ancients versions of the NT, etc.), history of textual criticism, the method of textual criticism, errors in transmission of the text, and an explanation of the practice of NT textual criticism. Essentially, if you have any interest in New Testament studies, especially textual criticism, then this is a must buy.
The Lost Letters of Pergamum by Bruce Longenecker
An exhilarating read that brings you into the world of the New Testament. The Lost Letters of Pergamum is a historical fiction based on the man mentioned in Revelation 2:13 in the message to the city of Pergamum: “…Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.” Longenecker, a New Testament scholar, then makes up the narrative from this verse. In the preface he sets the stage, “The supposition is simple: that the Antipas mentioned in Revelation 2:13 had been named after Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the great and pro-Roman tetrarch who reigned over Galilee during the time of Jesus’s ministry. The fact is equally simple: that this Antipas died as a martyr for Christ in Pergamum, where pro-Roman sentiment and emperor worship were rampant. Add the supposition to the fact, and a proto-narrative emerges of one who began life dedicated to the advancement of Rome and ended his life as one perceived to be an enemy of Rome. Add to this the ancient tradition about Antipas’ gruesome martyrdom, and the narrative virtually writes itself. A storyteller need only fill in the blanks.”1 The story itself is advanced by letters written back and forth between the major characters that were found after excavating the city of Pergamum (fictional, but believable backstory). Longenecker states the purpose of the book, “The following narrative explores some of the dynamics of friendship, goodness, virtue, and honor in the ancient world of the Roman Empire, in which Jesus and his first followers proclaimed the message of a different empire (“the empire of God”) and enacted distinctive forms of friendship, goodness, virtue, and honor.”2 Everything about this books plunges the reader into the 1st century. The book is amazing…I think I read the book in two sittings, I just couldn’t put it down! Buy this book. Dive into the world of the New Testament. And see the Church afresh: people of God’s Kingdom under God’s King, Jesus.
A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion by Gary Burge
A historical fiction about the life of a Roman centurion at the time of Christ, A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion is an informative and exciting read. The story revolves around two main characters: Appius a leading centurion in Syria and one of his educated slaves, Tullus. There are two other characters that appear often in the story, both slaves of Appius: Gaius, the head slave and Livia, Appius’ concubine. Additionally, there are several characters that show up in the story that readers will recognize from the Gospels. Without ruining the plot, essentially, Burge fills in the back story of the centurion in Matt. 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. He does this with great skill, interweaving the story with lots of cultural information that modern readers would not be aware of, but people of the first century would have known innately. Themes such as honor, shame, Roman slavery, and Roman familias (household) are pervasive throughout the book. Reading historical fiction like this is a great way to learn about the culture in which the New Testament was written (and it’s more entertaining than simply reading a textbook). It’s a short and easy read, 180 pages, that will keep your attention and increase your understanding of the culture surrounding Jesus. Lastly, I should say that the climax of the story is thrilling and will leave you reading the Biblical text with new eyes. I recommend this book to anyone, but especially those interested in the New Testament and the times of Jesus.
Studying the Historical Jesus by Darrell Bock
Darrell Bock is a New Testament prof at DTS and a well-known scholar. This book is an introduction into historical Jesus studies (one of Bock’s fields of expertise). There are other books that may go more in depth into particular issues, but few books cover the gambit like Bock’s. The first part of the book is dedicated to studying the cultural context of Jesus. Topics include: Nonbiblical literary evidence for Jesus (a terrific overview and a must-read), chronology of Jesus’ life, the political history/context that Jesus lived in, and the sociocultural history/context that Jesus lived in. The second part of the book gets more into the different methods of Jesus studies: historical criticism, source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, etc. Overall, this is an outstanding introduction into the field of Jesus studies and highly recommended.
The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross by Leon Morris
This is another classic work. Leon Morris is a well-respected evangelical New Testament scholar. He has written many works, but this is among his most famous. In this book, Morris dives into the language used by the Apostles when describing the cross, the atonement. Morris discusses themes such as covenant, sacrifice, reconciliation, sin, God’s wrath and does detailed word studies on crucial words such as λύτρον (ransom) and ἱλάσκομαι (propitiate or expiate? Morris lands on propitiate). Morris convincingly defends a penal substitutionary view of the atonement. Though, I should clarify that he nowhere mentions Christ taking on God’s wrath. This surprised me because of how often I’ve heard this book mentioned for a defense of that view. Morris thinks that there was something penal that took place, that Christ took on the “punishment” (a word he does use) we deserve, but never mentions Jesus taking on God’s wrath (a view I’m not solidly convinced of either). It almost seems that Morris sees propitiation by expiation (an interesting concept). I’ll let Morris speak for himself here, “but in both Old Testament and New the thought is plain that the gift which secures the propitiation is from God Himself, He provides the way whereby men may come to him. Thus the use of the concept of propitiation witnesses to two great realities, the one, the reality and the seriousness of the divine reaction against sin, and the other, the reality and the greatness of the divine love which provided the gift which should avert the wrath from men.”3 An additional note, one thing that stood out to me was Morris’ love for Christ. Even in this detailed academic study, you will come away praising God and exalting Christ! Overall, this is a great work and one that is foundational for anyone studying the atonement.
The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight
An engaging and thought-provoking book about the gospel by a New Testament scholar that is often pushing the buttons of evangelicalism (though he is an evangelical himself). One of McKnight’s main points is that we as evangelicals (the word is literally based on the Greek word for gospel “euangelion”) need to be Gospel people, and to do so we must recover what the Gospel has always been: the story of King Jesus. He asks a challenging question to Christians, one that would be most revealing if a poll was taken in churches: What does Jesus being Israel’s Messiah have to do with the Gospel? The short answer is “everything.” McKnight’s point is that the way we share the Gospel today, our actual answer would be “nothing.” McKnight argues convincingly that Christians (especially Western evangelicals) have replaced the Gospel with the personal “Plan of Salvation” turning the story of Jesus into “how an individual gets saved, what God has done for us, and how we are to respond if we want to be saved.”4 McKnight makes clear that this focus is indeed fundamental to Christianity, but it’s not the Gospel. He says it this way, “Salvation–the robust salvation of God–is the intended result of the gospel story about Jesus Christ that completes the story of Israel in the Old Testament.”5 McKnight fleshes out what the gospel is by looking at the gospel preached by Jesus, preached by Paul, the gospel handed down to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, and the gospel preached by the apostles in Acts (especially Peter’s sermons). He comes away seeing the Gospel as “the saving Story of Israel now lived out by Jesus, who lived, died, was buried, was raised, and was exalted to God’s right hand, and who is now roaring out the message that someday the kingdom will come in all its glorious fury.”6 The longer rendition of McKnight’s understanding of the Gospel is given from pages 148-153 in the section titled “The Gospel Sketched” and should really not be missed, it’s excellent. Overall, I think this book will both challenge and edify any Christian who reads it. I do think, like always, the reader must be discerning. At times, it seems the McKnight has overreacted and swung the pendulum too far away from the “salvation” side of the gospel story. However, the discerning reader will be gain much from this book!
How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels by N.T. Wright
The four Gospels are about Jesus. Often times though, we read our own modern problems into the narrative. We select what parts of the Gospels we read haphazardly, choosing this story our that story because it seems to communicate advice to our present life circumstance while ignoring the bulk of the other stuff. I’m not saying that we can’t glean practical advice from the Gospels, what I am saying is that they are not self-help books. This is not why they were written, therefore, that’s not how we should read them. All of the Gospels are stories, so we need to read them as stories. Prolific author and renowned biblical scholar, N.T. Wright helps us mightily in this regard. To properly read and understand the four Gospels, Wright makes use of a handy analogy. He says to imagine buying a new quadrophonic surround sound speaker system. There are four speakers, one in each corner of the room, but the sound is uneven and distorted, so now you have to adjust the volume of each speaker to make sure the sound comes through beautifully clear and organized. Likewise, Wright argues that there are four strands or “speakers” that must be all simultaneously turned up and tuned together to be able to hear the beautifully clear and organized story of the Gospels. The four “speakers” he discusses are: (1) The Story of Israel, (2) The Story of Jesus as the Story of Israel’s God, (3) The Launching of God’s Renewed People, and (4) The Clash of the Kingdoms. Unfortunately, many of us read with only one speaker blaring and the rest are completely turned off (or maybe all of them are completely turned off). By turning all of the speakers on and adjusting the volume to bring them into unison, Wright believes the four Gospels sing this major tune: “The story of how God became king–in and through Jesus both in his public career and in his death.”7 We can always be nit-picky here, but I think he’s generally right (HA!). I highly recommend this book to anybody interested in the Gospels and what they say about Jesus. Christian, non-Christian, and skeptic alike will better understand the story of the Gospels and hopefully enjoy the music they produce.
Stories with Intent by Klyne Snodgrass
The best book on Christ’s parables also happens to be the most comprehensive (600 pages). Snodgrass’ Stories with Intent is a must buy for anyone studying the parables. The introduction to parables is relatively short compared to other works (only 50 pages), but that only means the bulk of the book is dedicated to the study of the actual parables. Each parable is studied meticulously in the following format: a brief intro the parable, parable type (similitude, interrogative, narrative, etc.), issues requiring attention (a list of questions that must be answered to understand the parable), helpful primary source material (Biblical text, early Jewish writings, Greco-Roman writings, etc.), textual features worthy of attention, cultural information, explanation of the parable, decisions on the issues, and adapting the parable. He also includes a “for further reading” section at the end of each parable. If you are looking for one book on Jesus’ parables, buy this one.
Interpreting the Parables by Craig Blomberg
This is another must buy for those interested in studying the parables. Bloomberg’s book is not as comprehensive as Snodgrass’ on the actual parables themselves, but he is much more comprehensive in introducing the study of parables. Bloomberg spends nearly 200 pages (!) introducing parables and the different hermeneutical issues that one runs into when interpreting the parables. The book is 450 pages, so Blomberg still spends approx. 250 pages discussing the individual parables, giving superb insight. Blomberg excels at explaining the interpretive framework he uses when studying Jesus’ parables. He teaches that for the most part, “each parable makes one main point per main character–usually two or three in each case–and these main characters are the most likely elements within the parable to stand for something other than themselves, thus giving the parable its allegorical nature.”8 Between Snodgrass and Blomberg Christ’s parables are covered in detail.
Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey
This isn’t a must buy solely for the study of Jesus’ parables, but because of the comprehensive study of Jesus Himself. This book isn’t a book on the parables, but a book on Jesus. For the purpose of this page I’ll focus on the “parable” section of the book (but know that there’s much more). Bailey has long been known as a skilled interpreter of parables because of his other books on them, specifically on the Prodigal Son. However, in this book, Bailey discusses 13 different parables (the Prodigal Son not being one of them) in great detail. Bailey’s focus is geared more toward understanding the ancient cultural context of the parable and the actions of characters in the story within the cultural context the story is set. He says this eloquently, “Simply stated, our task is to stand at the back of the audience around Jesus and listen to what he is saying to them. Only through that discipline can we discover what he is saying to any age, including our own. Authentic simplicity can be found the other side of complexity. The theological and ethical House of the Parables of Jesus awaits. May all enter with great expectations!”9 Buy this book and enjoy it.
The Parables of Jesus by J. Dwight Pentecost
This book, by a longtime professor at DTS, is short and very useful. Pentecost gives a brief 10 page introduction to parables and their interpretation and then moves on to discussing each parable. Every parable is discussed in a tripartite way (a) The Setting (b) The Problem (c) The Solution. This format is great for showing the broad sense of each parable. I would recommend this book for the laymen or student of the Scriptures who is not wanting a detailed study of the parables, but an overview interpretation of each parable Christ told.
- Bruce W. Longenecker with extracts from Ben Witherington III, The Lost Letters of Pergamum: a Story from the New Testament World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2003), 9.
- Ibid, 11.
- Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 183.
- Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: the Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 37-38.
- Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: the Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 51.
- Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: the Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 160.
- N. T. Wright, How God Became King: the Forgotten Story of the Gospels, Reprint ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2016), 175.
- Craig L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 190.
- Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2008), 283.