I thought, just for the heck of it, I would tell everyone what, in my opinion, are the best one volume NT introductions; and since I know more than one intellectual who reads this blog, I would ask for your feedback. We will start with the honorable mentions.
Now I have a rule when it comes to NT studies: “Always trust Bruce Metzger” I still get a rush when I read his introduction to NT Textual Criticism and when we discuss a larger NT library he will get his place; but his New Testament introduction is a bit too dry for my taste and it is a bit out of date. He was an ivy league don after all. So here I break this rule. Though if someone was gonna give it to you, I wouldn’t turn it down.
Technically, Helmut Koester’s Introduction is a two parter, and so is disqualified from this post; but the first volume is easily the best crash course in Hellenistic politics, culture, history and religion (hence the title) out there. The second volume is valuable because of the inclusion of a broader range of early Christian thought and works, but it is incredibly idiocyncratic and skeptical – add to it that it is an “introduction,” and therefore does not interact with much secondary literature in it’s body, but rather speaks “matter of factly” when in fact his proposals are not mainstream – and I would recommend his second volume provided it is not the only one that a person has.
Likewise, N.T. Wright’s “New Testament and the People of God” is not a traditional NT introduction; but there is no other book which gives a better and more comprehensive understanding of Second Temple Judaism and how that relates to the NT. It also gives a great intro to the first 100 years of Christianity. So, go get it.
One of the newest intro’s of significance is put out by three great scholars. I am here speaking of Paul Achtemeier, Joel B Green, and Marianne Meye Thompson’s “Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology” This book attempts to be pedagogically sound as well as versed in the wide range of current NT trends. I especially like the fact that it favors the so-called “New Perspective on Paul.” This really is a great intro, but in the end, I find it to be a bit uneven at parts, and not informed by the Catholic traditions; so it makes it to first place in the honorable mentions of traditional NT introductions.
Which brings us to our winners………It is a tie between two very different intro’s.
Bart Erhman, the author of the famous “Misquoting Jesus” has written, quite simply, the single most accessible introduction – much to the chagrin of Evangelicals – for bible college students and undergrads (even young seminarians). This book looks at everything from textual criticism and historical Jesus, feminism and minority readings; all in a simple and uncluttered prose. The pictures are great, as are the boxes for fun “extra’s” to contemplate. Erhman has made his spiritual journey open for everyone in several of his books. He went from a fundamentalist to an agnostic. He is not anti-Christian, in fact he is much more gentle to traditional readings than some liberal Protestants. Nonetheless, Erhman does often speak as if “historical” is the same thing as “objective,” and as a result he sometimes comes across as if his “historical” reading is the only reasonable one to take. His suggested readings at the end of the chapters present many different views, including leading Evangelical scholars. All in all, though not helpful for spiritual formation, this is a valuable book and I recommend it only with minor reservations.
As a balance, our overall winner is the famous Catholic scholar Raymond E Brown’s Introduction, in the Anchor (Yale) Bible Reference Series. It is a rather weighty book, and it is not lacking in the brain power. This is a thoroughly more academic book than the others mentioned hitherto (Koester’s reads poor because it is a translation from the German…ick) and covers the standard topics – the Synoptic Problem, pseudonymous books, uniqueness of John’s Gospel, etc… – but it also devotes a chapter to the “sensus plenior” understanding of Scripture which he has dedicated a book to, and to spiritual formation questions throughout. He is a priest after all. At the end of each section/book there is a rather large bibliography including commentaries and monographs, and he spends some time for every book on issues and problems for reflection. Fr Brown approaches the text from a position of faith, which makes it an ideal way to introduce uneducated Christians and students to the critical issues without making them feel threatened.
Another benefit is his Catholic perspective. The book did receive the “Imprimatur” from the Roman Catholic Church, meaning it is doctrinally sound from their perspective. It is this perspective which sometimes challenges traditional Protestant interpretations of certain passages and adds a depth to the overall feel.
The one downside is that the book is now a bit out of date. But not so much as one might think; it is late enough to include 3rd generation Historical Jesus work by the now standard names: Crossan, Borg, Wright, Witherington, Meier. Nonetheless, I would love it if another Catholic scholar, perhaps Meier or Fitzmeyer, would update the last 15 years or so.
But in the end, that does not make the book worth less. It is thoroughly academic, it has an eye to spiritual formation, and it is ecumenical…What more could you want from an Introduction?