This collection of essays is a collaborative work of scholars from the Ancient History Department of Macquarie University and the Australian College of Theology (ACT). Hence it is “a distinctly Australian contribution” (p. ix). Mark Harding is Dean of ACT and Honorary Associate of Macquarie University, and Alanna Nobbs is Professor of Ancient History at Macquarie and Co-Director of the Ancient Cultures Research Centre at Macquarie. The collaboration is a natural one, not only because of the close relationship between the institutions, but because for years the Ancient History Department at Macquarie has focused on the Greco-Roman background of the New Testament. Its Ancient History Document Research Center has published the acclaimed New Documents Illustrating Early Christian series (nine volumes to date).
The present volume is a substantial contribution to scholarship in general, but especially as a supplement to more traditional Gospel textbooks. Apart from one chapter on “The Markan Outline and Emphases,” by Johan Ferreira (ch. 11), and one on “Distinctive Features of the Gospels,” by Timothy J. Harris (ch. 12), the book does not focus on the themes and theology of the individual Gospels, but rather on issues of background, text, milieu, and the historical Jesus. The book is divided into five main categories: archaeology (1 ch.), the text of the NT (2 chs.), the setting (3 chs.), the Gospels in the early churches (3 chs.), and Jesus’ life and ministry (9 chs.).
The volume as a whole is well written and well edited. Bibliographies at the end of each chapter point the readers to more detailed discussions. Many of the chapters function as general introductory surveys. Chapter one on archaeology (Robert K. McIver), for example, is a wonderfully concise survey of the nature of biblical archaeology and the most important sites for the study of the life and times of Jesus. The chapters in section two on the text of the NT are more technical and go beyond the material typically covered in a college or seminary-level course on the Gospels (at least in my courses). These deal, respectively, with the present state of text-critical studies (Scott D. Charlesworth) and research on the language of the Gospels in relation to the koine (Erica A. Mathieson). Mathieson documents how the study of the papyri and inscriptions post-Deissmann have continued to confirm his conclusions that the language of the NT is not a unique “NT Greek” but is integral to the koine and equally diverse in its various registers. Charlesworth discusses recent advances in textual criticism and particularly how studies of the papyri are challenging the notion of textual families. Why should earlier papyri be categorized according to textual “families” delineated from later majuscules? While recognizing that methodological questions are in flux, Charlesworth concludes, “Scribes made changes, but the early gospel text was transmitted accurately en bloc. ‘Normal’ and ‘strict’ approaches gainsay the contention that the high fluidity of early gospel MSS render impossible the recovery of the ‘original’ text” (p. 58). The chapter is an excellent—if somewhat technical—survey of the present state of NT textual criticism.
Three chapters (4–6) survey the political, social, and religious climate of first-century Palestine. In “The Political Context,” Murray J. Smith summarizes the historical and political setting of first-century Palestine and reminds readers that it is impossible to dichotomize between the religious and political spheres in the Greco-Roman world. In chapter 5 (“The Social Setting”), James R. Harrison discusses the significance of two critical social conventions—Greco-Roman benefaction and Jewish purity and holiness laws—that will be alien to many Western readers, but are critical to understand in the context of Jesus’ life and ministry. Chapter 6 on “The Gospels and Second Temple Judaism” (Mark Harding) overviews (with some overlap with chapter 4) the sources, history, and institutions of first-century Judaism.
Section four (chs. 7–9), on the Gospels in the Early Churches, has articles on “The Gospels and the Old Testament” (Theresa Yu Chui Siang Lau), “The Gospels in Early Christian Literature” (Murray J. Smith), and “The Non-Canonical Gospels” (Johan Ferreira). Smith’s chapter concerns the transmission, collection, and use of the Gospel tradition in the early church (with a case study on the Apostolic Fathers). Ferreira surveys both the variety of early Christianity (Jewish, Gentile, Gnostic) and the main representatives of extra-biblical gospels. Ferreira concludes that, apart from perhaps the Gospel of Thomas, these gospels provide little information concerning the historical Jesus, but are helpful in understanding the diversity of the nascent Christian church.
The largest body of articles deals with historical Jesus questions (chs. 10, 13–18). In “Who was Jesus?” (ch. 10), Chris Forbes introduces students to the field with a helpful overview of methodology, sources, criteria, and a brief survey of the “quests” for the historical Jesus. The survey culminates with important recent contributions to the field by scholars like Richard Bauckham, J. D. G. Dunn, N. T. Wright and John Meier, and a survey of the most important recent interpretations of the person of Jesus. Other chapters on the historical Jesus discuss his central message—the kingdom of God (Stephen Voorwinde), the nature and function of parables (Greg W. Forbes), the ethics of Jesus (Brian Powell), the miracles of Jesus (Evelyn Ashley), the key titles of Jesus (Van Shore), and the passion and resurrection narratives (Ian K. Smith). In some of these (e.g., kingdom of God; miracles of Jesus) a discussion of the historical Jesus is followed by a survey of the perspectives of the four Evangelists. In general, the articles in this section reach conservative conclusions within the broad spectrum of historical Jesus scholarship, but not without engagement with critical scholarship.
This volume as a whole is impressive in its scope and content. I would highly recommend it as a general introduction to Gospel and Jesus studies, but especially as a supplement that fills the “gaps” in a typical Gospel survey text or course. One could, of course, criticize certain gaps in the volume. For example, there are no articles on Gospel methodology, particularly on source and transmission history. There is little discussion of Q (nature, theology, community), nor on recent studies in orality. Nor does the volume engage reading approaches or the “hermeneutics” of Gospel reading, including reader-response, liberationist, feminist, womanist, or postmodern approaches. It would be fascinating—in a distinctly Australian work like this—to see what an Aboriginal reading of the Gospels would look like. Finally, some articles are quite light, while others are rather technical. A professor utilizing the text will want to be judicious in assigning individual chapters. Yet, no volume can do everything. What this one does, it does very well, and its authors and editors are to be highly commended.