McGrath, James F. The A to Z of the New Testament: Things Experts Know That Everyone Else Should Too. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2023. viii+304 pp. Pb; $21.99 Link to Eerdmans
James F. McGrath is Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. His academic work includes John’s Apologetic Christology (SNTSMS 111; Cambridge, 2001), The Mandaean Book of John: Critical Edition, Translation, and Commentary (with Charles G. Häberl; De Gruyter, 2019), and The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context (University of Illinois Press, 2022). In addition, he wrote or edited many other books, including the Cascade Companions volume on Theology and Science Fiction (Cascade, 2016), Religion and Science Fiction (Lutterworth, 2012), and co-edited Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith: Religion and Doctor Who (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2013).
This rare mix of academic scholarship and pop culture awareness is on display in his new book, The A to Z of the New Testament. The book gathers 26 crucial topics that are the things typically taught in a university introductory course to the New Testament. The chapters are aimed at beginners, whether they go on to take a university course or not. The book is designed to be fun and light-hearted. But this goes much deeper than a “simple answers to simple questions book,” and he is not dealing with trivia. These are the sorts of things that New Testament scholars know about the New Testament that anyone interested in taking the New Testament seriously should also know. McGrath invites people into a conversation about important issues for understanding the New Testament in a creative and unique way.
The chapters are (obviously) arranged alphabetically, but they are also generally chronological. The letter A is an introductory chapter; the letter B concerns the birth of Christ. The letter X concerns crucifixion and burial. McGrath generally covers Jesus and the Gospels before moving on to Paul’s letters and other issues. The chapters can be read in any order, and even within a chapter, sections can be read in complete isolation from the rest of the chapter. One could open this book to any page and read something interesting.
Some chapters deal with the gospels and Paul’s letters. For example, for the letter E, McGrath deals with “Eat Whatever is Set before You.” This allows him to deal with eating in the gospel of Luke and the messianic banquet, but also “Cooking with the Corinthians” and the difficult issue of food sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians. It might be difficult to guess the topic from the title of the chapter. For example, the chapter entitled “Language, Please” deals with various terms for Hell, such as Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna. The chapter includes comments on Lazarus and the rich man Luke 16: 19-31. (I was quite pleased to see my own Jesus the bridegroom in the “for further reading” of this chapter. Thanks, James!)
Sometimes, topics within a chapter seem random, although this randomness is part of the fun. For example, in the chapter entitled “X Marks the Spot,” McGrath discusses what New Testament scholars know about the crucifixion, beginning with the shape of the cross. He briefly discusses the archaeological evidence for crucifixion and the Jewish custom of using bone boxes (or ossuaries). With this as background, he discusses the burial of Jesus, including the traditional site of the burial, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Strangely, this chapter also includes “What Did Jesus (and Paul and Others) Look Like?” The answer is, “we don’t know.” We have occasional hints (such as Zacchaeus was short or Thomas was a twin). Still, for the most part, there are no descriptions of the physical appearance of biblical characters until the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla (a brief description of Paul).
Each chapter includes occasional sidebars defining technical terms such as Synoptic Problem, pericope, the “New Perspective on Paul, Pharisees, Samaritans, pseudepigraphy, synagogue, etc. Taken as a whole, these sidebars create a basic glossary of key terms for New Testament studies. Each chapter concludes with a brief section for further reading. These lists include academic bibliographies for the issue covered in the chapter.
Some people may be surprised by some of the issues McGrath raises. Some might object to McGrath’s claim that readers of the New Testament need to understand something about the synoptic problem, the hypothetical sayings of source Q, or redaction criticism. To illustrate, let me share a story from my own experience: I was teaching a class in church on the gospel of John. I addressed the issue of the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. I explained why most Bibles have a line indicating that the story is not included in the earliest and best manuscripts, and I tried to explain to the class how it came to be attached to the gospel of John. (If you are interested, here is my summary of why the passage is not authentic). Most class members understood what I was discussing and accepted it with only a few questions. However, an older, retired pastor in the group was quite upset with my comments. He strenuously objected, “You can’t tell these people that!” He was adamant that by teaching a church congregation a little bit about textual criticism and variants in manuscripts, I risked shipwrecking the faith of good church people (who apparently were not to be trusted with that information).
As it turns out, I agree with McGrath. It is important for Bible readers to understand how scholars do their work and how that benefits them as they read the New Testament. If understanding these things causes them to difficulties in their Christian faith, then perhaps their Christian faith was not quite as deep as they thought. McGrath’s The A to Z of the New Testament is a basic primer of key terms and ideas one will encounter in an academic study of the New Testament.
This book will be a great benefit not only for students about to take university-level classes on the New Testament but also for anyone wanting to go deeper than simple answers and Bible trivia.
McGrath regularly posts to his blog, Religion Prof (at Patheos).
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.