Book Review: David L. Turner, Interpreting the Gospels and Acts: An Exegetical Handbook

Turner, David L. Interpreting the Gospels and Acts: An Exegetical Handbook. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Academic, 2019. 358 pp. Pb; $21.99.   Link to Kregel

This is the final contribution to Kregel’s Handbooks of New Testament Exegesis covers a large section of the New Testament, the Gospels and the book of Acts. As with each volume of the exegetical handbook series, this new volume combines a scholarly introduction to the study of the Gospels and Acts with an exegetical method designed to help pastors and teachers present their interpretations as Gospel-oriented sermons. 

The first part of this book is a general introduction to the study of the gospels and the book of Acts. Each chapter discusses a topic followed by an application of that topic for each of the four Gospels and Acts. Chapter 1 discusses the genre and structure of the Gospels. After surveying a wide range of suggestions, Turner suggests biography is the best way to approach the genre of the gospels. He would include the book of Acts as biography because the disciples continue to teach and do what Jesus commanded. He also briefly explains several embedded genres found in the Gospels. He has a lengthy discussion on parables along with briefer description of intertextuality, apocalyptic, and wisdom sayings. For Acts he briefly describes Psalms quotations, speeches, and letters. Although the chapter discusses the four-fold gospel tradition, Turner does not cover source or redaction criticism at this point. He discusses them later in the book in the chapter on preparing to interpret the Gospels. Concerning form, source, and redaction criticism, Turner says “understanding the historical process of the gospel origins in divine providence is a worthy scholarly endeavor, but edification of the church is a matter of expounding the gospel in its final canonical” (188). 

Chapter 2 provide sufficient background material to read the Gospels in their historical context. Before his brief survey of Second Temple period literature, Turner observes the chief background for the New Testament is in fact the Old Testament. He has a section on archaeology as a resource for background material. What follows is a collection of short descriptions of important groups in the New Testament, he defines the importance of temple and synagogue but then also covers the usual groups within the second temple, including Pharisees, scribes, elders, Sadducees, the Sanhedrin, the Essenes, and what he calls the “politically oriented groups,” the zealots. The section also includes a short survey of Jewish feasts as a background for reading the Gospels. In the second part of the chapter Turner offers the setting for each of the four Gospels, including authorship, occasion and purpose, and date. In general, Turner’s conclusions are conservative and traditional. 

Turner’s third chapter begins with an excellent discussion of what biblical theology is. He contrasts biblical theology with systematic theology and offers an assessment of the limits of biblical theology. In constructing an overall theology of the Gospels, Turner settles on “Jesus in the Spirit.” Although he covers kingdom of heaven under his specific discussion on Matthew, remarkably, he does not consider the Kingdom of God as the overall theme of the gospels as is often the case in Gospels introductions. Since he is tracing the overall theology of both the Gospels and Acts, perhaps he is more motivated to include the activity of the Holy Spirit as a key theme. He begins with the activity of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, traces this into the ministry of John the Baptist, Jesus, and then the ministry of the apostles in the book of Acts. In a footnote, he considers this approach to be a kind of inaugurated eschatology as creation renewal, citing the work of Greg Beale in his New Testament Biblical Theology (Baker 2011).  

The chapter then outlines the distinctive theological emphases of each gospel. For Mathew, Turner highlights Matthew’s use of the Old Testament, the theme of the kingdom of heaven and Matthew’s interest in Gentile mission. Mark is a passion narrative with an extended introduction. He briefly discusses the so-called messianic secret in Mark and the failure of the disciples to understand the resurrection at the end of the gospel. For Luke-Acts, Turner traces the geographical shift from Jerusalem to Rome and briefly discusses Luke’s interest in evangelizing outcasts. For the gospel of John, he examines the relationship of signs and faith. But Turner also discusses the future in John. As is often observed, the gospel of John has very little eschatology. For example, the Olivet Discourse appears in all three Synoptic Gospels but is missing from the Gospel of John. Scholars have often described this as “inaugurated eschatology.” Since John’s Gospel presents the kingdom of God as present in Jesus’s ministry and in the disciple’s life, Turner asks “what does an eschatologicalized life look like”? 

In the second part of the book, Turner suggests several steps in moving from exegesis to sermon. These three chapters together form exegetical methodology which recognizes the end goal of exegesis as preaching the gospel. He begins with preparing to interpret the Gospels, a task which begins with identifying the text. This takes the form of a lengthy overview of textual criticism. He then discusses translating the text, including an overview of translation method. He briefly surveys critical methods of studying the Gospels such as form criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism and narrative criticism. Although he recognizes each of these has their place, only narrative criticism is seen as providing much fodder for the preaching of the text.

Under the heading of interpreting the text, Turner encourages the student to begin by translating the text and doing some sort of segmenting exercise. He gives examples of phrasing and sentence diagramming in English. This practice will help the student to work through the text and better understand the grammatical relationships between the various parts. This will inform how the student preaches the text. Although most students find this tedious, it is helpful for putting together a sermon. 

In his chapter on communicating the text, Turner encourages the interpreter to find the original point of the passage, but also the current point, using such things as speech act theory understanding how the genre affects the meaning of the passage, and then drawing out significance for the modern church. He also discusses his description versus prescription in this section and lectio divina. He uses the phrase “homiletical packaging” to discuss the theory and practice of preaching a sermon. He offers several examples of “bridging the gap” drawn from the gospels as a demonstration of how to apply the text to a modern situation.

The seventh chapter of the book contains two examples drawn from the Gospels of how this method works in practice. Turner works the steps of his exegetical method using Mark 4:1-20 and John 1:1-18. 

The final chapter of the book is a list of suggested resources for doing exegesis. Although he recognizes a few online resources, this list of resources is less interested in using a computer for interpretation than other handbooks in this series. 

Conclusion. Turner there is a wide range of topics for interpreting the gospels and the book of Acts. Although some readers may be overwhelmed by the material in the first three chapters, Turner does an excellent job describing how this material can be used in preparing sermons and Bible lessons. This book will make an excellent textbook for a New Testament exegesis class which focuses on the Gospels, but anyone interested in studying the Gospels on a deeper level will find much value in this handbook. The material on the book of Acts is satisfying, since it seems like it is simply tagged to the material for Luke. If the book was limited to the Gospels and a separate handbook written on exegetical issues in the book of Acts, then this book would have been even stronger.

 

See my reviews of previous volumes in this series:

Gary Smith, Interpreting the Prophets

Richard A. Taylor, Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature

Edward M. Curtis, Interpreting the Wisdom Books

Herbert Bateman, Interpreting the General Letters

John D. Harvey, Interpreting the Pauline Letters

C. Marvin Pate, Interpreting Revelation and Other Apocalyptic Literature

NB: Thanks to Kregel Books for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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