Book Review: Nijay K. Gupta, A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Studies: Understanding Key Debates

Gupta, Nijay K. A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Studies: Understanding Key Debates. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2020. 196 pp. Pb. $24.99.   Link to Baker Academic

In the introduction to this beginner’s guide to the key issues for the study of the New Testament, Nijay Gupta recalls being completely lost in the world of biblical scholarship during his first days as a seminary student. I confess to a similar experience as an undergrad biblical studies student first exposed to the Documentary Hypothesis or the Synoptic Problem. These are important issues, but they are not the topic of church Bible studies. In fact, there were quite a few issues encountered in graduate school that I vaguely recall memorizing for an undergrad exam.

Gupta, Beginner's Guide to New Testament StudiesGupta’s goal in this slender volume is to introduce “relative newcomers to the world of the New Testament studies, not experts” (xi). In these brief chapters he offers a fair and balanced overview of an issue and consciously does not take a side in the debate. His focus is on the big picture rather than fine details. Even so, most beginning biblical studies students can be overwhelmed with these complicated debates. Every chapter in this book represents dozens of monographs on the topic, even at the introductory level. There is no need for despair, Gupta suggests, the messiness of biblical studies is part of the journey.

Gupta introduces each topic with an anecdote in order to demonstrate why the issue is important. He then surveys key scholars and positions, usually with a few footnotes to key works. Chapters conclude with a few personal reflections often reflecting Gupta’s experience teaching these issues. Each chapter concludes with a “for further reading” section divided into beginner and advanced sections. The lists are arranged by topic covered in the chapter. These are not complete bibliographies; Gupta suggests only a few key works for each topic. Interested students ought to read all the suggested beginning books as they move to graduate school.

There are three chapters on the study of the Jesus and the Gospels. The chapters on the Synoptic Problem and Historical Jesus. In the “The Fourth Gospel and History” there are only two sides, John is not historical and John is historical, but he does wonder in the conclusion to the chapter why John’s gospel is often ignored in historical Jesus studies like Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, “one of the most important Jesus books of the twentieth century” (p. 37).

He offers three chapters on Paul (Jesus and Paul; Paul’s Theological Perspective; Paul and the Jewish Law), although Paul is a major factor in virtually every chapter in the rest of the book, reflecting the soften polarizing nature of Paul’s theology. He divides the chapter on Paul’s theological perspective into Justification by Faith, Salvation History, Apocalyptic Paul, and Participation in Christ. The chapter on Paul and the Law briefly introduces E. P. Sanders and the New Perspective on Paul.

Chapter 7 introduces students to the problems of Interpreting the Book of Revelation. After a short overview of the book he describes the preterist, historicist, futurist and idealist approaches to the book. The section in futurism naturally introduces dispensationalism, one of the few positions in the book he seems dismissive, including four points explaining why most scholars reject the idea of the rapture (p. 97-8).

Chapter 8 discusses Pseudonymity and the New Testament Letters. Since many introductions to the New Testament dispute the authorship of the Pastoral Epistles, 1-2 Peter, James and Jude and have serious doubts about 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians and Colossians, Gupta first explains why these books came to be doubted in the nineteenth century. He contrasts allonymity (writing in another name rather than pseudonymity, writing with a false name) with forgery, Although Bart Ehrman is listed in the “further reading” section, Gupta does not directly deal with his work in the chapter.

In “The New Testament and the Roman Empire” (ch. 9) Gupta introduces Richard Horsley as well as post-colonial readings of the New Testament. It is important to recognize the imperial context of the New Testament, but the extent to which Paul or the writers of the Gospels engaged in a critique of the Empire is an open discussion. This chapter could be improved with additional attention to the book of Revelation since it seems to have a clear critique of the Roman Empire.

It is no exaggeration to suggest the issue of women in leadership is a hot topic in biblical studies (ch. 10). Gupta suggests this is a “convoluted issue with many texts and dimensions to consider” (p. 141). He avoids labels like fundamentalist or liberal and presents the two sides of the debate as “Hierarchical Male Authoritative Leadership” (rather than “complementarian”) and “Egalitarian Authoritative Leadership.” In his conclusion to the chapter, he suggests this debate requires further research into a biblical understanding of gender and how gender is related to culture (p. 143).

Although “Justification by Faith and Judgment according to Works” (ch. 11) sounds as though it might be a Pauline issue (and he does touch on the Wright/Piper debate), Gupta’s focus is on the basis of the final judgment (faith or works) and the relationship of initial justification to final judgment.

The final two chapters of the book discuss hermeneutical issues. The Old Testament in the New Testament (ch. 12) and Application and Use of Scripture (ch. 13). How the New Testament writers used the Old Testament has generated a wide range of articles and monographs, although this chapter manages to avoid the over-used term intertextuality (Richard Hays appears in the further reading section). Gupta’s interest here is hermeneutical strategies used by New Testament authors: did they respect the context? How does Christology influence their reading of the Old Testament?

In the final chapter on application of Scripture, Gupta contrasts a “From-the-Bible” view with a “Beyond-the-Bible” or redemptive movement hermeneutic. A “From-the-Bible” approach recognizes progressive revelation and looks for principles from Scripture to draw applications to modern ethical discussions. The “Beyond-the-Bible” view seeks to follow the trajectory of Scripture to apply earlier revelation to a new situation.

Conclusion. There are other issues which could be included in a beginner’s guide. Every scholar who reads this book will likely wonder why their area of study was omitted. For example, a chapter on early high Christology would be welcome, or a short introduction to the pistis christou debate. In fact, from the perspective of Pauline Studies, virtually every section of chapter six could be expanded. Along with the historicity of John, a chapter on the value of Acts for early church history would be a good addition. There is nothing on biblical manuscripts or textual criticism. Nevertheless, the thirteen topics Gupta chose are more or less the most important for a beginning biblical studies student to grasp before they begin their studies.

This book should be read before a student begins their academic career in biblical studies, whether that is undergraduate or graduate level. An Old Testament Beginner’s Guide would make an excellent companion to this volume.

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

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