Book Review: Murray J. Harris, Navigating Tough Texts

Harris, Murray J. Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2020. 222 pp.; Pb.  $23.99  Link to Lexham Press

Murray Harris is well-known from his 2005 commentary on 2 Corinthians in Eerdmans’ NIGTC Series and in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary as well as his books on New Testament exegesis. This new book designed for pastors, teachers, theological students and thinking Christians who want to think more deeply about their faith and be exposed to some of the intricacies of the Greek language. Harris explains the studies in this volume arise out of his own experience teaching the New Testament for fifty years. The acknowledgment page points out some of his answers rely on some of his earlier published works.

Murray Harris, Navigating Tough TextsThe book answers 123 questions on “hard passages” in the New Testament. Some of these verses have been significant in church history (Matt 1:25 and Mary’s perpetual virginity), others are theological important (Rom 3:25, “the most important verse in the Bible”), evangelistically significant (John 3:16, “unique giving by unique love”) or contain issues relating to the Christian life (Luke 7:47 and forgiveness). Several questions and answers contain apparent contradictions (Acts 21:4, should Paul go to Jerusalem or not?). Some are key passages for understanding the person of Christ (John 1:14 and the incarnation) or the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29, what is the unpardonable sin?). Harris challenges several commonly accepted ideas. For example, commenting on Galatians 4:6 (“Should abba Be Translated as ‘Daddy’”), Harris states abba was not a childish term of the nursery comparable to “daddy” (p. 157).

Questions are arranged in two sections (Gospels and Acts, Epistles) and grouped by books. John has the most questions with nineteen and 1-2 Corinthians combined have twenty-one questions (reflecting Harris’s previous work in these letters). There are only five questions from the three pastoral epistles (and he does not deal with “save by childbirth” in 1 Timothy 2:15). Although he does comment on divorce and remarriage (on 1 Corinthians 7:15) and baptism for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29), he skips the difficult text in 1 Corinthians 11 on head coverings, the problem of people becoming ill or dying as a result of abuses at the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:30) and the very controversial 1 Corinthians 14:28 (silence for women in church). It is important to observe here that the title of the book refers to “tough questions” not “controversial questions.”

Harris’s approach to answering these questions is exegetical. Greek appears in transliteration. He does comment on grammatical and syntactical issues when necessary, but the discussion is presented clearly enough that a non-specialist will follow his point. Most often, his answers rely on lexical studies of key words. For example, in his discussion of Romans 3:25, he defines protheto (“set before himself”), hilasterion (“propitiation” or “atoning sacrifice”) and the phrase “in/by his own blood.” He rarely refers to secondary literature, even when defining key Greek words. This makes Navigating Tough Texts easy to read for the layperson.

Although he discussions theological issues, Harris does not answer theological questions directly, such as, “What is Justification?” Because his approach is exegetical, he does not answer hermeneutical questions directly. He does not answer questions about the synoptic problem in the Gospels or authorship issues in the epistles, not does he really do much in Revelation, a New Testament book which could generate enough questions to fill its own volume! Oddly, Mary’s perpetual virginity is discussed twice (questions #1 on Matthew 1:25 and again on question #16 on Mark 6:3 (the brothers of Jesus).

Conclusion. This book will make for an excellent devotional reader for the layperson who wants to go a little bit deeper than the English translation of the New Testament. In addition, the book will be a good resource for the Bible teacher who is looking to clarify their thinking on some of these difficult topics.

Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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