Book Review: Mark J. Keown, Discovering the New Testament

Keown, Mark J. Discovering the New Testament: An Introduction to Its Background, Theology, and Themes (Volume 1: The Gospels and Acts). Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2018. 631 pp.; Hb.; $49.99. Link to Lexham Press

Keown, Mark J. Discovering the New Testament: An Introduction to Its Background, Theology, and Themes (Volume 2: The Pauline Letters). Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2021. 615 pp.; Hb.; $34.99. Link to Lexham Press

Mark Keown previously contributed one of the most detailed commentaries on Philippians (Evangelical Exegetical Commentary). Discovering the New Testament is a projected three volume introduction and theology written from a generally conservative viewpoint. The first two volumes are good choices for a Gospels or Pauline Lit survey class at the university or seminary level, although anyone should be able to read these introductions profitably.

In the general introduction to the first volume, Keown deals with general issues of canon and the formation of the New Testament. He includes a brief section on how to read the New Testament. First, he suggests the New Testament be read in its proper context with the intention of drawing meaning from text in the context. But that reading should also apply to today’s world by carefully applying the text to contemporary issues. He considers this a nonlinear process akin to Grant Osbourne’s metaphor of a “hermeneutical spiral.”

Keown, Discovering the New TestamentAfter this introductory chapter, the first unit covers New Testament background issues. First, Keown surveys the Jewish background of the New Testament. He begins with a survey of Second Temple Judaism, including geography, socioeconomic conditions, institutions, literature and other cultural influences. He offers theological features of Judaism in the first century. Here he includes a missiological interest based on Matthew 23:15 and the present of proselytes and God-fearing gentiles in Acts.

Second, Keown examines the Greco-Roman background of the New Testament, beginning with Hellenism and the pluralist world of Greco Roman religion. He includes a brief survey of Greek philosophy, concluding with that Paul would have been well aware of the intellectual currents. This chapter also discuss is the social stratification of the Roman world, the importance of patronage in the Roman world in a brief note on honor and shame.

Third, Keown describes various critical methodologies for the study of the Gospels with some brief evaluation. In the section he covers textual criticism, historical criticism, history religions, source, form, reduction, rhetorical, and narrative criticism, and the quest for the historical Jesus. He defines each of these concepts briefly, rarely more than a page.

The fourth and final chapter in the introductory unit concerns the relationship of the Synoptic Gospels. He briefly describes 8 possible solutions to the synoptic problem, with very clear charts illustrating each position. Keown argues for Markan priority and a form of the four-source hypothesis. He suggests Q should be understood as a blend of both written and oral material.

The second unit in the volume offers introductory material on the four Gospels and Acts. For each gospel Keown covers typical introductory material such as date, provenance, purpose, structure, setting, audience, and various special issues for that particular gospel. He usually surveys the available evidence and concludes there is no strong reason to reject the traditional views on authorship. John, for example, is the apostle and beloved disciple. Regarding the dates of the Gospels, he tends toward early dates but considers a wider range than expected: Matthew (mid 60s-80s), Luke (A.D. 62-95, “it matters little when in that period it was written,” p. 231). Since he links the author of John to Revelation, a date in the reign of Domitian is best. In addition to introductory material, each chapter offers a survey of contents and a sketch of the theology of the book.

Keown argues Luke wrote Acts “well after Mark’s Gospel,” even as late as the 80s or 90s AD (p. 323. He recognizes Acts is a theological history, but he emphasizes Luke had sources, often “his own interviews and experiences” (p. 326). He aligns Galatians 2:1-10 with Acts 11:26-30 rather than the Jerusalem council, implying Paul wrote Galatians before Acts 15, A.D. 46-47.

The final three chapters of the volume are a biblical theology of the Kingdom of God. First, Keown orients the reader to his understanding of the Kingdom in the Gospels. He begins with God as reigning as king in the Old Testament. This universal kingdom is a kingdom of righteousness and peace. He then briefly outlines the apocalyptic kingdom as expected in Second Temple Judaism. This kingdom will be preceded by a tribulation and the coming of Elijah and a “supernatural being” who has power over God’s enemies and will establish a “messianic kingdom.” This kingdom will regather Israel from the exile and restore Jerusalem as the “jewel of the world” (p. 423-24). Applying this to the Jesus’s preaching of the kingdom in the Synoptic Gospels, Keown observes there is both continuity and discontinuity with Old Testament expectations. This subversive kingdom is centered on Jesus, and entrance into this kingdom is only through a relationship with Jesus. Although there are aspects of the kingdom present in Jesus’s ministry and in the life of the present church through the world of the Holy Spirit (much of this chapter describes how Jesus’s teaching is foundational for church life). But other aspects are yet future. For Keown, “the coming of Christ is the decisive moment culminating God’s redemption and Israel’s story” (p. 434).

The final two chapters of volume one survey Jesus’s miracles (The Power of the Kingdom) and the parables (The Teaching of the Kingdom). Miracles point to the power of the Kingdom in the present, yet also look forward to the future peace of the consummated Kingdom. Healing and deliverance are “tiny glimpses of the picture of God healing his world” (p. 509). With respect to parables, he asserts that the purpose of parables is to explain the Kingdom of God. The parables are veiled references to the nature of the Kingdom and challenge those who hear them. In his section entitled “guidelines for interpretation” he begins by encouraging readers to always remember that parables are windows into the Kingdom (p. 534). Regarding hermeneutics, he recommends readers think about the main point (or points of the parable), observing there are “often multiple points based on the characters” (p. 536). Here he is following the method described by Craig Blomberg.

Volume two of Discovering the New Testament covers the Pauline Letters. The first chapter is a seventy-page introduction to Paul’s life. He begins a suggested chronology for Paul’s life and mission, beginning with the letters themselves. Galatians 1:18 refers to Paul’s first visit after Damascus (Acts 9:26-30) and Galatians 2:1-10 refers to his second visit fourteen years later (not in Acts). Keown starts with A.D. 30 for the crucifixion, then dates Paul’s conversion to A.D. 34, his escape from Aretas IV and the first Jerusalem visit to A.D. 37. He accepts the traditional view that Paul was released from prison in Rome after Acts 28 and was arrested in 64 after the Great Fire in Rome. It is during this imprisonment he wrote the Pastoral Epistles (rather than 1 Timothy and Titus before the final imprisonment), and Paul’s execution in A. D. 65.

Using Philippians 3 Keown reviews what can be known about Paul’s pre-Christian life and summarizes Paul’s conversion experience from the three reports in Acts. At this point he does not deal with the suggestion coming from the New Perspective on Paul that Paul experienced a prophetic calling rather than a religious conversion.

He describes the next three years as “Paul’s mission to Arabia” based on Galatians 1:17, showing that Paul engaged in some form of ministry in the region, even if there is no evidence of small Christian communities from this time. He briefly touches on the possibility Paul spent time at “Mount Sinai in Arabia” (Gal 4:25) contemplating his Damascus Road experience, working out the details of his theology and developing his strategy for evangelizing the Gentiles (p. 21).

The rest of this introductory chapter outlines what Keown calls the “Antiochian Mission Journey” in three phases plus travel to Rome. This is essentially a summary of the book of Acts, with more attention given to the Jerusalem council (Acts 15) than the anything else. He observes that Luke’s account of the council has a happy ending (everyone agrees with Paul’s gospel of grace), but Paul’s letters show the problem of the Judaizers continues to plague Paul’s churches. Keown has a brief note on the possibility of further ministry after Rome (after Acts 28) based on the Pastoral epistles.

The second chapter of the volume is a general introduction to the letters of Paul discussing structures, forms, rhetorical devices, etc. The longest section of the chapter is on authorship (p. 87-94), This is a spirited defense of Pauline authorship of all thirteen letters in the New Testament in eight points. His last point is perhaps the best: “the similarities outweigh the differences” (p.93). In addition, Keown observes “for those who accept biblical authority and inspiration, the issue of authorship is insignificant” (p. 94).

Eleven chapters survey Paul’s letters in canonical order. As with the first volume in this series, he examines the usual suggestions for date, authorship, and provenance, and in every case concludes the traditional view is correct. For example, he recognizes the possibility Ephesians may not be Pauline but concludes “it is more likely that it is genuine,” suggesting the use of an amanuensis for both Colossians and Ephesians. In the chapter on Philippians, he states Rome is the most likely point of origin, in his section on chronology early in the volume he includes an Ephesian imprisonment (A.D. 54/55) and implies Paul wrote Philippians at that time (compare page 5 and 251). He concludes the canonical order of letters to the Thessalonians is also the chronological order.

Keown combines the pastorals into a single chapter. Although Keown recognizes the Pastoral Epistles exhibit differences in vocabulary, style, and content than the other Pauline letters, he concludes “there is no reason to dispute the authenticity, considering the widespread early church acceptance, the rejection of pseudonymity/pseudepigraphy, the use of an amanuensis, and the differences in Paul’s coworkers’ situations” (p. 338).

Chapter 14 summarizes Paul’s theology in fifteen headings. For Keown, “the center of Paul’s thinking is the death and resurrection of Christ” (p. 409). One of these headings is the new perspective on Paul. Here, in a mere three pages, Keown introduces this important movement in Pauline studies. He suggests “the effect of the new perspective debate has been to complicate Pauline studies, especially in Romans, Galatians and Philippians 3.” this chapter on poles theology includes two sections on controversial ethical issues. First, he deals with Paul’s view on women. He contrasts the traditional, complementarian view with the egalitarian view, laying out the chief arguments and counterarguments for both positions, including a section on Paul’s more controversial statements in 1 Timothy 2:12. He does not argue for one position, although he states the “egalitarian hermeneutical approach is more focused on both the context and the culture of Paul’s ministry setting.” Whatever the decision, he says, “the issue should no longer divide the church” (p. 444).

The second controversial issue his Paul’s views on sexuality. He observes Paul endorsed heterosexual marriage and any variation on heterosexual marriage “should be repudiated on all its forms” (p. 444). Paul argued Christians who are married should seek to remain married. For Paul, sexual immorality violates the creation mandate and Paul was mortified when the Corinthian church dealt with serious immorality. Given the controversial nature of this particular issue, I am surprised there was not more discussion of homosexuality, especially the churches response to those with same sex attraction.

Chapter 15 introduces Paul’s missionary strategy. In this chapter he returns to the book of acts and examines Paul’s strategy of initially entering the synagogue, well developing a marketplace ministry in major cities. He discusses the importance of Paul’s tent-making as a mission strategy, following the work of Robert Hock. More important is the activity of the Holy Spirit. “While Paul had a clear strategy, he was flexible, always prepared to adjust to the Spirit and/or circumstances” (p. 477).

Conclusion. Keown’s work is in some ways similar to Carson and Moo’s popular An Introduction to the New Testament (Second Edition, Zondervan, 2005). It is clearly both conservative and evangelical, yet he is aware of other views and interacts with them throughout the text. The volumes will make excellent choices for a university or seminary classroom, but laypeople who want to go deeper than the introduction in their Study Bible will find Keown’s style readable and should have no trouble working their way through the text.

Remarkably, even at 1200+ pages for the two volumes, there are sections with seem brief. This is the nature of a survey text; perhaps this limitation could have been alleviated by including a “for further reading” for each unit. For example, at the end of his chapters on each Pauline letter, he could include a short bibliography of moderate and advanced commentaries (both evangelical and non-). For his chapter on Paul’s mission strategy, a list of several key monographs on the subject would point interested students to more detailed treatments. Keown refers to basic literature in the footnotes and the “Works Consulted” pages, but students using this textbook in a classroom could be better served with mini-biographies throughout the text.

NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book, both in print and Logos format. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Mark J. Keown, Discovering the New Testament

  1. What, pray tell, is the hermeneutical spiral? And what evidence does he have that Mark was before Philippians? Does he deal with the possibility of Philippians being written from Caesarea?

    Woodrow Nichols

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