Keown, Mark J. Discovering the New Testament: An Introduction to Its Background, Theology, and Themes (Volume 3: General Letters and Revelation). Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2022. 487 pp.; Hb.; $44.99. Link to Lexham Press
This new volume completes Keown’s introduction to the New Testament (see my review of volumes 1-2 here). Keown has also written a exegetical commentary on Philippians (Evangelical Exegetical Commentary, Lexham 2017). Like the first two volumes Discovering the New Testament is an introduction and theology of the New Testament written from a generally conservative viewpoint. This volume on the final third of the New Testament has chapters on each of the books in the section (2-3 John are combined). Other than a few pages on the title general or catholic epistles, there is no additional prolegomena in the third volume.
Hebrews. Keown summarizes the four most likely authors for Hebrews (Luke, Silas, Apollos, and Barnabas), concluding “I am drawn to Barnabas as a very good candidate for the letter, but with little confidence” (7). Like authorship, he is not confident, but leans towards Rome during Nero’s persecution in the mid-60s for provenance. Hebrews may be written to Ephesus, where Christians were deserting the church for the relative safety of Judaism (11). But Keown suggests the book could be addressed to Christians anywhere Timothy or other coworkers of Paul traveled. Regarding the situation behind Hebrews, Keown suggests believers are deserting the gospel, abandoning the Christian faith for Judaism (13). He traces the major themes of the book under the heading situation before moving to other controversial issues in the book. For example, he addresses the issue “Can Believers Fall Away?” (27- 30). Based on the warning passages in Hebrews 6:4-8 and 10:26-31, he argues the readers are, in fact, believers who have fully experienced the Christian life. These passages therefore speak of the real possibility of falling away. The author “genuinely recognizes the possibility some readers, who have formerly experienced the fullness of salvation, faith and blessing, might fall away” (29). This is not a hypothetical situation (as is sometimes argued). Keown warns, if Hebrews 6:4-6 passage is hypothetical, then it is possible any passages in Hebrews are hypothetical. However, in other places, the writer of Hebrews says believers will not fall away. For example, after his stern warning, the writer says, “we feel better things about you” (Hebrews 6:9). Following the warning in 10:26-39 is an explicit statement of confidence. Keown concludes: “complex defenses of preset theologies seem ill-advised where Hebrews is concerned” and readers should “stop short of putting together a perfect theology seeking to answer questions the author has not answered for us” (30)
James. Keown says, “there is absolutely no reason to diverge from the tradition of the church that James, the brother of Jesus, is the author of the letter” (71). With respect to date, the letter of James could be written anytime between AD 40-62, although he leans towards a later time, after Paul’s second Antioch mission (55-62). Since James does not repudiate Paul’s view of justification, the early date is not required. He argues James wrote the letter from Jerusalem and that the “twelve tribes” are figurative for all Christians. This is consistent with his view of 1 Peter.
1 Peter. Keown argues the case for Petrine authorship is “very strong” and he is very confident the apostle Peter dictated the letter to Silas (1 Peter 5:12). after a short biography of the historical Peter, he suggests a date of 64, depending on traditions of Peter’s death. Keown argues for the traditional view that the letter Peter wrote from Rome, but it is not clear why Peter wrote to the particular churches listed in verse one. He suggests the churches were facing persecution, as was being experienced by the Roman church at the time. As with James, Keown argues the letter uses the “metaphor of Christians as exiles, aliens, foreigners, strangers, and sojourners” (146).
2 Peter. As expected, much of this chapter concerns the relationship of 2 Peter with Jude. He interacts with Richard Bauckham and concludes that both letters used a common source, although this cannot be certain. Regarding authorship, Keown deals with the problem of pseudepigraphic authorship and concludes, although it cannot be stated absolutely, the weight of evidence suggests 2 Peter is authentic and written independent of Jude about AD 64-68.
1 John. Although the letter is anonymous, Keown accepts with the tradition the author is the same as the gospel of John. In his first volume, Keown argued the apostle John wrote the Gospel from Ephesus before he was exiled to Patmos. This implies a date between 60-81, although he prefers toward the end of that period. The recipients of the letter are residents of Asia Minor, likely the same churches addressed by the Book of Revelation. He argues the false teachers behind the letter are not full-blown Gnostics (since he dates the book early, before Gnosticism developed). Whoever the opponents are, they have a defective view of Jesus John must correct. Regarding genre, he does not think this is a traditional letter, suggesting it is more like an encyclical. There are some elements of a sermon and a letter present in 1 John. He does not deal with often complicated theories concerning the relationship of 1 John and the Gospel of John.
2-3 John. These two brief letters identify the author as “the elder,” although it cannot be absolutely certain who the elder was. Keown accepts the traditional view the elder is apostle John, author of the Gospel of John, all three letters, and Revelation. John wrote the letters about the same time as the 1 John to individual churches in Asia Minor, possibly a local congregation in Ephesus. The “elect lady and her children” in 2 John refers to a local church rather than a female church leader.
Jude. Keown argues in favor of the traditional view that Jude was the brother of James, the brother of Jesus. It is the best option, although uncertain, since so little is known about the author. He includes a brief biography of Jude based on tradition. Jude wrote early, in the 50s but certainly before AD 62. the traditional date for the death of James. There’s nothing to suggest provenance (probably Palestine written to unknown readers). The early reception of Jude in Egypt might imply Jude was written to Alexandria. The identity of the opponents is the key question. Since he dates the book too early for Gnosticism, he concludes simply the opponents are “are arrogant, self-professing Christians who dare to eat the Lord’s supper and engage in debauched living at the same time” (251). Regarding the use of non-canonical sources, Jude is using them because they were well known to the readers. This does not imply that these texts are authoritative, although reading them may be of value to modern readers.
Revelation. At 109 pages, Keown’s chapter on Revelation is by far the longest in the book. Keown argues that John the Apostle is the author of Revelation, although he is open to the idea of a Johannine school. He leans toward a date during the reign of Domitian (AD 81-96, likely 95-96), although he admits during the reign of Nero is a possibility. This section includes a few pages defining apocalyptic literature, various millennial positions, and basic methods for interpreting revelation. These methods include preterism, historicism, idealism, extreme futurism, and moderate futurism. like many conservative interpreters of revelation, he sees aspects of preterism, idealism, and futurism as valuable for understanding the theology of the book of Revelation. This eclectic view set aside extreme futurism (by which he seems to mean “left behind” dispensationalism) and historicism. For example, he takes the references to seven churches as real, historical churches, best understood in their actual geographic and historical context. Nevertheless, the message to each of the seven churches has a timeless value for the Christians living in any time and place. He concludes with several pages offering advice or strategies for reading Revelation. Keown suggests it is advisable to read Revelation with an open mind to various scholarly approaches. “The book paints a picture of the glorious victory of God, the destruction of all evil, restoration of the cosmos, the removal of all suffering, and God and his people living in joy in peace forever” (373). Almost seventy pages of this chapter are titled “some theological aspects of Revelation” (God, sin and evil, Christ, Spirit, eschatology, use of Christian tradition (allusions to the New Testament), use of the Old Testament, response to God, and angels).
Conclusion. This third volume of Discovering the New Testament continues the project of the first two. Keown does an excellent job serving general options for authorship, date, origin, and audience for the final books of the New Testament. In almost every case, he concludes the traditional view is acceptable even if he is not dogmatic. Keown presents a fair description of opposing views throughout the book. Like the classic, single volume Carson and Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Zondervan, 2005), Mark Keown’s Discovering the New Testament makes an excellent textbook for a seminary classroom.
Lexham posted an interview: Does the New Testament Have a Theology? An interview with Mark Keown
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.