General Synoptic Gospels

NEW RELEASE: A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Studies (Nijay Gupta)

The prolific Nijay Gupta has yet another new book out, A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Studies: Understanding Key Debates (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020). I was very grateful to receive a copy in the mail so I wanted to say a few things about it. I hope to write more on this down the line.

As the title advertises, it offers an up-to-date introduction of some of the crucial debates in New Testament studies. This looks like an excellent introduction. The book is a very manageable size – less than 190 pages of actual text (not including the helpful indices in the back).

Gupta is in an excellent position to write this book after having edited the new book, The State of New Testament Studies (Baker Academic, 2019)(see my review here). I am sure that book gave him a helpful perspective on where the fault lines are today. This book distills those conversations to its essentials, including helpful bibliographies at the end of each chapter.

The Table of Contents looks like this:

  1. The Synoptic Problem
  2. The Historical Jesus
  3. The Fourth Gospel and History
  4. Jesus and Paul
  5. Paul’s Theological Perspective
  6. Paul and the Jewish Law
  7. Interpreting the Book of Revelation
  8. Pseudonymity and the New Testament Letters
  9. The New Testament and the Roman Empire
  10. Women in Leadership in the New Testament
  11. Justification by Faith and Judgment according to Works
  12. The Old Testament in the New Testament
  13. The Application and Use of Scripture

This looks like a great textbook for a New Testament survey course. It is also a very help book for those who are just getting started in New Testament Studies.

I think scholars will also read this with great interest. Why?

For example, take the first chapter on the Synoptic Problem, that is, the challenge of explaining the literary relationship of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (which wrote first? who copied from who? etc.). Gupta’s book handles the matter efficiently. What is clear though is this: the Two-Source theory–the notion of Matthew and Luke’s use of a hypothetical document called “Q”–is no longer the unquestionable dogma it once was.

Of course, there were always dissenters to Q. The standard line given was that only extremists doubted the existence of such a sayings source. This was always unfair. There have long been scholars who were Q-skeptics. Some are rather significant figures.

It never ceases to amaze me that E.P. Sanders–the scholar who wrote landmark books in both Pauline studies (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 1977) and Jesus research (Jesus and Judaism, 1985), was a Q-skeptic. In a book he co-wrote with Margaret Davies, Sanders writes,

“Of all the solutions [to the Synoptic Problem], this one, which remains the dominant hypothesis, is least satisfactory.”[1]

–E. P. Sanders and Margaret Davies

This is amazing to me because, when I was an undergraduate, a professor told me that only clowns disagreed with Q. Essentially, conversation about this was simply not permitted by serious scholars.

That kind of rhetoric has shut down meaningful discussion too long. Thankfully, it has not been able to prevail.

In fact, Q-Skepticism has gained momentum in recent years due to the persuasive work of Mark Goodacre, who, from what I can tell, is winning a hearing with younger scholars.[2] I think those who have published less are more open to hearing him because they have less to fear.

(By the way, I highly recommend Goodacre’s podcasts on the topic, especially his extended ones which can be found here and here and here. Goodacre is a truly excellent teacher and I have learned a lot about how to best present and organize this material from listening to him. Even when I disagree with him–not on Q-skepticism–I always appreciate his thoughtful takes.)

Anyways, all of this shows why a new introduction like Gupta’s is needed. The unquestioned dogmas of New Testament studies should be subject to scrutiny. Discussion is needed.

From what I have read so far, Gupta does a great job of setting up the parameters of the debates without being heavy-handed. In fact, he goes beyond literary issues to talk about recent advances in oral traditioning scholarship, which has important implications for the Synoptic Problem.

To be clear, I don’t get the sense that Gupta is a Q-Skeptic. But that is a good thing. He doesn’t play all of his cards. For this reason, the book would seem perfect as a textbook precisely because it will stimulate conversation. And that is an especially fun part of teaching.

Like I said, I plan to have more to say about this book down the road. Until then, don’t take my word for it — here is a link to the publisher’s page, which has a compilation of endorsements from some serious scholars.

[1] E. P. Sanders and Margaret Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels (London: SCM Press, 1989), 117.

[2] Mark Goodacre, The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press 2002).

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