What is happening in current study of the Gospels and Acts?

The introductory textbooks Exploring the New Testament are a fantastic one-stop guide to engaging with the gospels and Acts (volume 1) and the letters and Revelation (volume 2). Published by SPCK, volume 1 has just been issued in a third, substantially revised, edition. (The third edition of volume 2, to which I have contributed, will be issued in May).

I asked Steve Walton and David Wenham, authors of volume 1, about this new text.

IP: How did your interest in this book start—what prompted your involvement?

SW & DW: David’s interest in the project came out of his own teaching first in India and then in Oxford; he has always wanted to make the New Testament and its context come alive for students, and to help people navigate the sometimes choppy and challenging waters of academic NT studies constructively and critically.

Steve’s involvement in the project began in his early days teaching at St John’s College, Nottingham (an Anglican theological college, alas, now closed). He was teaching a core course introducing the Gospels and Acts to students, and after a couple of years he became frustrated with the textbooks which were available then (mid-1990s). His frustration was that these books tended to tell students lots about the Gospels and Acts without engaging students in reading the Gospels and Acts for themselves. That led to a conversation with his then-colleague, Stephen Travis, who was involved in planning two books designed to help beginning students engage with the New Testament, and the invitation to be part of the project.

IP: The book has an interesting layout, with a mixture of features. What have been your aims in composing the book in this manner, and how has that worked?

SW & DW: In order to help people engage with the Gospels and Acts for themselves, we realised that we required a number of components, both in content and in the style and features of the book.

In terms of content, we give readers:

a sense of the historical, cultural and theological setting of the Gospels and Acts (chapters 1 and 2);
an understanding of the kind of books the Gospels are among ancient literature, so that they read them with eyes open to how they communicate (chapter 3);
a grasp of the process by which the Gospels were put together, including an awareness of how scholars have studied them (chapter 4);
a helpful approach to reading the Gospels today, using tools which scholars have developed to assist in that process. This includes how to read specific kinds of stories in the Gospels, especially parables and miracles, and a discussion of the historical value of the Gospels—about which we’re very positive (chapter 5);
an overview of how scholars have understood the Jesus of history in relation to the Gospels, tracing some of the key figures in ‘historical Jesus’ studies, and considering some key issues, such as the plausibility of miracle accounts (chapter 6);
a review of the life story of Jesus according to the Gospels, tracing the story from Jesus’ birth through to his death and resurrection (chapter 7);
an outline of key themes in the teaching of Jesus which help us to see what his aims were: why he died, how he understood the kingdom of God, his teaching on ethics and the Jewish law, his understanding of his own identity and his place in the purposes of God (chapter 8);