The authors of this commentary on the New Testament are individually veteran exegetes familiar to Biblical scholars, and collectively they bring their decades of expertise and scholarly production to this imposing task: to write a commentary on the New Testament that is accessible to general readership without sacrificing scholarly or spiritual depth.
The authors propose this volume as a modern updating of The People’s New Testament with Notes, written by Barton Warren Johnson and published in two volumes in 1889 and 1891. The word “People” in the title, though, is not intended to downplay the accuracy and subtlety of the text, as if “the people” did not have the requisite academic training to understand the book’s message. Rather, the aim of this commentary is, in the words of the authors, “to clarify matters of history, culture, geography, literature, and translation so that the people can more readily listen to the text” (p. ix). The format of the book reflects that objective in two important ways. First, the book avoids the systematic presentation of competing opinions of scholars, and instead serves as a forum for the perspectives of the authors themselves; and in most instances, the positions of the authors on the meaning of disputed texts reflects mainstream and traditional Christianity. And second, the book contains only the most minimal amount of introductory material in the areas of Canon, Authorship, Transmission of Traditions, Methods of Interpretation, Genre, the Search for the Historical Jesus, and so forth. Indeed, the general introduction of the book covers just barely more that 9 pages of two-column text—this for a commentary that proceeds for more than 800 pages. This light touch in the matter of introduction is deliberate, as the authors do not want to weigh down the minds of the readers with pre-conceived notions on the content of the preaching of Jesus, the various apostles, and the life of the early Church. The authors prefer that the readers approach the texts with something close to a “tabula rasa,” so as to allow questions to arise naturally in the minds and hearts of the readers and thus to allow the Gospel to surprise the reader in virtually every verse.
In regard to the theological content of the commentary, two repeated themes seemed to dominate:
1) The eschatological tension embedded in the entire New Testament, namely, that the Christ-Event has broken into history and into human hearts, as both an accomplished fact (through Christ’s death and Resurrection) and as a word of hope. The authors point out that the “already/ not yet” tension easily apparent, for example, in the Gospel of John and the Letters of Paul, pervades the entire New Testament, even in texts where it may not be so apparent. For example, the authors’ discussion of Jesus’ encounter with the Syropheonician Woman in Mark 7, 24-30 makes a convincing case that the dialogue hints at this very theme:
While the strategic objectives of the authors are certainly laudable, the appearance of this commentary, ironically enough, suggests to this reviewer that the literary genre “Commentary” has run its course. Perhaps what “the people” need is not a verse-by-verse commentary on the New Testament but a spiritual work-book, something that will promote personal reflection and personal prayer, but also reflection upon texts expressed in a community setting, perhaps even in a quasi-liturgical setting. We should take to heart the statement of the authors, commenting on the text of John 20,15 (“Whom are you looking for?”): “It turns out that, after all, the goal of the human quest is not a ‘what’ but a ‘who,’ not things or something, but the personal One who is the source and goal of our existence” (357). Perhaps what we need is a spiritual work-book that brings us closer to that Person. Thus, at the end of each section of the book, rather than a bibliography, I would have liked something like “Questions for further reflection,” or invitations for a prayer-like response, or suggestions for personal or community application of texts.