Theissen, Gerd. The New Testament: A Literary History. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012.

The present volume is a translation of Gerd Theissen’s 2007 Die Entstehung des Neuen Testaments als literaturgeschichtliches Problem. The English version was done by Lindy Maloney who ‘excerpted and adapted’ the German version. Personally, the words ‘excerpted and adapted’ strike me as significant since one never knows without the original in hand what has been excerpted and what has been adapted. And while I’m sure Maloney has done a good job (or surely Theissen wouldn’t have signed off on the edition), I’m still left, as I make my way through it, where the excerpts and adaptations have taken place. Fortress kindly provides persons interested in the volume outtakes of it. So, for instance, if you want to see the entire table of contents you can go herehttp://augsburgfortress.org/media/downloads/9780800697853Toc.pdf Since the TOC is easily accessible, I won’t trouble readers with repeating it here. Interested in the Introduction wherein Theissen spells out his argument? Visit herehttp://augsburgfortress.org/media/downloads/9780800697853Intro.pdf You can even read the first chapter here if you wish to see how he applies his method to the oral prehistory of early Christian literaturehttp://augsburgfortress.org/media/downloads/9780800697853Chapter1.pdf You’ll want to do all of those things, because Theissen’s volume is, it turns out, remarkably readable and terribly informative and those sections will whet your appetite. Step by step, piece by piece, Theissen introduces readers to the literary history of the documents that came to be known as the New Testament and he also includes early Christian texts which were left out of the Canon. Theissen is, I think, right to see Early Christian Literature as an offshoot of specialized Jewish literature (pp. 9-13). But he also suggests Although the New Testament is part of Jewish-Hellenistic koine literature, its basic forms were inspired by the non-Jewish world. Which means that Early Christian literature … crosses boundaries (p. 13).

Naturally though this sounds akin to the rightfully debunked old idea that the koine of the New Testament was a special ‘Holy Spirit language’ it is anything but such an unsophisticated and inaccurate notion. Throughout his meticulously constructed volume Theissen makes observations the likes of which make readers sensitive to wit say ‘ah!’ to themselves. For instance Jesus directed his disciples to proclaim his message orally. He did not say: “Whoever reads you, reads me!” but ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me!” (Luke 10:16) (p. 20). Theissen goes to some lengths to show the orality of Jesus’ culture and in that regard he is much in sync with Mauro Pesce. Theissen also – I think correctly – sees orality as the source of variations in the Jesus tradition: The factual variability of the tradition can be better explained by oral variants than by conscious scribal activity (p. 21). And that shows how Theissen works. He disassembles the parts which comprise the traditions housed in the NT and looks at them under a developmental microscope and then puts them back together again. Reading Theissen is a joy. He’s so informative and so masters the materials that anyone who takes the tome in hand will discover something they had never considered. Like this (in connection with a discussion of Lk 10:5): By means of their peace greeting, Jesus’ disciples distinguish themselves from Judas Galilaois’s campaign. Refusal of taxation was a declaration of war. The pericope on the tribute (Mark 12:13-17) attests that Jesus really did have to separate himself from Judas Galilaios. Thus, a comparable distinction in the mission discourse is also possible (p. 24). After dealing with the oral stage Theissen moves to the core of his concern, the literary stage of the development of New Testament documents. He includes Q (in spite of the fact that in some quarters even saying Q will incur the wrath of some), the synoptic, prePauline Christianity, Paul (of course, with whom he spends a great deal of time), the catholic epistles (which he sees as countering Paul to some degree), and the Johannine material. But that isn’t all he discusses. He looks too at extracanonical materials and takes a stab at explaining pseudepigraphical texts.

He concludes with a thorough explanation of the canon and its development and here, in my estimation, he does his most important work. His suggestion that the canon is a means to stability based on compromise and demarcation is wonderfully explicated. This is a fantastic volume and readers of this review are urged to read Theissen for themselves. I am most grateful of all, though, for the fact that, unlike so many these days who feel pathologically compelled to cite or refer to some or other piece by N.T. Wright, Theissen never mentions him and doesn’t cite him in the very thorough bibliography. It really is a breath of fresh air given the constant bombardment of Wrightianity these days. Thank you, Professor Theissen, both for what you write, and also for what you don’t.

Jim West Quartz Hill School of Theology