Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

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3. The New Testament Writings


This chapter should enable the student to

  • list seven categories of books found in the New Testament and recognize why many of the books are arranged in the order in which they are now found.
  • explain the process by which the New Testament writings came to be regarded as Christian Scripture.
  • identify numerous scholarly approaches and methods employed within the discipline of academic New Testament study.
  • understand the manner in which various exegetical methods may be employed for different ends by scholars with diverse hermeneutical stances.

Pedagogical Suggestions

Ask students to map (draw, write, illustrate with images, sketches, timeline, or outline) the process of canonization from the original writing of Christian texts to gathering and collecting a few texts in local churches, to creating lists of the “standard” writings, to fourth-century canonization. Encourage students to name the specific historical figures involved and what each contributed to the early Christian writings. You might offer students a list of these figures, named in the alternative exercise below.

Alternative to exercise 1 (text pp. 50–53). Using a map; the names of early Christian writings; the roles involved in creating, sending, and interpreting these writings; and the names of the historical figures involved in these roles: assign students a role (scribe, letter carrier, house church leader, local bishop, itinerant minister), or the name of an early Christian figure (Paul, James, Peter, John the Seer, Luke, Mark, Tertullian, Marcion, Irenaeus), a place (Rome, Tarsus, Antioch, Jerusalem, Patmos), and the writing they are associated with. Have the students enact the process of expansion and contraction involved in the development of the New Testament writings and canon over time and through the Mediterranean geography.

You might put up place names in the room (extreme corners being Jerusalem and Rome on one diagonal, with Antioch, Syria, and Alexandria, Egypt on the other diagonal. Be sure to identify Greece and Asia Minor. Further details would include the travel routes, that is, the Via Egnatia from Asia Minor to Rome, and the bodies of water in between land masses (Mediterranean, Aegean, Bosphorus, etc.). Historical figures: Paul, Timothy, Sylvanus, Tychicus (Rom. 16), Phoebe (carries Romans for Paul), “Mark,” “Matthew,” “John,” “Luke-Acts,” John of Patmos, Peter, James (Jerusalem), Syntuche and Euodia (Philippians), Epaphroditus (Philippians), Chloe, Marcion (second century, Rome), Tatian (eastern Empire), Eusebius (see text ch. 1).

Now put the entire enactment into motion. Call out the time period, or simply direct the process. You might further organize the process through note cards that cue the students as to their roles and movements. If there is more time, the students can construct the figures and place names from chapter 3 and write the information on note cards, then switch cards and enact a different part.


In these exercises, students learn the process of canonization, writing, and collecting of the New Testament writings through visualization, motion, and, in alternative exercise 1, embodied movement around the classroom. That this “book” took three hundred to four hundred years to reach a closed stage of development is difficult to grasp, as is the number of people and the physical work involved. By enacting or drawing these stages and observing the roles different historical figures played, students gain an appreciation of the broad scope of history that the New Testament represents.

2. Experimenting with Methodologies

Have students in small groups (2–3 people) experiment with a few of the methodologies on text pages 62–66. First, students may choose (or you assign) one of the various methodologies to use on the same text to see what each method reveals and what details the method draws on to create that reading. For example, ask four groups to analyze Luke 4, each group using one of the following methods: historical criticism, source criticism, narrative, and form criticism. What pieces or details of the text stood out in each method? Why? What parts of the narrative were left aside? How might the class coordinate or integrate the four views of Luke 4 together into one picture?

Second, or alternatively, walk the class through each of the methodologies (or a selection of the 9), as you apply the methods one by one to specific texts. For example, historical criticism (Matt. 1:1–17; Mark 14:12–31; 1 Pet. 3:1–12; or Heb. 4:1–11); source criticism (Matt. 2 or 1 Cor. 11:23–26); form criticism (Mark 13; Phil. 2:5–11; or Matt. 5); redaction criticism and a comparison of Matthew (3:13–17) and Luke (3:21–22) with Mark (1:9–11) on baptism; narrative criticism (Acts 3:1–10; 4:32–5:11; or John 9); rhetorical criticism and Mark (8:22–33), John (13:31–35 or 14:1–14), or Paul on Abraham (Rom. 9:1–18 or Gal. 1–5); reader-response criticism in Ephesians (6:5–9) or Galatians (3:23–29); ideological criticism and Paul (1 Tim. 2:1–15) or Revelation (17); deconstruction (Mark 7:24–30; Luke 4:1–13; or John 3:1–30).


Practice makes perfect; practice also requires students to engage the tools that biblical scholars employ on a daily basis. When the student becomes a “lab” or “workshop” for using biblical methodologies, students discover the overlap between these tools (e.g., historical criticism includes source criticism), and their limitations (literary criticism cannot answer historical questions but can be combined with historical methods). Students also will experience multiple ways of reading that can be applied to many other fields of inquiry and study. If students are familiar with scientific methods of experimentation in the laboratory, they can see the ways in which textual fields of study have also developed scientific methodologies that conduct “experimentation” in the form of language, and the interplay of language, writer, and readers through history.

3. Deconstructing Ideology

To focus on more modern methodologies (i.e., ideological criticism and deconstruction) play a game. In small groups, or alone, have students interpret a text according to a particular ideological perspective (feminism, communism, black power, commercialism, democratic perspective, republican perspective, antiabortion, libertarian, etc.). They can make the interpretation as outrageous as they like—as long as they employ evidence from the text. Then have groups guess (deconstruct) the ideology behind the interpretation. This can also work well by having students draw (color or sketch) the ideological perspective (Revelation works particularly well here), exchanging drawings within the small groups, or, down the row of desks, and then asking students to deconstruct the imagery in the visual interpretation.


This exercise gives students practice in articulating and examining specific ideological perspectives and applying these perspectives to biblical texts. Likewise, they must then be able to analyze someone else’s interpretation and identify another’s ideological perspective. This is important for reading secondary literature. (You might ask students to see if they can identify any ideological leanings in Dr. Powell’s Introducing the New Testament!) The exercise may be difficult for students who come from a strong tradition of literal interpretation because it encourages playful readings rather than the single, original meaning that a literal interpretation seeks. This raises the question of interpretive boundaries when working with texts. You can move to a discussion of hermeneutical ethics—or the ethical guidelines for interpreting Scriptures.

Discussion Prompts

  1. Review the seven categories of New Testament books (text pp. 56–57). What are the advantages and disadvantages of categorizing the books this way? What order would you put them in if you were compiling the New Testament today?
  2. Review the methods of studying the New Testament (text pp. 62–66). What are the particular advantages and potential problems of each?
  3. What is the difference between exegesis and hermeneutics (text pp. 67–68)? Why must they not be confused?
  4. For seminarians or undergraduates, a good (sometimes heated!) discussion consists of constructing the ethical parameters for hermeneutics of the New Testament writings. Is anything possible (deconstruction)? Are there ethical limits to how one can apply the New Testament today (i.e., slaves obey your masters; women be silent)? Are there kinds of interpretation that are appropriate (ethical) for historians to use? For use in an ecumenical setting such as the world church? Are there limits to interpretation within church tradition? Are there ethical considerations for public forums within the US democracy? Have students wrestle with articulating these parameters (see “Conclusion” on text pp. 68–69).

Explore Readings

These readings provide a chance for your students to explore the New Testament in more depth. The boxes from the text are included here, as well as bibliographies and outlines for the books of the New Testament.

All the Explore readings can also be downloaded as PDFs here.