Introducing the New Testament

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

Materials available for professors by request only


2. The New Testament Writings

Discussion Prompts

  1. Compare the ancient use and views of authorship (use in a local community, anonymity, writing in the style of another previous author) with contemporary views of authorship (publicity, copyright laws, citation, plagiarism) (text pp. 48–49).
  2. Compare and contrast the modern concerns of historiography (dates, “facts,” confirmation of events, eyewitnesses, and archeological confirmation) with ancient concerns for preserving church tradition (text pp. 49–53).
  3. What are the criteria for including a writing in the canonical lists? What did the early church mean by “apostolic Christianity” (text p. 53)? Why did church leaders begin constructing lists of Christian writings?
  4. What interest does the New Testament have for today’s historians (text p. 55)? How do historians use the New Testament for constructing historical and social models (see, e.g., Luke 4; James 1–2; last supper in Matthew, and table fellowship in 1 Corinthians)?
  5. 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 text pp. 59–60).

Pedagogical Suggestions

The Process of Canonization

1. Using box 2.2, 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 use a map and show the geographical movements, as well as specific names of the historical figures involved and where they write or minister, and what they 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 2 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 exercise 2, 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.

Experimenting with Methodologies

2. Have students in small groups (2–3 people) experiment with a few of the methodologies on text pages 54–59. 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.

Deconstructing Ideology

3. 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.