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The New Testament As Literature (A Very Short Introduction)

By Kyle Keefer
April 2009 | Review by Graham Heaps


A fascinating investigation of the New Testament as a classic literary work, this Very Short Introduction uses a literary framework―plot, character, narrative arc, genre―to illuminate the language, structure, and the crafting of this venerable text.

  • Publisher: Oxford University Press USA
  • ISBN: 978-0195300208
  • Pages: 136
  • Price: £4.99
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Book Review

This is one of a series of ‘very short introductions’ to subjects as diverse as anarchism, dreaming, Kafka, music and schizophrenia! Its author is the Assistant Professor of Religion at a college in South Carolina.

His basic approach is to seek to understand each book of the New Testament according to the purpose and style of its human author and to do justice to the striking differences of approach and language found, for example, in Matthew, Paul’s letters and Revelation. He also considers the parallel accounts of the life of Jesus in the four Gospels.

The approach has considerable merit but the book is greatly marred by scepticism regarding the divine authorship of the New Testament. The end product is a strange and unpalatable mixture of insight and superficiality, of regard for the text and crass liberalism.

Some of its conclusions are surprisingly sympathetic to the NT writers. For example, Keefer is unexpectedly positive about Paul and speaks in defence of his alternating rigidity and flexibility. Indeed, he is scathing about liberal caricatures of the apostle. Yet on the other hand he paints exaggerated and stereotyped pictures of the differences between the four Gospels.

That there are significant differences of approach and emphasis between the Gospel writers needs to be appreciated if we are to understand their individual contributions to a full perception of Jesus. Yet reading this ‘short introduction’ one could, at times, think that the Bible presents us with four incompatible, largely mythical, portraits of Jesus –– so severely does Keefer exaggerate the different slants of the Gospel writers.

I find it impossible to recommend Keefer’s book, notwithstanding its admirable brevity and the value of his stated approach. Sadly, it demonstrates vividly the need for the insight into Scripture that only the Spirit of Truth can give. Those who lack this insight may admire much about the Bible but they cannot appreciate its real treasures.

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