by Ronald J. Allen
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Co. Grand Rapids, Mich. 216 pages
Ronald J. Allen’s “Reading the New Testament for the First Time” is an ambitious and useful book. It provides context and method for first-time readers of the New Testament, so that they can develop the confidence to be more systematic and efficacious in their reading, and solidify a developing faith.
The book starts rather slowly, and the tone in the beginning is uneven and distracting. Although much of the information is useful, the book assumes a reader with such a low level of general cultural understanding that it can be off-putting. “Papyrus” is spelled out phonetically, for example, as if the reader were seeing it for the first time.
The tonal problems subside, fortunately, and Allen hits stride in subsequent chapters, providing excellent historical background for the texts and their stories — the true strength and value of the book. After a quick survey of the contents of the New Testament in Chapter 3, Allen presents us with “The Story of Jesus” in Chapter 4 and moves on with a thorough discussion of the early church both before and after Paul. Allen’s discussion of the importance of Paul’s letters in Chapter 7 gives essential insight into how the early church was formed and maintained. His discussion of the four Gospels is revealing, as is the table he includes comparing the stories as they relate to the main events of Jesus’ life and teachings.
The most challenging and interesting moments of the book occur at the end, and in many ways, I would have preferred to read them at the beginning. These were the chapters that directly addressed the title. Chapter 11, which discusses some of the “big ideas” of the New Testament, was thought-provoking, as was Chapter 13 on “Using the New Testament in the Church Today” where Allen discusses “two ways of using the New Testament in the church today: multiple and single voice.”
Here, he outlines two competing reading strategies based on the presumed vocality of the texts: the multiple-voices-in-conversation strategy, “a perspective that understands the New Testament to consist of multiple voices” and the single-voice-in-conversation strategy, where the reader presumes a “single voice [is] speaking authoritatively.” These are not only helpful to the reader in the immediate practical sense, but they also map onto the larger hermeneutical schism that often surrounds religious, and even some foundational political, texts, more generally. How literally should a text be taken and read, and what roles do context and authorial intention play in interpreting a given reading? The multiple voices and single-voice strategies attempt to provide guidance in answering these important questions and are contrasted further on subsequent pages in the chapter.
The three appendices are no sundry afterthought. Appendix A discusses choosing an appropriate translation and Appendix B suggests resources for further study. Appendix C gives us “three plans for reading through the entire New Testament.” This is what every first-time reader needs.
WARD TIETZ is a word sculptor, a lecturer at Georgetown University and a deacon at Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in North Bethesda, Md.