New book takes readers through the A to Z of the New Testament
James McGrath’s latest book will take readers through some of the lesser-known aspects of the New Testament with which scholars are familiar. From the fact that Jesus made puns to the fact that no one knows who wrote Hebrews, The A to Z of the New Testament covers a good deal of ground.
“The A to Z of the New Testament is designed to give anyone and everyone the chance to know what New Testament scholars all know, and to learn it in a way that is fun and clear rather than difficult or dull,” Dr McGrath said.
“It is a book that on some level I long believed needs to exist, which to my surprise and delight Eerdmans approached me and asked me to write! I start the book with that story.”
Dr. McGrath is the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University. His PhD is from the University of Durham in England. His work there helped influence his latest book’s creation.
“When I was working on my PhD in the UK I was invited to give a talk about my research to Sixth Form students,” he said.
“Being from the United States, I had no idea what that meant, both because the educational systems are different and because we don’t typically have religious studies in high schools in the US.”
Dr McGrath said he found out that students learnt about the Synoptic Problem, questions of authorship and date, major themes and ideas of New Testament literature, “basically all the key things that you cover when you begin university studies in my field, and which we then build on in advanced courses and eventually our own individual research.”
This, he said, created a disconnect: teenagers in the UK were learning and understanding concepts that many churchgoers might never learn.
“Time and again people encounter an idea that isn’t at all controversial among scholars and are surprised by it,” he said.
“They’ll say things like, “That can’t be right” and “Why did no one ever tell me this before?””
“This book aims to address that, to take all those things and meander through them in a way that isn’t systematic but thematic. It starts with things in the New Testament and asks questions about them, pointing out things that are interesting and/or unclear and then working through how scholars have wrestled with these things and the solutions and methods we’ve come up with. The book is woven through with stories, attempts at humour, and references to things like Star Wars and Friends.”
Dr McGrath recently completed a sabbatical year, during which he said he worked on the book and a few other projects.
“As someone who had been blogging for a long time, seeking to convey things about the New Testament to a general audience, and as someone who teaches undergraduates in introductory classes, I had been working on my skills at communicating these things to an audience that may not have much or any background that would help them understand,” he said.
“I had been getting in shape for this sprint, as it were. I was thus ready to go and eager to write the book, and it came together quite quickly. I then spent the remainder of my sabbatical working on books about John the Baptist, which should be out during 2024.”
According to Dr McGrath, the books he just finished put John the Baptist into focus. He said he believed the Baptist was overlooked.
“All Christians are familiar with him, but just as the opening act to prepare the way for Jesus,” he said.
“Initially John was the more famous of the two and Jesus was thought of in relation to him. Indeed, we are told that one of the most popular opinions about Jesus in his time was that he himself was John the Baptist! Because we jump past John so quickly, we then find it difficult to answer all kinds of questions that come up about Jesus, early Christian literature, and of course baptism itself.”
“I won’t spoil the solutions I’ve come up with to some of the trickier problems in my field, but I will tell you some of the topics I tackle, which might surprise some people as things they don’t associate with John. The books offer explanations for the expression Son of Man in the Gospels, the character of the Gospel source known as “Q,” the origin of baptism and why John developed it, the origin of Gnosticism, and the relevance of Mandaean sources to the quest for the historical John.”
“If I’m right about even a couple of my innovative suggestions, this research will make an important contribution to our understanding of the New Testament and Christian origins.”
“I said “books” in the plural and I did indeed write two books about John the Baptist, both of which will be published by Eerdmans, who is also publishing The A to Z of the New Testament. There is a big thick academic book about John the Baptist, the title of which will be John of History, Baptist of Faith. There’s also a general audience biography of John the Baptist with the title Christmaker: A Life of John the Baptist.”
He also has another book currently underway.
“When I finished my sabbatical, I said I’d take a while and not worry about what my next book project would be. As it turns out, something has caught my attention already and so I’m already beginning to tinker with another book for a general audience. I will tell you more about it once it has taken a bit clearer shape, as I think the subject will interest you and your readers immensely!”
The A to Z of the New Testament is now available.