[K:JNWTS 26/3 (2011):20-23]

Book Review

Kyle Keefer, The New Testament as Literature: A Very Short Introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008. 136pp. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-1953-0020-8. $11.95.

Looking for a book to introduce newcomers to the New Testament as literature, Dr. Keefer’s title might catch our eye. Having taken a couple classes alongside Kyle Keefer in his student days at Emory, I remember his interesting comments on literature during class discussions. And thus I was interested to see what he would do in this short introduction. The book displays some of Dr. Keefer’s literary interests, particularly those in Shakespeare and in Chaucer. He also seeks to relate some of these insights to his interpretation of the New Testament, at least in outline. For instance, he comments on how the parable of the Good Samaritan presses the reader to consider the possibility of interpreting the Good Samaritan as the neighbor as well as the man on the road. And he introduces newcomers to some of the literary contents of Mark, such as the difference between insiders and outsiders, the dullness of the disciples, and the three predictions of Jesus’ death. However, Dr. Keefer’s discussion seems to turn more into a short recitation of the narratives than literary analysis as we move along, especially as we get to Matthew and Luke. He does comment on the connection between Luke and Acts, but does not develop this connection in ways that would at least reflect some of the literary insights of his teacher, Luke Timothy Johnson. That is, he does not comment on prophesies made in Luke that are fulfilled in Acts or on the prophetic resemblance of the apostles in Acts to that of Jesus in the gospel. Nor does he summarize the literary insights of Robert Tannehill on Luke. As for Acts, he does reflect on the main character of the book, indicating that it is the Holy Spirit. Luke does not complete the lives of any of the other characters, since they are significant only insofar as they are guided by the Holy Spirit. Thus, Dr. Keefer concludes that Christ continues to be prominent in the narrative of Acts.

Dr. Keefer’s comments on the dialogues in John and the misunderstanding of hearers returns us to something closer to a narrative analysis, but he does not connect them to the rich displacement/replacement themes of the gospel. Unfortunately, these insights into the main narratives of the New Testament are a bit thin, as we see it, for a promising introduction (albeit “short”) of the New Testament as literature.

The book would seem appropriate only for the most basic of beginners. However, for this purpose we cannot recommend it for other reasons as well. Dr. Keefer shows his higher critical cards at various points. On the authorship of the gospels, he asserts that none of the gospel writers were those whose names were attached to the documents. None of the gospel writers were companions of Jesus. This is not the stuff to give a beginner even if the book otherwise contained more literary insights into the New Testament.

Further, he denies the heavenly character of union with Christ in John’s gospel and replaces it with a form of mystical union that is non-eschatological. Here Dr. Keefer is following a higher critical argument that John’s gospel is a movement away from the apocalypticism of other New Testament authors. Thus, he gives us a form of Christ mysticism that follows liberal Christianity rather than John. While asserting the apocalyptic character of the book of Revelation, Dr. Keefer also shows his higher critical hand here as well, asserting that its language of eternal judgment is essentially mythological. He thereby undermines the need for Christ’s substitutionary work by which he bore the eternal wrath of God. The gospel for which our budding beginners have come to faith is thus torn asunder and some are thrown into confusion.

Again, in his discussion of Paul, he notes the literary character of the letters, but his insights into those letters fall short. First, our beginner is told that Paul did not write the Pastoral Epistles, though Dr. Keefer does include 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians and Colossians in his discussion of Paul. While Dr. Keefer does outline some elements of Greco-Romans rhetoric (such as ethos, pathos and logos), he tries to discuss ethos and pathos separated from logos. We do not object to his focusing attention on each of these one at a time for the sake of discussion; and here he has some insights. However, even where he focuses attention on Paul’s ethos and pathos, we think that Dr. Keefer stretches his point too far when he contrasts how Paul separates himself from the Galatians to the way in which Paul unites himself to other churches. For in 4:12-5, Paul reminds the Galatians of their former bond to him, introducing this recollection with the words: “become as I am, for I also have become as you are”. And the narration of his former life in Judaism, conversion, and preaching among the Gentiles (1:13-24) partially functions as his introductory attempt to encourage the Galatians (now attached to Judaism) to unite themselves to his story in Christ. In this way, they will return to the gospel. With this qualification, Dr. Keefer has some basic insights into Paul’s rhetorical strategy in his letters.

But when Dr. Keefer uses rhetoric to state that Paul is not a dogmatic teacher like Augustine, we cannot agree. If he simply had in mind that Paul is a redemptive-historical theologian rather than a topical doctrinal preacher, we would concur. But instead Dr. Keefer seems to suggest that the purpose of these letters is not to reveal a coherent theology (which he believes focuses too much on logos). Here once again he reveals his higher critical hand. We believe that we find in Paul’s letters the revelation of the apostolic biography and union with Christ for the sake of the church. But this revelation is a revelation of God’s heavenly glory in Christ unto the eschatological glorification of his name. As such it must also be coherent or it is weak and inglorious. Thus, this message is eminently theocentric (theological) and Christocentric (Christological), and the development of Christian doctrine in the church is a natural outgrowth of the teaching and assumptions of the New Testament authors. As Greco-Roman rhetoricians argued for logos (reason) by establishing their credibility (ethos) and making passionate appeals (pathos), so does Paul in his letters.

Where Dr. Keefer does discuss theology, he denies Luther’s teaching of simul justus et peccator—that Christians are simultaneously just and sinners while still in this world. Luther had supported this doctrine with Augustine’s interpretation of Romans 7, claiming that it referred to Christians. Like Jacob Arminius, Ernst Kasemann and a stream of higher critics, Dr. Keefer claims that the text refers to unbelievers and thinks he has thereby undermined Luther’s doctrine. However, this is not the only text on which Luther based his teaching. Romans 4:5, in which God “justifies the ungodly” so that “his faith is reckoned as righteousness”, was another primary text. As for Romans 7, no unbeliever completely in bondage to sin could say (like the Psalmists) “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man” (Rom. 7:22). While we believe Paul is here focusing on Old Testament saints who are “sold under bondage to sin” relatively speaking (Gal. 4:1-3), continuity exists between them and New Testament Christians who are also simul justus et peccator. And it is on this basis that Paul can seek to have his readers identify with these OT saints through his use of “I” (perhaps the rhetorical use of speech-in-context). Paul does this for the purpose of leading them on to the fuller identification with Christ that takes place in the redemptive-historical transition of Rom. 8:1ff.

Dr. Keefer also claims that Paul does not teach eternal wrath. This is odd (but not surprising for a higher critic) since he allows 2 Thessalonians in his discussion. And this letter states that “these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction” (1:9). This is not temporary destruction (annihilationist), but a destruction that has the nature of being eternal, everlasting. Again in Romans 2:7-8, Paul contrasts “wrath” (v. 8) with “eternal life” (v. 7), suggesting that the wrath is also eternal.

Dr. Keefer does not deal with the general epistles, but does discuss Hebrews. However, here he wrongly suggests that unlike Paul the author of Hebrews discounts the importance of the historical Jesus since he wants to go beyond the fundamental teachings which include the resurrection of the dead (6:1-2). But again, this conclusion does not do justice to all the facts. The letter speaks of Jesus during his earthly life and sees his resurrection glory as a result of the prayers he made during it (5:7-10). And it continually focuses on Christ as the resurrected high priest (7:11-8:6).

As for the book of Revelation, he notes the unique literary character of apocalyptic literature, which would be a good antidote against Dispensationalism. But from this, he draws the unwarranted conclusion that the book is mythological (as we noted). Thus, he compares it to fantasy literature. No real surprise here since at one point he alludes to Bultmann’s kernel/husk distinction.

Dr. Keefer’s final section deals with unity and diversity in the New Testament. Admittedly, he distances himself from Elaine Pagels and others of her ilk by confessing that the development of the canon was not simply a top down approach from the bishops of the church. And he does not see as many contradictions in the New Testament as some other higher critics. In support of harmony, he speaks of the various portraits of Jesus in the gospels as different literary perspectives. But once again, he tips his higher critical hat by saying that the New Testament does contain contradictions, even if these contradictions are like the contradictory speeches in Hamlet which add to the drama. However, this is contradiction nonetheless. And to make such a comparison to Hamlet is to wrongly imply that the New Testament authors in their relationships to one another are either vacillating or deceptive characters like the prince of Denmark. In addition for Dr. Keefer, these portraits of Jesus are merely literary portraits and do not reveal the historical Jesus. While Dr. Keefer may see himself as criticizing the Jesus seminar (i.e., their continuing quest for the historical Jesus), he is also taking a swipe at traditional Christianity by denying the historical veracity of the gospels. Again, this is not good stuff to give our budding beginner.

Thus, in spite of the promise of the title, we cannot recommend this book. For those equipped to handle its higher critical views, there are few if any insights that are worth their time and cannot be learned from other sources. And for the rest, it is unfit. It is gutted of real concrete supernatural eschatology. Thus, Dr. Keefer takes the heart out of New Testament literature—that heart being the redemptive historical/eschatological drama in Christ which provides the basis of the rich literary unity and multiformity that we have in the New Testament writings.

—Scott F. Sanborn