Review of new book by N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird: ‘The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians’


After much toing and froing (do I really need another introduction to the New Testament in my library?) I decided to purchase N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird’s “The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians”. At nearly a thousand pages and 4.41 pounds it could easily serve as a brick in the construction of a house.

There are many reviews of this new book available online. I would like to focus on an obscure (but important!) issue with implications for the historical trustworthiness of the New Testament.

The issue concerns the claimed authorship of the ‘Second Letter of St Peter’. The letter claims to be by a disciple who was actually present with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration:

However, the consensus view of historians is summarised by the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church: “it is virtually impossible to believe that the apostle Peter was the author of 2 Peter” (see full article here).

What does the world’s most famous conservative evangelical scholar Tom Wright have to say about the authorship of 2 Peter in the newly published The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians?

Remember that 2 Peter explicitly claims to be authored by the apostle Peter himself. That is why it is so important to Christian faith. If it is not by Peter then many people will doubt the trustworthiness of the New Testament to speak the truth about itself. Here is the section which discusses the problem:

Wright and Bird conclude:

“Postulating the apostle Peter as the author of this letter feels to us like pushing a big rock up a steep hill; the indications of post-Petrine authorship appear overwhelming.”

To put the matter more polemically: for the reasons itemised by Wright and Bird it is overwhelmingly likely that Peter is not the author of 2 Peter, even though the letter claims to be authored by an eyewitness to events in the life of Jesus, by a disciple who was actually present with Christ.

Does this matter?

Evangelical New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham calls the letter a “fiction”. If so then it is a letter designed to deceive its readership into thinking it is by Peter when it is not. And it has been remarkably successful. Virtually all Christians throughout history have heard this letter as first person testimony from the Chief of the Apostles himself. This puts a huge question mark against the trustworthiness of the New Testament:

Of what value for faith is invented testimony to the life of Jesus?

And it is not the only case of its kind in the Bible!



Categories: Bible, Books, Christianity, Dr Tom Wright, History, Jesus, New Testament scholarship, NT Wright, Recommended reading

Tags: ,

7 replies

  1. Is N.T. Wright christian?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Paul for posting the reasons some people doubt 2 Peter. It is handy to have them all together. Here is a quick reply to these issues.

    > This puts a huge question mark against the trustworthiness of the New Testament:

    It does no such thing. All it brings into question is 2 Peter. You cannot consider an exception and apply your conclusion to the whole.

    Regardings the eight points.

    1. It simply presupposes that churches were using Paul’s letters are instruction from Jesus, that is scripture. They were! There were people who accepted Paul as an apostle from the start. This does not indicate a late date for 2 Peter.

    2. This is a mute point. There are synoptic gospels, and synoptic epistles: Ephesians and Colossians; and Jude and 2 Peter. This point proves nothing about 2 Peter, except that 2 Peter and Jude come from a common ministry.

    3. No he doesn’t. Matthew, Mark, Luke, 1 Corithians, and 2 Peter, all draw upon the testimony of the Jerusalem church.

    4. This is sheer speculation.

    5. 1 Peter 5:12 shows that Peter used prophetic scribes (Acts 15:32) to help him write his letters; and the letters are on different topics so of course they have different arguments. Again, this point proves nothing.

    6. Firstly, this is a matter of opinion as Greek styles vary throughout the NT. Consider the Greek of Hebrews for example. Secondly, they have put the cart before the horse. Influential books influence those after them. You cannot use the later works to disprove the earlier.

    7. This does not prove anything. There has to be a first reference and manuscript to books.

    8. This is a valid point, and Eusebius does discuss it. However, enough evidence was brought forward in the early church for it to included.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Samuel, thank you for your thoughtful replies. My responses are in bold.

      You wrote:

      Thanks Paul for posting the reasons some people doubt 2 Peter. It is handy to have them all together. Here is a quick reply to these issues.
      > This puts a huge question mark against the trustworthiness of the New Testament:
      It does no such thing. All it brings into question is 2 Peter. You cannot consider an exception and apply your conclusion to the whole.
      This is an ironic complaint considering Christians typically insist that we take the NT as a whole with a single author (God) and resist particularising analysis. I have simply followed this Christian idea of the unitary authorship of a single canon. 2 Tim 3:16 applies to the whole of the NT. Even if only a part is a forgery then this calls the biblical doctrine of inspiration into doubt. Can God speak the truth through a lie?

      Regardings the eight points.
      1. It simply presupposes that churches were using Paul’s letters are instruction from Jesus, that is scripture. They were! There were people who accepted Paul as an apostle from the start. This does not indicate a late date for 2 Peter.
      It simply presupposes that churches were using Paul’s letters are instruction from Jesus, that is scripture. They were!” This is merely an assertion not an argument. Historically and logically a letter from an apostle is not = to Revelation inspired by God to be placed on the same level as the Torah. As an aside, if 3 Corinthians was discovered tomorrow would you just add it to the New Testament?

      2. This is a mute point. There are synoptic gospels, and synoptic epistles: Ephesians and Colossians; and Jude and 2 Peter. This point proves nothing about 2 Peter, except that 2 Peter and Jude come from a common ministry.
      On reflection, I think you make a good point Samuel.

      3. No he doesn’t. Matthew, Mark, Luke, 1 Corithians, and 2 Peter, all draw upon the testimony of the Jerusalem church.
      This is an unsubstantiated claim. For instance concerning the first gospel historians now acknowledge that we do not know who wrote the gospel of Matthew, or where it was written, or when it was written. See the helpful discussion on pp 581-582 of The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians.

      4. This is sheer speculation.
      I agree. But it is an interesting point nonetheless.

      5. 1 Peter 5:12 shows that Peter used prophetic scribes (Acts 15:32) to help him write his letters; and the letters are on different topics so of course they have different arguments. Again, this point proves nothing.
      “1 Peter 5:12 shows that Peter used prophetic scribes (Acts 15:32) to help him write his letters.” Then is proves that these scribes are the true authors of 2 Peter! Historically it is extremely improbable that an uneducated fisherman from rural Galilee could author a text like 2 Peter with its pagan language of deification (‘become divine’) and reference to Tartarus (2:4) which is a term found in the Homer’s Iliad book 8:

      ‘I shall take and hurl him into murky Tartarus, far, far away, where is the deepest gulf beneath the earth, the gates whereof are of iron and the threshold of bronze, as far beneath Hades as heaven is above earth: then shall ye know how far the mightiest am I of all gods.’

      Are we to seriously believe that an ‘uneducated’ fisherman (see Acts 4:13 for the proof) was schooled in Homer just like an educated Greek or Roman?!

      6. Firstly, this is a matter of opinion as Greek styles vary throughout the NT. Consider the Greek of Hebrews for example. Secondly, they have put the cart before the horse. Influential books influence those after them. You cannot use the later works to disprove the earlier.
      Maybe. I am not conversant with Greek styles in 2nd century texts so I cannot comment.

      7. This does not prove anything. There has to be a first reference and manuscript to books.
      It demonstrates the extremely slow reception of the letter into the canon of scripture. Why would this be? Even in early times there was great controversy over its authorship and 2 Peter was often not included in the biblical canon. It was only in the 4th century (!) that it gained a foothold in the New Testament, in a series of synods. But in the East the Syriac Orthodox Church still did not admit it into the canon until the 6th century. Perhaps the conservative weight of tradition finally overcame the many understandable doubts people had about authorship.

      8. This is a valid point, and Eusebius does discuss it. However, enough evidence was brought forward in the early church for it to included.
      And what ‘evidence’ might this be Samuel?

      Like

    • In reference Paul’s response to point #3

      The Gospel of Matthew, John the elder and the Papias tradition : a response to R H Gundry – by David C Sim:

      ” … the belief that the disciple Matthew had written the Gospel that bears his name went unchallenged in Christian circles for many centuries. It was not until the rise of Biblical criticism in the eighteenth century, when longheld church assumptions and traditions were questioned and tested according to the evidence, that the tide began to turn away from the view that the disciple Matthew wrote the first book of the Christian canon. This trend continued in the following centuries, and the dominant view in modern Matthean scholarship is that the author of this Gospel was not the disciple of Jesus.3 These scholars maintain that the internal evidence of the Gospel itself points against apostolic authorship, while the external evidence of the Church Fathers is far from trustworthy.”

      source: https://repository.up.ac.za/bitstream/handle/2263/2970/Sim_Gospel%282007%29.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Omar, that is helpful.

        For Samuel to claim that the Gospel of Matthew ‘draws upon the testimony of the Jerusalem church’ when we have no idea who the author was, or where and when he wrote it, is surely a groundless assumption.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: