As God’s revelation to mankind, the Bible is complete in itself and capable of equipping the believer for every good work. Thus, with it alone, the Christian has everything that is necessary to learn the essentials of salvation and the wisdom necessary to sail the turbulent seas of life. Yet, unlike many other theological and religious texts, the Bible presents numerous universal truths by addressing concrete historical situations rather than by presenting a set of detached philosophical postulates.
As such, an understanding of the backdrop against which certain Biblical texts were written can provide the believer with a deeper appreciation of and greater insight into the Word of God. That said, to the average believer, that has not already acquired an extensive background knowledge of the Ancient Near East, such a task can seem quite daunting. Fortunately, “A Survey Of The New Testament” by Robert Gundry makes such a goal much more manageable.
“A Survey Of The New Testament” accomplishes this in part by grouping various New Testament books together in relation to when they were written or by thematic topic. For example, Galatians, I Thessalonians and II Thessalonians are classified together as the early epistles of Paul; I Corinthians, II Corinthians, and Romans are categorized as the Major Epistles of Paul. Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians, I Timothy, II Timothy, and Titus are lumped together as the Pastoral Epistles of Paul because they were written specifically for young pastors (409). The books of James, I Peter, II Peter, I John, II John, III John and Jude are classified as Catholic or General Epistles because these texts were not targeted towards a specific locality. Hebrews and Revelation are each assigned their own individual chapters.
From this system of classification, Gundry proceeds to analyze each of these New Testament books. He accomplishes this by first outlining the major themes of the book under consideration for quick reference and then proceeds to a more in depth analysis of the text under consideration. For example, in the outline for I Corinthians, the student will see that marriage is discussed in I Corinthians 7:1-40 (361). Flipping ahead a few pages, the reader will find, thanks to the convenient subsection headings, where Gundry provides a more detailed examination into the Biblical teaching prohibiting divorce on the part of believers married to unbelievers and where he delves in an evenhanded manner into the debate whether the Christian abandoned by an unbelieving spouse is permitted to remarry.
Though Gundry does highlight the wisdom found in the pages of the New Testament epistles most are accustomed to discussing in Sunday school, his “Survey Of The New Testament” is no mere devotional and will keep the attention of those seeking deeper academic understanding of the sacred documents. For example, in his examination of the Book of Galatians, Gundry goes into considerable detail as to whether the epistle was addressed towards either North or South Galatia.
Such an academic conjecture has bearing upon as to when the book was written. Gundry points out that, if the text was addressed to the area of Northern Galatia which Paul did not visit until his second missionary journey, this means the epistle was not written until after the Jerusalem Council detailed in Acts 15. If the epistle was addressed towards Southern Galatia, then it is believed to have been written after Paul’s first missionary journey and thus prior to the Jerusalem Church Council (346).
If one is not particularly inspired by such academic technicalities, one might find the chapters regarding the cultural settings of the New Testament world much more interesting. One may even find considerable similarity with our own era.
Religiously and philosophically, Gundry describes a world of considerable variation. Permeating the non-Jewish population of the Mediterranean was the official state religion of Rome combining Greco-Roman mythology along with emperor worship to which the population was expected to grant tacit consent.
However, it must be pointed out to the reader that this belief served more as a backdrop rather than the sum total of religious expression. For it is from the assorted esoteric sects and various philosophies that many drew inspiration and centered their lives around.
It is at this point where Gundry lists some of the various philosophies popular at that time that the reader can see similarities with those prevalent in our own era. For example, Epicureans taught pleasure as the chief end of life, Stoicism taught dutiful acceptance of one’s fate, and the skeptics are described as relativists who abandoned belief in the absolute. As the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul would have confronted these philosophies on a regular basis as exemplified by his encounter on Mars Hill in Acts 20.
In light of the popularity of works such as “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Gospel Of Judas”, it can be easy for the faith of the Christian to be shaken by those claiming to have attained higher levels of academic expertise. Written from a solidly Evangelical perspective, “A Survey Of The New Testament” by Robert Gundry is a trustworthy defense against these pervasive heresies that have stalked the Church from its earliest days.
It is often assumed that Christianity appropriated the ideas of the immortality of the soul, resurrection of the dead, and ceremonial washing such as baptism from the so-called mystery religions. However, Gundry points out, “On the other hand, not until the second, third, and fourth centuries of the Christian era do we get detailed information concerning the beliefs held by the devotees of the mysteries…Where their later beliefs look slightly similar to Christian beliefs, the direction of borrowing may have gone from Christianity to the mystery religions rather than vice versa (58).”
It has been said that the Scriptures are simple enough for a child to understand yet deep enough for a theologian to drown in. “A Survey Of The New Testament” by Robert Gundry will serve as a sufficient life preserver as the believer heads out into doctrinally deep waters.
By Frederick Meekins