A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Mason Pell
Interpreting the Gospels and Acts is the final book in the Kregel Handbooks for New Testament Exegesis series. This series is written to help Bible teachers understand the different types of New Testament literature and give principles for best interpreting them with a view toward preaching. The volume on interpreting the Gospels and Acts holds true to this goal. The handbooks are intended for an audience of Bible college and seminary students, pastors, and church leaders. David Turner is the author of the handbook for interpreting the Gospels and Acts. Turner has written two commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew, so he was a good choice to write this volume.
As for the structure of the book, it contains eight chapters that are meant to walk the interpreter through the exegetical process, ending in the formation of a sermon. The first three chapters focus on the pre-interpretive stage. Chapter one deals with the genre of the Gospels and Acts. Turner sees this part of the NT canon as displaying features similar to Greco-Roman biographies, and it is the biography that he puts forward as the genre of the Gospels. He also looks at the various embedded genres that are found in the Gospels and Acts such as Parables, Apocalyptic, Speeches, etc. Each subgenre is given treatment within the book, although some treatments are very brief.
The second chapter focuses on the historical setting of the Gospels and Acts. This chapter is useful in helping the interpreter understand the cultural, political, and religious milieu of the Gospels. Turner explains how the OT is the primary source for the setting of these books. Along with that a knowledge of Second-Temple Judaism and the Hellenistic world are vital for interpretation.
Chapter three delves into the theology of the Gospels and Acts. Turner begins the chapter with a discussion of the theological disciplines. He believes that it is through the lens of Biblical Theology that the Gospels and Acts are best treated. As an example of using this theological method, Turner provides a discussion of Jesus and the Spirit within the Gospels and Acts. From there he moves on to discuss the distinctive theological emphases of each Gospel writer and the theological emphases in the book of Acts. This is how each of these first three chapters end – with a discussion of each Gospel and the book of Acts treated in light of the chapter’s topic.
With the groundwork complete, the fourth chapter presents the first step in the exegetical process – textual criticism. Despite the brevity, I did find this section of the book to be a very good review of textual criticism. Turner presents the different schools of thought along with certain strengths and weakness of those views. He also provides his accounting for the major textual issues found in the Gospels and Acts, that being the longer ending of Mark, the pericope adulterae in John, and the Western text of the book of Acts. The chapter moves to a discussion of theories of Bible translation and then to a discussion of the critical methods that have been put forward in the past for understanding the relationships between the four Gospels.
Chapter five focuses on the linguistic aspects of exegesis. Turner suggests producing three separate translations of the text that the interpreter desires to exegete: a literal translation, a functional translation, and a paraphrase. This goes along with his emphasis that time with the text is the most critical aspect of exegesis. He moves on to different ways of visually displaying the text that can help uncover the logic of the text. I particularly found his phrased visual display with footnotes a very intriguing and helpful method. I will be adopting elements of it within my future work. He ends the chapter with a brief section on word studies and a discussion of how to work with the text theologically.
Chapter six moves from the work of exegesis to the formation of a sermon based on the exegetical work done on the text. Turner writes, “Exegesis that does not guide and form the exegete’s character and behavior is not just incomplete, it is a travesty. The ultimate step in exegesis is performance.” And this is the point of this handbook and the series in general – exegesis with a view toward preaching. As he moves through the chapter, Turner provides theory and principles for taking the “what” of a text and moving to the “what now.” He hits on the different styles of preaching a passage, inductive, deductive, and thematic. And he ends the chapter with a brief discussion on bridging the context of the ancient and modern world. In chapter seven he provides two examples of the entire interpretive process, moving from introduction to exegesis to sermon. The two examples he works with are Mark 4:1-20, Jesus’ teaching about parables, and John’s prologue, chapter 1:1-18. The final chapter is a resource list for more intensive study.
Some would say that the brevity of the books is a weakness but on the contrary, this type of handbook is perfect for its intended purposes. Even a seminary student who has taken a course on interpreting the Gospels, such as myself, found great benefit from working through this handbook. With the amount of time a student or pastor may have to prepare a sermon on a text from one of the Gospels or the book of Acts, the help this book provides is invaluable. I would say that a book like this could itself be a good guide for someone seeking to do intensive work in the Gospels or Acts. For such work it could not stand alone, but it could be a good starting place. As it is for the student, the pastor, or even the layman in the pew, this book is a great place to begin a deeper study of the narratives within the NT.
My one and only critique of the book is that there was not much of a discussion on the benefits and practice of a literary reading of the Gospels and Acts. It wasn’t altogether absent in the book but for such a major strategy, the space given was not enough. When it comes to biblical narratives, understanding how to read the text as story is vital. How to follow the plot, that is, the conflict, rising tension, climax etc., recognizing character development, and the importance of where the immediate setting of the story takes place were not much discussed in the handbook. I have found that what sets apart my exegesis of one of Paul’s letters and my exegesis of a Gospel narrative are these considerations. I do not believe they were given the space and prominence within the book that they deserved.
Overall, this book accomplishes its goal and I would recommend it for anyone who is beginning to study the Gospels. I would even say that it could benefit the student who does not know Greek, although it assumes some knowledge of the language. The Kregel handbooks on the Old and New Testaments are a great beginning resource for anyone who seeks to study the Bible more deeply.
Mason Pell is a student at Westminster Theological Seminary.
Buy the books
INTERPRETING THE GOSPELS AND ACTS, by David L. Turner