Book Plunge: The Craft of History and the Study of the New Testament

What do I think of Beth Sheppard’s book published by the Society of Biblical Literature? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

History is a fascinating field to study. How do you do it? How do you study history seriously? What about when it comes to the NT? After all, many people view these documents as sacred documents. Does that not change the way that we view these documents and treat them historically?

Beth Sheppard has written a book for students who are planning to study the New Testament so they can better learn how to study it. She deals with information that should be basic, but we all need to learn. It’s usually thought about why there are so many differences in the Bible on the same issue. Sheppard points out that all writers will approach the issue differently due to all of them having different mindsets and matters they want to put out there more and other such issues.

Many historians will approach the same evidence very differently. Some might see item A for a case and think it means very little. The next historian could look at that and make it the centerpiece. There’s also no doubt the biases of the historian that approaches the text. Let’s be realistic and admit that a historian that holds to a worldview that denies miracles, for instance, is just as much biased as a Christian approaching the text. All historians have to learn to work past their biases and really look at the evidence. People have biases, but arguments do not.

Sheppard also looks at the philosophy of history and the mistakes that historians sometimes make. Sometimes a historian can think way too broadly for instance and sometimes a historian can rely way too much on those who have gone before him and still keep their same errors in his thinking. All of this information will be helpful for those who seek to do history and handle the NT.

The reader will also get an education on how history was done in the ancient world and up to the modern era. What was the role of eyewitnesses? How were hearsay accounts treated? How did other historians handle differences in accounts? All of these are important questions and questions like them have been debated for as long as we have been doing history.

Sheppard also looks at other movements in history lately. Sure, postmodernist history has been a big flop, but did it do anything for us? Sometimes having a great error come forward can show you a greater truth that had been overlooked. What about psycho-history? Again, Young Man Luther was a disaster to many, but does that mean the whole is a problem? Some could be surprised that even imaginative history and speculative history can be helpful. How would the world be different if Charles Lindbergh had been elected president? What if Jerusalem hadn’t been destroyed in 70 A.D.? What if Arius had won at the Council of Nicea?

In fact, those of us who defend the resurrection can use this. If Jesus did rise, we can expect some effects to take place. If not, then we would need a better explanation that can fit the data but explains the effects. While not much has been done in this area, some work would be welcome.

She ends the book with some case studies. What can we learn about studying clothing in the ancient world that applies to the New Testament? Is the woman in John 4 really a loose woman? Is Paul using medical terminology when he talks about the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians?

Sheppard’s book is eye-opening and she keeps her own biases well-hidden. Skeptic and saint alike could benefit from reading this book. You won’t study much of the historical claims themselves, but you will learn about those claims come about.

In Christ,
Nick Peters