Review of Blumell, NT History, Culture and Society


This post is a review of Lincoln H. Blumell, editor, New Testament History, Culture, and Society: A Background to the Texts of the New Testament (Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, in cooperation with Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, 2019). 836 pages.

So I’ve been reading the captioned book and just this moment finished it. I’ve been carrying it around with me in my book bag, and that 836 pages is not a typo. This thing is a monster! The good news is I now have 22-inch biceps like the wrestling icon Superstar Billy Graham…

I am acquainted with the editor, Lincoln Blumell. I’ve run into him at various conferences over the years, and a few years ago I crashed his on-campus office hours and we had a long talk solving the world’s problems. I’ve been very impressed with him. In particular, he has developed a record of substantial publication outside the in-house Mormon ghetto. I believe BYU Ancient Scripture is increasingly encouraging its scholars to do this, and I think it’s a laudable new direction.[1]

We need to be clear that this is not a commentary on the  NT. Rather, it is a background to the NT. So while it provides overviews of the life of Jesus, the Gospels, the letters and Revelation (this last from Jill Kirby; hi Jill!), the vast bulk of the book is intended to give you the background knowledge to be able to read the NT intelligently. What a concept! There are 43 chapters divided into the following seven sections:

Jewish Background of the New Testament

Greco-Roman Background of the New Testament

Jesus and the Gospels

The Apostle Paul, General Epistles, and Revelation

New Testament Issues and Contexts

The Text of the New Testament

After the New Testament

43 is a lot of chapters, and there is only a small amount of duplication among authors, so I at first wondered who was going to write all of that material? I wasn’t sure we had a deep enough bench to cover it all. By my count there are 42 different contributors. It looks like Lincoln cast his net widely. He managed to line up pretty much all of the senior, established scholars with relevant expertise, but that wasn’t going to be anywhere near enough. So he also lined up grad students in relevant programs as well as independent scholars (such as our beloved Julie Smith). This worked out perfectly fine. These chapters are pretty much synopses of established knowledge in these areas, so they should not be beyond the capacity of a grad student in a relevant field to produce, and in my judgment the younger and more independent scholars did just fine.

My sense is the chapters averaged about a dozen pages or so, which to me seemed a perfect length: long enough to cover the basics of the material, but short enough to keep the reader interested and engaged. Each chapter concludes with a short bibliography of relevant literature and endnotes. (Although I personally prefer footnotes to endnotes, I liked that these endnotes appeared after each chapter rather than at the end of the book, which made them more manageable to check while reading a given chapter.)

The very first chapter is sort of illustrative as to why this book is needed: Joshua M. Matson, “Between the Testaments: The History of Judea between the Testaments of the Bible.” Long time readers of this blog will know this is sort of a sore subject with me. I’ve taught a lot of Gospel Doctrine over the years, and the manual practice is to teach a lesson on Malachi at the end of December and then transition straight into the New Testament at the beginning of January. I’ve long been on record to the effect that practice is sheer madness. There are 400 years of developments between those two points, and there is simply no way the class is prepared to study the NT seriously by just jumping into it without first covering what has happened and what has changed during those four centuries. It’s madness, I tell you! When I’m put in that awkward position my practice has been to self medicate. But this chapter is better and more substantive than what I would do in my SS classes, so if you find yourself in that position in the future I would recommend covering at least some of what you read in that first chapter with your class so they at least have a puncher’s chance of understanding the changed situation on the ground in the first century C.E.

I consider myself a scripturist, and as such I consider myself as reasonably well read on LDS scriptural scholarship. But in reading these chapters I kept having a fairly common experience: I would already be familiar with perhaps a majority of the material, but almost inevitably there would be a minority (or, depending on the subject matter, more) of the material that I was not familiar with at all and was learning for the first time.A good example comes in chapter 38, Lincoln H. Blumell and Jan J. Martin, “The King James Translation of the New Testament.”  Although the King James translators certainly consulted the Greek text (and the nest chapter is on the Greek text underlying the KJV), it was not a new translation, but was explicitly based on prior translations. And I believe I sort of knew that as well, at least conceptually. But I had never seen this process illustrated the way they do in this chapter. Consider Mt. 1:18-20:

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was ESPOUSED to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.

19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.

20 But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.

The large majority of this passage was taken directly from Tyndale’s 1534 New Testament. However, portions of it were borrowed from other translations. The two underlined words were copied from Myles Coverdale’s 1535 Bible. The italicized words were taken from the Geneva Bible. The bold words are all that remain of the base text, the Bishop’s Bible. The only word that may be original to the KJV translators is espoused. This sample shows that Tyndale provides the basis of the King James text. However, it also demonstrates the amount of revisions the KJV translators did and how carefully they selected from the other versions of the Bible that were available to them.This passage also indicates how much of the Bishop’s Bible had to be changed.

That visual illustration drove the point home in a way that a narrative description alone would never accomplish.

Unfortunately, I’ve never been to Israel. I know intellectually that Titus and his Tenth Legion destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E. But I have occasionally wondered about the mechanics of that. The temple complex was huge and comprised of massive stone works; reducing that to rubble would have taken a large force of men working nonstop for decades at least. As if to answer my question on page 236 is a picture showing huge overturned stones on the west side of the temple where they remain to this day. They just pushed the stonework off the temple platform. How I possibly could have gone all this time without knowing about this I have no idea, but what a cool picture!

So if you want to enhance your GD (or personal) study of the NT this year, this is the book for you. I feel confident in promising you’ll learn things–probably a lot of things–that will bring the text to life for you.


[1] In the early 80s I worked as a TA in Ancient Scripture and even then there was a divide between the scholars with relevant degrees and those who came from CES or had degrees in things like Instructional Science. I’m simply not close enough to the current situation in Ancient Scripture to comment meaningfully on this new push for external publications; if any of our commenters is knowledgeable about that development please comment on it here.

Main Contents:

Jewish Background of the New Testament

1. Between the Testaments: The History of Judea Between the Testaments of the Bible (Joshua M. Matson)

2. The Law of Moses: An Overview (Daniel L.. Belnap)

3. Jerusalem, the Holy City: A Virtual Tour of the City in the New Testament Period (Tyler J. Griffin)

4. The Temple of Herod (David Rolph Seely)

5. Messianism and Jewish Messiahs in the New Testament Period (Trevan G. Hatch)

6. Jewish Hermeneutics in the New Testament Period (Matthew L. Bowen)

7. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament (Dana M. Pike)

8. Rabbinic Literature and the New Testament (Avram R. Shannon)

Greco-Roman Background of the New Testament

9. Judea as a Roman Province, AD 6-66 (Michael R. Trotter)

10. Roman Law Relating to the New Testament (John W. Welch)

11. Greco-Roman Philosophy and the New Testament (Bryce Gessell)

12. Greco-Roman Religion and the New Testament (Grant Adamson)

13. The Cares of This World: Roman Economics and the New Testament (John Gee)

14. The First Jewish Revolt against Rome (Jared W. Ludlow)

Jesus and the Gospels

15. The Life of Jesus of Nazareth: An Overview (Andrew C. Skinner)

16. The Mediator of the New Covenant (Robert L. Millet)

17. The Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Alan Taylor Farnes)

18. The Gospel of John (Eric D. Huntsman)

19. Noncanonical Gospels (Jason R. Combs

20. The Atonement (Noel R. Reynolds)

21. The Crucifixion (Gaye Strathearn)

22. The Resurrection (Julie M. Smith)

The Apostle Paul, General Epistles, and Revelation

23. The Life of the Apostle Paul: An Overview (Nicholas J. Frederick)

24. The Epistles of the Apostle Paul: An Overview (Frank F. Judd Jr.)

25. Hebrews and the General Epistles: Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter,1-3 John, and Jude (Lincoln H. Blumell, Frank F. Judd Jr., and George A. Pierce)

26. The Book of Revelation: Following the Lamb (D. Jill Kirby)

New Testament Issues and Contexts

27. Understanding the Physical and Metaphysical Geography of the New Testament (George A. Pierce)

28. The Use of the Old Testament in the New Testament (Daniel McClellan)

29. Women and the World of the New Testament (Catherine Gines Taylor)

30. Family, Marriage, and Celibacy in the New Testament (Mark D. Ellison)

31. Nonverbal Communication in the New Testament (David M. Calabro)

32. Ritualized Prostration in the New Testament (Andrew C. Smith)

33. Worship and Ritual Practices in the New Testament (Erik Odin Yingling)

34. Baptism in the New Testament (Seth S. Larsen)

35. Plants in the New Testament (Terry B. Ball)

36. Clothing and Textiles in the New Testament (Kristin H. South and Anita Cramer Wells)

The Text of the New Testament

37. Textual Criticism and the New Testament (Thomas A. Wayment)

38. The King James Translation of the New Testament (Lincoln H. Blumell and Jan J. Martin)

39. The Greek New Testament Text of the King James Version (Lincoln H. Blumell)

40. Joseph Smith’s Translation of the New Testament (Kent P. Jackson)

41. The New Testament in the Doctrine and Covenants (Nicholas J. Frederick)

After the New Testament

42. Christianity in the Second Century (Luke Drake)

43. The Canonization of the New Testament (Daniel Becerra)


  1. Hi Kevin! Nice t-storms last week, no?


  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Jill, it just won’t stop raining!

  3. I’m working through this, too, much more slowly than you — to be expected when I am not at all familiar with the material you already know so well. It can be slow going for someone like me, but it’s comprehensible with care and not trying to go too quickly. Am loving what I’m learning about so many topics. I endorse your review (as if either you or the book needed that!)

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks Ardis, a second witness is always appreciated!

  5. “Pretty much synopses of established knowledge” —
    So state of the art with an LDS label?
    As opposed to new or advancing the field scholarship?

  6. I disagree with the OP. Here is a more critical review.

    Lincoln Blumell’s new edited volume, New Testament History, Culture, and Society: A Background to the Texts of the New Testament, is as ungainly as its title portends. Weighing in at 836 pages, 43 chapters, and nearly 4 lbs, it is a lot to deal with. The collection of contributors range from the legitimate biblical scholars actively publishing in their fields to glorified youth ministers that are employed in BYU’s College of Religious Education to grad students writing on topics sometimes centuries or millennia from their curriculum of study to people with no relevant graduate training at all. This scatter shot approach ends up being a come one come all block party (let’s call it inclusive for the sake of charity).

    And yet many Mormon biblical scholars are curiously missing. One wonders why. At any rate the effect is a whiplash inducing volume where one chapter is a solid, insightful review of relevant scholarship, sometimes offering new contributions to the field, and the next is something that your local HP “scriptorian” could put together with his KJV, bible dictionary, and a shelf full of Deseret Book volumes authored by people as amateur as himself.

    With 43 chapters, nearly enough for two for every document of the NT, overlap is to be expected. And there is so much overlap. You will be amazed at how many chapters end up discussing the passion narratives, often harmonized. And with one editor for 836 pages, infelicities are to be expected. So many infelicities. Like how embarrassing is it to print Hebrew backwards? At least the editor himself got the Hebrew going the right direction for the dedication to his parents.

    If you go in for historical-critical method, you might want to sit down. Choose a chapter at random and you will likely find the author using restoration scripture to establish text critical readings in say, Luke, or using the JST to clarify what Mark meant. If critical/literary theory is your ballgame, I have good news and bad news: bad news is you won’t find it, good news is you won’t find someone with a degree in Instructional Technology butchering it.

    There are chapters to praise, and these are universally written by trained and active scholars and scholars in training, though, it should be pointed out that training doesn’t guarantee that a piece is any better than you might expect to hear at Education Week. It is depressing to see a contributor with a PhD in NT from a premier graduate program treating all letters attributed to Paul as authored by Paul and not even mention in the text or notes that there are, you know, issues. Or how many PhD trained Religious Education professors does it take to argue for traditional authorship of the Catholic epistles? Three. Let that marinate for a moment. It is hard to know what in the world Blumell was hoping to accomplish with this volume. It’s a real doozy though.

  7. Terry H says:

    Having read the post of anon. I’ll just say everyone is entitled to their opinion. As for the missing “Mormon biblical scholars” he says are missing, let’s just say I’m sure they had their opportunity. This certainly isn’t “Education Week” fare. I’ll just say, having read Kevin’s work for decades, (I’ve not met him), I agree with him about this volume and I couldn’t recommend it more. While I normally respect anonymity on the web, in this instance, it undermines the credibility of the comments. Its easy to be so sarcastic and dramatic behind the safe space of that. There are glimmers of specific criticisms that could and should be examined, but overall, this wasn’t as helpful as it should have been.

  8. Terry H, I get the skepticism about anonymous comments. Here is another anonymous bit and you may discard it as you will: a good number of the contributors have privately expressed regret and/or embarrassment about the volume. But again, there is plenty of good stuff in there too. Really, I mean this. The volume could have been saved by halving it in length and probably halving it again.

  9. Terry H says:

    I’m not skeptical about anonymous comments as much as I find they’re not always helpful. Of course, if some participants are now expressing concerns about the volume, that’s when anonymity would come in handy. My problem with those “concerns” are that the contributions speak for themselves. If they’re now regretting or embarrassed about their participation, they’re judging the other essays–not their own I would imagine. I find that interesting. Every such edited volume has items that are of varying quality and interest. The number of quality contributions is how we judge such a volume.

    As I read your criticism of the authorship issue, I see that as being kind of valid, in the sense that the article should at least generally point out in a note that there are conflicting theories. The fact that the authors may not subscribe to those theories is something that should stand or fall on its own merits. In neither case does it make the entire volume regrettable or embarrassing. Any such contributor who is now sorry or embarrassed about their inclusion in the book should rethink their effort (and likely should have done a volume of their own). I certainly don’t see any of them removing their article from their CV. As the level of LDS scholarship progresses there will be growing pains (a euphemism to be sure). Take the good, show where it can improve and we’ll just keep moving forward.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Christian, I see this as largely being explanatory to an LDS audience as opposed to advancing the ball for the Academy.

    Anon, I obviously liked the book more than you did, but I can certainly understand concerns grounded in length and unevenness.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Terry H, I agree in that I too can see the criticism of the authorship issue. I’m used to reading a lot of LDS work so I guess that is just something I’m accustomed to, but in a volume such as this that is something that should have been broached in some way.

  12. Ralph W says:

    Hi Kevin, nice review!

    Personally, I’ve been waiting for a volume like this ever since devouring last year the 2006 Sperry Symposium on “How the New Testament Came to Be”. I’ve gotten to know Metzger, Ehrman, F.F. Bruce, Emanuel Tov, among others through their research. And that was due to the notes from the Sperry Symposium. But I always wished that there was a volume that was directed towards an LDS audience.

    Thus far, Blumell has not disappointed, I drove two hours to pick it up because 1) I didn’t want to wait an extra day to get it but mostly 2) the 25% off Deseret Book coupon and no shipping charge. At $39.99, it’s a bargain. At $29.99 with the coupon it’s a steal.

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the chapters on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Rabbinic Literature, Textual Criticism, History of the KJV, Greek New Testament Text of the KJV, Christianity in the Second Century, and Canonization. Can’t wait to devour the rest.

    While anon’s review was colorful and fun to read, I am disappointed that anon’s review does not include detail such as which specific chapters/authors gave him heartburn and why. Perhaps if the review had been structured like a NY Times restaurant review it would be more useful:
    We know you didn’t like the food in general but which specific entree did you not like?
    Was the steak tartare not cooked to your liking?
    Perhaps the gazpacho did not have enough chicken and was too cold :)

    I did enjoy the jab at the size and weight of the book. I can’t wait to see anon’s review of the four-volume New Cambridge History of the Bible or the 115 title Anchor Yale Bible Series (commentaries, dictionary, reference publications). Please let us know when you get that done :).

    Authorship is not a big issue for me. So long as the scholarship is solid, peer-reviewed, and can be spot-checked, I’m not all that concerned about the author. Besides, professors have been using grad students since before the world began.

    Seriously though, I am very pleased with New Testament History, Culture and Society and plan on referring to and using it for a very long time.

  13. g.wesley says:

    Hi Ralph,

    To be sure, de gustibus non est disputandum. But the things in anon’s review are not about taste.
    For instance, the longer a publication, the more it needs to justify its existence. Or not, I guess: we can all just accept that this is simply another product in the never ending cycle of Deseret Book sales meant to make money from the Sunday school curriculum and religious holidays. Happy belated Easter!

  14. Terry H says:

    Sorry g.. On this one, you’re wrong. I don’t see Deseret Book making very much on this at all. Its far too technical. Sure, its not “Die Nag-Hammadi-Schriften in der Literatur- und Theologiegeschichte des fr|hen Christentums (Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum”, with regard to its technical material, but its quite a bit advanced over “Jesus and the World of the New Testament”, which apparently earns your scorn as well. Face it. Our New Testament scholarship (and our other scriptural writings as well) meets the needs of many various levels. I have a friend who (shortly before he passed) was reading “The Book of Mormon Made Easier” because he was working on changing his life and he said he couldn’t understand the real thing. At that stage, I realized, I needed to get off my scholarly high-horse so to speak and quit being so snobbish.

  15. g.wesley says:

    Hi Terry. This vol has the trappings, yes, but page for page I’d say JC and the World of the NT is better: more even, less overlap, fewer copy editing mistakes, better production quality, succinct, and not trying to be something it ain’t.

  16. Terry H says:

    G., Copy editing goes directly on the publisher. This is a joint venture, so the question is raised is it the RSC or DB who are responsible for those errors. Frankly, there’s no excuse for them. For me, that doesn’t undermine the overall scholarship, but it certainly can affect the perception of others and it honestly raises the question in some that if such minor details are lacking, its possible for major details to be lacking as well. As for JCWNT being more even than NTHCS; of course it is. Its a single narrative written by three authors, not 42 specific essays from as many contributors. They’re different creatures. JCWNT has better production quality, of course, (i.e. thicker paper, better photo-reproduction, etc.) since its aimed at a slightly different and less academic audience, which is expecting more bells and whistles. I don’t see NTHCS even aiming for that market. I see it building on JCWNT for those who want to go to the next level. The main question is whether or not it succeeds. In Kevin’s opinion, (and my own) it does.

    I’m waiting to see what 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 from Zondervan Academic looks like. Its out in November. I want to compare the production values since the price points are similar (although Zondervan has a bigger audience and the price point for 800 pages is a little less). Let’s see what the production values are like on those, although Wright IS one of the top NT scholars in the world and Zondervan is a bigger operation than DB and likely has a much larger print run. That’s what we should be shooting for and what I think the OP was writing about.

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