Review: Joel Green, Editor. The New Testament and Ethics: A Book by Book Survey. Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2013, paperback, 176 pages, $19.99.

[1] Joel B. Green offers a second distillation of his landmark Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics. The New Testament and Ethics comes on the heels of the Old Testament survey. Green offers twenty six entries on the books and genres of the New Testament plus an assortment of articles on selected topics helpful for current discussions of hot button issues including a reflection on healthcare in scripture.

[2] The editor himself authored the entry which describes the “network of beliefs, resources, institutions, and strategies in the maintenance of health and the identification and treatment of sickness.” In other words, “What happens when you get sick in 1st century Palestine?” There are, Green reports, a number of treatment options available including a visit from a professional physician. Physicians, or at least the profession in which they engaged, were mostly distrusted. He cites Cato’s warning to his son to stay away from the physicians and entrust his family’s care to a “little book of prescriptions.” If you happened to live in a rural area, you might only be left the choice of a snake charmer.

[3]Also in this section of The New Testament and Ethics is a finely written survey of the biblical witness on the enigmatic kingdom of God, by Bruce Chilton. “The promise of the kingdom is that people will finally come to realize divine justice and peace.” As I write this I am listening to news reports about America’s deepening involvement in Iraq. Prior to that was a report from Ferguson, Missouri where police have just tear gassed protesting crowds upset over the killing an eighteen year old boy—by an as yet unnamed police officer. The biblical vision of the kingdom of God is antithetical to the global cauldron of strife which we witness each day. However, Chilton’s thorough treatment of the topic identifies the hopeful heart of the Christian witness. Namely, that Jesus’ central understanding of the kingdom of God is that it is not only outside of us, but within us, both individually and socially. “It is a power with in human beings,” he writes “and not an entity alien to them.”

[4] But the kingdom remains elusive. “The kingdom of God is behind the whole of created life, the creativity that makes life possible, but at the same time is beyond the immediate comprehension of any living thing.” Chilton goes on to explore how the kingdom was celebrated in ancient Israel in the same five ways as did Jesus. In addition to its elusiveness, Chilton cites its transcendence of time and space, a relentless force for justice which will ultimately prevail, open to those who act according to kingdom-like values, and its never ending covenant with Israel. Chilton sets Jesus’ kingdom message firmly within the prophetic tradition, a message that still resonates and inspires in our own tumultuous age.

[5] The biblical sections of The New Testament and Ethics offer concise yet thorough articles on each of the books of the New Testament plus an overview of ethics in scripture by Allen Verhey. I quote from the article’s first sentence: “Ethics may be defined as disciplined reflection concerning moral conduct and character.” Verhey then submits such reflection to the norm as established by Scripture. “In scripture, such reflection is always disciplined by convictions about God’s will and way and by commitments to be faithful to God. Biblical ethics is inalienably theological.” Verhey locates the core of New Testament ethics in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. “(Christ) had made the future present… the good future of God.” The synoptic gospels still reflect the eschatological shape of Jesus ethic. The future becomes present when “first will be last and the last will be first. (Mark 10:31) Verhey then surveys each of the gospels, citing the stand alone nature of the Gospel of John, which told the story of Jesus in a different way, a way reflected in its basic ethic rooted in love. Verhey’s synopsis of the ethics of the Pauline material and later New Testament writings serve as nice entry point for the rest of the book. Verhey goes on to offer a lengthy treatment of biblical ethics as seen through various historical contexts from the Patristic through the Medieval and Reformation periods up to the Modern and Postmodern eras.

[6] Robert Bradley submits five separate articles on the Gospels and Acts. The selections offer a good comparison of the anonymous biblical authors, the contexts in which they wrote and the distinctive emphasis each provides. Bradley also attempts to trace the similarities and divergences of the ethic witnessed too in each Gospel.

[7] Victor Paul Furnish supplied five articles on the Pauline material, notably Romans and Galatians. Paul’s ethical appeal is firmly based in the gospel of Jesus Christ, the centrality of his death and resurrection and of his continuing presence in the church (the body of Christ) by way of the Spirit. Paul’s letters explore the implications of this message for the believer’s relationship with the Jewish Torah. “What matters most is not circumcision or uncircumcision—one’s relationship to the law, but ‘faith made effective through love.’”

[8] Jerry L. Sumney has contributed three selections on the ethical vision provided through letters written to Ephesians, Colossians and 1-2 Thessalonians. He effectively handles a brief historical-critical analysis of the household code and the highly contextual basis of these later letters, attributed to, but not believed to be written by Paul the Apostle.

[9] The first century church’s struggle with the ethics of the greater culture can be seen in the substance of the household code which indicates tacit support of slavery and the marginalization of women, both in the church and in the marriage covenant. 1-2 Thessalonians, written by Paul at a time of high eschatological expectation and possible persecution, offers a much different, though admittedly limited, ethical vision. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul offers his teaching regarding believers who have slipped back into behavior deemed inconsistent with Paul’s own model of life lived in Christ. These Christians are not to be tossed out of the church — merely set apart, and hopefully brought back to full fellowship in the gospel.

[10] Editor Green selected articles by David Downs and David D. Horrell to round out the book’s treatment of the Pauline corpus. Very helpful pieces are also provided on the pastoral epistles (again highly impacted by the surrounding culture and nascent Christianity’s struggle with conformity.) and finally an article on Revelation by Kendra Jo Haloviak, who describes the writing’s social setting as “Ordinary people resisting Rome.” Again, the background of the writing is the Christian’s sometimes violent engagement with the imperial cult. The New Testament and Ethics will be a helpful addition to the library of any pastor-teacher-seminarian. It is not yet available for digital download, but Green’s Old Testament version is, and one hopes this will be the case with this fine book.


Joe Wolf

The Rev. Joe Wolf is pastor of St. John Lutheran Church, Lithopolis, Ohio and First English Lutheran Church, Ashville Ohio.