Reviews of

Toward Decentering the New Testament

In Cascade Books, Jonathan Rowlands, Minoritized Voices, Mitzi J. SMITH, New Testament, Yung Suk KIM on January 2, 2020 at 3:00 pm


2020.01.01 | Mitzi J. Smith and Yung Suk Kim. Toward Decentering the New Testament: A Reintroduction. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-5326-0465-2.

Review by Jonathan Rowlands, University of Nottingham.

Toward Decentering the New Testament is an introduction to the New Testament authored by Mitzi J. Smith—an African-American woman biblical scholar—and Yung Suk Kim—an Asian-American male biblical scholar. It is the first such introductory text authored by scholars from minoritized communities. Following a foreword by Michael Willett Newheart, the book begins with an introduction from the authors wherein their aims are clearly stated. Most significantly, they express their desire for this textbook to serve as “a step in the direction of creating an introductory text that focuses on an prioritizes diverse and nonwhite readers and contemporary issues that affect real flesh-and-blood minoritized readers and our sisters and brothers as allies” (p. 3). From this arise the two most distinctive aspects of this textbook. First is the prioritizing of minority readings of the New Testament but (crucially) not at the expense of, or as a replacement for dominant majority readings. Second is the concern to address contemporary issues facing minority readers of the New Testament.

The main body of the book comprises five sections. The first—‘Interpretation and Contexts’—achieves the dual aim of introducing students to issues of hermeneutics and their responsibilities as responsible readers of scripture, as well as providing useful historical context necessary for understanding the biblical texts themselves (including a valuable chapter on the economics of ancient slave societies and the impact of this upon NT interpretation). Especially noteworthy here is chapter two, ‘Biblical Interpretation: Invitation to Dialogue’, wherein Smith and Kim discuss the fundamental questions of biblical interpretation in a manner that models their conviction that biblical interpretation is best done in dialogue with those of other perspectives. Section Two (‘The Gospels and Acts’) introduces students to the Synoptic Problem (ch. 9) before summarizing the unique themes, aims, and concerns of each of the gospels (chs. 10-13) and Acts (ch. 14). Section Three (‘Pauline Epistles’) begins with a general overview of the theology and legacy of Paul (ch. 15), as well as a more detailed study focussing on the concept of ‘the body of Christ’ in Paul’s thought (ch. 16). Following this are a series of chapters (pp. 17–26) that introduce students to both the undisputed and disputed Pauline Epistles, discussing their provenance, major themes and key interpretive problems within the epistles. Section Four (chs. 27–32) follows a similar structure, here offering students an introduction to the Catholic Epistles. Finally, Section Five is concerned with ‘The Apocalypse of John/The Book of Revelation.’ This section begins with a helpful discussion of contemporary apocalyptic texts and their significance for interpreting Revelation in its historical context (ch. 33). After this is a final chapter addressing the most important interpretative discussions concerning Revelation (ch. 34).

The authors accomplish much in this introductory text, and there is much to commend about it. Most clearly, they achieve their two central aims of ‘decentering’ readings of the NT to prioritize readings from scholars of minority communities, whilst consistently interpreting the NT and its historical context, mindful of current issues affecting readers of the NT (here ch. 5 on slavery and the NT serves as a model of this success). It is the only textbook that introduces students to NT studies in a way that prioritises voices and approaches so often left at the margins of scholarship. Introducing students to these concerns from their earliest engagement with the discipline can only be of benefit, not only to students, but also to the discipline more broadly.

In addition to the content of the text, its structure and form is to be praised. Not only does it cover every text of the NT in concise (but not simplistic) fashion; every section begins and concludes with a summary of the contents of the main points of the chapter, as well as a selection of suggested further reading for students (again, seeking to prioritize the voices and works of minority scholars without excluding important works in the discipline from majority scholars).

Despite the accomplishments of the authors in this work, there are, to my mind, three areas where it might also be built upon and made even stronger. First, key debates within NT scholarship are occasionally over-simplified, even for an introductory text. One finds the clearest example of this in chapter 9 (‘“The Danger of a Single Story”: The Synoptic Gospels’), where the authors only discuss one potential solution to the synoptic problem, the two-source hypothesis. The chapter in question is the shortest in Section Two and would have benefitted from an expanded discussion of the Synoptic Problem(s) and its disparate ‘solutions’, not least given the recent resurgence in scholarship seeking to do away with Q altogether (Farrer, Goulder, Goodacre, Garrow, and so on). That works by these scholars are not found in this chapter’s ‘further reading’ is equally problematic, even in a work that seeks to prioritize the voices of scholars from minority communities; one wonders why majority-scholars such as Borg, Harrington, Koester (and others) are included while the aforementioned scholars who have argued against Q, are not. This omission seems all the more glaring given the chapter’s title and its (rightful) insistence on the importance of a plurality of narratives within the discipline.

Second, one may observe that the ‘further reading’ section is occasionally brief. For example, Chapter 32 on Hebrews concludes with a ‘further reading’ section comprising only seven items (compared to, say, the further reading for ch. 34 on Revelation, which contains 21 items). Moreover, this ‘further reading’ section overlooks a great deal of important recent scholarship on Hebrews that would be vital resources for any students wishing seriously to pursue study into this particular text.

Third, one might wish for greater discussion about the historical Jesus. For example, in their discussion of ‘Refugees, Immigrants, and Foreigners in the New Testament’ (ch. 4), the authors write that ‘Jesus and his family were of course refugees that fled to Egypt for a period to escape the deadly violence initiated by King Herod’ (p. 41). But it is not clear whether the authors consider this an historical fact or merely a narrative element of the evangelists’ portrayal of Jesus, or whether this distinction matters at all. This is, however, a small criticism: it is an introduction to the text of the NT first and foremost, and one can perhaps understand the decision not to engage more with questions such as these, even if sentences such as that quoted above do raise questions about the historical Jesus.

As with any introductory text, there are also theological, philosophical, and hermeneutical assumptions made by the authors with which not everyone will agree. However, where this is the case, this work can readily serve as the means to facilitating classroom discussion; one can be sure that this text will engage students and provoke critical discussion with ease, and it is rare that one can say this with such confidence about an introductory work such as this. This work could be useful in numerous contexts. It could serve as the primary work around which an introductory NT course is structured. I think it would be especially interesting to employ it alongside a contrasting textbook, with the teacher mediating between the two works to encourage discussion amongst student. The subtitle of the work (‘A Reintroduction’) also indicates its relevance for students already introduced to the field of NT studies too. And certainly, one might easily use this book as the focal point for a postgraduate level course on NT interpretation introducing students to minority reading of biblical texts, where students have not been introduced to these before.

Works such as this are, of course, designed to be engaged with, not merely read. In this respect, this introductory work finally fills a gap in NT studies that desperately needed filling and I can think of no other introductory work in NT studies that so clearly highlights the plenitude of biblical interpretation as this work by Smith and Kim does. Perhaps the strongest endorsement I can offer is that, were I running an introductory NT course, this would be the first work on my students’ reading list.

Jonathan Rowlands
University of Nottingham
Jonathan.Rowlands [at]

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