Book Launch: Dr. Benjamin White’s ‘The New Testament in Comparison’
A selection of essays co-edited by White and Durham University’s Dr. John M.G. Barclay, the book aims to guide scholars in making comparisons between New Testament texts and other ancient texts from the Greco-Roman world.
On March 10, The King’s College hosted a book launch for Dr. Benjamin White’s The New Testament in Comparison: Validity, Method, and Purpose in Comparing Traditions (T&T Clark, 2020). The book is a selection of essays from New Testament scholars, edited and introduced by White, assistant professor of biblical studies at King’s, and his former doctoral advisor at Durham University, Dr. John M.G. Barclay. The volume includes contributions from academics at some of the world’s leading universities, including Cambridge, Yale, Duke, and Edinburgh.
At the event, White sought to balance a description of the book’s contents—largely intended for researchers and graduate students—with some reflection on the cultural implications of the contributors’ arguments. He began by describing how comparisons between New Testament texts and other ancient sources (Jewish, Stoic, etc.) lie at the heart of academic study of the Bible, yet scholars rarely reflect on why these comparisons are important, how to do them well, and the various ways in which comparisons reveal assumptions about ourselves and others.
White recounted how, prior to the explosion of historical research in the Enlightenment, the New Testament was often viewed as an abstract, doctrinal set of documents, removed from the world around it. A growing number of New Testament scholars, however, believed that the New Testament texts should be read historically, in the context of other ancient texts from the Greco-Roman world. White and Barclay’s book aims to give scholars some guidance on how to do this well, beginning with the simple yet overlooked question, “Why do we compare?”
White noted that all of us compare things, even before anyone teaches us to do it. These comparisons can be unhelpful or silly (like a comparison between whose Dad can throw a football the farthest), but if the comparison is made out of genuine curiosity, it is often useful. We can compare, for instance, different philosophies or ethical systems with profound results. The purpose of comparison, according to White, is “to give us a new and sometimes improved vision of ourselves. It acts as a mirror. The irony of life is that by looking at others we can become more familiar with ourselves.” He noted how one of the contributors describes a comparison as a mutually edifying conversation. White suggested that this is the basis of a good education in the liberal arts. Studying the canon of Western literature, from Plato to Shakespeare to Dostoevsky, depends upon a good faith effort to understand and appreciate other perspectives.
When applied to the study of the Bible, this attitude regarding comparison is essential. White used the example of John 1, where commentators often discuss the reference to Jesus as the logos or divine “Word” (v. 1). Notably, some Stoic philosophers believed that the logos was the animating principle of the universe, yet here, John applies this term to Jesus. White notes that several principles in his book would suggest that a comparison between John and the Stoics on the concept of logos is legitimate since these are contemporary sources writing in the same language, sharing certain cultural assumptions, yet there is also an anticipated difference between the sources that makes the comparison interesting. John famously says that “the Word became flesh” (v. 14)—something the Stoics would never say. However, rather than rushing to dismiss the Stoic view, commentators should appreciate the Stoic perspective and how John relies upon it, to a degree, to illuminate what is similar and distinct about Jesus’ identity as the logos.
Later in the lecture, White applied these insights to Christian apologetics, where he noted that believers sometimes resort to creating strawmen and issuing “gotcha” arguments rather than seriously engaging with another perspective. For White and Barclay, and the contributors to their book, comparisons are nothing to fear. In fact, if one’s faith tradition is true, a comparison will not damage our confession: it will vindicate it. But scholars always need to be aware of their tendency to favor their own convictions.
The difficulty of doing comparisons led White to describe how Dr. Kavin Rowe of Duke Divinity School, the author of two essays in the book, believes that comparative analysis is inherently problematic. Rowe argues that scholars attempting to make comparisons struggle to take into account the larger existential narratives of each author, as the writers they are comparing have lived different lives with different fundamental assumptions. For Rowe, you may try to compare a Christian and a Stoic, but you cannot live both a Stoic and a Christian life.
Rowe argues that a better framework for comparison is friendship. We should value conversations with our neighbors, even while we may not be able to fully understand them. White suggested that, following this conversational ideal, Christians should engage in our diverse, pluralistic society with a quiet confidence. We believe our faith is true, but having arrogant and inhospitable conversations with outsiders is not the way to establish the legitimacy of Christian belief. White closed by saying, “To compare is to be human, but to compare well requires training and virtue.”
After the lecture, White was interviewed by Dr. Dru Johnson, associate professor of biblical and theological studies. Johnson asked a series of questions about how lay Christians can apply comparative studies to their day-to-day lives. White encouraged listeners to remember that loving your neighbor needs to go beyond concrete acts of kindness, and extend to how we treat their intellectual ideas and beliefs. He also urged the audience to be careful not to insert an unnatural divide between the sacred history of the Bible and the secular history of the Bible’s context. As the biblical writings took shape within the ancient world, modern Christians are called into our world—into comparisons—for the sake of self-understanding and a greater appreciation of our neighbors.
White and Barclay’s book, published in the peer-reviewed Library of New Testament Studies series from T&T Clark, is available for purchase as an eBook or in print.