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Two Reviews of Pennington’s Reading the Gospels Wisely

September 6, 2013

While perusing books over at the Review of Biblical Literature earlier today, I came across a recently published review of Jonathan Pennington’s book, Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011). When I clicked the link it actually took me to two reviews, an earlier review from Joel Green published back in April of this year, and a second review from Cornelis Bennema published (apparently) today. Reading through the reviews, both Joel and Cor make similar critiques. While expressing appreciation for Pennington’s careful scholarship, both also seem to suggest that the best venue for this book is the classroom in conservative/evangelical institutions. Cor, in particular, wonders whether Pennington’s approach to history and theology can be consistently maintained. I must say that I was appreciative of the reviews inasmuch as both pointed out issues that came to my mind when I picked up the book last year after SBL. One other issue that both reviewers seemed to overlook hung like a cloud over my entire experience with the book.

One of my primary research interests has been the role of narratology along with the variegated expressions of “narrative criticism” that have been such an important part of gospel studies over the past three decades. When I got this book I was absolutely astonished that NOWHERE in the entire book does Pennington mention developments related to narrative criticism. He doesn’t provide so much as a footnote with a nod to the contributions of Rhoads and Michie (Mark as Story, 1982), Culpepper (Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, 1983), or any of the other very important related developments over the past 30 years. Frankly, I was incredulous. The subtitle of the book actually hints that it will be a “narrative” introduction….but I felt (and still feel) that this is somewhat deceiving. While reading I found myself thinking, “this book would have been PERFECT for me back in the days of my evangelical ‘dogmatic slumber.'” In those days I didn’t know or care about the narrative in its final form. I was consumed only with historical and religious questions. These are at least two of the major focal points in the book, but I’m not convinced that Pennington actually provides a “narrative introduction” to the gospels. While I do think the book will find a niche–likely in those venues identified by Joel and Cor–and while I do think it is both well-written and researched, it is not, in my opinion, a book for (1) those who are actually interested in a “narrative” introduction to the gospels; and (2) those without conservative/evangelical leanings.

I don’t want this critique to sound like a swipe at Pennington’s scholarship as a whole or at works aimed particularly at an evangelical audience. I actually really like Pennington’s other work. In fact, I wrote a very positive review of his volume, Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew in Religious Studies Review back in 2010.  I just find it incredibly difficult to believe that a scholar of Pennington’s ilk would bury his head in the sand regarding three decades of important developments in the narrative study of the NT gospels. But this lacuna seems to be symptomatic of more conservative treatments of the gospels that I have seen in the past. Here’s hoping more modern readers of the canonical gospels in their final forms will actually begin to spend more time caring about the narratives in their final forms….

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 7, 2013 11:58 am

    Hey, Chris, three brief responses to your post:
    1) Thanks sincerely for taking the time to read and think about the book.
    2) Dang! You’re absolutely right and this is a legitimate oversight. In my lectures on this topic and maybe someday a second edition I will certainly remedy this. I have read a fair amount in theory of story, etc., but not enough in narrative criticism per se as it applies to the Gospels. Why, I’m not sure exactly, because I do care about this topic. And this leads to my third response.
    3) Your comments made me remember that I actually didn’t originally choose the subtitle (my publisher first suggested it) and this helped me reflect on what my original plan for the book was. I’m not opposed to the subtitle of course, and I think it is helpful in some ways, but my goal in writing the book was primarily to provide a hermeneutical and “theological interpretation” introduction to the experience of reading the Gospels. The basic “how to analyze a story” part of that (chapters 9-10) was really the practical outcome piece, not the primary focus. This in no way excuses my failure to engage with the good work in narrative criticism (including yours), but helps me (and hopefully you) understand why narrative critical studies didn’t play a larger part; despite the subtitle, I didn’t come into the book with that as the first goal, even though I do care very much about reading the Gospels as stories and not just windows onto the historical Jesus or ammo for apologetics.

    So, thanks again for the constructive criticism which I fully receive.

    All the best,


    • September 7, 2013 2:42 pm

      Jonathan, many thanks for taking the time to respond. I appreciated many of the perspectives in the book, especially the overarching concept of reading “wisely.”



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