Porter, Stanley E. Sacred Tradition in The New Testament: Tracing Old Testament Themes in the Gospels and Epistles. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016. Pp. xx + 310. ISBN: 978-0-8010-3077-2. $40 [Hardcover].
Stanley Porter has entered into the discussion of New Testament (NT) use of the Old Testament (OT). According to Porter, his work is unique because he avoids focusing on individual verses and instead concentrates on sacred traditions that inform and shape the New Testament’s tradition (x, 247). Porter believes sacred traditions often develop into Christology in the NT (ix). Much of his work, therefore, explores the Christological themes in the NT, demonstrating their source in sacred tradition.
Sacred tradition refers to “wordings [sic] or larger patterns of thought recorded in writings venerated by various peoples and appropriated and reappropriated by later writers in their own interpretations and applications of these in new contexts and situations” (3). Generally speaking, Porter draws on sacred traditions from the OT, although Greco-Roman traditions also have their place in the NT.
Porter generally succeeds in accomplishing the purpose for which he wrote, but his work has a few of problems that mar it. First, Porter’s attempt to study sacred tradition in the NT fails to be as unique as he hopes it will be. Porter rightly states that other studies look at individual verses that cite the Old Testament.
But some of these studies also aver that, when the NT cites the OT, it evokes the whole context of the passage. This perspective is similar to Porter’s understanding of how NT author’s use OT broader categories of sacred tradition to communicate their message. For example, G. K. Beale’s work New Testament Biblical Theology traces major themes from the Old Testament across the canon (2012), showing how they inform the theology of the NT. Rikki Watts wrote Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark, demonstrating how the New Exodus theme of Isaiah informs Mark’s Gospel (2009). Porter may use novel or unique language to describe what he is doing (sacred tradition), but his actual work fails to be as unique as he claims.
Second, Porter commits himself to a purely historical method, which bars him from seeing theological influences in how the OT relates to the NT. For example, Porter describes typology as a NT author finding correspondences in the OT regardless if the OT author had intended the correspondence or not (30). Porter does not seem to allow for a deeper prophetic sense in the OT nor the possibility of a divine author. If the latter two ideas were to be considered, then it is possible for OT authors to intentionally speak about people, events, and institutions and for NT authors to cite them in typologically and according to the OT author’s intent. This is because typology could be a form of prophecy and the divine author could provide unity of interpretation of ancient event and typological fulfillment of that ancient event. Divine fulfillment need not contradict the OT’s author’s intent but clarify or deepen the OT’s author’s meaning.
Third, some chapters deserve the title of workmanlike. They accomplish the purpose for which they are written, but they do so without creative insight or memorable expression. Chapters read like research briefs, which admirably present evidence for their conclusions but fail to excite the imagination. Academic writing will fail to reach broader audiences if it does not aim for eloquence and beauty of expression. This particular critique is somewhat subjective, and I submit that readers may, in fact, like Porter’s no non-sense style. Fair enough.
Porter’s work, nevertheless, succeeds in its overall goals, evincing numerous virtues. First, Porter’s discussion on definitions helpfully clarifies how readers should define a NT author’s citation of an OT text. The scholarly field of NT use of the OT sorely requires clarification in these matters. In fact, the field cannot decide what the right term is to use for the scholarly discipline of NT use of the OT (e.g., inner-biblical exegesis or intertextuality?). Works that discuss how authors cite earlier material use terms like echo, allusion, quotation, and so forth. But authors may use these terms in various ways. How does, for example, an allusion differ from an echo or, for that matter, a paraphrase? If an allusion shares similar terms with its source text, then could that not be a paraphrase?
Porter supplies seven terms to describe when one author cites another author: formulaic quotation, direct quotation, paraphrase, allusion, and echo (34). The discussion on direct quotation is particularly helpful. A direct quotation does not require an introductory formula (e.g., “as it is written”) but only identical wording to the text it cites (35). Without a formulaic quotation, few people, for example, would identify Phil 1:19 as directly quoting LXX Job 13:16, and yet compare the two texts: τοῦτό μοι ἀποβήσεται εἰς σωτηρίαν (LXX Job 13:16) and τοῦτό μοι ἀποβήσεται εἰς σωτηρίαν (Phil 1:19). While it is possible that this exactness of form and order is a mere coincidence, Porter rightly argues that Philippians 1:19 directly quotes LXX Job 13:16 and needs no formulaic introduction (35).
Paraphrase differs from allusion because paraphrase is “an intentional and specific invoking of a definable passage, even if it is made in other words and in another form” and it may contain “some of the same words” as its source text (36; cf. Phil 2:10–11 with Isa 45:23). In contrast, allusion, for Porter, involves “the indirect invoking of a person, place, literary work, or the like, designed to bring the eternal person, place literary work, or similar entity into the contemporary material” (39; cf. Gal 4:22–23 and Gen 16 and 21). Finally, an echo differs from an allusion because it “may be consciously intentional or unintentional, involving not paraphrase of a specific passage nor allusion to a person, place, literary work, etc., but by means of thematically related language invoking some more general notion or concept” (45–46).
While many may squabble with Porter’s definitions, he at least tries to bring greater precision to the language that he uses within his work. As a consequence, readers clearly know what Porter means when he says echo or allusion. They know if these terms require intentionality or not.
Second, Porter’s approach highlights how sacred tradition deeply roots itself in NT books, and in at least one chapter, this approach brings to light exegetical detail that would otherwise not see the light of day in similar studies. John’s gospel contains time references to the Passover, which seem to move the narrative forward in John’s Gospel. Porter discusses the Passover tradition and its appearance in John’s Gospel. He suggests that these time references structure the narrative around the Passover. For example, Porter sees John 19 as the climactic part of John’s narrative, shaped by the Passover tradition (144). “Jesus’ body,” writes Porter, “is not allowed to stay on the cross until the next morning (john 19:31, 38), just as the remains of the Passover meal were not to be left until the next day but burned instead (Exod. 12:10)” (146).
The parallel between John 19 and Exodus 12 is not obvious when read in isolation. But Porter demonstrates how extensively the Passover tradition influences the message of John’s Gospel so that John 19’s comment on Jesus’ body seems to obviously relate to the Passover. In this way, Porter’s focus on the sacred tradition’s appearance in the NT brings out exegetical details in ways that would otherwise be difficult to discern.
Stanley Porter consistently writes academic and level-headed work. Porter has his detractors, but few would criticize his work as being shoddy or unscholarly, and Sacred Tradition does not break this pattern. Porter brings needed clarity to the discussion of New Testament use of the Old Testament. And while his method is not as unique as he might claim it is, Porter has helpfully shown how significant Old Testament sacred theology (and to a lesser degree, Greco-Roman sacred theology) was to the New Testament authors.
I would encourage pastors, theological students, and those with the dedication to read scholarly books to pick up and read Porter’s newest tome. It will not be a paradigm shifting work, and that might be a good thing. Instead, it will be a learned, careful, and scholarly discussion on how the NT uses sacred traditions.