I recently purchased and read The Untold Story of the New Testament Church: An Extraordinary Guide to Understanding the New Testament by Frank Viola. I was hopeful that this book would be a good historical background for my older children, and I do think I would use it with them but not without some reservations.
Viola’s goal is to provide the historical context for the New Testament books, particularly the epistles, that will help one understand and interpret them correctly. As he states in his introduction, it is very easy to select verses out of context and to thereby misunderstand the Bible’s meaning. I will say that the example he gives it a bit preposterous, but I agree with his basic premise.
Viola then proceeds to go through the history of the New Testament church, telling us who was doing what when and what the political situation was like. As he goes, he gives the background and a brief summary of each of the New Testament books. The idea is that one will stop periodically and read the books in the order they were written. I do like this approach and I think it would be a good way for teens or anyone to go through the New Testament, especially if one is not overly familiar with its historical context. While the book itself is fairly slim, it would take quite a while to go through it all this way as you are also reading all the epistles interspersed throughout. I consider myself fairly well-versed in the Bible, but I still found the comments on what problems were going on in each church helpful.
There were, however, some things I did not like about this book. I really wish Viola had done more to say how the various books have been misinterpreted and how the context he gives helps us to interpret them rightly. He really did not give any examples of how the context helps us understand what is being said. This was a disappointment.
There were details along the way that I had never heard before and whose accuracy I question. For example, he says that the thorn in Paul’s side which he mentions as a constant irritant to him is a person. I had always heard this was most likely a medical condition and have a hard time believing it is an individual. In other places. Paul is not at all hesitant to call out people he is critical of and to mention them by name so I find it hard to believe he would be so discreet about mentioning this person’s name, if it were a person. Viola also says that Luke and Titus are brothers. I had never heard this, and, in fact, had always heard how we know little of Luke’s family or background. An examination of the endnotes shows that Viola justifies this claim by saying “some scholars believe this is so.” He tends to use copious endnotes for each chapter. Some are legitimate references and some are along these lines. So it is helpful as one reads to flip to the endnotes to see if he has credible evidence for everything he says.
Lastly, Viola is part of the house church movement and this comes across in how he speaks of the churches. He apparently sees a church as a group of individuals who express the character of God. I do not completely disagree with this characterization, but Viola repeats this phrase over and over again as each NT church is established, such as: “There is now a church in Berea — a community that expresses God’s Son!” (p. 99) Not only does it get repetitive, Viola seems to ignore bits that might tend to lead one to other church structures than these very independent congregations.
All in all, I would use this book with my kids, but I would not do so without cautioning them to not take everything Viola says at face value. It is a useful resource but Viola himself seems to have some unique views and interpretations which come across. It would be better without them.