Jesus and the Gospels


51-Q4LemSWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Mike Bird, Lecturer in Theology at Ridley Melbourne, is well known for his many books and blog Euangelion. In his latest volume, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus, he explores the origins and development of the Gospels. Mike works through a range of the key issues, such as oral tradition, the synoptic problem and the Johannine Question, and presents many complicated issues with great clarity. (His discussion of the synoptic problem is one of the clearest accounts, whatever one makes of his conclusion.) He kindly has answered some questions about the book.

1. Your publications have spanned across the breath of New Testament and Systematic theology. What brought you back to the Gospels at this point and particularly to this topic?

A number of things. First, it’s always good to go back and have a close read of the Gospels because the Gospels present to us the story of Jesus. So by virtue of their subject, Jesus, they should have a special place in our hearts. Second, I didn’t want to engage in a study of the literary, narrative, and theological texture of the Gospels just yet. I hope to return to that task in the coming years. But I felt the need to write a kind of critical preface towards understanding how the Gospels came to be. How did we get them, what are they, and where do they sit in the story of the early church. So GOTL covers all the preliminary stuff, hoping paying the way for a more concerted study of the actual content of the Gospels themselves.

2. Will you summarise for us what your main thesis (theses) are in this book?

There is no singular thesis since I’m trying to answer the critical questions abou the origins of the Gospels. In a nutshell, I’d say: (1) The Gospels are historically reliable and are reasonable guides to Jesus; (2) The Gospels were probably transmitted in a complex web of oral and written traditions. (3) Social-memory is probably the best hermeneutical framework for understanding the origins of the Gospel traditions. (4) On the Synoptic Problem, I go for the three-source theory (Holtzmann-Gundry thesis) where Luke used Matthew-Mark-Q. On the Johannine Question, I opt for the semi-independence of John from the Synoptics (i.e., John has probably seen, heard, or read Mark, but doesn’t write with it front of him). (5) The Gospel genre is a variation of Greco-Roman biography married to OT narrative and Christian proclamation. (6) The fourfold Gospel was not a late invention nor one meant to stifle diversity, but bring us the clearest testimony to Jesus as he is understood in the rule of faith.

3. There have been several recent studies addressing the formation of the Gospels and the four-fold Gospel (e.g. Dunn, The Oral Gospel Tradition; Eve, Behind the Gospels; Rodriguez, Oral Tradition and the New Testament; Watson, Gospel Writing). What will readers find different in your study?

I believe there are good reasons for supposing that the church was interested in what we might call a “historical Jesus” (though not necessarily “historical” as we might conceive it). I think we can no longer look for a pure oral tradition behind the Gospels since the Jesus tradition moved to and fro between oral and written forms in its pre-Gospel stages. It means that orality, book culture, and social memory theory are all needed to reconstruct what is behind the Gospels and how we got them. I take a bold perspective in advocating the Holtzmann-Gundry thesis. I think we can read non-canonical Jesus literature and other “Gospels” sympathetically even if they are not regarded as part of the church’s testimony to Jesus.

4. In your view what has led to this interest in the formation of the Gospels?

It is a bit of a detective game when you think about it. The Synoptic Problem and Johannine Question beckon us with why these documents are partly similar and partly different. Who knew what when? Who used who first? It also raises the question of sources, reliability, and authority, which are natural questions for those who treat the Gospels as sources of either authority or even revelation. To put it broadly, what forces and factors shaped the Evangelists to write these Jesus books in these particular ways and what were they trying to achieve by doing that? These are all big questions and no consensus has really won the day.

5. Two areas that have received much attention lately are orality and memory which both are important throughout your whole project and discussed directly in chapter 3. Would you explain how you address these areas?

Whoa, that would take a big lecture and while I utilize social memory, I do not profess to be one of its leading practitioners. I’m reliant on chaps like Anthony Le Donne, Rafael Rodriguez, and Chris Keith. The important thing is that social memory is not a “school” that describes how the Gospels evolved from orality into literature, but it provides a hermeneutical framework for how memory is both reliable and yet refracted or redacted in light of the situation of the remember(s). In many cases, it provides a way of breaking the impasse between different ways of conceiving the development of the Jesus tradition.

6. Your title ‘the Gospel of the Lord’ comes from two patristic authors (John Cassian and Cyprian). How have these early Christian authors and others shaped your understanding of the Gospels?

I think the Gospels are fundamentally about drawing people to praise, revere, believe in, and worship, the one whom the Evangelists know to be “the Lord.” They are the books and stories that tell us who the Lord Jesus is, what he taught, how he lived, why he died, why he rose, who we should think he is, and how we should relate to him.

7. What areas in the study of the formation of the Gospels need addressed further? To put it differently, if someone was looking for a PhD thesis topic, what might you suggest to them?

So many areas. The Gospel of Mark in the Second Century would be good. The Gospel titles in the various manuscripts. The making of early Gospel commentaries. Angels in the Gospels needs to be done (see esp. Matt 18:10).

8. Now that you have finished this project, what can we be looking forward to next?

I’m currently working on a commentary on Romans for the SGBC series and an introduction to Christian doctrine via the Apostles’ Creed. Coming soon!!

I would like to thank Mike for answering these questions. For more information about the book, check out this video interview by Mike. The book is available now or you can get it from Eerdmans at SBL.

Ian Boxall’s new book, Discovering Matthew: Context, Interpretation, Reception (London: SPCK, 2014), is a welcome addition to the study of the Gospel of Matthew. Designed as an introduction to Matthew, Boxall sets out well the main issues in current scholarship and the key players in the various debates. He is not limited to only the classic works or the most recent positions; rather, he tries to give readers a feel for how debates have progressed, where they are, and where they might go. As well as gaining a sense for the state of present scholarship, Boxall aims to keep the text in front of the reader. His discussion is guided by Matthew and his presentation of Jesus, not simply what is fashionable at the moment in Matthean scholarship.

After a brief introduction that summarises the critical turn of the 19th century and lays out the content of Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 2 describes the range of critical approaches for reading Matthew. One finds here the standard references to source, form and redaction criticisms. As well, though, Boxall highlights (so-called) pre-critical readings. He also gives much attention to social scientific and narrative approaches. The strategies outlined in chapter 2 are taken up, more or less, in fuller detail in the remainder of the book. In chapter 3, the issues of authorship and date, source criticism and textual criticism are addressed. The structure of the book is also discussed. The characters and, to a lesser extent, places in Matthew’s Gospel are surveyed in chapter 4. With the rise of narrative criticism, interest in the characters of the Gospels has risen and Boxall develops this in his discussion. I had hoped for slightly more on the places mentioned in Matthew’s gospel.

Set within a narrative framework, in chapters 6-12 (about 100 pages) Boxall walks the reader through the content of Matthew’s Gospel highlighting the key themes and topics debated by scholars. He begins with the infancy narratives, addressing issues like Jesus as teacher and healer, the function of scripture, the church, and concludes with discussions of Jesus’ death and resurrection. While the discussions of these issues will be familiar ground to most scholars (even those of us who do not work much in Matthew), students should find this discussion insightful and accessible.

An important and welcome feature of Boxall’s book is the constant reference to the history of interpretation. Inspired, of course, by Luz’s monumental work, scholars have been keenly interested in how Matthew has been interpreted throughout church history. An important feature of Boxall’s contribution is that he often shows how today’s readings mirror ancient ones. For example, he notes the similarities between Bornkamm’s interpretation of the calming of the storm as a model of discipleship and earlier readings, such as Peter Chrysologus, bishop of Ravenna in the fifth century, who ‘offered an ecclesiological interpretation of the boat’ (p.117). Linking present interpretations with similar ones from the past should help eliminate the notion that all early interpretations are simply wrong and must be abandoned.

Boxall also notes how Matthew has been depicted in art. I think this is important as it helps us see how the texts have influenced others, and in turn how the depiction of scenes from the gospel may influence us in our readings. Perhaps if a revised edition is done, some pictures can be included to help get the full fell of the paintings.

While I would quibble over certain positions, as far as an introductory volume goes, this one is helpful. The book addresses all the standard features that one expects in an introductory book, but in a user-friendly and especially student-friendly manner. Students will benefit from the clarity of Boxall’s discussion.

Various online news groups are reporting that the scientific studies conducted on the fragment of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife have shown it NOT to be a forgery! See, e.g., the article in he Boston Globe. See also the official Harvard Divinity School site. Can’t wait to hear the reactions of Watson, Gathercole, Goodacre, and others.

The following is an extended quote from Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 30.5 (one of his Five Theological Orations), written near the time of the Council of Constantinople (AD 381).  The work is a refutation of the Eunomians/Anomeans/Neo-Arians, who thought that the Son did not eternally share the same nature as the Father.  As part of his argument he discusses the relationship of the Father to the Son when he is hanging on the cross.

If the Father and Son share the same essence/nature, how can they be separated at the cross? What could Jesus have meant when he exclaimed (quoting Ps 22.1), “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Gregory answers:

Why? You will say.  Is [the Son] not subordinate now?  If he is God, does he need at all to be made subordinate to God?  You are talking as if he were a bandit or an opponent of God!

No–look at this fact: the one who releases me from the curse was called “curse” because of me; “the one who takes away the sin of the world” was called “sin” and is made a new Adam to replace the old.  In just this way too, as head of the whole body, he appropriates my want of submission.  So long as I am an insubordinate rebel with passions which deny God, my lack of submission will be referred to Christ.  But when all things are put in submission under him, when transformed they obediently acknowledge him, then will Christ bring me forward, me who have been saved, and makes his subjection complete.  In my view Christ’s submission is the fulfillment of the Father’s will.  As we said before, the Son actively produces submission to the Father, while the Father wills and approves submission to the Son.  Thus it is that he effects our submission, makes it his own and presents it to God. “My God, my God, look upon me, why have you forsaken me?” seems to me to have been the same kind of meaning.  He is not forsaken either by the Father or, as some think, by his own Godhead, which shrank in fear from suffering, abandoning the suffer.  Who applies that argument either to his birth in this world in the first place or to his ascent of the cross? No in himself, as I have said, he expresses our condition.  We had once been forsaken and disregarded; then we are accepted and now are saved by the sufferings of the impassible.  He made our thoughtlessness and waywardness his own, just as the psalm, in its subsequent course says–since the Twenty-First Psalm [LXX, English = 22nd], clearly refers to Christ.

When representing humanity on the cross, Christ does not cease to be divine.  He subordinates himself on our behalf, but he can only humble himself if he were exalted in the first place.  The Father and the Son did not have separate intentions because sharing the same nature entails sharing the same will.  Miroslav Volf captures this idea when he recently tweeted: “Christ is not a third party inserted between an angry God and sinful humanity; he is the God who was wronged embracing humanity on the cross.”

Reading up on Schweitzer for an article on Colossians 2 and was reminded of this gem:

What endless trouble theology has given itself about the problem of Paul and Jesus, and what shifts it has been put to to explain why Paul does not derive his teaching from the preaching of Jesus, but stands in this respect so independently alongside of Him!  In doing so it is talking all round a problem, which it has first made insoluble by failing to grasp it in its completeness.  The discovery that Paul takes up an independent attitude towards Jesus is misleading, unless one at the same time recognises all that he has in common with Him.  For Paul shares with Jesus the eschatological world-view and the eschatological expectation, with all that these imply.  The only difference is the hour in the world-clock in the two cases.  To use another figure, both are looking towards the same mountain range, but whereas Jesus sees it as lying before Him, Paul already stands upon it and its first slopes are already behind him. (The Mysticism of the Apostle Paul, 113)

I had a friend ask why, according to NT Wright,  Jesus rebuked the Pharisees.  I gave this response:

The Pharisees were, according to Wright, as concerned with the need for a political solution of purity as well as the religious, which I think is important to remember.  In the ancient world religion and politics were explicitly mixed, whereas today it is more implicit or at least mostly on the level of rhetoric rather than practice.  Thus when Jesus was preaching the Kingdom of God, the Pharisees could easily get on board with that as a restored kingdom of Israel, which entailed kicking out all the impure gentiles much like had happened with the Hasmoneans and the Hanukkah story.  However, the way that Jesus went about bringing in the kingdom was not through rebellion, which didn’t fit with the Pharisaic mindset of zeal for purity.  Rather, Jesus’ vision included not only the impure Jews as included in the kingdom but also the (really) impure Gentiles.

NTW in his own words on this:

the rigorous application of the law in the way we have observed, as a defence against Gentiles and hence as a reinforcement of national boundaries and aspirations, had become, in Jesus’ view, a symptom of the problem rather than part of the solution.  The kingdom of the one true god was at last coming into being, and it would not be characterized not by defensiveness, but by Israel’s being a light to the world; not by the angry zeal which would pay the Gentiles back by their own coin (as Mattathias had advised his sons), but by turning the other cheek and going the second mile.  The command to love one’s enemies, and the prohibition on violent revolution, constituted not an attack on Torah as such but a radically different interpretation of Israel’s ancestral tradition from those currently on offer.  Jesus, precisely in affirming Israel’s unique vocation to be the light of the world, was insisting that, now that the moment for fulfilment had come, it was time to relativize those god-given markers of Israel’s distinctiveness. (Jesus and the Victory of God, 389)

I have an article in the latest volume of JBL (131.3 [2012], 547-66) titled “Voluntary Debt Remission and the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13).” JBL doesn’t include abstracts, but here is a lengthy soundbite at the end of the survey/critique of existing interpretations that, more or less, explains what I try to do in the piece:

Numerous other interpretations could be presented here, each with its own shortcomings. The foregoing survey, however, has sufficiently demonstrated the common assumption underlying most of these inadequate explanations, namely, that unless the steward is deducting from his own profits, the reductions are to be viewed as hostile to his master, or in the words of Douglas E. Oakman, as “betrayal” and “an abrogation of the then-current social mores of fidelity.” Kloppenborg similarly remarks, “[T]he natural implication of the story is that the steward’s actions are injurious to the master’s interests.” Schellenberg concurs, explaining, “The expectation within the world of the parable [is] that loyal stewardship requires meticulous collection of the master’s debts.” But these assumptions rest on a limited understanding of the purpose and function of debt remission in the ancient economy. And since, as Klyne Snodgrass suggests, “[t]his is a parable where one must fill in the blanks,” in this essay I will offer a new explanation of the master’s praise based on the general custom of lease adjustment in the early empire. Through the testimony of Roman landowners such as Pliny the Younger, Cicero, and Columella, as well as those represented in leasing contracts from early Roman Egypt, I will demonstrate that the instability of land tenancy during the early imperial period quite often required wealthy proprietors to reduce debts (rents and arrears) in order to enable and encourage their repayment, as well as to secure the longevity of their tenants and their own long-term profitability. Debt remission in antiquity, then, was advantageous both to landlords and tenants, an insight that has significant implications for the interpretation of our parable (552-53).

If you interested in matters relating to the ancient economy and/or the interpretation of this confusing parable, I would encourage you to check out the article.

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