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.