Friday, December 12, 2008

Why Were the Gospels Written?

Despite all the kafuffle as to why the Gospels were written (ranging from debates in a Matthean community, synagogue expulsions, identity formation, counter the rise of gnosticism, etc.), I still think one of the best reasons calling for the Gospels to be written is to tell the story of Jesus for a generation who did not know any eyewitnesses or have access to first hand accounts of the Jesus tradition. As Bob Gundry writes:

“Why were the Gospels written? A high estimate of historical authenticity deriving from the literary distinctives of the Gospels leads to a further, old answer. The spread of the church far from its place of origin and the dying off of Jesus’ original disciples created a felt need for records. Since Christians had not divorced theology from history, those records turned out to be both theological and historical. Theological concerns for the present prompted redactional activity and resulted in differences among the Gospels. Historical concerns for the past checked fantasizing and resulted in commonalities among the Gospels.” (Robert H. Gundry, “The Symbiosis of Theology and Genre Criticism of the Canonical Gospels,” in The Old is Better: New Testament Essays in Support of Tradition Interpretations [WUNT 178; Tübingen: Mohr {Siebeck}, 2005], 39).

Note also the words of Bauckham:

"In other words, the Gospels stepped into the role of the eyewitnesses, which they had vacated through death. They interacted with the oral tradiiton, influencing it, doubtless becoming partially oralized in the form of new oral traditions, but also functioning as the gurantor of the traditions, as the eyewitneses had in their lifetimes, and as comtrols on the tradition, making it possible to check its faithfulness to the testimony of the eyewitnessees as now recording in writing." (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 309).

11 comments:

Steven Carr said...

'I still think one of the best reasons calling for the Gospels to be written is to tell the story of Jesus for a generation who did not know any eyewitnesses or have access to first hand accounts of the Jesus tradition.....'

Doesn't Bauckham claim that the readers did know the eyewitnesses, which is why Mark named Bartimaeus?

BAUCKHAM
In other words, the Gospels stepped into the role of the eyewitnesses, which they had vacated through death. They interacted with the oral tradiiton, influencing it, doubtless becoming partially oralized in the form of new oral traditions, but also functioning as the gurantor of the traditions, as the eyewitneses had in their lifetimes, and as comtrols on the tradition, making it possible to check its faithfulness to the testimony of the eyewitnessees as now recording in writing."

CARR
Does Bauckham have any evidence of any oral tradition of ,say, the Beatitudes or of , say, the Jews saying 'May his blood be upon us and our children'?

Does he have a named person P who said that person X told him this p[articular story S about Jesus?

theologist said...

Nice to know that you've come to agree with David Wenham and my view, as presented in our chapter on the nature of the Gospels in Exploring the NT vol 1... :-)

Michael Barber said...

Mike,

This question is of crucial importance and I'm glad you're getting people to think about it. The idiocy of doing exegesis without asking this question has got to come to an end. Genre is not an optional question to interpreting a work!

One key point: the Gospels, contrary to the form-critics, do NOT seem to be written primarily to address the needs of the Church. Dominical sayings were not "created" to resolve issues. If they were, why aren't there any quotations in Luke about circumcision, the spiritual gifts, etc.--teachings that surely would have come in handy in the Pauline churches!

Steven,

It seems to me that the precise reason the Gospels were written was that many of the witnesses were dying off. They were written at the precise moment the need for them became evident.

Steven Carr said...

The anonymous Gospel of John says why it was written 'But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.'

MICHAEL
They were written at the precise moment the need for them became evident.


CARR
That is a hypothesis.

How can evidence be found to test it?

Steven Carr said...

MICHAEL
If they were, why aren't there any quotations in Luke about circumcision, the spiritual gifts, etc.--

CARR
Not even the author of Luke could have rewritten history enough to suggest that the people closest to Jesus had spoken out against circumcision.

That would have been one historical anachronism too far.

He couldn't even give any ruling on circumcision in his summary in Acts 15.

Although the author of Mark has Jesus declaring all foods clean, the author of Acts puts this as much later.

So did Jesus declare all foods clean or not?

(And why does Acts 15 still have restrictions on what foods Christians may eat?)

Michael Barber said...

Steven,

Thanks for coming back at me...

I'm having a hard time following your argument here. This is what I hear you saying: Luke couldn't have had Jesus talking about circumcision or the spiritual gifts or the different roles in the church in his Gospel--that would have been stretching the truth too much. Too many people were still around who knew that Jesus hadn't spoken about such things. Mark, however, who probably wrote even earlier, could report that Jesus declared all foods clean?! Luke couldn't have stretched the truth of what Jesus said, but Mark, who was written earlier, did?

Is that your position?

Bauckham's theory may be a hypothesis but it at least works well with the extant evidence--both internal and external.

Let me come at it another way. Is it possible sayings of Jesus were invented and placed in the Gospels? Sure.

Is it possible that a Jew named Joseph joined the earliest Christian community and told people he was related to Jesus and then passed around sayings he attributed to Jesus that then found their way into the Gospels? I guess.

Is it possible that if there was such a Joseph his sayings might have had an influence on Mark? Perhaps.

But though this reconstruction is possible, given the complete lack of evidence it is NOT plausible! This is totally unfounded speculation.

Notice I took this in three stages and I think this corresponds to actual speculation that is now accepted in some scholarly circles:

1. Sayings of Jesus were not original to him but invented by the Church.
2. Christian prophets would often speak "in the name of the Lord". Their sayings were given the same status as traditional material because it was believed they were truly instruments of the Lord.
3. These sayings of Christian prophets found their way into the Gospels. The Gospel writers put these sayings on the lips of Jesus.

This is hilarious--and some scholars actually assert this as historical fact! Grant it, my "Josephite theory" lacks support from names like "Bultmann". However, if it did have such support I wonder how much more seriously it would be considered in the academic community.

I think Bauckham's book--though full of weaknesses no doubt (e.g., the inclusios!!!)--has a lot more going for it (e.g., internal [esp. Luke 1:1-4] and external evidence).

In addition, isn't the idea that the Fourth Gospel was written anonymously also merely a hypothesis? Of course it is. Indeed, I would argue it's a pretty weak one! First off, there's the title. Hengel has written extensively on the fact that the titles are most likely original; I'm convinced. There is NO textual evidence the Fourth Gospel lacked that title--that's merely a hypothesis which lacks ANY support whatsoever. Second, there is the universal acceptance in the early Church that it was written by "John". If someone else wrote that Gospel it is remarkable that everyone, everywhere came to the same conclusion about its author.

The hypothesis that the Fourth Gospel was written anonymously is in fact hugely problematic given all of this!

Finally, I think the view that Acts 15 lacks a ruling on circumcision. I think you have quite an uphill battle there in making that case. For one thing, the letter sent out after the council stated: " it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things..." Circumcision is not mentioned. Given that the chapter begins by stating that the council was convened to address the claim made by some that “It is necessary to circumcise them” (Acts 15:5), and given the absence of circumcision in the council's letter, I can't see how the implied audience does not draw the conclusion that circumcision is indeed not necessary.

Steven Carr said...

The Fourth Gospel never names any author, and there is no evidence the titles in the manuscripts are genuine.

Did Jesus declare all foods clean or not?

Oe did Jesus declare (as appears in Matthew) that not one jot of the Law would pass away?

MICHAEL
Second, there is the universal acceptance in the early Church that it was written by "John".

CARR
To translate this into reality, not one person in the 130 years since Jesus birth had ever heard of a Gospel by John.

And the work never names anybody as being its author.

This 'universal acceptance' pales by comparison with the universal acceptance by the Mormon Church that Joseph Smith translated Golden Plates.

In both cases, evidence is needed before such 'universal acceptance' is worth diddly-squat.

And at least the Mormons have earlier 'universal acceptance'....

I was genuinely shocked by Bauckham's work, but at least not all of it is as bad as his 'inclusios'...

I think this is getting away from the reason why the Gospels were written, which is what I would rather concern myself with.

The Fourth Gospel is pretty explicit.

I assume that the Gospel of Luke was written to provide a 'theologically correct' account

For example, it drops Mark's idaa of Jesus dying for many.

Any equivalent of Mark 10:45 is missing from Luke.

It seems an important saying to be dropped on the cutting-room floor by Luke.

I wonder why he did not include it.

I'm also curious as to why Luke/Acts gives no hint that any James had been a relative of Jesus or had even seen Jesus.

What is the standard explanation of this?

Michael Barber said...

Steven,

You wrote: "The Fourth Gospel never names any author, and there is no evidence the titles in the manuscripts are genuine"

When determining whether or not something is genuine to the Gospels we use textual criticism. When something is found in all of the manuscripts the burden is placed on the skeptic to show why it should not be considered authentic. There are no manuscripts of John without the titles. If that is not evidence that they are genuine then we have practically no evidence that any passage in the Gospels--or other ancients works--are genuine.

Furthermore, regarding Jesus' statement in Matthew that one dot will not "pass away" it should be noted that this is a notoriously difficult verse to interpret. Much could be said about it. (I deal with it in my dissertation--believe me, it's a complicated verse!). Suffice it to say, it can't possibly mean that everything in the Torah is upheld as perpetually binding by Jesus--in the same context Matthew has Jesus condemn divorce and the swearing of oaths which were permitted by the Torah! Of course, one could just write this off to Matthew being the absolute worst redactor in history, incapable of seeing how one verse contradicted the next. But I think that is an incredibly implausible scenario and really just sloppy exegesis.

You also said that not one person in the 130 years after Jesus' birth knew of John's Gospel. Of course, one would not expect the author of the Fourth Gospel to write it until at least 30-33 years after Jesus' birth! We also have evidence that the Gospel made its way to Egypt by the second century.

In addition, internal evidence strongly supports the idea that the Fourth Gospel was written by an eye-witness.
John 1:14: we have beheld his glory.
John 19:35: "He who saw it has borne witness--his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth--that you also may believe."
Other examples could be cited.

The author is probably not Peter (cf. John 13:23-30). The author also demonstrates a keen knowledge of Palestinian Geography (e.g., two Bethanys, "Tiberias" as an alternative name for the Sea of Galilee, the pool of Siloam).
He also seems to be associated with Peter (John 13:23-30; 20:1-10).

In addition, John 21 identifies the "other disciple" as the author. It also places him among one of 7 disciples, two of whom are the sons of Zebedee (cf. 21:2). I realize some think this is a later addition, however, the arguments do not hold up under close scrutiny: http://singinginthereign.blogspot.com/2007/03/john-21-later-addition-or-epilogue.html

All of this fits well with John. In fact, Peter and John are also linked together in Luke's material (see Luke 22:7-13; Acts 3:1; 4:13, 19; 8:14). Indeed, there is no good reason to deny the early tradition.

But I'm curious: do you know when the earliest testimony about Josephus writing in the first-century is? How about textual (i.e., manuscript) evidence that his work existed in the first century? Do you believe his work is genuine? Is the authenticity of other ancient works measured against such criteria?

And while Mark 10:45 is not in Luke, Jesus does say, "This is my body which is given for you"--a clear reference to his death.

Your question about James being a relative of Jesus is a good one. However, there are numerous things not mentioned by Luke that are in Matthew and Mark. Why does this stand out to you?

Steven Carr said...

I'm no terribly interested in discussing the evidential value of anonymous people adding a chapter to a work, declaring that the unnamed author of the previous chapters is an eyewitness.

It is off-topic for this blog posting, and I would just ignore claims by Mormons that their church history is correct because an anonymous Mormon had scribbled on an early copy of some Mormon work that it was true.

Of course, 'This is my body which is given for you' is a famous passage, which the Revised Standard Version (no less!) relegated to a footnote.

'And taking bread, giving thanks, saying ,'This is my body that is given for you. Do this in my remembrance. And the cup likewise after supper, saying 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood that is poured out for you'' Why does the RSV have these famous words by Jesus as a footnote? They are not in Codex Bezae , from the 5th century.

Probably because they were not original to Luke's Gospel. The phrase 'for you' occurs twice in that verse , but nowhere else in Luke-Acts.

The word for 'remembrance' occurs nowhere else in Luke-Acts and nowhere else does Luke use the term 'the new covenant'. More importantly, nowhere else does Luke say that Jesus died 'for your sins' or 'for you'.

Luke , in the Gospel or in Acts, had many opportunities to say that Jesus died 'for' anybody or 'for' anything, but he consistently spurns them all. For example, in the famous 'prophecy , Isaiah 53, Luke in Acts 8 ignores 53:5 'wounded for our transgressions', or 53:5, 'bruised for our iniquities' or 53:10, 'an offering for sin'.

As Luke never says that Jesus died 'for our sins', why would he add those words in Luke 22:19-20? If he did write those words, why would any scribe have dropped them? It is clear that the RSV is right and they were not original to Luke's Gospel.

More importantly , I am surprised there is not a 'standard explanation' for why Luke/Acts omits all connections between James and Jesus.

Surely if Biblical studies was a serious discipline , this would already have been looked at.

Bill said...

BIRD: "to tell the story of Jesus for a generation who did not know any eyewitnesses or have access to first hand accounts" GUNDY: "the dying off of Jesus’ original disciples created a felt need for records." BARBER: "They were written at the precise moment the need for them became evident."

HEROMAN: Need felt by whom? Evident to whom? Written down by whom? These comments challenged me to consider that "communities" may edit documents, but the pen was most likely in the hand of one person, originally, and that person may have "felt the need" much sooner than anyone else would have.

Please let me know if I've missed anything in this post, or if my ideas have been discussed before.

Thanks for blogging, brothers...

Gary said...

Two of the biggest assumptions that many Christians make regarding the truth claims of Christianity is that, one, eyewitnesses wrote the four gospels. The problem is, however, that the majority of scholars today do not believe this is true. The second big assumption many Christians make is that it would have been impossible for whoever wrote these four books to have invented details in their books, especially in regards to the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection appearances, due to the fact that eyewitnesses to these events would have still been alive when the gospels were written and distributed.

But consider this, dear Reader: Most scholars date the writing of the first gospel, Mark, as circa 70 AD. Who of the eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus and the alleged events after his death were still alive in 70 AD? That is four decades after Jesus' death. During that time period, tens of thousands of people living in Palestine were killed in the Jewish-Roman wars of the mid and late 60's, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem.

How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus in circa 30 AD was still alive when the first gospel was written and distributed in circa 70 AD? How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus ever had the opportunity to read the Gospel of Mark and proof read it for accuracy?

I challenge Christians to list in the comment section below, the name of even ONE eyewitness to the death of Jesus who was still alive in 70 AD along with the evidence to support your claim.

If you can't list any names, dear Christian, how can you be sure that details such as the Empty Tomb, the detailed resurrection appearances, and the Ascension ever really occurred? How can you be sure that these details were not simply theological hyperbole...or...the exaggerations and embellishments of superstitious, first century, mostly uneducated people, who had retold these stories thousands of times, between thousands of people, from one language to another, from one country to another, over a period of many decades?