Criswell Theological Review 3.1 (1988) 3-15.

Copyright 1988 by The Criswell CollegeCited with permission.

 

 

 

READING THE GOSPELS AS HISTORY

 

 

 

E. EARLE ELLIS

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Ft. Worth, TX 76122

 

 

The four NT Gospels are virtually the only source for our knowl-

edge of the acts and teachings of the earthly Jesus.l They are received

by the Christian church as the work of inspired writers, apostles and

prophets who were guided by the Spirit of God to give a true

portrayal and interpretation of his life and work, and they are also

historical documents whose origin and formation can be investigated

and in some measure discovered. Our topic today raises the question

whether these two perceptions of the Gospels are in conflict.

Written some time after Jesus' death and resurrection, the Gos-

pels have been subjected to careful and prolonged study to determine

their background and the degree to which they accurately reflect his

preresurrection ministry. The historical investigation of the Gospels

has mainly taken four routes, (1) the attempt to identify underlying

documents (known as "source criticism"), (2) the attempt to identify

individual literary units and analyse their formation and classification

(known as "form criticism"), (3) the attempt to trace changes in these

units during their transmission prior to their use by the Evangelist

(known as "tradition criticism") and, finally, (4) the attempt to iden-

tify changes that each Evangelist himself made in composing his

Gospel (known as "redaction" or "composition criticism"). Each of

these avenues of research is perfectly legitimate but, as in other areas

of historical study, the results arrived at are heavily influenced if not

 

1 There is a brief reference to his ministry by the 1st-century Jewish historian,

Josephus (Antiquities 18, 63f = 18, 3, 3) and a few additional sayings of the earthly

Jesus recorded elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 20:35) and in other sources

(cf. J. Jeremias, Unknown Sayings of Jesus [London] 1958).

 



4 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

determined by the world-view with which the historian approaches

the texts and by his other historical and methodological assumptions.2

 

I

An assumption that may be addressed at the outset is the view, still

held in some quarters, that history writing is an objective science in

which the historian is a neutral observer and evaluator of probabili-

ties. This view has been effectively discredited for general history by

such writers as C. Becker, and H. S. Commager and, for biblical

history, by A. Richardson.3 Its fallacies have been illustrated again in

the work of J. Kenyon on critical historians in Britain.4

As Bernard Lonergan5 and others have reminded us, the term

"history" may be employed in at least two senses, that which is

written and that which is written about. It is history in the former

sense that is presented to us both by the Evangelists and by modern

historians of early Christianity. Such history is by its very nature

interpretive and modern historians, including of course the present

writer, are no less subjectively involved in their reconstructions than

the Evangelists were in theirs. As one who very early had to contrast

the history of the War between the States received at my grand-

mother's knee and in Jefferson Davis' The Rise and Fall of the Con-

federate Government6 with that presented, for example, by C. A.

Beard in the public school text-books of my high school years, I later

read the diverse accounts of the ministry of Christ and historicity of

the Gospels by, say, F. W. Farrar, C. H. Dodd and B. Gerhardsson7

on the one hand and D. F. Strauss and R. Bultmann on the other with

a distinct sense of deja vu.8

 

2 I address these questions in more detail in E. E. Ellis, "Gospels Criticism: A

Perspective on the State of the Art," Das Evangelium und die Evangelien (ed. P.

Stuhlmacher; Tubingen, 1983) 27-54.

3 C. Becker, "Detachment and the Writing of History," Atlantic Monthly CVI

(Oct 1910), 524-36; H. S. Commager, The Study of History (Columbus OR, 1966)

43-60; A. Richardson, History Sacred and Profane (London, 1964), 83-183.

4 J. Kenyon, The History Men (London, 1983).

5 B. Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York, 1972), 175.

6 J. Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (2 vols; London and

Cranbury NJ, 1958 [1881]).

7 F. W. Farrar, The Life of Christ (London 1912); C. R. Dodd, The Founder of

Christianity (London 1971); idem., "The Framework of the Gospel Narrative," NTS

(New York, 1953) 1-11; B. Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript (Lund 1961).

8 D. F. Strauss, The Life of Jesus (London 41902 [1835]); R. Bultmann, Jesus and

the Word (London 1935).



Ellis: READING THE GOSPELS AS HISTORY 5

 

The subjectivity inevitably involved in the reconstruction of the

past does not, of course, diminish the importance of a proper method

or excuse us from criticizing historical reconstructions that are demon-

strably defective in this or other respects. A currently widespread view

of the origins of the Gospels with its skeptical attitude toward their

historicity seems to me to warrant such criticism, specifically, (1) in its

misrepresentation of its own confessional presuppositions as a scientific

or critical stance, (2) in its misuse of historical method and (3) in its

mistaken historical and literary assumptions. Let us look at these points

in order.

1. The historical study of the Gospels has been marked for the

past two centuries by a cleavage in world-views, characterized on

the one side by deism and on the other by Christian theism or, in the

categories of H. Thielicke, by Cartesian and non-Cartesian assump-

tions.9 In the mid-20th century it was dominated in many circles by a

Cartesian, that is, rationalistic approach for which Professor R. Bult-

mann was probably the most influential representative. Regarding

history and the natural world as a closed continuum of cause and

effect "in which historical happenings cannot be rent by the inter-

ference of supernatural transcendent powers,"10 Bultmann viewed,

and indeed on a priori grounds had to view, large portions of the

Gospels as later mythological creations. On the same grounds he had

to limit the "authentic" sayings of Jesus to those he regarded as

originating in Jesus' earthly ministry since no exalted Lord could, in

fact, speak to and through the Gospel traditioners and Evangelists.

These attitudes and conclusions which Bultmann and other rationalist

historians represented as "scientific" and "critical" were in fact only

the expression and predetermined result of their world-view, that is,

their philosophical and thus ultimately confessional commitments.

2. Other questions of method are not unrelated to these philo-

sophical assumptions, for example, the assignment of the "burden of

proof" in determining whether a particular episode in the Gospels

originated in the preresurrection mission of Jesus and the criteria by

which its preresurrection origin could be established. The proposed

criteria were (1) an episode's appearance in more than one Gospel, (2)

its lack of so-called "developed," that is, postresurrection tendencies,

(3) its dissimilarity from the idiom or ideas found in contemporary

 

9 H. Thielicke, The Evangelical Faith (3 vols; Grand Rapids 1974-81) 1.30-173.

10 R. Bultmann, Existence and Faith (New York 1960) 292 (GT: Theologische

Zeitschrift 13, 1957, 411f.); cf. idem, "New Testament and Mythology," Kerygma and

Myth (London 1953) 7 (GT: 18).



6 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

Judaism or early Christianity and (4) its coherence with other Gospels

material thought to be authentic. Some of the criteria raise certain

probabilities and some simply beg the question, but none of them

produce any "assured results."11 As the critiques of M. Hooker and

E. L. Mascall have pointed out, the conclusions drawn from them

were "very largely the result of [the scholar's] own presuppositions

and prejudices."12 Moreover, the criteria received an importance be-

yond their due from the assumption, adopted by E. Kasemann and

others, that the Gospel accounts should be regarded as postresurrec-

tion creations unless proven otherwise.13 Does this view of the burden

of proof accord with good historical method?

According to E. Bernheim's classic text on historical method the

historian has the two-fold task of testing the genuineness and demon-

strating the nongenuineness of his sources.14 Applied to the Gospels

this means, as W. G. Kummel has rightly seen,15 that the historian

must not only test the preresurrection origin of a Gospel account but

also must demonstrate that any part of that account is created in the

postresurrection church since the Gospels present their narrative in

the context of the preresurrection mission of Jesus. In a word, a good

historical method requires that a Gospel passage be received as an

episode in Jesus' earthly ministry unless it is shown that it cannot have

originated there.

 

II

 

Under the influence of R. Bultmann and M. Dibelius16 the clas-

sical form criticism raised many doubts about the historicity of the

 

11 Cf. Ellis (n. 2), 3Of.

12 M. Hooker, "On Using the Wrong Tool," Theology 75 (1972) 581; cf. idem,

"Christology and Methodology," NTS 17 (1970-71) 480-87; E. L. Mascall, Theology

and the Gospel of Christ (London 1977) 87-97.

13 E. Kasemann, "The Problem of the Historical Jesus" (1954), Essays on New

Testament Themes (London 1964) 37 (GT: Exegetische Versuche und Besinnungen I,

Gottingen 1960, 205). He was followed by the Anglo-American writers, N. Perrin

(Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus [London 1967] 39) and J. M. Robinson (A New

Quest of the Historical Jesus [London 1959] 38). The latter is critiqued by R. P. Martin,

"The New Quest of the Historical Jesus," Jesus of Nazareth: Savior and Lord (ed.

C.F .H. Henry; Grand Rapids, 1966) 25~45.

14 E. Bernheim, Lehrbuch der historischen Methode (New York, 1965 [1908]),332.

C. V. Langlois and C. Seignobos (Introduction to the Study of History [New York,

1966, 1898] 155-00) are less balanced and more sceptical: "The historian ought to

distrust a priori every statement of an author" (157).

15 W. G. Kummel, "Jesusforschung seit 1950," Theologische Rundschau 31 (1966) 42f.

16 R. Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition (New York 51963 [1921]);

M. Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel (New York 21965 [1919]).

 



Ellis: READING THE GOSPELS AS HISTORY 7

 

Synoptic Gospels, but this form criticism itself was shaped by a

number of literary and historical assumptions which themselves are

increasingly seen to have a doubtful historical basis.17 Here we may

mention three.

The early form criticism assumed, first of all, (1) that the Gospel

traditions were transmitted for decades exclusively in oral form and

began to be fixed in writing only when the early Christian anticipation

of a soon end of the world faded. This theory foundered with the

discovery in 1947 of the library of the Qumran sect, a group contem-

poraneous with the ministry of Jesus and the early church which

combined intense expectation of the End with prolific writing. The

Qumran community shows that such expectations did not inhibit

writing but actually were a spur to it. Also, the widespread literacy in

1st-century Palestinian Judaism,18 together with the different language

backgrounds of Jesus' followers--some Greek, some Aramaic, some

bilingual--would have facilitated the rapid written formulation and

transmission of at least some of his teaching. Finally, the major factor

that occasioned writing in early Christianity was the separation of the

believers from the teaching leadership. This is evident in "the Jeru-

salem Decree" (Acts 15) and in Paul's letters. But this factor was

already present during the ministry of Jesus, who had groups of

adherents both in the towns of Galilee and Judea and probably also

on the Phoenician coast, in the Decapolis and in Perea.19 There are

good grounds, then, for supposing not only that the traditioning of

Jesus' acts and teachings began already during his earthly ministry, as

H. Schurmann has argued,20 but also that some of them were given

written formulation at that time.

The missions of the Twelve21 and of the Seventy22 were two such

occasions for this. Although the missioners may have been trained

orally and may have so delivered their own messages, it is doubtful

that during the brief sojourn in a town they could have trained their

 

17 Cf. E. E. Ellis, "New Directions in Form Criticism," Prophecy and Hermeneu-

tic (Tubingen and Grand Rapids 1978), 237-53; idem (n. 2), 39-43; Stuhlmacher (n. 2), 2f.

18 Cf. Josephus, Against Apion 2, 204 = 2, 25: The Law "orders that [children]

should be taught to read. ..;" cf. idem, Antiquities 12, 209 = 12,4,9; Philo, Embassy

to Gaius 115, 210. Further, see R. Riesner, Jesus als Lehrer (Tubingen 31988),112-15.

19 Jesus had hearers and doubtless some converts from Syria (Matt 4:25), the

Decapolis (Matt 4:25; Mark 3:8; 5:20; 7:31), Tyre and Sidon (Mark 3:8; 7:24, 31; Matt

15:21; Luke 6:21).

20 H. Schurmann, "Die vorosterlichen Anfange der Logientradition," Traditions-

geschichtliohe Untersuchungen (Dusseldorf 1968) 39-65.

21 Mark 6:7-13, 30 (dida<skein) parr. Matthew (10:1,7-14) and Luke (9:1-6, 10) also

draw upon a Q tradition of this episode.

22 Luke 10:1-20.

 



8 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

converts orally. Most likely, they would have written down some of

Jesus' teachings. If they taught in Aramaic, Greek-speaking converts

would have had a special need of written translations.23 There is then

some probability that the apostolic missioners began a written trans-

mission of at least some of Jesus' word and work during his pre-

resurrection mission.

Secondly, (2) the early form criticism tied the theory of oral

transmission to the conjecture that Gospel traditions were meditated

like folk traditions, being freely altered and even created ad hoc by

various and sundry wandering charismatic jackleg preachers. This

view, however, was rooted more in the 18th-century romanticism of

J. G. Herder24 than in an understanding of how religious tradition was

handled in 1st-century Judaism. As O. Cullmann, B. Gerhardsson, H.

Riesenfeld and R. Riesner have demonstrated,25 the Judaism of the

period treated such traditions very carefully. The rabbinic traditions,

specifically, use technical terms that show the care with which they

were transmitted. Although they were not written until the 2nd cen-

tury or later and, as we shall see, although they differ in important

respects from the Gospel traditions, they exhibit terminological paral-

lels with NT usage that are highly significant. The parallels are too

precise to be coincidental, and in all likelihood they derive from a

common root in pre-Christian Judaism. For the (later) rabbis hardly

borrowed from the Christians, and the 1st-century Christian texts

could not, of course, have borrowed from the subsequent rabbinic

materials.

The NT writers in numerous passages applied to apostolic tradi-

tions the same technical terminology found in rabbinic Judaism for

"delivering," "receiving," "learning," "holding," "keeping," and"guard-

ing," the traditioned "teaching."26 The use of these terms may be

illustrated by the following passages from the NT letters:

 

23 On the use of Greek by many Palestinian Jews in the first century, cf. J. Seven-

ster, Do You Know Greek? (Leiden, 1968), 96-175; J. A. Fitzmyer, "Languages of

Palestine in the First Century A.D.," CBQ 32 (1970), 501-31 = ibid., A Wandering

Aramean (Missoula, 1979), 29-56; M. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism (2 vols; London

1974), 1. 58-100.

24 J. G. Herder, Christliche Schriften, 1796, cited in W. G. Kummel, The New

Testament: the History. . . of its Problems (Nashville, 1972),79-83,330.

25 O. Cullmann, "The Tradition," The Early Church (London 1958), 55-99;

B. Gerhardsson, The Origins of the Gospel Traditions (Philadelphia 1979); H. Riesen-

feld, The Gospel Tradition (Philadelphia 1970) 1-29; Riesner (n. 18).

26 E.g., 1 Cor 11:2; 15:3; 2 Thess 3:6; 2 Tim 3:14; Tit 1:9; Rev 2:13, 24f.; Aboth 1:1,

3; Peah 2:6 ("receive," "deliver"); Matt 21:33; Mekilta on Exod 21:11 ("hear"); Matt

9:13; Sifre on Num 15:41 ("learn"); Matt 28:20; 1 Cor 11:2; 1 Tim 6:20; Sifre on Deut

11:32 ("keep"); cf. John 8:31. Cf. W. Bacher, Die exegetische Terminologie der judi-

 



Ellis: READING THE GOSPELS AS HISTORY 9

 

You obeyed from the heart the type of teaching (tu<pon didaxh?j)

To which you were committed (paredo<qhte) . . .

Watch out for those creating dissensions and roadblocks

Against the teaching (didaxh<n) which you learned (e]ma<qete)

Rom 6:17; 16:17

I received (pare<labon) from the Lord

That which I also delivered (pare<dwka) to you.

1 Cor 11:23

What things you learned (e]ma<qete) and received (parela<bete)

And heard and saw in me, do these things.

Phil 4:9

Therefore, as you received (parela<bete) Christ Jesus as Lord

So walk in him. ..as you were taught (e]dida<xqhte) . . .

Watch out that no one makes a prey of you

Through philosophy and empty deceit

According to the tradition (para<dosin) of men. . .

And not according to [the tradition] of Christ.27

Col 2:6-8

Stand firm and hold to (kratei?te) the traditions (parado<seij)

Which you were taught (e]dida<xqhte).

2 Thess 2:15

Anyone who goes too far and does not abide (parado<seij)

In the teaching (e]dida<xqhte) of Christ

Does not have God

He who abides in the teaching

This one has both the Father and the Son

2 John 9

Contend for the faith

Once delivered (paradoqei<s^) to the saints.

Jude 3

By their use of such technical terminology these NT writers, coming

from three apostolic circles--Pauline, Johannine and Jacobean, both

 

schen Traditionsliteratur (2 vols in 1; Darmstadt, 1965), 1. 165f. and 2. 185 ("receive");

1. 106. and 2. 115 ("deliver"); 1. 189f. and 2. 219-24 ("hear"); 1. 94ff., c. 199-202 and

2.96-100, cf. 2.34f. ("learn"); 1. 170 and 2.186. ("keep"). C. K. H. Rengstorf,

"mathetes," TDNT 4 (1967/1942), 434-50.

27 C. Cullmann (n. 25),62f., 68, 74f.; C.F.D. Moule, The Epistles to the Colos-

sians and to Philemon (Cambridge, 1958) 89; E. Lohse, Colossians and Philemon

(Philadelphia, 1971),96 (GT: 146).



10 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

identified their tradition as "holy word" and also showed their con-

cern for a careful and ordered transmission of it.

Rom 6:17, when compared with Rom 16:17, is quite revealing. It

refers to a "type" of teaching that must have been common to Pauline

and other apostolic circles since the Apostle can assume it had been

taught to congregations in Rome, where he has never been. Further-

more, when Rom 16:17 is brought into consideration, this "type" is

contrasted to teachings promulgated by another mission or missions,

probably a judaizing-gnosticizing group that has given Paul trouble

elsewhere.28

The work and word of Jesus were an important albeit distinct

part of this apostolic tradition transmitted to the churches. Luke

(1:2ff.) used some of the same technical terms, speaking of eyewit-

nesses who "delivered (pare<dosan) to us" the things contained in his

Gospel and about which his patron Theophilus has been instructed

(katehxh<qhj). Similarly, the amaneunses or co-worker-secretaries who

composed the Gospel of John speak of the Evangelist, the beloved

disciple, as an eyewitness and a member of the inner circle of Jesus'

disciples.29 "This is the disciple," they write, "who is witnessing con-

cerning these things and who wrote these things; and we know that

his testimony is true." In the same connection it is not insignificant that

those to whom Jesus entrusted his teachings are not called "preachers"

(kh<rukej) but "pupils" (maqhtai<) and "apostles" (a]po<stoloi), semi-

technical terms for those who represent and mediate the teachings

and instructions of their mentor or principal.30

From these and other observations it has become apparent to

many scholars that the early form criticism was seriously flawed in its

 

28 Cf. Ellis, "Paul and his Opponents" (n. 17), 109. On Rom 6:17 as a specific

understanding of the Christian faith in contrast to other aberrant understandings cf.

E. Kasemann, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, 1980) 18lf. (GT: 17lf.);

F. Godet, Epistle to the Romans (New York 1883), 256f., 496 (FT: 2. 55f., 605).

Otherwise: C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans (2 vols; Edinburgh, 1979),

I. 324. I now incline, with Cranfield and Donfried, to include Romans 16 in the letter

to Rome even if Paul sent the letter, in modified forms, to other churches as well. Cf.

K. P. Donfried, ed., The Romans Debate (Minneapolis, 1977), 50-60; otherwise: T. W.

Manson, Studies in the Gospels and Epistles (Manchester UK, 1962),225-41.

29 John 19:35; 21:24f.; cf. 13:23; 18:15f.; 19:26f.; 20:1-10; 21:7, 20-23. Cf. J. A. T.

Robinson, Redating the New Testament (London, 1976), 298-311; E. E. Ellis, "Back,-

ground and Christianity of John's Gospel" SWJT 31 (1988). Pace S. S. Smalley, John:

Evangelist and Interpreter (Nashville, 31984), 80ff. and R. E. Brown, The Gospel

according to John (2 vols; Garden City, NY, 1970), 1. CI-CII, who distinguish the

Evangelist from the Beloved Disciple. On Jesus traditions in Paul's letters cf. E. E. Ellis,

"Traditions in 1 Corinthians," NTS 32 (1986) 481-502.

30 On parallels with other rabbis and their disciples and other Jewish usage cf.

Mark 2:18 = Luke 5:33; K. H. Rengstorf, 'a]po<stoloj,' 'maqhth<j,' TDNT 1.413-33;

4. 431-55.



Ellis: READING THE GOSPELS AS HISTORY 11

 

use of folk-tradition analogies to understand the earliest transmission

of the Gospel traditions. While the practices reflected in the somewhat

later rabbinic writings are not analogous in every respect, as we shall

see below, they do provide, from the same culture and general time-

frame, important insights for understanding the usage of Jesus and his

apostles. It is not without significance that Jesus was known as a

"rabbi," that is, a "teacher,"31 a prophet-teacher to be sure but a

teacher nonetheless. Those who passed on his message not only had

their "teacher training" under a master rabbi but also continued his

methods in their transmission of his word and story to others.32

A third fundamental axiom of classical form criticism is also

historically doubtful, that is, that the geographical and chronological

framework of the Gospels was wholly the creation of the traditioners

and Evangelists. The Gospels are not chronologues, of course, and the

Evangelists feel free, as did the Roman historian Suetonius, to orga-

nize their presentation on thematic or other lines. However, if C. H.

Dodd's schematic framework of Jesus' ministry is not fully accept-

able,33 K. L. Schmidt's views are much less satisfactory.34 Among

other things Schmidt drew too sharp a dichotomy between editorial

and traditional elements in the Gospels and did not recognize that the

Evangelists' editorial arrangements--such as the journey to Jerusalem

in Luke (9:51-19:44)--are often simply a reworking of received

traditions.

If the classical form criticism built, in a number of respects, upon

a poor foundation, is there a better explanation of the origin and

formation of our Gospels?

 

III

An acceptable reconstruction of the formation of the Gospels

must take into account both 1st-century Jewish attitudes toward the

 

31 Matt 23:8; John 1:38; 20:16. Cf. H. Shanks, "Is the Title Rabbi Anachronistic in

the Gospels?" JQR 53 (1963) 343f.; M. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism (2 vols; London,

1974), 1. 81f.; A. F. Zimmerman, Die Urchristliche Lehrer (Tubingen, 21988), 86-94. Of

course, the term, "rabbi," does not have in the Gospels the same technical connotation

of "ordained scripture-scholar" that it has in the later rabbinic writings (cf. M. Hengel,

The Charismatic Leader and his Followers [New York, 1981, 11968], 42-48), but the

connotation of "biblical teacher" was clearly present in the 1st century. Jesus had this

role and his instruction had more in common with rabbinic methods than is usually

recognized (cf. E. E. Ellis, "Biblical Interpretation in the New Testament Church,"

Compendia Rerum Judaicarum ad Novum Testamentum (4 vols; ed. S. Safrai et al.

[Assen and Philadelphia 1974-], 2. i (1988) 704-21.

32 Cf. Riesner (n. 25), 246-98,408-87; Zimmermann (n. 31), 144-93.

33 C. H. Dodd, "The Framework of the Gospel Narrative" (1932), New Testament

Studies (New York, 1953) 1-11.

34 K. L. Schmidt, Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu (Darmstadt, 1964 [1919]).



12 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

transmission of religious traditions and the charismatic, prophetic

character of the ministry of Jesus and of the primitive church. With

respect to the former B. Gerhardsson's conception of a controlled

transmission of Gospel traditions marked a clear advance beyond the

earlier form criticism, but his analogy between the Gospels and rab-

binic writings was unable to account for the kind of alteration and

elaboration of traditions, uncharacteristic of the rabbis, that one ob-

serves even when comparing one Gospel with another. Indeed, the

traditioners and Evangelists seem to handle Jesus' word with the same

kind of freedom that they use with another type of "holy word,"

citations from OT scriptures. How is this free handling of their Lord's

word to be understood? Their conduct in this respect is best ex-

plained, I believe, by a prophetic consciousness.

Jesus viewed himself35 and was perceived by others36 to be the

bearer of the prophetic Spirit, and he promised the same Spirit to his

followers.37 Already in his earthly ministry the apostles were sent on

their missions of teaching, healing and exorcisms in the role of prophets

whether, as J. Jeremias has argued, the Spirit was already conferred on

them38 or, perhaps not very different, whether the endowment of the

Spirit upon Jesus was active in their use of his nanie. It is clear in any

case that the Gospel traditioners and the Evangelists included them-

selves among those who fulfilled a prophetic role in their perception of

the "mysteries" of the kingdom of God,39 in their preaching and

persecution and in their writing as "wise men and scribes," that is,

scripture teachers.40

The following two passages may serve to illustrate the prophetic

status of those to whom Jesus entrusted his story and his teachings. The

first is from the Sermon on the Mount, Matt 5:11f.:

Blessed are you

When. . . they persecute you. . . for my sake

 

35 Matt 13:57 = Mark 6:4 = Luke 4:18, 24; 13:33f.; John 4:44; c. Matt 12:28 =

Luke 11:20.

36 Mark 6:15; 8:28; cf. 8:11; 14:65 = Matt 26:67f. = Luke 22:63f.; 24:19.

37 Matt 10:19f. = Mark 13:11 == Luke 21:15; 12:12; John 7:38f.; 14:17f., 26; 16:7; ct.

Matt 3:11 = Mark 1:8 = Luke 3:16.

38 J. Jeremias, New Testament Theology (London, 1971),19. Cf. Matt 10:1; Mark

6:7, 30; Luke 9:1f.; 10:9, 17.

39 Matt 13:11 = Luke 8:10. This Q tradition has a parallel in Mark 4:11. "To know

mysteries" of God's purposes is a prophetic trait in apocalyptic Judaism, going back to

Daniel. Cf. Ellis (n. 17), 57-62; Luke 10:23f. par.

40 Matt 13:52. In Matt 23:34 "wise men and scribes" are apparently equivalent to

"apostles" in Luke 11:49. "Wise man" is equivalent to "prophet" in Philo (On the Giants

5, 22; idem, On the Unchangeableness of God 1, 3).



Ellis: READING THE GOSPELS AS HISTORY 13

 

Rejoice and exult (a]gallia?sqe) . . .

For so they persecuted

The prophets who were before you.

 

The Sermon on the Mount is addressed to Jesus' disciples, that is, his

"pupils" (oi[ maqhtai> au]tou?), a term that in Matthew often designates the

Twelve but also may refer to a much larger body of people who sat

under Christ's instruction.41 The present pericope is directed to, or at

least finds its fulfillment in, a narrower group of those who are sent to

carry Jesus' message to others, that is, those who are apostles. It is in

this context that they are essentially equated with earlier prophets, who

also mediated God's word under persecution and martyrdom.42 The

term "exult" (a]gallia?sqai) is often used in early Christianity to char-

acterize the exalted state of inspired prophetic exclamation.43

A second teaching, found in all three Synoptics and in sources

underlying them, appears in the mission of the Twelve (Matthew), in

instructions to disciples (Luke)44 and in the apocalyptic discourse on

the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the age (Mark, Luke):

When they bring you [to trial] . . .

Say whatever is given you in that hour

For it is not you who speak

But the Holy Spirit

Mark 13:11

The Lukan form is somewhat different: 'I will give you a mouth and

wisdom' (Luke 21:15, sto<ma kai> sofi<an). This is perhaps to underscore

an allusion to the persecuted apostolic witnesses in Acts, especially

Stephen.45

These passages point to the prophetic credentials of those disciples

of Jesus who transmit his word to others. They are included in the

Gospels because inter alia the traditioners and Evangelists regarded

themselves as also having such credentials. This best explains their

boldness and confidence in adapting and applying OT texts to Jesus as

well as in contemporizing Jesus' words to their own situation.

A brief example may illustrate one way in which they do this.

Mark 8:34 reads

 

41 E.g., Matt 10:1; 11:1; 20:17. The qualified "twelve disciples" presupposes that

there were more. Cf. Luke 10:39; 19:37; John 4:1; 6:60-67; 1 Cor 15:6; K. H. Rengstorf,

'maqhth<j,' TDNT 4 (1967/1942) 450-53.

42 On the prophet as martyr cf. G. Friedrich, 'profh<thj,' TDNT 6 (1968) 834f.

43 Luke 1:46f.; 10:21; John 8:56; Acts 2:26, 30f.; Rev 19:7; cf. 1 Pet 1:6; Ignatius,

Eph 9:2, Mag 1:1, Phld. preface, cf. 7:1f.; Shepherd of Hermas, Mandates 5, 1, 2; 5, 2, 3.

44 Cf. Matt 10:19f.; Luke 12:11f.

45 Acts 6:3, 10; 15:7; cf. Acts 3:18, 21; 4:24f.



14 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

If anyone would come after me

Let him deny himself

And take up his cross

And follow me

 

In Jesus' earthly ministry this invitation had one meaning and one

only: 'Come and die with me in Jerusalem.' Luke (9:23) adds a single

word to this saying:

 

And take up his cross daily

 

By this addition Luke or better, the exalted Lord through his prophet,

universalizes the invitation. In effect he says, "No one died with Jesus

at Jerusalem. But the demand remains, and all Christ's followers can

in their daily lives and in their deaths follow him, carrying whatever

cross that may be their lot." In this way Luke brings Christ's teaching

into the present situation of his hearers. Given the Evangelists' pro-

phetic credentials, such elaborations and con temporizations are no

less an authentic word of Jesus than the words he spoke in his earthly

ministry.

Ordinarily oracles of the risen Lord, such as one finds in Revela-

tion 2-3, are not incorporated into the Gospel traditions. But there are

a few instances in which this appears to have occurred.46 If so, they

also are no less authentic teachings of Jesus.47 As an example of this,

one may cite Matt 18:20:

Where two or three are gathered in my name

There am I in their midst

It is difficult, though perhaps not impossible,48 to conceive of an

extended presence of the earthly Jesus. More likely this is the exalted

Lord's presence via the Holy Spirit in the corporate body of believers.

There are few if any historical or literary grounds, however, to

suppose that the Gospel traditioners created events in Jesus' life.

 

46 For example, Luke 11:49-52 = Matt 23:341f. In Luke the passage is a quotation

introduced by the formula, the Wisdom of God said, but in Matthew it is simply a

saying of Jesus. "Wisdom of God" is a designation for the exalted Christ in I Cor 1:24

and a title for him in 2nd-century texts (Justin, Dialogue 38:2; 61:1; 100:4; Clement of

Alexandria, Exhortation 8). As the earliest use of this rare title, Luke 11:49 probably

introduces a prophetic saying from the exalted Lord. Cf. E. E. Ellis, The Gospel of

Luke (Grand Rapids 41983) 171-74.

47 Ct. G. F. Hawthorne, "The Role of Christian Prophets in the Gospel Tradition,"

Tradition and Interpretation in the New Testament. Essays in Honor of E. E. Ellis

(ed. G. F. Hawthorne with O. Betz; Grand Rapids and Tubingen, 1987),119-33.

48 Cf. Luke 9:47; John 1:48; 2 Kgs 5:25f.



Ellis: READING THE GOSPELS AS HISTORY 15

 

Assertions to this effect almost always represent a failure to under-

stand the care and historical concern with which the Gospel tradi-

tioners transmitted the story of Jesus. If a proper historical critical

method is followed, proper presuppositions observed and the prac-

tices of 1st-century religious Judaism understood, the Gospels of the

NT will be found to be a reliable presentation and faithful portrait of

the teachings and acts of the preresurrection mission of Jesus.

 

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

The Criswell College;

4010 Gaston Ave.

Dallas, TX 75246

www.criswell.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: thildebrandt@gordon.edu