Criswell Theological Review 3.1 (1988) 3-15.
Copyright © 1988 by The
READING THE GOSPELS AS HISTORY
E. EARLE ELLIS
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
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historical documents whose origin and formation can be investigated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
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.
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)
A. Richardson, History Sacred and Profane
4 J. Kenyon, The History Men (
5 B. Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York, 1972), 175.
7 F. W. Farrar, The Life of Christ
(New York, 1953) 1-11; B. Gerhardsson,
Memory and Manuscript (
8 D. F. Strauss, The Life of Jesus (London 41902 ); R. Bultmann, Jesus and
the Word (
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
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 (
Zeitschrift 13, 1957, 411f.); cf. idem, "New Testament and Mythology," Kerygma and
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?
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
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 (
13 E. Kasemann, "The Problem of the Historical Jesus" (1954), Essays on New
Testament Themes (
(Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus [London 1967] 39) and J. M. Robinson (A New
Quest of the Historical
New Quest of the Historical Jesus," Jesus
C.F .H. Henry;
14 E. Bernheim, Lehrbuch der historischen Methode (New York, 1965 ),332.
V. Langlois and C. Seignobos
(Introduction to the Study of History
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 );
M. Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel (New York 21965 ).
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
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
poraneous with the ministry of Jesus and the early church which
combined intense expectation of the End with prolific writing. The
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-
already present during the ministry of Jesus, who had groups of
adherents both in the towns of Galilee and
on the Phoenician coast, in the
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 (
19 Jesus had hearers and
doubtless some converts from
Decapolis (Matt 4:25; Mark 3:8; 5:20; 7:31),
15:21; Luke 6:21).
20 H. Schurmann, "Die vorosterlichen Anfange der Logientradition," Traditions-
geschichtliohe Untersuchungen (
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-
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
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? (
1974), 1. 58-100.
24 J. G. Herder, Christliche Schriften, 1796, cited in W. G. Kummel, The New
Testament: the History. . . of its Problems (
25 O. Cullmann,
"The Tradition," The Early Church (
Gerhardsson, The Origins of the
Gospel Traditions (
feld, The Gospel Tradition (
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.
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
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.
By their use of such technical terminology these NT writers, coming
from three apostolic circles--Pauline, Johannine and Jacobean, both
schen Traditionsliteratur (2 vols
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 (
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
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
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.);
to the Romans (
C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans (2 vols;
I. 324. I now incline, with Cranfield and Donfried, to include Romans 16 in the letter
P. Donfried, ed., The
Romans Debate (
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.
Redating the New Testament (
ground and Christianity of John's Gospel" SWJT 31 (1988). Pace S. S. Smalley, John:
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;
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
editorial arrangements--such as the journey to
in Luke (9:51-19:44)--are often simply a reworking of received
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?
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;
1974), 1. 81f.; A. F.
Zimmerman, Die Urchristliche
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
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.
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 ).
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
persecution and in their writing as "wise men and scribes," that is,
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 =
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 (
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
introduces a prophetic saying from the exalted Lord. Cf. E. E. Ellis, The Gospel of
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;
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.
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