Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development
(Philadelphia/London:Trinity Press International/SCM Press Ltd., 1990) 480 pp., $19.95 paper
The apostolic fathers were not familiar With the Synoptic Gospels per se, but instead drew their apparent quotations, of the Gospels from oral traditions that continued to circulate down into the second century. Thus argued Helmut Koester in his 1954 dissertation at the University of Marburg directed by the German theologian Rudolph Bultmann. Ever since, Koester, the John H. Morison Professor of New Testament and Winn professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School (and BR columnist), has devoted a good portion of his productive career to studying the problems posed by the ancient Christian gospels, both canonical and non-canonical. His concern to understand the history of the gospel traditions has now culminated at the pinnacle of his career in an important study that has already begun to make a significant impact on the discipline.
Koester’s study is driven by an interest in “the history and development of gospel literature,” that is, in “the continuing development of sources containing materials from or about Jesus of Nazareth.” Koester is far more concerned with historical questions (the development of the traditions about Jesus) than with literary ones (the meaning of the surviving texts in their final form). He devotes three pages to the literary emphases of the Gospel of Matthew in its final redaction, but 43 pages to “Q,” one of Matthew’s alleged sources.
Koester begins with a thorough and insightful investigation of the term “Gospel,” which asks, among other things, when Christians began to use that term to designate a written document rather than an oral form of proclamation. Koester’s provocative answer is that the designation was a “novel usage” introduced by Marcion (the second-century figure who was condemned as a heretic for teaching, among other things, that the God of Jesus was not the God of the Old Testament).
The rest of Koester’s insightful study is organized under four, somewhat uneven, rubrics: (1) The Collection of the Sayings of Jesus (for example, the Gospel of Thomas, Q [the term applied by scholars to a conjectured collection of sayings that are thought to precede the Gospels] and, interestingly, lost collections of sayings known to Paul and his opponents), (2) Dialogues (such as the Apocryphon of James) and Narratives (such as Egerton Papyrus 2 and the Gospel of Peter) to the Gospel of John, (3) The Synoptic Gospels, and (4) The Harmonization of the Canonical Gospels (for example, in Justin and the Diatessaron, the latter of which is discussed in a nicely executed study by William Petersen of Penn State University, contributed as a last chapter of Koester’s book).
Koester does not discuss at all the thorny issues surrounding the so-called Jewish-Christian Gospels (the Gospel of the Ebionites, the Gospel of the Nazarenes and the Gospel according to the Hebrews), yet he devotes 42 pages to a detailed analysis of Justin’s citations of the canonical Gospels.
Ancient Christian Gospels is not for the faint of heart. The issues themselves are highly complex and Koester’s arguments are often technical and dense; frequently they rest on unstated assumptions concerning the necessary character of our lost sources, for example, rather than on demonstration—all of which makes them difficult to evaluate in a short review. He does, however, arrive at some interesting conclusions: The sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are independent of the New Testament Gospels; these sayings are often “more original” (Koester’s term) than their parallels in the sources used by the Synoptic Gospels. The Gospel of Peter is not dependent on the New Testament Gospels but utilizes an ancient passion narrative 011to which Matthew, Mark and John also had access (and that the Gospel of Peter sometimes preserves this narrative in its more original form). The so-called Secret Gospel of Mark, mentioned in a recently discovered letter of Clement of Alexandria, was an earlier form of Mark’s Gospel than that used by Matthew and Luke. The quotations of the Gospels by Justin presuppose a now lost harmony of the Gospels that was the predecessor of the Diatessaron, produced by Justin’s student Tatian.
In this massive array of detail, the non-specialist is likely to be confused by Koester’s unswerving refusal to consider the date of a document when establishing the date of its traditions. Scholars in general have long acknowledged that relatively late (second-century) documents may preserve earlier forms of the tradition; what is striking here is Koester’s constant, but only implicit, appeal to this principle. Almost invariably, given two forms of tradition, one canonical and from the first century, the other non-canonical and from the second, Koester gives the palm to the latter. Thus, as I have already mentioned, he finds the Secret Gospel of Mark known to Clement near the end of the second century to be older than the Mark used by Matthew and Luke a hundred years earlier, and the sayings of the second-century Gospel of Thomas to antedate not only those of the canonical Gospels, but even those of their sources (such as Q). He argues that Justin preserves the more original form of Jesus’ saying that was earlier embedded in John 3:3 and 5; that the “Johannine” traditions preserved in Ignatius, Papyrus Egerton 2 and the Apocryphon of James are older than their canonical forms; and that the Passion traditions preserved in the Epistle of Barnabas are the forerunners of those that had previously found their way into the Gospel of Mark. Needless to say, these findings are by no means self-assured, but neither are they inherently implausible. Koester’s arguments will occupy scholars for years to come.
For the non-professional reader who is not inclined to wrestle with complicated source-critical issues, or who seeks primarily a discussion of the meaning of the various ancient Christian Gospels in their final form, Koester’s book is not the place to turn. But for the professional scholar and for those stalwart few outside the guild who are interested in knowing whence these literary texts derived and how they relate to one another, Koester’s work embodies a challenging lifetime of research, a learned and provocative study of enduring value.
Roget’s Thesaurus of the Bible
A. Colin Day
(San Francisco: Harper, 1992) 927 pp., $28 (thumb-indexed version, $30)
What if you want to know everything the Bible says about divorce? At first, it seems like a simple task. You might look for a book on the subject and take the author’s word for it. You would likely profit more from your reading, however, if you consulted the Bible ahead of time, so that you could engage the author in a mental conversation rather than granting the book authoritative status. To do that effectively, you need to be able to find all the references in the Bible to divorce. A concordance will cite every appearance of the English word “divorce” (in a particular translation), but that would probably not alert you to 1 Chronicles 8:8, where mention is made of Shaharaim, who “sent away his wives Hushim and Baara”; or to Ezra 10, where Ezra urges Israelite men to reject the foreign women they have married in exile; or to 1 Timothy 3:2, where a qualification for the office of bishop is to be “the husband of one wife” (KJV) or “married only once” (NRSV). In none of these contexts is the word divorce itself used. You might next consult a Bible dictionary article on divorce, which very likely would send you to the relevant verses, but again would render you dependent on the judgments of the author of the article and might color your reading of the verses in advance.
What’s a conscientious reader to do? In compiling Roget’s Thesaurus of the Bible, A Colin Day offers a new sort of reference work that will (almost) help you find an answer. A linguist and computer consulant who formerly worked as a translator for the Wycliffe Bible Translators, Day is identified by the publisher’s news release as a person “consumed with categorizing subjects in the Bible.”
The concept of his book is a novel one. With some modification, Day uses the 990 conceptual categories of Roget’s Thesaurus (1982 revision by Longman) to organize and catalogue ideas and subjects he finds in the Bible, regardless of how key words have been translated into English. An exhaustive alphabetical index of words and ideas refers the reader to the appropriate categories of related meanings. Under category 889, Endearment, for example—it-self a sub-category of Interpersonal (Social) Emotion—Day lists “kissing,” “evil kissing” (kissing Baal [1 Kings 19:18], harlots [Proverbs 7:13] and enemies [Proverbs 27:61]), “kissing Jesus,” and “embracing.” Not every instance of kissing or embracing in the Bible is included (Genesis 31:28; Exodus 18:7; Proverbs 4:8; 5:20 and others are missing) and none of the actual endearments uttered by individuals is included (such as those throughout the Song of Solomon, Paul’s “brothers and sisters,” [for example, Romans 1:13], or the writer of 1 John’s “my little children” [1 John 2:1]). Therefore, unlike a conventional concordance, Roget’s Thesaurus of the Bible is unabashedly selective and interpretive. The reader must take Day’s word for it that certain passages actually do deal with the subject(s) as he claims. For example, it is not at all clear that Deuteronomy 23:17–18, forbidding temple prostitution, speaks of homosexual intercourse, although Day includes the passage with the unambiguous Leviticus 20:13 under the entry for homosexuality. So also, in the case of our initial question about divorce, you would not know from Day’s Thesaurus that 1 Timothy 3:2 and 5:9 are relevant texts, because (as one 012reads between the lines) Day apparently thinks they refer instead to polygamy—not a very likely possibility in the first century.
Many entries are remarkably thorough. A consultation of concordances and other reference tools brings to light very few superfluous or missing references. Anything you might want to find in the Bible about “Temple,” for instance, you can locate in category 990, although you might not always agree with the interpretive subcategories under which some passages are listed, and you might wonder why the tearing of the Temple curtain in Mark 15:38 and parallels is not listed under Holy of Holies. Other entries, though, are surprisingly brief and superficial. The entry for Conversation lists only Matthew 17:3; Mark 9:4; Luke 6:11, 22:23, and 24:14–15, a peculiar and oddly abbreviated list. There is no discernable criterion of selection here, given the number of conversations that go on in the Bible and the numerous uses of the word “conversation” in most English translations.
Day’s Thesaurus is indeed, as its book jacket claims, “a unique reference for understanding the Bible.” Its uniqueness lies in the attempt to provide a new kind of tool for lay Bible study that does not restrict a reader to a particular translation of the Bible, as English concordances do of necessity. But because it is so selective and occasionally idiosyncratic, the help it gives is often more suggestive than complete. The other standard reference works are still essential. These include a concordance, a good Bible dictionary, an atlas, and perhaps a one-volume commentary. Of the many I might mention, these are particularly helpful: The Eerdmans Analytical Concordance to the Revised Standard Version of the Bible by Richard E. Whitaker (Eerdmans, 1988) or The NRSV Concordance Unabridged by John R. Kohlenberger (Zondervan, 1992); The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (four volumes plus a supplement; Abingdon, 1962–1976) or the new Anchor Bible Dictionary (six volumes; Doubleday, 1992); and Harper’s Bible Commentary, ed. James L. Mays (Harper & Row, 1988).
Telling Queen Michal’s Story
Edited by David Cline and Tamara Eskenazi
(Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992) 302 pp. $27.50.
What a lovely idea the editors of this book have come up with: to take one biblical character and to trace the many different ways in which this character has been understood through the centuries.
The character Cline and Eskenazi have chosen is Michal, the daughter of Saul and the first wife of David. In the Bible itself, she appears only a few times. All we know is that Saul gave her to David, but we don’t know whether it was in order to ensnare David or because Michal loved him. We know that Michal saved David from her father’s clutches, and after that they did not see each other again for many years, and, when they finally met again, they had very little in common anymore. Did David love Michal in return or was she simply a pawn that he used for his own political purposes?
In the end they became enemies. On the day of David’s greatest joy, the day when he brings the Ark of the Lord back to Jerusalem, she cuts him down with a withering rebuke, “How has the King of Israel honored himself today—uncovering himself before the eyes of his maidens!” (2 Samuel 6:20) and he answers her in kind: “It was before the Lord, who chose me over your father and above his house that I danced, and I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in your eyes, but by the maids I will be held in honor.” (2 Samuel 6:21) What was it that turned her love into hatred? From the Bible we know only what she did and what was done to her. But how she felt and why the Bible does not say.
The co-editors of this book have combed the literature looking for portraits and interpretations and explanations of Michal. They include in this collection scholarly and popular readings of her story, imaginative reconstructions of her life by novelists and poets and straightforward explications of the texts about her, brief encyclopedia articles and lengthy essays, as well as Jewish and Christian perceptions of her character.
We learn that the line between the two traditional Jewish approaches to a text, pshat and midrash, between the literal meaning of the story and the fictional embellishments of the story, is not as clear as we might think. Many times the novelist or the poet or the midrashist in weaving her or his imaginative tale points out to the scholar a gap in the text that might otherwise not be noticed.
There is a remarkable range in the way Michal is understood by different readers. Some see her as the used and abused victim, first of Saul’s and then of David’s machinations. Others see her as a woman still caught up in primitive paganism, holding on to her terephim (her household gods), unable to understand and share in David’s Godward dreams. Abraham Kuyper sees her as selfish and self centered. Herbert Lockyer sees her as full of pride and concerned with prestige. Adin Steinsaltz sees her as a member of the nobility, cold and aristocratic, and therefore unable to relate to David, who was passionate and fiery. Feminists see her as a woman wronged, whose love is betrayed by David, who is given to him and taken from him by those who are in control of her, and who seethes with justified anger at her neglect and her shabby treatment by men. Stefan Heym makes her a voice through which he expresses his own feelings as a writer trying to tell the truth in a communist country where only the state has the right to decide what the truth is.
As we go through this fascinating book we meet different Michals in every chapter. We realize, from this example, that what makes the Bible such an extraordinary book is all that has been read into it, as well as all that has been read out of it, by every generation. Which one of these Michals is the right one, the real one, the historical one is a question obviously impossible to answer. But we come away from this book with a sense of respect for a woman who appears in the Bible in just a few scenes but who has been able to stir so many different responses in generations of readers.
On Character Building: The Reader and the Rhetoric of Characterization in Luke-Acts
John A. Darr
(Louisville: westminster/John Knox, 1992) 208 pp., $15.99
Although we encourage our students to learn how to read a New Testament book as if they had never seen it before, the fact is that we bring to any “fresh” reading enormous familiarity with the story. On Character Building, by John A. Darr, assistant professor of theology at Boston College, provides us with an exemplary study of characterization in Luke and Acts. Darr describes the way in which readers—in particular, competent ancient 013readers, who possessed the cultural information needed to read with discernment—processed a text like Luke-Acts. One does not study a character simply by examining his or her interactions with other characters within the story; rather, one studies the way in which a reader of the story uses those interactions to create a picture of the character.
What moves does a reader actually make in “building” character? One assembles a view of character by discovering the part played by characters in the story’s plot, by noting the cultural setting(s) in which the narrative situates them, and above all by observing their relationships with others in the story. It is crucial, Darr maintains, to proceed through the narrative sequentially, as with a first-time reader, observing the accumulation of character traits as the story unfolds. One does not receive the sum total of textual information about a character all at once. The author describes his approach to the study of character as “pragmatic”: He is interested in the effects of characterization on the story’s readers. A crucial feature of “character building” in Luke-Acts, Darr suggests, is revealed by the central place given to perception and 014response in Luke’s narrative, which, in fact, “is designed to persuade its readers to become believing witnesses.”
Darr selects three Lukan characters for analysis: John the Baptizer, the Pharisees (a group that functions as a single character) and Herod Antipas. Luke presents John the Baptizer, like Jesus, as a divinely authorized prophet. Yet the correlation of these two figures in Luke 1–2 indicates that John is subordinate to Jesus: “John is the preparer for divine salvation; Jesus is that salvation.” From the outset of the story, the reader is invited to build John’s character in relation to Jesus. John appears in Luke 3 as a reformer—a prophet who summons the people to repentance and social justice. His role involves “reorienting the people’s spiritual vision so that they can recognize the response to the ‘salvation of God’ when it appears.” Curiously, though, John himself does not perceive that God’s salvation has drawn near through the mediation of Jesus, although he helps form an open-minded receptivity to God’s salvation, a receptivity that ultimately leads the Baptizer’s followers into the Spirit-filled church (Act 18–19).
In his chapter on the Pharisees, Darr opposes a common notion that Luke had a favorable view of this group. If one attends to the sequence in which Luke’s reader encounters information about the Pharisees, one can only conclude that Luke-Acts casts then in a negative light. Indeed, even the material in Acts, often read as ambiguous or even as a positive portrayal of the Pharisees, “merely nuances and intensifies some of the negative traits that have already been attributed to Pharisees in the Gospel.” What are those negative traits? At bottom, the Pharisees fail because they observe Jesus but do not recognize him as the bearer of God’s rule. Unlike sinners who recognize Jesus and respond to him, the Pharisees remain closed to the salvation Jesus brings to the penitent. The Pharisees are, instead, selfrighteous, lovers of money and hypocritical. Luke’s caricature of the Pharisees (not be to mistaken for an historically accurate picture of this group) instructs the reader how not to read the story. Darr’s Lukan audience is thereby “distanced from the Pharisees and encouraged to repudiate their point of view and the value-system that shapes it.”
The treatment of Herod Antipas takes its start from the metaphor Jesus applies Herod: “Go tell this fox …” (Luke 13:32). A metaphor juxtaposes two subjects (here, Herod and fox), forcing the reader to determine meaning by finding meaningful connections between two distinct subjects. With what content would Luke’s reader have filled the term “fox”? The interpreter must at this point seek to reconstruct the “extratext,” that is, the cultural conventions and information that Luke’s reader brought to the text. Of the various possibilities for what a “fox” might mean (intelligence, devious cunning, weakness and cowardice, destructiveness and rapacity), the trait Darr finds that matches most closely the characterization of Herod is the fox’s inclination to ravage and destroy. Further probing of the “extratext” suggests that Luke’s readers would process the encounters of John the Baptizer and Jesus respectively with Herod Antipas in terms of the biblical paradigm of prophet versus king and the Greco-Roman paradigm of philosopher versus tyrant. Informed by such cultural conventions, Luke’s reader would be surprised to discover that when Jesus and Herod finally do square off (Luke 23:6–12), Jesus does not seize the opportunity to display his wisdom and supernatural power (which is what one would expect of the prophet or sage). Rather, he is silent! Darr suggests that the reader interprets this unexpected turn in light of the Lukan theme of perception and response: Someone like Herod, who lacks spiritual vision, will not hear what Jesus might say anyway. Further, one views Jesus in this scene as a model of the righteous person who suffers persecution in dignified silence.
On Character Building offers a lucid, interesting and readable introduction to the way in which readers of Luke-Acts “build” and evaluate characters. The book’s method of study is presented with such signal clarity and is so deftly applied to the Lukan narrative that Darr’s reader emerges with fresh appreciation of the possibilities of literary study of the Bible. The only major problem with the book, for this reviewer, was the absence of any discussion of the “extratext” that would have informed the Lukan audience’s character building of the Pharisees, like that provided for Herod Antipas. Despite a handful of untranslated Greek expressions (printed in transliteration), this is definitely a reader-friendly book. Theological students and scholars, clergy and lay readers of the Bible all stand to gain much from his important study.
Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development