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Gospel Tradition

Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament: Sayings of Jesus (Pt 2)

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The Sayings and Teachings of Jesus (Part 2)

In the previous article, I examined in detail the declaration by Jesus (Mark 1:15; par Matt 4:17; cf. also 3:2; 10:7; Luke 10:9ff) which introduces his public ministry in the core Synoptic Tradition. The eschatological background and connotation of the language was discussed. Indeed, the eschatology of Jesus cannot be separated from his teaching regarding the Kingdom of God. This will be mentioned at several points during our survey of the remaining sayings of Jesus; for more detail on the expression/concept “Kingdom of God” in the New Testament, cf. my earlier article, and Part 5 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

I have decided to group together the sayings of Jesus, which have an eschatological aspect, or emphasis, under several themes. At the same time, I find it useful to continue the method applied in the earlier series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”, distinguishing between: (a) the core Synoptic tradition, representing primarily by the Gospel of Mark, (b) the [“Q”] material shared by Matthew and Luke, and (c) sayings or details which are unique to Matthew and Luke.

As we shall see, most of Jesus’ eschatological teaching in the Synoptic Tradition is grouped together, or otherwise contained, in the great “discourse” set in Jerusalem shortly before his death (Mark 13 par). This portion of the study will be limited to those sayings and statements which appear elsewhere in the narratives. The sayings cover the following areas:

  1. Eschatological Expectation related to John the Baptist
  2. References to the coming of the Kingdom, with a clear eschatological emphasis
  3. References to the coming Day of Judgment
  4. Specific references to the coming of the “Son of Man” (Judgment context)
  5. References indicating a(n earthly?) Kingdom ruled by Jesus and his followers
  6. Other sayings with an eschatological context

1. Eschatological Expectation related to John the Baptist

As the Synoptic Gospels essentially begin with the baptism of Jesus and the ministry of John the Baptist, it is useful here to look again at several important traditions related to the Baptist. In the previous article, we examined briefly the eschatological background and context of John’s preaching, which, according to Mark 1:15 par, was generally shared by Jesus at the start of his ministry. More significant for the Gospel tradition are the two Scripture passages associated with John and his ministry—Isa 40:3 and Malachi 3:1ff. The age and authenticity of the association with these passages is confirmed by several factors:

  • Multiple attestation in several lines of tradition (Mark 1:2-3 par; Matt 11:10 par; Luke 1:16-17, 76; John 1:23)
  • The similar use of Isa 40:3 by the Qumran Community (1st century B.C.)
  • The (Messianic) language/terminology influenced by Mal 3:1ff (cf. below), which largely disappeared from subsequent Christian usage
  • The inconsistencies of application to both John and Jesus, only partly harmonized in the Gospels as we have them
  • The lack of reference/interest in John, and the related Messianic associations, in early Christianity by the time most of the New Testament books were written (c. 50-90 A.D.).

The prophecy in Malachi 3:1ff had an eschatological emphasis essentially from the beginning. As I have discussed elsewhere, in its original context, the “Messenger” almost certainly referred to a heavenly/divine Messenger (i.e. an Angel), who represented YHWH himself when he comes to judge his people. At some point in the composition of the book, this was given a specific interpretation, or application (4:5-6): the prophet Elijah would be the one preceding the Lord’s appearance on the great day of Judgment. He would bring about the repentance of the people, restoring the faith and religion of Israel. This belief and (eschatological) expectation came to be established in Jewish tradition (cf. Sirach 48:10, and Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”) and certainly informs the Baptist traditions in the Gospels. Even though John specifically denies being Elijah in Jn 1:21, 25, early Christians came to view him in this light. Jesus himself makes this association in the Gospel tradition, in Mark 9:11-13 par, which is worth examining briefly.

Mark 9:11-13 par

This exchange between Jesus and his disciples follows the Transfiguration scene (Mk 9:1-10 par), though it may reflect a separate tradition which has been joined to that scene, through thematic “catchword-bonding”—i.e. the common motifs of Elijah and the prediction of Jesus’ suffering/death. There does seem to be an abrupt shift in the discussion toward eschatology, as the disciples ask Jesus:

“(Why is it) that the writers [i.e. scribes, experts on the Writings] relate that it is necessary (for) Eliyyah to come first?” (v. 11)

This certainly reflects the tradition from Mal 4:5-6 (cf. above), that Elijah would appear shortly before the great day of Judgment. The use of the verb dei= (“be necessary” [lit. binding], i.e. required) emphasizes a very specific detail of the eschatological expectation—before the day of Judgment comes, Elijah must first appear, preparing God’s people for that moment, in fulfillment of Mal 4:5-6. Jesus would seem to confirm this belief:

“(Yes) Elijah, coming first, (does) set all things down from (what they were before)…” (v. 12a)

I have given an excessively literal translation of the verb a)pokaqi/sthmi, but the basic idea is that of restoring a previous condition—i.e. the kingdom of Israel, the religious devotion of the people, etc. The verb has eschatological significance, as is clear from its use in Acts 1:6 (to be discussed). What is interesting here (as in Acts 1:6ff) is how Jesus suddenly shifts the focus from this eschatological expectation to the situation in the present moment, namely his upcoming suffering and death:

“…and (yet) how (then) has it been written about the Son of Man, that he would suffer many (thing)s and (be) made out as nothing?” (v. 12b)

Jesus is using the equivalent of a me/nde/ construction, establishing a contrast—i.e. “[me/n] (on the one hand)…”, “but [de/, here kai/] (on the other hand)…” To paraphrase, he is telling his disciples:

“Yes, it is true that Elijah comes first and restores all things, but then how is it that the Son of Man will suffer many things and be reduced to nothing?”

Jesus’ explanation is actually a shattering of traditional eschatological (and Messianic) expectation, presented as something of a conundrum. The significance of this has specifically to do with the identification of John the Baptist as “Elijah”. The traditional understanding of Mal 4:5-6 involved Elijah (as the Messenger) bringing the people to repentance and restoring Israel to faithfulness and true religion (Mal 3:2-4). If this is so, and if John is Elijah, then how could Jesus, God’s Son and Anointed (cf. the Transfiguration scene, esp. Mk 9:7 par) have to endure suffering and death at this time? Clearly, Israel as a whole has not yet been restored in the manner prophesied by Mal 3:2-4. Jesus’ concluding words turn the tables even more strikingly on the identification of John as Elijah:

“But I relate to you that, indeed, Eliyyah has come, and they did to him as (many thing)s as they wished, even as it has been written about him!” (v. 13)

This must be understood as a radical re-interpretation of the traditional expectation. Yes, John is “Elijah”—in fact, he suffered abuse from the political and religious rulers, much as Elijah himself did! It is a uniquely Christian reworking of Messianic thought which emphasizes the suffering and death of God’s Anointed (Jesus). That this understanding goes back to the words and teachings of Jesus himself cannot be doubted (on objective grounds). His suffering and death are injected right into the middle of the traditional Messianic/eschatological beliefs of the time. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scenes surrounding Jesus’ “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem in the Gospel Tradition, as will be discussed.

Matthew 11:14 (and 17:11-12)

Jesus also identifies John as “Elijah” in Matthew 11:14, but in a very different context, and without the unique interpretation in Mark 9:11-13 par. It is a Matthean detail, incorporated within material otherwise shared by Luke (i.e. “Q”, Matt 11:1-19 / Lk 7:18-35):

“…and, if you are willing to receive (it), this [i.e. John] is Eliyyah, the (one) about to come.”

In contrast with Mark 9:11-13, here Jesus makes an unqualified identification of John with the eschatological figure of Elijah, called “the one (who is) about to come” (cf. my discussion on the background this phrase). This also affirms an imminent expectation of the end (“about to come”), in line with the thinking of many Jews (and nearly all early Christians) of the period. Matthew’s version of the Mark 9:11ff tradition also seems to tone down the radical interpretation given by Jesus, presenting it in more conventional terms (note the words in italics):

“Eliyyah (indeed) comes, and will restore [a)pokatasth/sei] all (thing)s; but I relate to you that Eliyyah already came, and they did not know (this) about him, but did with him as (many thing)s as they wished. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer under them.” (Matt 17:11-12)

Interestingly, Luke has omitted, or does not include, the Mark 9:11-13 tradition, and has nothing corresponding to Matt 11:14. However, the author of the Gospel clearly knew (and, we may assume, accepted) the tradition identifying John as “Elijah”, in light of Mal 4:5-6 (cf. Luke 1:16-17, 76).

2. The coming of the Kingdom

Jesus’ eschatological understanding of the coming of the Kingdom is clear enough from the declaration in Mark 1:15 par, occurring at the beginning of his public ministry in the core Synoptic tradition (but not in Luke). There are a number of other sayings which emphasize this aspect as well. I note here the more significant of these.

Mark 9:1 par

In between the confession by Peter (Mk 8:27-30ff) and the Transfiguration scene (9:1-10), there is a short block of sayings by Jesus, which may be outlined as follows:

  • The need for the disciples to “take up his cross” (8:34)
  • Saving/Losing one’s life, i.e. for the sake of Jesus (8:35-37)
  • The Son of Man saying, rel. to the Judgment and faithfulness in following Jesus (8:38)
  • The saying about the coming of the Kingdom of God (9:1)

There is a clear thematic progression, moving from the motif of faithfulness in following Jesus to the eschatological theme of the Judgment and the coming of the Kingdom. The eschatological context of 9:1, which some commentators may be reluctant to admit, seems to be unmistakable in light the Son of Man saying in 8:38 (to be discussed in the next part of this study). Note the parallel:

“…when he [i.e. the Son Man] should come in the splendor of his Father with the holy Messengers” (8:38)
“…the kingdom of God having come in power” (9:1)

Here is the saying in 9:1 (with the Synoptic parallels):

“Amen, I relate to you that there will be some of the (one)s having stood here who should not (at all) taste death until they should see the kingdom of God having come in power.”
Matthew’s version (16:28) is identical except for the closing words:
“…until they should see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Luke’s wording (9:27) differs slightly, but is otherwise identical to Mark, except for the omission of the final words “in power”.

While it is possible that Luke’s version downplays the eschatological context, Matthew’s version unquestionably enhances it, relating it to the Son of Man sayings in Mk 13:26f and 14:62 par (to be discussed). It is understandable why many commentators, especially those with a strong traditional-conservative leaning, would be uncomfortable with the eschatology expressed in Mk 9:1 par, since Jesus appears to say that some of his disciples would still be alive when the Kingdom of God comes (at the end-time). This has led to interpretations which view the saying in a somewhat different context than that indicated by both the wording and the association with the Son of Man saying in 8:38. These alternate interpretations include:

  • Witnessing the resurrection and/or ascension
  • A vision of Jesus’ in glory (such as the Transfiguration) which presages his subsequent (end-time) appearance in glory
  • The manifestation (“coming”) of the Kingdom through the early Christian (apostolic) mission, accompanied by miracles and the work of the Spirit

The narrative context suggests at least a thematic connection between the saying in 9:1 and the Transfiguration scene which follows, but this association is highly questionable in terms of Jesus’ intended meaning. The last option is probable, at least in terms of the understanding of the writer and overall presentation of Luke-Acts. However, the problem with all of these interpretations is they really do not square with Jesus’ own emphasis that some of the disciples standing with him would not die (“would certainly not taste death”) until they saw the Kingdom come in power/glory. For the events mentioned above as possible solutions, nearly all of the disciples would still be alive, and provide nothing remarkable in confirmation of Jesus’ prediction. On the other hand, the idea that some of the disciples would still be alive at the (end-time) coming of the Kingdom would certainly be worthy of note, establishing a general time-frame for the realization of this event (i.e. by the end of the 1st century A.D.). This is important, since in coincides with the general belief, held, it would seem, by nearly all of the earliest Christians, that end of the current Age (marked by the return of Jesus and the Judgment) would occur very soon. Only after the first generation of believers had begun to die off in significant numbers, did this eschatological expectation start to alter. This can be seen at several points in the later strands of the New Testament, most notably with the tradition involving the “Beloved Disciple” in John 21:20-23.

The obvious doctrinal difficulties related to an imminent eschatology in the sayings of Jesus will be discussed in a separate, supplemental article.

Matthew 12:28 / Luke 11:20

An interesting (and much-discussed) saying of Jesus comes from the so-called “Q” material (i.e. traditions found in Matthew and Luke, but not Mark). It raises questions as to Jesus’ understanding of just how (and when) the Kingdom of God will come. The saying is incorporated within the Synoptic “Jesus and Beelzebul” episode (Mark 3:22-27 par). In response to accusations that he expels unclean spirits “in (the power) of Beelzebul”, Jesus makes the following statement:

“But if (it is) in the Spirit of God (that) I cast out the daimons, then (truly) the kingdom of God (has already) arrived [e&fqasen] upon you.” (Matt 12:28)

Luke’s version (11:20, probably reflecting the original form of the saying) really only differs in the use of the expression “finger [da/ktulo$] of God” instead of “Spirit of God”. The verb fqa/nw has the fundamental meaning of arriving at a particular point or location, especially in the sense of reaching it first, or ahead of someone else. It is rare in the New Testament, occurring elsewhere only in Paul’s letters (Rom 9:31; 2 Cor 10:14; Phil 3:16; and 1 Thess 2:16; 4:15). The latter references in 1 Thessalonians are especially significant due to their eschatological emphasis. But how is Jesus’ statement here to be understood? Is the reference to the coming of the Kingdom eschatological? If so, then it would signify that the end-time is being inaugurated in the person and work of Jesus (i.e. his miracles). The use of fqa/nw could be taken to mean that the Kingdom is coming upon people, through the work of Jesus, before they realize it, and, perhaps, in a way that they would not have expected (cf. below on Luke 17:20-21). What is especially important is Jesus’ emphasis that his working of miracles is done directly through the presence and power of God (His “Spirit” or “finger”). This certainly would reflect God’s ruling power and authority (over both human beings and evil spirits). In Jesus’ ministry, the proclamation of the Kingdom is closely connected with his power to work healing miracles (Mk 1:15, 21ff, 32; 3:15-16 par; Matt 4:23ff; Luke 4:40-41, 43; 8:1-2; 9:1-2; 10:17-18, etc).

Luke 17:20-21
[cf. also the extra-canonical Gospel of Thomas sayings 3, 113]

Another famous (and difficult) saying regarding the coming of the Kingdom is recorded in Luke 17:20-21. It is part of a block of eschatological teaching (17:22-37), largely identified as so-called “Q” material, but which Matthew incorporates at a different location, in the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (Matt 24). It begins with a question by certain Pharisees: “When (will) the kingdom of God come(?)”. As is often the case in the Gospel tradition, Jesus gives an ambiguous or unconventional answer to such eschatological questions (cf. on Mk 9:11-13 above). His answer is composed of three statements, two negative and one positive:

  • “the kingdom of God does not come with (a person) keeping (close) watch alongside”
  • “they will not (be able to) say ‘See! here (it is)!’ or ‘There (it is)!'”
  • “see—the kingdom of God is within [e)nto/$] you [pl.]”

The two negative statements seem to express the same basic idea, that the coming/presence of the Kingdom will not be readily visible through observation and sense-perception—at least not by the people at large. In some respects these statements are at odds with others which emphasize the visible signs of the Kingdom (cf. Matt 12:28 par, above). There seem to be two ‘groups’ of people referenced in the first two (negative) statements:

  • Persons giving careful study and consideration to the matter—examining the ‘signs of the times’, the Scriptural prophecies, engaging in learned speculation, etc (i.e. persons perhaps like the very Pharisees inquiring of Jesus)
  • A popular response to apparent signs or claims that the Kingdom is coming, or has come (cf. Luke 21:8 par)

The implication of these statements is that the Kingdom of God comes in a way and manner that the people at large—the learned and unlearned alike—do not (and cannot) realize. This informs the positive statement in verse 21b: “For, see!—the kingdom of God is within you”. The precise meaning of this saying has been much debated and remains controversial, the difficulty centering primarily on the rare preposition (or adverb) e)nto/$ (“within, inside”). The translation “within” or “inside” can be rather misleading, as it suggests an identification of the Kingdom with the Spirit dwelling in and among believers (cf. Rom 14:17; Luke 11:2 v.l.; John 3:5). However, here in vv. 20-21 Jesus is addressing certain inquisitive Pharisees (often his opponents in debate/dispute), rather than his disciples. Also, the use of e)nto/$ with the plural pronoun u(mw=n (“you [pl.]”) suggests something a bit different.

Unfortunately, e)nto/$ is quite rare, occurring in the New Testament only at Matt 23:26; however, the basic denotation is locative (and usually spatial)—something which is located, or takes place, within/inside certain limits or boundaries. To use it in the context of a group of people suggests a meaning akin to “in the midst of” (usually expressed as e)n me/sw|), but with a slightly different emphasis. The idea seems to that the Kingdom of God exists (or is/will be established) in the very midst of the people (esp. the learned Pharisees), without their being aware of it. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Jesus, in the saying as we have it, is referring primarily to himself—i.e., many people, including these Pharisees, do not recognize that the Kingdom is present (has “come near”, Mk 1:15 par, etc) in the person and work of Jesus. It is also possible to understand the saying, and the use of e)nto/$, in a more figurative sense—e.g., that the Kingdom comes, or is present, within the limits of their own expectation (and/or their religious understanding), without their realizing it. This may seem overly subtle, but keep in mind that Jesus’ ministry began with a declaration (Mk 1:15 par) that draws upon traditional Jewish eschatological expectation (regarding the Kingdom), and he continued to make use of similar language and imagery throughout his ministry, often giving it an entirely new meaning. This will be discussed further as we continue in our study on Jesus’ sayings and parables.

One additional difficulty involves the force of the present verb of being (e)stin, “is”) which closes verse 21. There are two ways to understand this:

  • Taken literally, in a temporal sense (i.e. referring to the present), it would mean that the Kingdom has already come, and is present. This would agree with sayings such as Mk 1:15; Matt 12:28 pars. It also would provide confirmation for the idea that the Kingdom is present primarily in the person of Jesus.
  • It may simply reflect an indicative statement describing the nature and character of the Kingdom—i.e. this is what the Kingdom is like, etc—without necessarily referring to time (past-present-future). In other words, he may be saying that, when the Kingdom comes, it will be present in their very midst (without their recognizing it).
Matt 6:9-13 / Luke 11:2-4

Finally, mention should be made of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13; Lk 11:2-4). It is not customary for Christians to think of this famous prayer by Jesus from an eschatological viewpoint, but it is likely that this aspect was present in its original form as uttered by Jesus. We have already seen how the idea of the coming of the Kingdom (the wish and petition expressed in the first lines of the prayer) is fundamentally eschatological, both in its background, and as used by Jesus. Similarly, the requests that one not be led “into testing” (Matt 6:13a; Lk 11:4b), and for “rescue” from evil [or from the Evil One] (Matt 6:13b), probably carry an eschatological nuance. A prayer to God for the coming of the Kingdom and deliverance from evil would have been a fundamental component of Jewish eschatological (and Messianic) expectation at the time of Jesus.

Supplemental Note: On Passover and the Passion Narrative

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On Passover and the Passion Narrative

One of the most certain traditions regarding the Passion Narrative is that the arrest and death of Jesus occurred around the time of the Passover festival. This is confirmed by multiple lines of tradition—in both the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John, as well as in subsequent Jewish tradition (e.g., the Talmudic baraitha in b. Sanhedrin 43a). However, there is a distinct difference between John and the Synoptics in the precise dating and relationship to the day of Passover (Nisan 15).

According to the Synoptic Tradition, the “Last Supper” shared by Jesus and his disciples was a Passover meal which took place on the evening (after sundown) which begins the day of Passover (Nisan 15). This is stated explicitly in Mark 14:1, 12, 14, 16 par. The dating makes clear that we are dealing with the day of 14/15 Nisan—prior to the feast after sundown, on the daytime eve (of the 14th), the Passover lambs would be sacrificed (Mk 14:12; Luke 22:7).

However, according to the Gospel of John, the Last Supper (Jn 13:1-17ff) occurred some time before the day of Passover proper. This is indicated specifically by:

  • The introduction to the Passion narrative and the Last Supper scene in 13:1:
    “And before the festival of Pesah [i.e. Passover]…”
  • Jn 18:28 and 19:14 make clear that the trial and crucifixion of Jesus both took place on the day of Passover eve (Nisan 14), before sundown and the start of Passover. On the 15th of Nisan Jesus was already dead (and buried).

This creates an obvious chronological discrepancy between John and the Synoptics. Commentators have tried to solve the issue in a number of ways, none of which are entirely satisfactory. Many critical scholars would simply admit that two different (variant) traditions regarding the precise dating, in relation to Passover, have been preserved. For those interested in determining the “correct” historical tradition, or in harmonizing the two lines of Gospel tradition, there are several possibilities which must be considered:

  1. Either John or the Synoptics record the “correct” dating, while the other has adapted and interpreted it, giving the association with Passover a special theological or Christological application.
  2. Both traditions, in their own way, are giving a specific interpretation (or application) to the original historical tradition which generally recorded Jesus’ death as occurring around the time of Passover.
  3. Each tradition is following a different way of dating Passover—i.e. is using a different calendar.

The last of these has been a favored way of solving the problem, especially for traditional-conservative commentators eager to harmonize John and the Synoptics. The idea is that two different calendars were in use in Palestine at the time of Jesus—for example, a 364-day solar calendar, along with a lunar (or lunar-solar) calendar. According to this theory, popularized by the work of A. Jaubert (accessible in English as The Date of the Last Supper [Alba House: 1965]), the Synoptics, along with Jesus and his disciples, are following the solar calendar, by which the Last Supper was celebrated, as a Passover meal, the evening beginning Nisan 15, while Jesus would have been crucified and buried on Nisan 17/18. John, by contrast, is following the official lunar-solar calendar, whereby the Last Supper occurred on Nisan 12. Evidence for use of an alternate (solar) calendar has been found in the Qumran writings (Dead Sea Scrolls)—e.g. 1QpHab 11:4ff and 11QPsa 27—as well as in other Jewish writings such as the book of Jubilees. Nevertheless, despite its attractiveness and convenience, this theory has fallen out of favor somewhat in recent decades, largely because commentators do not see any real evidence (apart from our desire to harmonize the accounts) that there are two different calendars used in the Gospels.

Options 1 and 2 above posit the alternative view that either John or the Synoptics (or both) have made the dating specific so as to bring out a particular theological/Christological connection with Passover:

  • In making the Last Supper unquestionably a Passover meal, the Synoptic tradition, which records Jesus’ words of institution (of the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper), associates the impending sacrificial death of Jesus with the sacrificial offering(s) drawn from the Exodus narratives (Exod 24:8), by which the Covenant with God’s people was established. Jesus’ own body and blood (i.e. his death) will similarly establish a (new) Covenant with believers.
  • John identifies Jesus with the Passover lamb (19:31, cf. also 1:29, 36), which is why the Gospel writer dates the crucifixion to Nisan 14, when the lambs are prepared for slaughter (19:14). The mention of “hyssop” (19:29 MT) may also be an allusion to the ancient Passover tradition (Exod 12:22). Paul offers a similar identification of Jesus with the Paschal Lamb in 1 Cor 5:7 (and cf. also 1 Pet 1:19).

We should perhaps consider a fourth option, which, while it does not solve all of the chronological problems, may offer a simpler way of harmonizing the two lines of tradition. It is possible that Jesus and his disciples observed the Passover meal—or a meal with Passover characteristics—ahead of time, i.e. on Nisan 14, or even earlier. Several details in the Gospels could be cited in favor of this solution:

  • The dating of the Last Supper in John 13:1ff.
  • The Synoptic tradition which records that the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin) did not wish to have Jesus arrested on the feast of Passover, indicating that they would have done this before sundown on Nisan 14/15 (cf. Mark 14:1-2 par).
  • It has always seemed somewhat implausible that the Sanhedrin would have met to interrogate Jesus on Passover. This removes the difficulty, preserving the (accurate) information in John 18:28, 39—i.e., that the trial and execution of Jesus took place prior to sundown Nisan 14/15.
  • The language and wording of Luke 22:15 could be taken to indicate that the meal is prior to Passover.

The main argument against this view is the specific dating indicated by Mark 14:1, 12. It would end up as a variation of option 1 above, implying that the Synoptic Gospels redated the historical tradition in order to make the Last Supper more clearly a celebration of Passover.

Note of the Day – April 8 (1 Cor 11:23-26, etc)

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The Words of Jesus—Institution of the Lord’s Supper

The last two daily notes have examined the Passover meal episode in the Passion Narrative. An important component of this scene is the institution of the “Lord’s Supper”—the words of Jesus over the bread and the cup. Most commentators recognize that this tradition in the Gospels is related in some way to the early Christian practice of observing the “Supper of the Lord” (1 Cor 10:16-22; 11:17-34, v. 20). It would hardly be surprising if early ritual and liturgical practice shaped, to varying degrees, the Gospel narrative at this point. But the direction and extent of the influence remains a matter of considerable debate.

It is clear that the “Last Supper” was identified as a Passover meal in the early Gospel tradition; this is certainly the case in the Synoptics (Mk 14:1, 12-16 par), though less definite in John’s Gospel (to be discussed in the next daily note). Luke brings out most prominently the Passover connection (cf. the prior note), all the more so, it would seem, if one adopts the longer, majority text of vv. 17-20 (which includes vv. 19b-20). It has been argued that here, in the longer text, Luke preserved more of the original setting of the Passover meal, such as it would have been practiced in the 1st century A.D. These details are explored by J. Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (Fortress Press: 1977), esp. pp. 41-88, and summarized by Fitzmyer, Luke, pp. 1389-91. According to this reconstruction, the outline of the meal in Lk 22:17-20 (longer text) would be:

  • The Cup (vv. 17-18)—a single cup, to be shared, it would seem, among all the disciples together. It is it perhaps to be identified with the initial cup of blessing (qiddûš), drunk prior to the serving of the meal. Possibly it may also represent the second cup of wine following the Passover liturgy (hagg¹d¹h).
  • The Bread (v. 19)—the “unleavened bread” (maƒƒôt) served and eaten together with the Passover lamb.
  • The Cup (v. 20)—the second cup of blessing (trad. kôš šel b§r¹k¹h), following the meal.

If Luke thus preserves more of the original historical setting, then the Synoptic version in Mark-Matthew (Mk 14:22-25/Matt 26:26-29) would have to be viewed as a simplification or abridgment of the scene. While this might be appealing from a historical-critical standpoint, the situation is not quite so straightforward, at least when considering the words of institution by Jesus. There are two basic forms preserved—(1) that in Mark/Matthew, and (2) that in Luke and 1 Corinthians. In addition to the Synoptic Gospels, the tradition is preserved by Paul in 1 Cor 11:22-26, part of his instruction regarding the “Supper of the Lord” (vv. 17-34, cf. also 10:16-21). Paul introduces the tradition in v. 23:

“For I took/received along from the Lord th(at) which I also gave along to you—that the Lord Yeshua, on the night in which he was given along [i.e. betrayed], took bread…”

The first phrase does not necessarily mean that Paul received this information as a special revelation by Jesus; it may simply indicate that the tradition goes back to the words and actions of Jesus himself. As in the Gospels, Paul recorded words spoken by Jesus over the bread and the cup/wine, in turn. Let us examine the tradition regarding each of these.

1. The Bread—Mk 14:22; Matt 26:26; Luke 22:19 [MT]; 1 Cor 11:24

First, the action of Jesus as described:

  • Mark 14:22: “taking [labw\n] bread (and) giving a good account [eu)logh/sa$, i.e. blessing] (to God), he broke [e&klasen] (it) and gave [e&dwken] (it) to them and said…”
  • Matt 26:26: “taking bread and giving a good account [i.e. blessing] (to God), Yeshua broke it and, giving [dou\$] it to the learners [i.e. disciples], said…”
    [Note how close Mark and Matthew are, the differences in the latter’s version are indicated by the words in italics]
  • Luke 22:19: “taking bread (and) giving (thanks for God’s) favor [eu)xaristh/sa$], he broke (it) and gave (it) to them, saying…”
    [Luke is even closer to Mark, except for the verb eu)xariste/w instead of eu)loge/w]
  • 1 Cor 11:24: “Yeshua…took bread and, giving (thanks for God’s) favor [eu)xaristh/sa$], broke (it) and said…”

Paul agrees with Luke in use of the word eu)xariste/w (“give [thanks] for [God’s] favor”) instead of eu)loge/w (“give a good account [i.e. words of blessing] [to God]”). His version is simpler in that it omits mention of Jesus giving the broken bread to the disciples.

Now the words of Jesus:

  • Mark 14:22: “Take (it)—this is my body [tou=to/ e)stin to\ sw=ma/ mou]”
  • Matt 26:26: “Take (it and) eat—this is my body”
    [Matthew is identical to Mark, except for the addition of the command fa/gete (“eat/consume [it]”)]
  • Luke 22:19: “This is my body (be)ing given over you—do this unto my remembrance [i.e. in memory of me]”
    [The italicized portion is not in Mark/Matthew]
  • 1 Cor 11:24: “This is my body th(at is given) over you—do this unto my remembrance [i.e. in memory of me]”

Again, we see how close Paul is to Luke—nearly identical except for the participle dido/menon (“being given”), which is to be inferred. The only portion common to all four versions are the words “this is my body“—in Greek, tou=to/ e)stin to\ sw=ma/ mou, though Paul has a slightly different word order (tou=to/ mou/ e)stin to\ sw=ma).

2. The Cup—Mk 14:23-25; Matt 26:27-29; Luke 22:20 [MT]; 1 Cor 11:25

Jesus’ action and words associated with the cup are clearly parallel to those associated with the bread. First, the action:

  • Mark 14:23-24: “and taking [labw\n] (the) drinking-cup (and) giving (thanks for God’s) favor [eu)xaristh/sa$], he gave [e&dwken] (it) to them and they all drank out of it. And he said to them…”
  • Matt 26:27: “and taking (the) drinking-cup and giving (thanks for God’s) favor, he gave (it) to them saying, ‘Drink out of it all (of) you’
    [Matthew is identical to Mark, except that the reference to drinking has been made part of Jesus’ directive]
  • Luke 22:20: “and so the same (way) also (he took) the drinking-cup after th(eir) dining, saying…”
  • 1 Cor 11:25: “and so the same (way) also (he took) the drinking-cup after th(eir) dining, saying…”
    [Luke and Paul have virtually the same version, with slightly different word order]

And the words of Jesus:

  • Mark 14:24: “This is my blood of the agreement [i.e. covenant] set through [diaqh/kh] (by God), th(at) is poured out over many”
  • Matt 26:27: “This is my blood of the agreement set through (by God), th(at) is poured out around many unto [i.e. for] the release [i.e. forgiveness] of sins
    [Differences between Matthew and Mark are indicated by italics]
  • Luke 22:20: “This drinking-cup is the new agreement set through (by God) in my blood, th(at is) being poured out over you”
  • 1 Cor 11:25: “This drinking-cup is the new agreement set through (by God) in my blood—do this, as often as you should drink it, unto my remembrance”

Again, the common tradition inherited by Luke and Paul is clear. Their version differs significantly from that of Mark/Matthew in one respect:

  • In Luke/Paul, the cup is identified as the “new covenant”
  • In Mark/Matthew, the blood (wine) itself is identified with the “covenant”

The reference in Mark/Matthew is more obviously to the original covenant ceremony in Exodus 24:8; in the Greek LXX the declaration reads:

“See, the blood of the agreement which the Lord set through toward you around/about all these words”
In Hebrew:
“See, the blood of the agreement which YHWH cut with you upon all these words”

In ancient Near Eastern thought and religious/cultural practice, an agreement between two parties was often established through the ritual slaughter (sacrifice) of an animal. It may involve the sprinkling or application of blood, as in the Exodus scene, where Moses throws blood upon the people (or their representatives). This action followed the reading of all the words which God had spoken to Moses, referred to collectively (in written form) as the “Book of the Agreement [i.e. Covenant]” (v. 7).

This symbolism is less direct in the Lukan/Pauline version; indeed, the emphasis has switched to the symbolic act of giving the cup, rather than the wine (i.e. blood) in it. Also the reference is now to the “New Covenant” of Jer 31:31, a passage of tremendous importance for early Christian identity, much as it also had been for the Qumran community (CD 6:19; 1QpHab 2:4ff, etc). Along with the other Synoptics, Luke has retained the expression (and image) of the blood being “poured out” (the verb e)kxe/w) “over” (u(per) people. In addition to Exod 24:8, we find this ritual/sacrificial imagery elsewhere in the Old Testament, such as Lev 17:11, where the idea of expiation and atonement for sin is present. Paul omits this aspect in 1 Cor 11:22-26. Instead, he gives emphasis to the rite of the Supper as a memorial of Jesus’ death. Luke includes this in the words over the bread (22:19), but not the cup.

Summary

If we consider all four versions, it would seem that, while 1 Corinthians may have been the earliest written (in the form we have it), it is also the version which most reflects early Christian ritual. This can be seen in the way that the Passover and sacrificial elements are missing, and by the emphasis of the Supper as a memorial. In addition, the Pauline form has a more consistent shape. The rougher contours of the Synoptic version would, I think, suggest a closer approximation to the original (Aramaic?) words of Jesus. Here, as often is the case, Mark may record the earliest form of the tradition; note the common elements highlighted in bold:

  • “Take (it)—this is my body [tou=to/ e)stin to\ sw=ma/ mou]”
  • This is my blood [tou=to/ e)stin to\ ai!ma/ mou] of the agreement/covenant, th(at) is poured out over many”

It would seem that Matthew and Luke have both adapted this core tradition in various ways (cf. above). The real problem lies with the text-critical question in Luke. The similarity between Luke and Paul here has been used as an argument in favor of the shorter text, with vv. 19b-20 (so close to 1 Cor 11:24-25), being viewed as a harmonization or interpolation. However, if vv. 19b-20 are original, then there can be no doubt that Luke and Paul have inherited a common historical tradition, however it may differ from the version in Mark/Matthew. I would argue that all four versions—that is, both primary lines of tradition (Mark/Matthew and Luke/Paul)—have adapted the original words and setting into a framework that reflects, to some degree, early Christian practice regarding the Supper. In Mark/Matthew, this is done primarily through the narrative description of Jesus’ action, and the sequence of verbs used (cf. above), especially with the key pairing of eu)loge/w and eu)xariste/w (the latter giving rise to the term “Eucharist”). In the case of Luke and Paul, it may be that Jesus’ words (in Greek translation) have been shaped to reflect the ritual context. Even so, as I noted in the prior note, Luke has clearly retained (and carefully preserved) a connection with the Passover setting of the original tradition.

References above marked “Fitzmyer, Luke” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 28A (1985).

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Passion Narrative

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We now come to the third (and final) major section of the current series entitled Jesus and the Gospel Tradition (cf. the Introduction). The first part of the this series was devoted to a detailed examination of the Baptism of Jesus. The second part dealt with the Galilean Period of Jesus’ ministry, especially as an organizing principle within the Synoptic Gospels. I had noted previously this basic two-part structure of the Synoptic narrative—(i) the Galilean ministry (Mk 1:28:30), and (ii) the journey to Judea/Jerusalem and the events there (Mk 8:3116:8). Luke, through his expanded treatment of the journey to Jerusalem, has a three-part division (+ the Infancy Narrative):

  • [The Infancy Narrative]
  • The Galilean ministry (3:19:50)
  • The Journey to Jerusalem (9:5118:34)
  • The time in Judea/Jerusalem (18:3524:53)

The Judean/Jerusalem period may likewise be divided into two main sections, along with shorter introductory and concluding episodes:

All three Synoptics essentially follow this basic outline, though it has been modified and expanded in places by Matthew and Mark (especially the Resurrection episodes in Luke). We may outline the Passion Narrative itself as follows:

  • Narrative Introduction (Mk 14:1-2)
  • The Anointing Scene (14:3-9)
  • Excursus 1: The betrayal by Judas introduced (14:10-11)
  • The Passover: Jesus with his Disciples (14:12-25):
    —The Preparation (vv. 12-16)
    —The Passover scene at mealtime (vv. 17-21)
    —Institution of the “Lord’s Supper” (vv. 22-25)
  • Excursus 2: The denial by Peter foretold (14:26-31)
  • The Passion Scene in Gethsemane (14:32-52)
    —Jesus’ Passion and Prayer (vv. 32-42)
    —The Arrest of Jesus (vv. 43-52)
  • The Jewish “Trial”: Jesus before the Sanhedrin (14:53-72)
    —The Scene before the Council (vv. 53-65)
    —Peter’s Denial (vv. 66-72)
  • The Roman “Trial”: Jesus before Pilate (15:1-20)
    —The Scene before Pilate (vv. 1-5)
    —The Judgment (vv. 6-15)
    —The Preparation for Crucifixion (vv. 16-20)
  • The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus (15:21-40):
    —The Crucifixion Scene (vv. 21-32)
    —Jesus’ Death (vv. 33-40)
  • Narrative Conclusion (15:42-47)

There are six principal episodes, each of which will be discussed in turn, beginning with the Anointing Scene (Mark 14:3-9 par).

It is generally felt by most scholars that the Passion Narrative was the first (and earliest) part of the Gospel Tradition to be given a distinct narrative shape. This can be glimpsed by the early Gospel preaching recorded in the book of Acts, as well as by the kerygmatic elements common throughout the New Testament (especially the Pauline Letters). The death and resurrection of Jesus formed the center of the Gospel message, so it is natural that those traditions would be the first to take shape as a simple narrative, to make the details easier to communicate and commit to memory. This also means that a number of these traditions are relatively fixed, and evince less development than in other portions of the Gospel. Details such as Judas’ betrayal or Peter’s denial of Jesus simply had to be included in any telling of the story. Even so, each Gospel writer handles the material in his own distinctive way, “ornamenting”, if you will, around the core traditions.

In analyzing the Passion Narrative, I will continue utilizing the method I have adopted for this series. For each passage, narrative, or set of traditions being studied, I examine—

  • The basic Synoptic narrative (as represented primarily by the Gospel of Mark)
  • The so-called “Q” material (shared by Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark)
  • Traditions and details preserved only in Matthew and/or Luke (so-called “M” and “L” material), as well as original (literary) contributions by the authors
  • Johannine tradition and the Gospel of John

Generally speaking, this order of study is chronological, reflecting ‘layers’ of development—but not strictly so by any means. Indeed, there is some evidence that the Gospel of John, usually thought of as the latest of the canonical Gospels (c. 90 A.D.?), contains early/authentic historical traditions in a form that may be older than those of the Synoptics. Wherever possible, I will attempt to trace the manner of development in the Tradition, and how/why it may have taken place.

The next daily note in this series will begin examination of the first episode of the Passion Narrative—the scene of Jesus’ Anointing.

Note of the Day – March 12 (John 5, etc)

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Having surveyed, however briefly, the different kinds of traditions in the Synoptics, and how they have been combined and arranged within the various Gospels—using just one segment of the narrative (from the Galilean period)—it now remains to compare how this may have taken place in the Gospel of John. The fact that the Fourth Gospel has inherited a distinct line of tradition, separate from the Synoptics, makes a comparative study extremely valuable. The presumption is that any similar or common traditions, between John and the Synoptics, would likely go back to a very early stage in the process of transmission—when the original historical traditions were (first) being preserved in written form. Such a comparison reveals numerous examples of tradition-units—sayings, miracle stories, and other episodes—in the Gospel of John which are similar (in certain respects) to those in the Synoptics, but have been set and developed within a very different narrative context. I have already discussed several of these in the earlier notes in this series on the Baptism of Jesus, the Calling of the Disciples, and a few other places as well.

Generally speaking, there is a fundamental difference between the way that traditions are handled in the Gospel of John. We have seen how the Synoptic narrative, especially in the Galilean period (i.e. Mk 1:14-8:30 par), has been built up by joining together various tradition-units. In the core Synoptic narrative, these involve: short narratives centered around a saying (or group of sayings), parables, miracle stories, and “encounter” episodes (often featured conflict/debate between Jesus and the religious authorities). In the previous two notes, we studied how these small units were joined together to form larger segments (about a chapter in length), and again, in the individual Gospels, into even larger sections or narrative divisions. The sequence of units and segments may be historical-chronological, but, more often than not, they appear to have been joined together by a thematic association. The many differences in order between the various units of the Synoptic Gospels prove decisively that they are not governed by a strict chronological arrangement.

The Gospel of John, by contrast, arranges its material—especially in the portion that corresponds (loosely) with the Galilean period in the Synoptics (2:1-7:1ff)—into extended Discourses by Jesus. These discourses utilize a dialogue format, similar to that found in Jewish and Greco-Roman literature, whereby there is an exchange between Jesus and various persons whom he encounters, or who see/hear the things he is saying and doing. There are discourses in each of chapters 3-6 of the Gospel. We may isolate three components of these discourses:

  • The setting, which is often based upon a particular traditional episode (miracle story, encounter story, etc)
  • The dialogue, which is sometimes limited to a simple two-part exchange, and is centered around a saying (statement or declaration) by Jesus
  • An exposition by Jesus, in which the true meaning of his statement is explained, at a deeper spiritual/theological level

Let us survey the four main discourses in chapters 3-6:

The setting (i.e. traditional episode)—

  • 3:1-2ff—Jesus and Nicodemus (encounter story)
  • 4:1-7ff—Jesus and the Samaritan woman (encounter story)
  • 5:1-14—Healing of the disabled man at the pool (miracle story)
  • 6:1-13—Feeding of the Five Thousand (miracle story)

The dialogue—

  • 3:2-5ff, 9-10ff—Jesus and Nicodemus (saying: verse 3)
  • 4:7-15ff—Jesus and the Samaritan woman (main saying: verse 10)
  • 5:15-18—Jesus and the “Jews” (saying: verse 17)
  • 6:25-34ff—Jesus and the “Jews” (central saying: verse 35)

The exposition—

  • 3:5-21, which is built into the dialogue to make three parts:
    —vv. 5-8, then after another question by Nicodemus (v. 9)
    —vv. 10-15, which is followed by a parallel exposition with a different emphasis:
    —vv. 16-21
  • 4:13-26, which covers a more detailed exchange (between Jesus and the woman):
    —vv. 13-14 (the woman’s response, etc, vv. 15-20)
    —vv. 21-24 (her response, v. 25)
    —v. 26 (Jesus’ final declaration)
  • 5:19-47, a single exposition, in two parts: vv. 19-30, 31-47 (cf. below)
  • 6:32-58, the most complex of the four discourses, to be discussed in an upcoming note (on the Feeding Miracle in the Gospel Tradition)

The discourses in chapters 5 and 6 are similar in that they derive from a miracle story similar to those we see in the Synoptic Gospels. I discussed the chapter 5 discourse in a recent note, but it is worth reviewing here.

The basic miracle story (the tradition) is found in verses 1-9a. Verse 9b introduces the motif of the reaction to the healing miracle by certain people (“Jews”) with a strict traditional-religious mindset. They are not identified specifically as Pharisees (compare 9:13ff), but the implication is that they are experts/authorities on Scripture and the Law; in the Synoptic tradition these ‘opponents’ of Jesus are typically referred to as “Scribes and Pharisees”. These two components—the miracle and the reaction—make up the traditional narrative in verses 1-14. As such, the episode resembles somewhat the healing miracle in Mark 2:1-12; the detail in verses 9b-14 also turns it into a “Sabbath controversy” episode, not unlike those in the Synoptics (Mark 3:1-6 par, and Luke 13:10-17; cf. also Lk 14:1-6, and the recent notes on these passages). However, it is clearly a Johannine tradition, and is narrated in the style of the Fourth Gospel. This can be seen by the close structural and thematic similarity between 5:1-14ff and 9:1-41.

Verses 15-16 are transitional, joining the tradition in vv. 1-14 with the saying (v. 17) and discourse which follows. As discussed in the earlier note, Jesus’ saying relates generally to the ancient tradition regarding the Sabbath, of God resting/ceasing from His work as Creator. The statement by Jesus makes two points—(1) the creative, live-giving work of God (the Father) continues to the present time, and (2) Jesus (the Son) does the same work as God. The reaction by the “Jews” is narrated in verse 18, after which comes the explanation of the saying by Jesus, where he expounds its true, deeper meaning. This exposition can be divided into two parts:

  • The Son performs the work(s) of the Father—vv. 19-30
  • These works are a witness to the Son (and to the Father)—vv. 31-47

The first part (vv. 19-30) is also divided into two sections, like poetic strophes, in which the same theme and motifs and repeated:

  • The Son gives eternal/spiritual life to those who believe—vv. 19-24
  • The Son gives new life (resurrection) at the end time (to those who believe)—vv. 25-30

These two aspects of the resurrection power at work in Jesus will reappear in the great Lazarus episode of chapter 11—a more dramatic miracle story that is foreshadowed here.

This same sort of the development of traditional material can be seen in the “Bread of Life” discourse in chapter 6. It has a much more complex (cyclical) structure, utilizing the dialogue format extensively in its narration. I have discussed this discourse in some detail in earlier notes, and will address it again in the next topic of this series—the tradition of the Miraculous Feeding—which begins in the next daily note.

Note of the Day – March 11 (Luke 6:20-8:3, etc)

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In yesterday’s note, I presented the Synoptic narrative outline, as represented by the Gospel of Mark, along with a more detailed breakdown of the traditions in Mk 3:13-8:30, the second half of the Galilean period (1:14-8:30). Today, I want to look at how this material was developed by Luke and Matthew. In particular, I will focus on Luke’s treatment of the Synoptic/Markan traditions.

First, here again is the outline of Mk 3:13-6:13:

  • Calling the Twelve—3:13-19
  • Reaction to Jesus’ ministry—his natural vs. true family; 3 traditions joined together:
    3:20-21, 22-30, 31-35
  • Parables of Jesus—4:1-34, a distinct block (or sub-unit) of traditional material, organized as follows:
    • Introduction (vv. 1-2)
    • Parable of the Sower:
      –The Parable (vv. 3-9)
      –Saying to the Disciples (vv. 10-12)
      –Explanation of the Parable (vv. 13-20)
    • Three additional Parables (vv. 21-32)
    • Conclusion (vv. 33-34)
  • Miracle (Calming the Storm): Jesus with the Disciples together in the boat—4:35-41
  • Healing Miracles: 2 Episodes (3 miracles)—5:1-20, 21-43
  • Reaction to Jesus’ ministry—his natural vs. true family; episode at Nazareth—6:1-6a
  • Mission of the Twelve—6:6b-13

The green above indicates portions which Luke appears to have either re-worked or presents in a different order:

  • Luke reverses the order (6:12-16, 17-19) of the material corresponding to Mk 3:7-12, 13-19, reworking it to some extent
  • In 8:4-21, also the material corr. to Mk 3:31-35 & 4:1-25 is reversed and set in a different narrative context (omitting Mk 3:20-30)
  • Luke has a quite different (and expanded) version of the episode at Nazareth (Mk 6:1-6a), and it is set in a different location—at the very beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry (Lk 4:16-30); cf. the earlier note on this passage

The dark red portions above indicate the Markan traditions which Luke has omitted, or otherwise does not include—Mk 3:20-30; 4:26-34.

Besides the ‘additions’ to the Nazareth episode (mentioned above), Luke has also included a considerable amount of material at a point corresponding to Mk 3:19. Here is the Lukan outline, with Markan parallels in parentheses:

From this point, Luke 8:22-9:6 follows Mk 4:35-5:43 + 6:6b-13. It is important to consider the additional Lukan material (6:20-8:3), which is comprised of six distinct units set in sequence. “Q” indicates the so-called Q-material, shared by Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark. “L” refers to traditions found only in Luke. There are three “L” traditions included here:

  • 7:11-17: a healing miracle story—the raising of the dead son of the widow at Nain.
  • 7:36-50: an encounter story (with a parable), involving the traditional motif of conflict/debate between Jesus and the Pharisees—the anointing of Jesus by the “sinful” woman. This tradition is quite similar to, but not identical with, Mk 14:3-19, and will be discussed in an upcoming note.
  • 8:1-3: a narrative summary, probably of Lukan composition, but containing traditional/historical information.

The traditions in 7:11-17 and 36-50 are very much in keeping with the episodes of the core Synoptic Tradition (cf. the previous note), though 7:36-50 shows definite signs of literary development. The “Q” material is rather different, and indicates that it has been derived from a separate (and early) line of tradition.

Many scholars believe that “Q” was an actual source document, comprised mainly of a collection of sayings by Jesus. These sayings, at an early point, were joined together, by way of thematic and “catchword” bonding, to form small units, which then could be collected/grouped into larger sections of sayings-material. “Q”, if it existed at all as a specific text, would have been made up of these larger sections, two of which are found at this point in Luke:

1. The “Sermon on the Plain” (Lk 6:20-49), which follows the basic outline of the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew (chapters 5-7). Despite the narrative setting in each Gospel, which presents the material as a single “sermon” given by Jesus, most (critical) commentators believe that it is better understood as a collection of sayings, parables, and teachings by Jesus, which represents the sort of instruction he gave regularly to his disciples. Matthew’s version contains considerably more material, some of which is found in a different location in Luke. Moreover, there are some significant differences in wording and emphasis, especially in the Beatitudes (cf. my earlier series on the Beatitudes for more detail). Here is a breakdown of the Lukan “sermon”:

Luke and Matthew have each arranged several distinct units of “Q” material (sayings and parables, etc) to form a sermon or discourse. Notably, each Gospel writer (independently) has set this in the context of Jesus gathering his disciples together and instructing them (Matt 4:18ff; 5:1-2; Luke 6:12-16, 17)—though in each Gospel it occurs at a slightly different point in the narrative.

2. Jesus and John the Baptist (Lk 7:18-35). I have discussed this section briefly in the earlier notes of this series on the Baptism of Jesus. Again, while it would seem that the material in vv. 18-35 is all part of a single discourse by Jesus, this more likely reflects the thematic joining of a number of different traditions during the (early) process of collection and transmission. Clearly, the common theme involved is John the Baptist and his relation to Jesus. In my view, this is a mark of very early historical tradition, as the interest in John the Baptist soon faded among Christians in the New Testament period. There is less variation between the versions of this material in Matthew and Luke, than for the earlier “Sermon” (cf. above); both Gospels preserve it as a distinct block of tradition. Here is how it appears in Luke:

It is worth noting the portions in Matthew’s version which are not found in Luke (or occur in a different location):

Interestingly, while this Q-material in Luke follows generally after Jesus’ calling the Twelve (6:12-16) and the “Sermon” (6:20-49), in Matthew it occurs at a different (though similar) point in the narrative. The calling and subsequent mission of the Twelve is narrated together (Matt 10:1-5f), followed by an entirely separate collection of instruction (or “sermon”) for the disciples (10:5-42).

This brief, though detailed, analysis demonstrates the creative work of each Gospel writer in selecting, adapting, and arranging traditional material. Many of the themes and contours of the narrative are the same in each Gospel, but the overall presentation and thematic structure differs considerably. This is all the more true when we consider how the (historical) traditions have been developed and arranged in the Gospel of John. I will be examining this in the next daily note.

Note of the Day – March 10 (Mark 1:14-8:30)

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Before proceeding to the next main topic in this series on “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition“, focusing on the Galilean Ministry Period of Jesus, it may be useful to examine briefly, over the next few notes, how the various traditions came to be joined together. This study will deal primarily with the Synoptic Gospels—the Synoptic Tradition—since it provides the best evidence for how the original historical traditions may have been combined.

The various traditions may be classified in different ways. We can note generally the following types:

  • Sayings of Jesus, sometimes combined in fundamental groups or clusters of sayings, or set within a very simple narrative framework.
  • Parables of Jesus, often preserved in distinct blocks of parables.
  • Miracle stories, which also be joined/grouped into sequence; sometimes the miracle tradition is presented as a pronouncement story, in which the narrative climaxes with a saying or declaration by Jesus.
  • Encounter scenes, which, in the Synoptics, often involve conflict and debate between Jesus and the religious authorities (typically specified as “Scribes and Pharisees”). These traditional scenes occasionally take the form of pronouncement episodes as well.
  • Pronouncement stories of other kinds, often involving Jesus together with his disciples.

Other categories might be added, but these cover the majority of traditions, especially as they occur in the core Synoptic Tradition; for the purpose of this series, I have used the Gospel of Mark as representing this “Synoptic” material generally. If Matthew and Luke did not make use of the Gospel of Mark, then they must have used material which had a very similar outline and arrangement of content.

The Markan Outline

The Galilean Ministry period, which makes up the first half of the Synoptic narrative, is covered by 1:148:30 in Mark. There is evidence of a careful, thematic treatment of the traditional material, which indicates some degree of literary development, presumably by the Gospel writer. It is very difficult to tell how much of this occurred within the traditional material prior to its inclusion in Mark’s Gospel. Some signs are present, however. Consider, for example, Mk 2:1-3:6, a block of five traditions, or episodes, which are preserved, in sequence, by Luke (5:17-6:11) and also by Matthew (though separated in Mt, 9:2-17 and 12:1-14). All five episodes share the common theme of (negative) reaction to Jesus’ ministry—his miracles, teaching and the conduct of he and his disciples—by the religious authorities (“Scribes and Pharisees”, etc), or by people with a strict traditional-religious mindset. This thematic association could easily have taken place well before Mark’s Gospel was composed. Almost certainly this is the case with the last two episodes (2:23-28; 3:1-6) which involve the observance of the Sabbath, and the Sabbath regulations.

While it is possible that a sequence of events such as Mk 2:1-3:6 may be presented in its chronological order—i.e., as the events actually occurred—nothing in the text requires that it be read this way. There are many differences in the order of scenes and sections in the Gospels, and, in most instances, this reflects a literary, rather than historical/chronological, arrangement. In the case of the Sabbath Controversy episodes (Mk 2:23-28; 3:1-6 par, discussed in the previous notes), Mark gives the impression that these occurred on the same day, while Luke clearly states that they took place on different Sabbath days (Lk 6:6). At the historical level, the second episode conceivably could have occurred prior to the first episode. In a number of places, Luke has the same traditions as Mark, but in the reverse order, or even an entirely different arrangement (more common in Matthew).

An interesting example involves the Feeding of the Five Thousand and Jesus’ Walking on the Water. These two episodes are joined together in both the Synoptic (Mark/Matthew) and Johannine tradition—Mk 6:30-52; Matt 14:13-33, and John 6:1-21. The combination of the episodes in two entirely separate lines of tradition means that they were likely joined together prior to their inclusion in Mark. Moreover, since there is no obvious thematic association between the two episodes, this could indicate an original historical-chronological connection—Jesus’ walking on the water was remembered as occurring (right) after the feeding miracle. The association of the episodes was so strong that the Johannine Gospel writer (trad. John the apostle) was compelled to include the walking-on-water scene even though it interrupts the sequence of the Feeding miracle followed by the Bread of Life discourse. There is no clear and discernable reason why it was included, other than the strength of the early tradition which set the two episodes together.

As I have indicated, many traditions are joined together by a common theme, or sometimes a common word or phrase, referred to as “catchword bonding”. Most likely this took place at a very early point in the transmission of the material, perhaps even at the point of oral transmission, when such organization based on theme and key word or motif would have helped early believers retain disparate traditions in their memory, and make it easier to pass them along to others by word of mouth. However, while this traditional material is presumably at an earlier stage of development in Mark, than it is in the other Gospels, the precise literary arrangement still show considerable signs of development, by the writer (trad. Mark). I recognize four units which make up the Galilean Period material in Mk 1:148:30. I outline these as follows:

  • The Beginning of Jesus’ Ministry—1:14-45. This includes:
    • The Call of the First Disciples—vv. 16-20 and
    • Four episodes, primarily of healing miracle stories—vv. 21-45
  • Reaction to Jesus’ Ministry: conflict/debate with religious authorities—2:1-3:6
  • [Transitional]—3:7-12
  • Jesus’ Ministry with the disciples (theme of discipleship)—3:13-6:13
  • Reaction to Jesus’ Ministry: including conflict/debate with religious authorities—6:14-8:30

This essentially divides the Galilean period into two main sections, which have a similar (and parallel) thematic structure. I take this to be largely a Markan development; and, to the extent that this outline is preserved in Matthew and Luke, it supports the critical hypothesis that those two Gospels each made use of Mark. Here is an expanded outline of the last two units, covering 3:13-8:30:

Mark 3:13-6:13
  • Calling the Twelve—3:13-19
  • Reaction to Jesus’ ministry—his natural vs. true family; 3 traditions joined together:
    3:20-21, 22-30, 31-35
  • Parables of Jesus—4:1-34, a distinct block (or sub-unit) of traditional material, organized as follows:
    • Introduction (vv. 1-2)
    • Parable of the Sower:
      –The Parable (vv. 3-9)
      –Saying to the Disciples (vv. 10-12)
      –Explanation of the Parable (vv. 13-20)
    • Three additional Parables (vv. 21-32)
    • Conclusion (vv. 33-34)
  • Miracle (Calming the Storm): Jesus with the Disciples together in the boat—4:35-41
  • Healing Miracles: 2 Episodes (3 miracles)—5:1-20, 21-43
  • Reaction to Jesus’ ministry—his natural vs. true family; episode at Nazareth—6:1-6a
  • Mission of the Twelve—6:6b-13

I have pointed out the symmetric (chiastic) structure of this section in an earlier note; it is framed by the two episodes involving the Twelve—their calling/naming, and their mission.

Mark 6:14-8:30
  • Reaction to Jesus, and his identity: the declaration by Herod—6:14-16
    [inclusion of an associated tradition, 6:17-29]
  • Feeding Miracle (5,000): the disciples/12 baskets—6:30-44
    Miracle on the water: Jesus with the disciples in the boat—6:44-52
    (they did not understand about the miraculous loaves)
  • Healing Miracles6:53-56
  • Conflict/debate with religious authorities over tradition and ritual—7:1-23
    including a Parable and explanation by Jesus (vv. 14-16, 17-23)
  • Healing Miracles: 2 episodes—7:24-30, 31-37
  • Feeding Miracle (4,000): the disciples/7 baskets—8:1-10
    Teaching on the water: Jesus with the disciples in the boat—8:11-21
    (they did not understand, re. the miraculous loaves)
  • Healing miracle—8:22-26
  • Reaction to Jesus, and his identity: the confession by Peter—8:27-30

Again, there is a symmetric/chiastic structure, with parallel episodes involving (1) the public reaction to Jesus’ identity, (2) a feeding miracle with similar details and associated traditions, and (3) healing miracles. At the center is the debate of Jesus with the “Scribes and Pharisees” regarding religious tradition and ritual behavior.

A Point of Development: Mark 3:13-19 and 6:6b-13

The traditions involving Jesus’ calling of the Twelve (Disciples/Apostles), and their mission into the territory of Galilee as Jesus’ representatives, are instructive for examining how different lines of tradition were joined together, i.e. in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. I have already discussed Mk 3:13-19 and its Synoptic parallels in prior notes; here I want to point out again how the Gospels writers incorporated additional material into the Synoptic (Markan) outline at these points. As a result, the narrative was expanded and enhanced considerably, creating a more complex structure. This will be discussed further in the next daily note, focusing on the Lukan treatment of the Synoptic material corresponding to Mark 3:13-8:30.

Note of the Day – February 17 (Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11)

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Today’s note begins the next division of our series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”, focusing on the Galilean Ministry of Jesus (cf. the Introduction). The first topic of study is on traditions related to the Call of the Disciples. There are four primary traditions found in the Gospel narrative:

  1. The call of the first Disciples—esp. two pair of brothers (Peter/Andrew, James/John)
  2. The call of Matthew/Levi
  3. The call and commission of the Twelve
  4. The naming of Peter

Only the first and third of these will be dealt with in detail.

The Call of the First Disciples

Mark 1:16-20 par

Following the baptism of Jesus (and the testing in the desert), the period of Galilean ministry, according to the Synoptic narrative, begins with announcement of Jesus’ activity. In the Gospel of Mark, this is found in 1:14-15:

“And with the giving along (of) Yohanan {John} (into custody), Yeshua {Jesus} came into the Galîl {Galilee} proclaiming the good message of God and giving account [i.e. declaring/saying] that ‘The time has been (ful)filled and the kingdom of God has come near! Change your mind [i.e. repent] and trust in the good message!'”

Matthew (4:17) generally follows Mark, though without the preceding message of John the Baptist’s arrest. Luke has set the notice of John’s imprisonment at a different point in the narrative (right before Jesus’ baptism, 3:18-20), and makes no mention of Jesus proclamation of the coming of the kingdom or need for repentance (but cf. Lk 4:43; 8:1). This has essentially been replaced by the narrative summary in 4:14-15, emphasizing the role of the Spirit and Jesus’ activity of teaching (in the Synagogue), which sets the scene for the episode at Nazareth in 4:16ff. In the quotation of Isaiah 61:1 (vv. 18-19), Jesus declares, as part of his mission, that he is to “give/proclaim the good message”, much as is stated in Mk 1:14-15.

Mark 1:16-20 records the call of the first disciples. The parallel in Matthew (4:18-22) is very close; while Luke, has supplemented the basic narrative (5:1b-2, 10-11) with a miracle story involving Peter and his co-workers (5:4-9). This unique handling and development of the tradition will be discussed below. The narrative in Mark is extremely simple, with action and dialogue kept to an absolute minimum:

  • Notice of the location, along the Sea of Galilee (v. 16a)
  • Jesus encounters a two pair of brothers—Simon/Andrew & James/John—in turn (vv. 16b, 19a)
  • These men are all fishermen, busy working their nets (vv. 16b, 19b)
  • Jesus calls to them (to follow him) (vv. 17, 20a)
  • They all leave their nets and boats (and family, etc) to follow Jesus (vv. 18, 20b)

The central element is the saying of Jesus in verse 17, and the structure of the narrative gives the impression that it was built up around the saying. Here is the saying (in Mark):

“Come (here) in back of me [i.e. follow me], and I will cause you to become salt-water (fisher)s of men” (Mk 1:17)

Matthew’s version (4:19) is virtually identical, reading “make you” instead of “cause you to become”. In Luke, the comparable saying is quite different:

“Do not be afraid! From now on you will be catching men alive” (Lk 5:10b)

What is striking about the main Synoptic tradition, as given simply in Mark/Matthew, is how the sparse narrative detail gives the impression of an immediate response by the disciples—at the very (first) word from Jesus, they leave everything and follow him. This, of course, will become a motif—i.e. of obedience and commitment in following Jesus—repeated on several occasions in the Synoptic narrative (Mk 2:14; 8:34; 10:21 par; Lk 9:57-62 par). The core saying itself contains certain elements which summarize and reflect the ministry of Jesus, and are worth noting:

Verse 17a—the emphasis and motif of discipleship:

  • The expression deu=te (“come [here]”) is as much an invitation or exhoration as it is a command, and indicates one’s coming close, toward Jesus—Matt 11:28; 25:34; cf. also 22:4; Mark 6:31.
  • The preposition o)pi/sw (“in back of, behind”) is often used specifically in terms of a disciple following a master (Mark 8:34 par, etc). Its occurrence in the saying(s) of John the Baptist (Mk 1:7 par; Jn 1:15, 27, 30) was discussed in previous notes.

Verse 17b—the illustration from daily life (cf. the parables of Jesus):

  • The word a(lieu/$ refers to someone who works on/in the salt-water, here meaning specifically a fisherman. The activity from daily life is applied to the religious/spiritual life of the disciple (believer) who follows Jesus.
  • The genitive “of men” (a)nqrw/pwn) establishes the point of contrast—instead of gathering in fish for the catch, the disciples will be gathering in human beings for the kingdom of God. This latter detail is not stated explicitly, but such a connotation is likely, given the frequent references to the kingdom of God/Heaven in the parables and teachings of Jesus.

Luke 5:1-11

As noted above, Luke’s version of this episode represents a significant development, in which the core Synoptic narrative (found in vv. 1b-2, 10-11) has been expanded to include a distinct miracle story featuring Peter (vv. 4-9). Verses 1a & 3 may reflect Lukan editing/authorship in order to blend the two traditions effectively into a literary whole. In particular, they seem to echo the setting in Mk 4:1-2, which Luke may have transferred from that location in the (Synoptic) narrative. This is likely, since in 8:4ff, the passage parallel to Mk 4:1-2ff, there is no corresponding mention of Jesus teaching the crowd from a boat.

This is all relatively straightforward—the Synoptic narrative, supplemented by another (“L”) tradition related to the call of Peter—were it not for the fact that the miracle narrated in vv. 4-9 is remarkably similar to that found in John 21:1-8ff. The problem is that the Johannine episode is said to have occurred at a much later time, after the resurrection of Jesus. It is not just a question of a general similarity; rather, there are a number of specific details shared by the two narratives, which include:

  • Peter and his colleagues had fished all night and had caught nothing (v. 3, 5; Jn 21:3)
  • Jesus is standing on the shore of the lake (v. 1; 21:1, 4)
  • Jesus tells them to go and cast out their nets again (v. 4; 21:6)
  • The result is an enormous catch of fish (v. 6b; 21:6, 11)
  • Reference to the stress (tearing) on the nets, and to the help required to bring in the catch (vv. 6-7; 21:8, 11)
  • A reaction by Peter to(ward) Jesus as a result of the miracle (v. 8; 21:7)
  • Jesus is called “Lord” [ku/rio$] (v. 8; 21:7)
  • The catch of fish is symbolic of the work of Christian ministry, and is connected in the narrative to a (separate) tradition involving the commission of Peter and the other disciples (vv. 10-11; 21:11, 15ff)

Also notable is the use of the dual name “Simon Peter” in both narratives (v. 8; 21:7), as it is the only such occurrence in the Gospel of Luke (and only once elsewhere in the Synoptics, Matt 16:16); cf. J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX (Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 28), p. 561.

These similarities have been explained various ways by commentators:

  • As two separate historical episodes, at different points in the life of Peter, during his time with Jesus—one at the beginning, and the other at the end. The shared details would be either coincidental or providential.
  • Two separate traditions have been shaped by a distinct miracle-story form—i.e. the miraculous catch of fish.
  • A tradition with an original post-resurrection setting (John) has been given an earlier setting at the time of Peter’s calling (Luke).
  • A tradition originally associated with Peter’s calling has been set after the resurrection. I.e. the reverse of the view above.
  • It is a piece of “floating” tradition, which came to the Gospel writers (and/or their sources) without a specific narrative (or chronological) context; each writer made use of the tradition at the most meaningful (or logical) point.

The first option generally follows the traditional-conservative view. Those who hold to it would quickly point out the many differences between the two narratives, in addition to the similarities. Critical scholars, on the other hand, are more likely to accept either the second, third, or fifth options (e.g., Fitzmyer, Luke I-IX, pp. 561-2). The fact that Luke has apparently adapted an (earlier) Synoptic narrative, by adding/inserting the miracle episode, as a distinct unit (vv. 4-9), would perhaps favor (some form of) the critical view. For those who would argue between the Lukan and Johannine setting as the “original” setting of the historical tradition, the evidence seems to be fairly evenly divided. On the one hand, the fact that Luke and John (according to the Alexandrian/Majority text of Lk 24), have inherited common traditions related to the resurrection, supports the post-resurrection setting in John 21. On the other hand, the idea of Peter and the other disciples returning to the ordinary life of fishermen after the resurrection has always seemed a bit odd (even unlikely) to many. The overall milieu of the scene (esp. vv. 1a-8 in John) better fits the period of Jesus’ Galilean ministry (as narrated in the Synoptics). It would be easy enough to adapt such an “earlier” or “floating” tradition to a post-resurrection setting, as could have been done in John simply by adding vv. 1 and 12b-14 (try reading the text without these framing verses) to an episode otherwise very close to Lk 5:4-9.

Speaking of the Gospel of John, it should be mentioned, in closing, that the Fourth Gospel has nothing like Mark 1:16-20 par, but records/preserves an entirely different tradition regarding the call of the first disciples (Peter/Andrew, etc). This will be discussed in the next daily note.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Ministry Period

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This is a good moment to stop and re-set the current series entitled Jesus and the Gospel Tradition (cf. the Introduction). The first part of the this series has been devoted to a detailed examination of the Baptism of Jesus. This was chosen because it provides an ideal case study (using extensive evidence from all four canonical Gospels) for analyzing how the early (historical) traditions came to be developed and adapted over time, leading to the composition of the Gospel narratives as we have them. It was demonstrated rather clearly, I think, in these notes, how the account of Jesus’ baptism (and his relation to John the Baptist) were preserved (independently) in multiple strands of tradition. Each Gospel writer gave his own interpretation and treatment of the material, but was essentially obligated to hold to a basic narrative, and to the preservation of certain fundamental traditions.

The remaining two parts, or divisions, of this series will be focusing on: (1) the Galilean Ministry of Jesus (Pt  II) and (2) the Passion Narrative (Pt III). These are also useful as divisions since they reflect the basic two-part structure of the Synoptic narrative—(i) the Galilean ministry (Mk 1:28:30), and (ii) the journey to Judea/Jerusalem and the events there (Mk 8:3116:8). The other Synoptics have more complex structures; indeed, Luke rather clearly has a three (or four) part division:

  • [The Infancy Narrative]
  • The Galilean ministry (3:19:50)
  • The Journey to Jerusalem (9:5118:34)
  • The time in Judea/Jerusalem (18:3524:53)

However, it is easy enough to see how the core Synoptic narrative has been adapted and expanded. In the case of Luke, the Infancy narrative (chaps. 1-2) has been added and the journey to Jerusalem (Mk 10) has been filled out by including a wide range of sayings/teachings of Jesus, and other episodes, most of which do not occur in the Gospel of Mark (i.e., so-called “Q” and “L” material).

Here is a preliminary list of some of the areas and topics I will be addressing in the next set of notes (for the remainder of February and into March), dealing with the Galilean Ministry of Jesus, traditions and passages related to:

  • The call of the Disciples
  • Jesus’ relatives and family
  • The Sabbath Controversies
  • Collection/joining of sayings, parables, and miracle stories
  • The Feeding miracle(s)
  • The Son of Man sayings

The next several notes will deal with the first topic—the Call of the (first) Disciples of Jesus.

It is worth mentioning, that these Galilean ministry passages and traditions are, for the most part, exclusive to the three Synoptic Gospels. The main reason for this is that a large percentage of scenes and dialogues in the Fourth Gospel are set in and around Jerusalem, so there is less material with which we can definitely work. However, it may be surprising how many parallels we will find between the Synoptic and Johannine traditions, and that the latter may well have included (and reworked) numerous episodes and traditions which are set in the “Galilean” section of the Synoptic narrative.

It may also be helpful to remind readers of the method I have adopted for this series. For each passage, narrative, or set of traditions being studied, I examine—

  • The basic Synoptic narrative (as represented primarily by the Gospel of Mark)
  • The so-called “Q” material (shared by Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark)
  • Traditions and details preserved only in Matthew and/or Luke (so-called “M” and “L” material), as well as original (literary) contributions by the authors
  • Johannine tradition and the Gospel of John

This order of study is roughly chronological, reflecting ‘layers’ of development—but not strictly so by any means. The Gospel of John certainly contains (separate) early/authentic historical traditions which are not found in the Synoptics. However, more often than not, the Fourth Gospel also shows the most evidence of extensive development, adaptation, and interpretation, of Gospel tradition. Indeed, this is a primary reason why it is usually regarded as the latest of the canonical Gospels—often dated around 90 A.D., in the form it has come down to us.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition

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This series, entitled Jesus and the Gospel Tradition, will be a feature on this site, running throughout the winter and spring up through the Lent/Easter season of 2019. A number of upcoming articles and daily notes will be devoted to this subject, which, in my view, is central to any proper study of the New Testament. Before proceeding, I would recommend that the reader consult my earlier article in which I discuss the meaning and use of the term “tradition“, as well as the expression “authentic tradition”. When specifically referring to “Gospel tradition”, this may be understood several ways:

  • Traditions related to Jesus which became part of the early Christian preaching and proclamation (kerygma) of what we call the Gospel—the “good news/message” of Christ.
  • Traditions which were combined and integrated to form a core Gospel narrative regarding the life and teachings of Jesus.
  • Traditions which came to be part of the written Gospels, as we have them.

When cited with capital letters—i.e., “Gospel Tradition”—it should be taken to mean that all three elements, or phenomena above, are included for consideration. An important aspect of this study, which I will especially be exploring in this series, is the development of the Gospel tradition. Contrary to the view, perhaps, of some traditional-conservative Christians in generations past, the four (canonical) Gospels as we know them did not come down out of heaven fully formed; rather, they are the product of a definite process of transmission and creative/artistic adaptation. Any serious view of the divine inspiration of the New Testament must take this into account. The three components of Gospel Tradition, listed above, hint at this developmental process; however, I would outline it even more precisely, here below, as follows:

  1. The words and actions of the historical Jesus and his contemporaries
  2. Jesus’ words/actions, etc, passed down (from eye/ear-witnesses) and transmitted orally among the first generation of Christians—i.e. early oral tradition
  3. Collected sayings of Jesus, and stories/episodes involving him, joined together thematically (catchword-bonding, etc) into somewhat larger traditional units—transmitted orally, but early on they began to be written down as well
  4. The first coherent and developed Gospel narratives and other related written texts. Many scholars would include the Gospel of Mark, as well as the so-called “Q” material, in this category (cf. below).
  5. The written Gospels—certainly Luke, Matthew, John, and perhaps others surviving (as fragments) from the 1st century. These larger, more complex works incorporate earlier existing source documents, as well as (perhaps) various developed oral traditions.

Admittedly, this sequence is largely theoretical, but there are many indications of it, I believe, preserved in the text of the Gospels as they have come down to us. Sometimes this requires a little detective work, but, as often as not, the process of development can be traced to some extent. What is unique about the New Testament—and the Gospels in particular—is how quickly this development took place, and how well documented it is, relatively speaking, for us today. If we consider the period of Jesus’ ministry as taking place during the few years around 30 A.D., the Gospels had all come to be written, more or less as we have them, by the end of the first century (c. 80-90 A.D., for the latest of them)—only a generation or two (30-60 years) after the events they record. The vast preserve of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament (including a fair number from the 3rd century), along with the many versions (in Latin, Syriac, et al), and scores of citations in the early Church Fathers (2nd-3rd centuries), allows the dedicated scholar the unusual opportunity of studying the Gospels at a level of detail unparalleled for texts from the ancient world.

If we were to consider the five layers above from a chronological standpoint, they would be, roughly speaking:

  • Layer 1: The actual words, etc, of Jesus and the historical events—c. 28-35? A.D.
  • Layer 2: Early oral tradition—the period c. 30-50 A.D.
  • Layer 3: Gospel tradition, collected sayings and narrative units—sometime before 50 A.D.?
  • Layer 4: The first developed Gospel narratives and written texts—c. 50-60 A.D.
  • Layer 5: The written Gospels as we have them—60-90 A.D.

Throughout this series, I will be looking at many examples—passages in the Gospels—where this development may be studied. Why is this important? One of the great failings of a strict traditional-conservative view of Scripture, in the case of the Gospels, is that it tends to treat Layer 1 as essentially identical with Layer 5, often ignoring (or even denying) the layers of development in between. But it can be demonstrated rather clearly, at hundreds of different points, that the Gospels evince various layers of adaptation and interpretation, by which the historical words and events (taken in their concrete, documentary sense) have been transformed into something far greater than a mere stenographic record. I would maintain that any approach which downplays or ignores the developmental (and creative/artistic) process, risks severely misunderstanding and misreading the Gospels. I hope to encourage students of Scriptures, along with all other interested believers, to look at the Gospel narratives in this light, with a fresh perspective, so as to explore more fully the depths of the truth and beauty which they possess.

I begin this study where the Gospels themselves begin, on the whole—with the account of the Baptism of Jesus. This episode, found in all four Gospels (and also in Acts), serves as an interesting and appropriate test case for our examination. This is particularly so since, as we shall see, the narrative of Jesus’ baptism preserves numerous historical details and associations which seem to have largely disappeared from Christian tradition during the first century. On the one hand, this confirms the fundamental historicity of the Gospel tradition(s); on the other, it makes it somewhat easier to distinguish between historical details and elements which possibly indicate an early Christian interpretation of them.

When referring to the four Gospels, in terms of the Gospel Tradition, scholars and commentators generally recognize three main strands: (1) the core Synoptic tradition, represented primarily by Mark; (2) the so-called “Q” material, common to Matthew and Luke; and (3) Johannine tradition, i.e., traditions preserved only in the Gospel of John.

As a method of study, I will be adopting the following approach whenever possible, examining in sequence:

  • The Synoptic tradition, as recorded in Mark
  • The “Q” material in Matthew-Luke
  • Details unique to Matthew
  • Details unique to Luke
  • Johannine tradition as developed in the Gospel of John

In preparing for the notes dealing with the Baptism of Jesus in the Gospel Tradition, I will be using the following outline, which, first, isolates three primary components of the Baptism narrative—

  1. The ministry of John
  2. The relationship between John and Jesus
  3. Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah), in comparison with John

and then, secondly, I will explore the place that the Baptism has in the structure of the Synoptic narrative—the two-part division, and the parallels between the Baptism and Transfiguration scenes.

The daily notes for this next week will follow the sequence indicated above, beginning with an examination of the ministry of John the Baptist (Mark 1:3-6 par).