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Gospels

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.

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).