Thursday, January 2, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Gospels for All Christians

Richard Bauckham, ed.  The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences.  Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1998.

For whom were the Gospels written?  The idea that I have frequently encountered in academia, starting with my undergraduate Intro to New Testament class over a decade ago, was that the Gospels were written for specific communities, in specific locations.  Mark’s Gospel was supposedly written in Rome for Christians in that area, whereas Matthew’s Gospel was written in Antioch, Syria for the Jewish Christian community in that region.  Even my church’s Bible study curriculum apparently presumes that the Gospels were written within and for specific communities.  My church recently went through a curriculum about John’s Gospel, and the host on the DVD said that John wrote his Gospel in Ephesus, and that he was addressing the concerns of Christians in Ephesus.  For example, the cult of Dionysus was big in Ephesus, so John’s Gospel depicts Jesus turning water into wine, the sort of thing that Dionysus did.

I had assumed that the Gospels were written within and for specific communities, until I read about The Gospels for All Christians on Nick Norelli’s blog.  I figured that I should acquaint myself with recent developments in New Testament scholarship, and I was fortunate to find the book at a good price.  The Gospels for All Christians essentially challenges the idea that the Gospels were written to and for specific Christian communities, arguing instead that they were originally intended for a more general, widespread audience of believers, and perhaps even non-believers.  The book contains contributions from Richard Bauckham, Michael B. Thompson, Loveday Alexander, Richard A. Burridge, , Stephen C. Barton, and Francis Watson.

The book contends that there is no evidence that the Gospels were written for specific communities, and that the likelihood is that they were not.  Bauckham argues that it was unlikely in the ancient world that a person would write a Gospel for a community that was located in the very place where he was writing the Gospel.  Paul wrote letters to Christian communities, but he did so from outside of those communities’ locations.  For Bauckham and other contributors to the book, the fact that the Gospels were written down indicates that they were intended to have a broader circulation beyond any specific local communities.  A person would probably not have written a Gospel for a Christian community in his own area, the logic runs, for, in that case, he would have continued to rely on oral tradition and performance, making writing the Gospels unnecessary.

I am not entirely convinced that Bauckham and company disprove that the Gospels could have been written within and for specific communities: after all, did not the Qumran community produce written literature for its own community?  Moreover, there could have been reasons that the Gospels were written down that had nothing to do with giving them broader circulation, such as a desire to preserve Jesus’ life and teachings for posterity because the disciples were dying off, and Christ was not returning anytime soon.  (I draw here from what the book Reinventing Jesus says is the view of many scholars as to why the Gospels were written down.)

I also wish that The Gospels for All Christians had offered more alternative explanations for features of the Gospels that many scholars attribute to their composition for specific communities.  On some level, the book did so by arguing that some of the problems that the Gospels address were not restricted to local communities but had a more widespread existence: John and Matthew are about Christians’ problems with mainstream Jewish communities, and this issue was not limited to one or two communities but was present throughout the Diaspora.  But I was hoping that the book would get more specific.  For example, there are scholars who argue that Matthew was writing for a wealthier community than Mark was, and thus Matthew’s Jesus assumes that his disciples have more money than Mark’s Jesus assumes for his disciples.  How would Bauckham and company address such phenomena?  They say things that indicate that they are aware of such issues, but how would they account for them, within their model of the Gospels being written for a general audience?

Although I am not yet sold on the book’s thesis, I think that it does well to question scholarly consensus, and to ask if that consensus truly has a firm foundation.  The book is also a repository of information about ancient routes, why and for whom books were written and produced in ancient times, genres, and trends within New Testament scholarship that focus on communities.  Bauckham’s chapter that argues that the Gospel of John was written on the assumption that its readers were familiar with Mark’s Gospel is also worth the read.  Whether or not the Gospels were originally written for a broader audience, they did come to have a broader audience, and so (in my opinion) it is reasonable to maintain that John’s Gospel was written to people who had access to Mark’s Gospel.

I also commend the book’s clear prose.

Good book.

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