The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences

  • Richard Bauckham
  • Jan 1, 1998
  • Series: Volume 1 - 1998

Richard Bauckham, ed., The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1998. $22.00 paperback. 220 pp.

Every beginning student of the Gospels quickly learns that one of the major contributions of the last half-century of scholarship has been to focus on the distinctives of the communities to which each of the Gospels was addressed. Extensive academic energy has been expended to tell us about the sociological profiles, the theological emphases and the tradition-critical strata of these communities. Surely all of this study must be based on extensive hard data, right?

Bauckham and his colleagues suggest not. The entire theory is based largely on "mirror-reading"--that is finding the theological emphases of the individual Gospels and Acts, along the social strata of the characters that are highlighted in these documents. Then it is assumed that the churches to which each document was addressed were wrestling with the problems or composed of the same kind of people that are found in the writings sent to them. In fact, even that churches (rather than, say, individuals, or non-Christians, or a more general Christian "public") are primarily in view is largely assumed rather than demonstrated. This collection of essays insists that this whole branch of modern Gospel criticism is misguided and should be replaced with an approach that views all four Gospels as addressed very widely to most if not all Christians in their day and age.

The impetus for the volume came from a paper that Bauckham himself gave at a British SNTS meeting. It so impressed many of his listeners that the idea of an anthology of complementary perspectives emerged. Bauckham's paper, in revised form, appears as the lead essay in this volume. Much of this chapter simply highlights the paucity of actual evidence for the theory of the Gospels being addressed to specific and definable early Christian communities. Then Bauckham cites six specific reasons for not believing in this model: (1) the high level of mobility and communication in the first-century Roman world, which would facilitate rapid circulation of documents as valuable and significant as the Gospels; (2) the tightly knit community of Christians that transcended local churches; (3) the New Testament evidence that most of the early Christian leaders themselves moved around a lot; (4) the common ancient practice of sending letters from one church to another; (5) the evidence (from Papias, Ignatius, and the Shepherd of Hermas) of close contacts among churches in the early second century; and (6) the conflict and diversity in early Christianity based on an awareness of what was going on in different churches in different parts of the empire.

Michael Thompson writes the second chapter, cleverLy entitled, "The Holy Internet: Communication Between Churches in the First Christian Generation." He highlights the role of Jerusalem as a place of comings and goings, the importance of hospitality for itinerant Christians, and the nature of Christian community, and he then discusses questions of speed, volume and content, all to stress that on balance we should expect a relatively quick and widespread dissemination of the contents of early Christian documents such as the Gospels.

Loveday Alexander proceeds to study ancient book production and the circulation of the Gospels. The primary method of "publication" in the Roman empire was oral performance. But there also existed a commercial booktrade, though profits accrued only to booksellers and copyists, not authors or publishers. Compiling full, written texts of speeches was often discouraged, yet people did frequently take notes and go back to consult them. Few books were ever limited in scope to their dedicatees (e.g., Theophilus for Luke-Acts); instead we must envision them circulating along a network of like-minded individuals.

Next, Richard Burridge rehearses some of the material from his published thesis on the Gospels as Hellenistic biographies. But these works typically were intended for what we would call a niche market, still wider than one local Christian congregation but not indiscrimantly applicable or accessible to all first-century Christians.

Bauckham shifts gears somewhat with his second contribution to the volume, pointing out places in John where the author seems to assume knowledge on the part of his audience of details from the Gospel of Mark. This is different from the older, now widely rejected hypothesis that John actually used the written form of Mark (or even Matthew and Luke, too). John 3:24, for example, seems to presuppose knowledge of the Baptist's imprisonment and perhaps even death (as described in Mark), even though the Fourth Gospel nowhere narrates these events. John 11:1-2 seems to presuppose prior knowledge of Mary's anointing of Jesus (also included in Mark), even though John will not narrate this event until 12:1-8. Several other incidental comparisons of this nature convince Bauckham that while John's narrative does not require a knowledge of Mark for general understanding, he does seem to presuppose that many will know of at least some of its contents (and not just the main dozen or so highlights of the kerygma which would have been required simply to bring anyone to faith in Jesus). But all this means that Mark was known outside merely one community to which it was first written.

Stephen Barton and Francis Watson conclude the volume with reflections, respectively, on the difficulty of sociological analysis of the putative early Christian churches/audiences of the Gospels and the theological pitfalls of a characteristically liberal "audience criticism" that substitutes a kind of allegorical exegesis (again a "mirror reading") for a more literal interpretation of the text (i.e., these things are narrated because they happened and are significant not because we can determine the nature of the Gospels' audience from them).

Several of Bauckham's collaborators have appropriately nuanced his more sweeping pronouncements at the beginning of the volume. Thus it would still seem to be appropriate to think of Matthew addressing primarily Jewish Christians fresh from and still scarred by rejection from the synagogue, even if Matthew was not limiting his audience to one specific church (say, in Antioch). Similarly, we may still speak of Luke's concern to address an increasingly large stratum of middle- or even upper-class Christians about their need to be concerned for the poor, even if his audience is more empire-wide than local. The concept of a niche market is helpful. What this book largely lacks is a discussion of how much weight we should put on the early external evidence from the Church Fathers of the second-century onward in reconstructing the circumstances surrounding the formation of each Gospel. While their evidence is not abundant, it might support the idea of distinct communities (e.g., Mark's connection with Rome and John's with Ephesus) a little more than this volume acknowledges. But as a convincing critique of the more unbridled modern fascination for reconstructing detailed hypotheses from a miniscule amount of data (or from data that may not have been intended to be used as the more liberal redaction critics have tended to employ it), this book succeeds admirably.

Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary

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