Reading the Gospels Today
Stanley E. Porter, ed. Reading the Gospels Today. McMaster New Testament Studies. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2004. Paperback. xvii + 211 pp. ISBN 0-8028-0517-5.
Annual colloquia at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, have for the last several years produced excellent volumes on various important topics in New Testament theology under the editorship of Richard Longenecker. Now the torch for that task has passed to Stanley Porter, the president, dean and professor of New Testament at the Divinity College. This volume also differs in that it deals not with a prominent theme traced from Matthew two Revelation, but with critical and methodological questions surrounding the formation and interpretation of the Gospels.
The commendatory blurb on the back cover by Ramsey Michaels suggests that the volume should prove "a valuable supplementary text for beginning or advanced students of the Gospels in colleges and seminaries." This assessment may be a bit too congratulatory, inasmuch as the individual studies vary widely in value. Nevertheless, important topics are introduced and the scholarship is abreast of key, current issues.
After Porter's introductory survey of the offerings to come, Craig Evans explains why Synoptic source criticism, adopting Markan priority, remains important. This is one of the stronger contributions, reminding us that newest methods and/or conclusions are not always best. Numerous illustrations, complete with the parallel texts printed for us, demonstrate the interpretive and theological payoffs of this approach.
Porter reappears as author of the next essay, summarizing key portions of his detailed and very helpful JSNTSS volume on the criteria of authenticity in historical-Jesus research. In both works, he stresses the stylized and therefore misleading nature of historical overviews that parcel out scholarship into discrete quests, and he highlights the essentially biographical nature of the Gospels, at least when evaluated by the conventions of Jesus' world. He also points out the limitations of the standard criteria and suggests some new ones, particularly the use of Greek in the sayings of Jesus.
Michael Knowles highlights the orality and aurality of the Gospels by focusing on Matthew. But without giving us criteria or ancient parallels, as he himself admits, it is difficult to know how many of the various patterns and stylistic devices he discerns in the Gospel actually reflect the process of reading out loud and listening to the document or represent something Matthew intended for us to perceive in the first place.
By far the weakest contribution to this collection is the one with the title that initially promises so much: "Reading Mark 11:12-25 from a Korean Perspective," by Yong-Eui Yang. With so many interesting dimensions to the temple cleansing and withered fig tree accounts, one looks for interesting cultural insights that Westerners have lost sight of, in which Korean custom might still more closely parallel first-century Palestinian practices. Instead, we are given an overview of modern scholarship on this text, with the disclaimer that Korean Christians, being predominantly conservative evangelicals, will not necessarily accept more skeptical or critical conclusions but prefer to take the text at face value. Indeed, nothing in the chapter is distinctively Korean at all; the identical points could have been made by authors from numerous countries where Western liberalism has yet to become pervasive.
Allan Martens competently surveys the various dimensions of Luke's theology of salvation, highlighting how each fits the traditional assumption of a Gentile author writing predominantly for Gentiles in an age when a majority of Jews have rejected the gospel. But Martens does not interact with the minority perspectives that think that Luke himself may be a God-fearer, that his audience may be more Jewish than often imagined or that his theology is more pro-Israel and pro-Torah than most have thought. And Martens introduces the vexed question of whether Luke thinks the rejection of Israel is irrevocable merely to "punt" and express no opinion, because the issue "is not the main thrust of Luke" (p. 123).
The entry on the Fourth Gospel comes from Andrew Lincoln, another offering which is the outgrowth of a recent book (Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel). Lincoln puts some new spins on an old argument -- that one can reject large portions of the historicity of John while still accepting its theological truth -- but his only interaction with anyone who has argued for a more consistent correspondence between John's Gospel and what happened in Jesus ministry is to footnote my recent book (The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel) and remark that it is dependent on the view that the eyewitness author was John, son of Zebedee (though it is not) and that it is based on strained argumentation (without in any way indicating what he thinks this is)!
From essays on individual Gospels, the penultimate chapter turns to their collective origin, use and authority in early Christianity. Lee McDonald pens this chapter, coming on the heels of an entire book that he authored and a collection of essays that he edited on the canonicity of Scripture. Al Wolters closes the volume with the briefest contribution, arguing that Brevard Childs' version of canon criticism drives an illegitimate wedge between history and theology/authority. He might well have addressed the same critique to Lincoln's earlier chapter in this volume.
Thus, except for Yang, all of the authors presented much that was worthy of scholarly consideration. But if I were selecting supplementary readings for a course for theological students, even advanced ones, on the Gospels, only the chapters by Evans, Porter, and McDonald stand out as significant and representative enough to merit assigning. One can hope that further colloquia return to the pattern of the volumes edited by Longenecker, with a consistently high standard of quality among all the participants. Perhaps more advanced planning could help. I, in fact, was invited originally to produce the paper on John, but only six months in advance of the conference. I would have loved to participate but knew I could not produce something up to my own standards for myself in that period of time, especially without a summer vacation or sabbatical intervening, and with other writing contracts coming due. Now I wish I had tried anyway!