The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ
Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ. London: SCM; Harrisburg: Trinity, 2000. xii + 354 pp. $ . ISBN #0-334-02759-4.
Martin Hengel, emeritus professor of New Testament and early Judaism in the University of Tubingen, Germany, may just be the most learned New Testament scholar alive in the world today. He is surely among a very small handful of the most important. While not a “card-carrying evangelical,” Hengel has done more to restore the credibility and authority of the Scriptures than any other contemporary German university professor; in that rampantly liberal scene he is a staunch conservative and unparalleled master of the ancient languages and sources necessary for studying the New Testament literature and world.
In that vein, this volume examines in meticulous detail the external evidence from antiquity for the formation of the fourfold canon of the Gospels. Eschewing the often very speculative theories erected on the internal evidence, Hengel focuses on the hard data and the conclusions that can be logically drawn from them. From the fact that Scripture gives us four overlapping yet distinct Gospels, two large questions emerge: How did the message that early Christians preached as good news (the “lgospel”) come to employ that same term for the narrative, biographical, written reports about Jesus' life (the “Gospels”), and how is it that we have those reports in four diverse forms—that is how did these Gospels come into existence?
The majority of the volume takes up this second question. Hengel mounts a robust defense of the general trustworthiness of the early Church Fathers' testimony to the origins of the Gospels. Stronger cases can be made for Matthew, Mark and Luke as the actual authors of the first three Gospels than much modern scholarship allows, not least because of their unlikely nature as objects of fictitious attribution. Mark's indebtedness to Peter is real, which accounts for Matthew's interest in Mark's work as well. The testimony of Papias concerning Matthew cannot be fully explained given the current state of scholarship, but it is not impossible that a Hebrew precursor of Jesus' sayings, not unlike hypothetical “Q,” could have predated both Mark and canonical Matthew. As in his The Johannine Question, Hengel thinks John is Papias' “presbyter” and a disciple of the apostle John. As in his Studies in the Gospel of Mark, the titles that appear on all the extant documents should be taken seriously. It is not impossible that Mark himself (or someone very early in the history of transmission) devised the title “The Gospel according to . . .” which the subsequent Evangelists may well have consciously imitated. The practices of ancient libraries, including those belonging to religious communities (like Christianity in Rome), will have required that the Gospels be “catalogued”—that is, grouped together with other volumes of a similar genre—and “history” and “biography” are the closest ancient equivalents (not, e.g., fictitious romances). Above all, absolutely no comparative evidence from antiquity supports the common supposition that the Gospels (or any other works) were created by anonymous communities.
Endorsing the work of Bauckham's The Gospels for All Christians, Hengel thinks that we should not try to reconstruct highly specific individual Christian churches, or collections of churches, to which the Gospels were addressed. They would have been disseminated widely and quickly, and soon established themselves in the liturgical tradition, taken over from Judaism, of weekly Scripture reading during worship services. Hengel does believe the internal evidence points to a date of 69-70 for Mark, 75-85 for Luke and 90-100 for Matthew. But he pours scorn on those who would claim to have evidence for any of the apocrypha predating the second century or presenting more than a tiny handful of details that could be both authentic and independent of the canonical Gospels.
Less than one quarter of the book then addresses the question of the shift in meaning of euangelion. High Christology at a very early (i.e., pre-Pauline) period of early Christianity proved decisive. One cannot understand the doctrinal preaching of the earliest stages of the Christian faith of Jesus' announcement of good news without narrating and explicating in some detail the accounts of what he did and said. Parallels between the saving events of God in the Exodus and in Jesus paved the way for the Gospel narratives to be treated with the same respect historically attached to Torah. Despite the numerous differences among the Gospels, their unity with respect to the central saving significance of Jesus remains impressive.
A final chapter functions somewhat like an appendix, examining in some detail the evidence for Q. Hengel correctly points out the slim basis for all of the massive hypotheses of recent Q scholarship that go well beyond the mere case for its existence. While not denying that several written sources may have influenced both Matthew and Luke for various portions of their shared, non-Markan material, Hengel also thinks that a stronger case can be built for Lukan dependence on Matthew than is normally recognized.
As is typical in Hengel's works, approximately one-third of the volume is given over to end-notes. Many of these are content notes which repay as careful reading as does his text. Especially helpful are his references to and brief summaries of numerous volumes in the WUNT series which he edits, with J. C. B. Mohr/Paul Siebeck in Tubingen, many of which are available only in German, and many of which add to the conservative swing of the pendulum in the kind of painstaking research Hengel embodies.
Hengel does believe that the Gospels contradict each other in incidental details, but he does not allow this conviction to overshadow his conclusions about their overall value and authority. It is actually impressive, he stresses, in light of these differences, that the early church never succumbed to canonizing a harmony like Tatian's Diatessaron instead. It is not clear that the internal evidence of the Gospels points to dates quite as late as Hengel suggests for the various Synoptics, though again little of significance for the authority and credibility of that evidence hinges on Hengel's dating. His attempt to defend Luke's use of Matthew is perhaps least persuasive of all, but neither do any of his central theses depend on this “afterthought.” Overall the volume is one that all who are interested in Gospel origins must take into account. Certainly the most radical tenets of the Jesus Seminar on this topic appear even more indefensible in the light of Hengel's work than they already did.