Chapter 4: The Study of the Gospels

An Introduction to the New Testament
by Richard Heard

Chapter 4: The Study of the Gospels

The gospels are for Christians of great value and authority, but they have not the supreme importance of Jesus himself. The critical study of the gospels can be justified only by its aim of obtaining a truer picture of Jesus and his teaching than that given by the gospels in their present form. To the superficial reader the gospels appear to furnish a uniformly consistent representation of Jesus’ life and message, but closer examination reveals that there are in fact serious inconsistencies in the accounts both of what Jesus did and said. To account for these inconsistencies involves the most detailed and painstaking study of the circumstances in which the gospels came to be written and of the value that is to be attached to the material which they contain.

Of the problems which confront the student of the gospels two are of overriding importance. The first is that of the apostolicity of the gospels. In the light of recent criticism it is no longer possible to accept the Matthaean authorship of the first gospel in its present form, and both the Marcan authorship of the second gospel and the Johannine authorship of the fourth gospel are matters of dispute. Yet, if the traditional authorship of these gospels is abandoned, the authority of the gospels is in some ways shaken. An apostle may well have made mistakes in his recollection of Jesus’ words and actions, and his own interpretation of Jesus’ teaching may not always have been faithful to Jesus’ intention, but he is unlikely to have distorted Jesus’ teaching outside certain narrow limits and we can confidently assume that he would not deliberately have falsified his reports of what Jesus had done. On the other hand an anonymous tradition that cannot be checked by the witness of an apostle such as Peter, Matthew, or John, may not be trusted to have preserved the memory of Jesus’ words and actions without serious distortion. The problem of apostolicity is, therefore, a serious one for the historical value of the gospels.

The second problem is that of Jesus’ own consistency. He is represented in the gospels as teaching in very different ways. In the fourth gospel he proclaims his Sonship of God openly from the beginning of his ministry, speaks of his Kingdom almost always in spiritual terms, makes discipleship dependent on the use of sacraments not yet established, and promises the coming of the Holy Spirit. In Mark, Jesus reveals his Messiahship only towards the end of his ministry, speaks of his Kingdom now as present and now as future, uses apocalyptic language, says little of the Spirit and nothing of baptism. Even when allowance has been made for the distortion of Jesus’ teaching by the evangelists the evidence permits of more than one interpretation of Jesus’ teaching, and there is a final residue of inconsistency which may be attributed either to Jesus or to Christian tradition. The question is of particular importance in relation to the place of apocalyptic in Jesus’ message side by side with so much that is of a purely spiritual nature.

Answers are suggested to both these questions in the pages that follow, but no claim is made that different answers are not possible. The reader must ultimately make his own decisions in the consciousness that his answers will determine his understanding of the Jesus of history.

Books for Reading:

Of the many good commentaries available on the gospels, the following are some of the most useful for those who do not know Greek:

Mark: A. W. F. Blunt (Clarendon Bible). Brief but good.

A. E. J. Rawlinson (Westminster). More advanced.

Matthew: B. T. D. Smith (Cambridge Bible), A small but important work.

T. H. Robinson (Moffatt).

Luke: H. Balmforth (Clarendon Bible).

W. Manson (Moffatt).

John: R. H. Strachan (S.C.M.).

G. H. C. MacGregor (Moffatt).

SIR E. C. Hoskyns (Faber).

The Four Gospels: Major, Manson and Wright. The Mission,

Message and Teaching Of Jesus (Nicholson and Watson).

This is a very valuable book, if only for its arrangement of the gospel material, with a running commentary, by sources. Part of this book has been re-issued as T. W. MANSON. The Sayings of Jesus.

On the problems of literary and form criticism:

V. Taylor. The Gospels (Epworth Press). An excellent short introduction to the study of the gospels.

E. B. Repligh. A Student’s Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels (Longmans) .

V. Taylor. The Formation of the Gospel Tradition (Macmillan). A more detailed examination of the methods of Form criticism.

M. Dibelius. From Tradition to Gospel (Nicholson and Watson).

The English translation of one of the original German expositions of the methods of Form criticism.

B. H. Streeter. The Four Gospels (Macmillan) Parts II and III. A detailed study of the problems of authorship and of Source-criticism.

W. F. Howard. The Fourth Gospel in Recent Criticism and Interpretation (Epworth Press). A survey of recent critical work on John.

R. H. Lightfoot. History and Interpretation in the Gospels (Hodder and Stoughton). This work applies the methods of Form criticism to the gospels.

On the Life and Teaching of Jesus:

M. GOGUEL. The Life of Jesus (Allen and I Jnwin).

G. DUNCAN. Jesus, Son of Man (Nisbet).

C. H. DODD. The Parab1es of the Kingdom (Nisbet).

C. H. DODD. History and the Gospel (Nisbet).

J. MOPFATT The Theology of the Gospels (Duckworth).

V. TAYLOR. Jesus and His Sacrifice (Macmillan).

W. MANSON. Jesus the Messiah (Hodder and Stoughton).

A. E. J. RAWLINSON. Christ in the Gospels (Oxford)