The Earliest Gospel
by Frederick C. Grant


How is it possible at a time like the present, when the whole world is at war, to sit down calmly and consider such a subject as the Earliest Gospel, to study the evangelic tradition at the stage in which it first took literary form, to discuss such fine points as the emergence of a particular theology in early Christianity or the transition from primitive Christian messianism to the normative doctrine of later creeds, confessions, hymns, and prayers? Would it not be better to consider the more fundamental question of the relevance of Christian faith in general to the world we live in, and the practicability of the Christian ethic in a society which has never wholeheartedly accepted Christianity and now threatens to renounce even its moderate and partial adherence to Christian principles? The answer to these questions involves an examination of the whole problem of the relation of the Gospels to modern civilization, and I beg leave to refer the reader to an article on this subject recently published in Religion in Life ("The Gospels and Civilization," 12:231-37). It is not a final statement, but it attempts to open up the subject and to suggest some of the considerations which are relevant to the final answer.

All Christians ought to be concerned over this question, for the whole Christian church is involved in the solution of the problem it presents. And if, as I believe, a major factor is our answer to the further question, "What essentially is the gospel?" then the subject of this book is also relevant.

Most of us would no doubt say that the gospel is, first of all, Jesus’ own proclamation of the Kingdom of God, the terms of admission into it and the conditions of its coming; and then that it is, in the second place, the apostolic proclamation of this message of salvation, with the added emphasis and fresh meaning given to it by the resurrection of Jesus and the continuing work of the holy Spirit in the church. But if we are Christians who take scripture seriously we will recognize that right at this point we have a task of understanding and interpretation. How was the new apostolic formulation of the message of salvation related to the message of Jesus? If, as some persons maintain, Christianity was a total transformation of the message of Jesus -- a doctrine about Jesus rather than Jesus’ own teaching -- then it is of paramount importance to see how and why this transformation took place, or rather, first of all, whether the theory of transformation is true. If, moreover, as Professor Dodd and others affirm, Jesus taught that the Kingdom had already come ("realized eschatology"), then the steps taken by the apostolic church were short and few: the apostles proclaimed only the further signs and proofs of the arrival of the Kingdom, and warned men to prepare for the final judgment and resurrection that was to usher in the full, universal manifestation of the Reign of God. (I have attempted to examine this view in an earlier article, "‘Realized’ Eschatology," Christendom, 6:82-95. See also C.T. Craig, Journal of Biblical Literature, 56:17-26; K. W. Clark, ibid., 59: 367-83.) But if, on the other hand, Jesus thought of the Kingdom as still future, and the apostles continued to hold this view, then their proclamation of the Resurrection and of the approaching Parousia had a somewhat different orientation.

The truth lies, I believe, between the two extremes. The coming of the Kingdom was viewed, not as a sudden, momentary incident in world history, but as a process. I do not mean that the New Testament represents it as a long historical process, spread over the length and breadth of future ages; prophecy always "foreshortens the future." But it was a process, not a single event; and the process had already begun -- its full realization was inevitable and only a matter of time, however long or short the interval before the full consummation. Men were already living in the "last days"; the end of the ages had come upon their generation. This central outlook of all New Testament theology is, I believe, characteristic of both the teaching of Jesus and that of the apostolic church. And it is in the light of this central conviction that the whole development of primitive Christology -- the basic, unique doctrine of Christianity as distinct from earlier Judaism -- must be studied.

It is not enough to say that Jesus, or the apostles, took over the whole framework of apocalyptic eschatology, and that Jesus thought of himself as the "Son of Man" described in the Book of Enoch, or that he claimed in so many words to be the Jewish Messiah but gave the concept a different meaning or content than any current Jewish interpretation gave to it. For it is all too clear that at least some phases of the Christian interpretation reflect later Christian experience and speculation rather than the teaching of Jesus himself. What needs to be shown is not a mere filiation of concepts or the use of words, but the religious value men found in the concepts, the religious meaning they undertook to set forth in the words. For the religious and ethical significance of the Christian faith -- and that is its relevance today, as it was in apostolic days -- is something more than even the highest categories of apocalyptic speculation could set forth. Men used these terms in describing Jesus only because they were the highest categories then available, though in the end they proved inadequate and the church eventually either left them behind or totally transformed them; what is everlastingly important is not the fact that these terms were once used, but the motive that led to their use -- for that motive is still alive at the heart of all Christian faith and endeavor.

Moreover, the problem of primitive Christianity is not to account for early Christian messianism -- for there was enough of that element in ancient Judaism, after the second century before Christ -- but to explain why Christianity survived when other messianic movements came to nothing and disappeared. What was different and distinctive about it? Was it its social emphasis? Its religious quality? Its ethics? It is not the apocalyptic messianism of the early church that needs to be explained; it is something deeper, what we may call the motivation in the use of this scheme of thought, something that not only outlasted messianism but helps to explain its use in the first place.

It is thoroughly relevant, then, to discuss the questions that are asked about the early Christian tradition: How did it originate? What was its earliest form? Was the gospel tradition influenced by a theological view later than Jesus? Were the Gospels -- even the earliest of them, the Gospel of Mark -- originally Aramaic writings, later translated into Greek? Can the gospel tradition be localized, as originating in Galilee or in Jerusalem? If so, did this affect the form of its transmission, with more emphasis upon some interests in one place, and upon others elsewhere? Was the Earliest Gospel influenced by Paul? Was it anti-Semitic in outlook? Was there anything about it that might be described as "social" in outlook, or was it purely individual? And does this affect our view of Jesus’ own teaching? All these questions are relevant, today as at other times, and some of them are more relevant today than ever before.

The present volume is really a collection of studies, and it might easily have grown to twice its size if other topics had been included: for example the miracle stories -- I should have liked to examine Alan Richardson’s new book on The Miracle-Stories of the Gospels (1942) -- or a fuller study of the so-called messianic consciousness of Jesus, the theory of interim ethics, the relation of eschatology and ethics in Jesus’ teachings -- see Professor Amos N. Wilder’s book on the subject, Eschatology and Ethics in the Teaching of Jesus (1939) -- the influence of the Old Testament upon the earliest interpretation of the life of Jesus -- see Professor David E. Adams’ new book, Man of God (1941), and Professor E. W. K. Mould’s The World-View of Jesus (1941) -- or sonic of the topics treated in the new volume of essays presented to Professor William Jackson Lowstuter, New Testament Studies (1942), edited by Professor Edwin Prince Booth. But no one book can cover everything, and perhaps the writer will readily be excused if he, a single author, does not try to say everything that is to be said on any one subject, or even everything that is in his own mind!

In general, the point of view of this volume is the same as that taken in my book The Growth of the Gospels (1933). A certain amount of repetition is unavoidable in discussing a variety of themes, especially in view of the limited data contained in the New Testament and the necessity of using the same data, and the inferences we may draw from them, in different combinations for different purposes. Moreover, as all teachers know, it is sometimes necessary to repeat, and often to underscore the obvious, if only to make clear the steps really involved in an argument. Assumptions of agreement upon unstated or undefined factors are often fatal; the risk of repetition is a less serious danger -- only the author will be blamed, while the argument, let us hope, will receive a more adequate consideration!