Volume 10 - Issue 3

Gospel studies from Tübingen

By David Wenham

Exciting things have been happening in Tübingen. Last year in Themelios I reviewed and warmly commended a book on Jesus as teacher, written by Rainer Riesner, a lecturer in Tübingen University.1 Now a further book on the gospels, which is also of considerable significance, has come from the same Tübingen publisher. This time it is a symposium edited by Professor Peter Stuhlmacher, and it contains the papers presented at an international conference held in Tübingen in 1982. The book is entitled Das Evangelium und die Evangelien(The Gospel and the Gospels),2 and its sixteen essays—written by an international team of authors in German and English—look at a wide range of subjects.

The exciting thing about the symposium is that it shows that the radically sceptical approach to the gospels, represented by Rudolf Bultmann and other form and redaction critics, has by no means won the day in New Testament scholarship inside or outside Germany. Indeed some of the most important New Testament scholars of our day have contributed to this symposium, and almost with one accord they believe that the evangelists were concerned to preserve a reliable account of Jesus’ life and teaching.

Perhaps the most fascinating article is one in German by the famous Swedish scholar Birger Gerhardsson on ‘The Way of the Gospel Tradition’. He starts with the observation that the gospel stories of Jesus are used very little in the New Testament outside the gospels. This cannot be because they were unknown or not widely known (despite some critics’ views); it must be because the stories of Jesus were passed on from the very beginning as a distinct and special tradition. Gerhardsson suggests that this tradition was transmitted in three contexts: at the church’s celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, in the catechesis of church members, and also in the context of what we would call Bible study. Gerhardsson believes that the earliest Christians, who saw Jesus as supremely great and who knew that he was a teacher, will certainly have been concerned to study his teaching and to pass it on; the twelve had a special role in this process. (He defends the thesis of his book Memory and Manuscript against its critics, explaining that he never intended to suggest that Jesus operated just like the Jewish rabbis.) Gerhardsson criticizes the form critical approach to the gospels on many counts, as do other contributors to the volume. For example, he is doubtful about how much one can deduce about the history of traditions from their form: the form of the gospel stories may tell us as much about the literary influences on the evangelists—they used familiar forms from the Old Testament and elsewhere—as about the situation and needs of the evangelists’ churches. And the idea that ‘pure’ forms are older than ‘mixed’ forms is unpersuasive.

Another particularly interesting article is by Rudolf Pesch on Mark 14:12–26. Pesch is the author of a massive two-volume commentary in German on Mark’s gospel (in the Meyer series), and is one of the leading Catholic New Testament scholars in Germany. In his article he defends his controversial thesis that behind Mark chapters 8–16 there is a substantial pre-Markan passion narrative that was formulated in the Jerusalem church as early as AD 37. He takes Mark 14:12–26 as a test case: he argues that the Markan Last Supper narrative is the oldest form we have (older than Paul’s form in 1 Cor. 11), that the institution narrative is not separable from its context in Mark, and that the context (including Jesus’ secretive instructions to the disciples about finding the upper room) is historical reminiscence, not theological construction. Other scholars have found Pesch’s relatively conservative views incredible; he argues vigorously that his case has not been answered and suggests that his critics are too much in the grip of the radical form critical consensus.

Martin Hengel’s article on problems in Mark begins by describing Mark as a gospel in conflict, and he reminds us that Pesch’s view of Mark is not the only scholarly view on offer: at the other end of the German scholarly spectrum W. Schmithals sees Mark as little more than a historical novel with a minimal basis in tradition. The fact that scholarly opinion can diverge so widely is a reminder to treat the overconfident assertions of many scholars with caution. Hengel goes on to look at form and redaction criticism, noting how the new critical orthodoxy sees the gospels, including Mark, as theology rather than history, and how the critics look for subtle theological meanings in the same sort of way as the ancient allegorists looked for deeper meanings in Scripture. Hengel objects to this trend, and asserts that Mark’s readers would (rightly) have seen Mark’s gospel as historical biography, a category of literature with which they were familiar. Mark was indeed a dramatist and a theologian—bringing out, for example, the reality of sin and the centrality of the cross—but he was also a respectable historian by ancient standards. Mark did not need to dehistoricize the tradition in order to address people: the good news is precisely that history and address come together. Hengel has a useful consideration of the Messianic secret motif in Mark, siding with those who believe that the different ingredients that make up the so-called Messianic secret in Mark are to be differently explained and that they are not a theological construct: thus the demons must be silenced as Jesus’ enemies; Jesus does not wish to be a popular wonder-worker, and so seeks to keep his miracles quiet; Mark’s portrayal of the disciples’ failure to understand Jesus is a reflection of the evangelist’s honest anthropology. Hengel believes that Jesus did see himself as Messiah, but that he chose to present his claims indirectly. Hengel argues in favour of the early church tradition that the gospel was written by Mark, who was associated with Peter.

The articles so far described are all in German. The article on Luke in the volume is by Howard Marshall and is in English. In it he considers the purpose of Luke-Acts, helpfully alerting us to the fact that an author may have a variety of aims: a main conscious aim, subsidiary aims and even unconscious aims. He insists that in identifying Luke’s aims we must take Luke-Acts together; he argues that, when Luke in his prologue speaks of others having written an account and then of his own decision to write, he does not mean to imply that the other accounts are unreliable, but only that he intends to write a fuller account, including the story of the church, which he has ‘followed closely’, indeed participated in. Marshall reviews various concerns of Luke—for example, his Jew-Gentile interest, his interest in showing how the story of Jesus led into and was continued in the church, etc.—but he finally sums up Luke’s overall aim thus: ‘It is to show “how we got here” in the sense of giving an account of Christian origins which will demonstrate how salvation was brought to the world by Jesus and the apostolic witnesses who testified to Jesus. The effect of reading this account will be to give assurance to people such as Theophilus that what they had been taught catechetically was sound and reliable.’ As for Luke’s motivation in writing, this may have been quite simply to document and fill out Theophilus’ knowledge of the gospel which he had heard and learned. Luke is indeed concerned with theology, and he has shaped his gospel accordingly; but this point should not be exaggerated: Luke is concerned to express his theology through an accurate historical account of what happened. Marshall comments that ‘In general a writer whose declared aim is reliability is more likely to achieve it than one who has no concern for it, or is deliberately writing a fictitious or semi-fictitious narrative.’

Other essays in English in the volume include a useful survey of gospel criticism by Earle Ellis, in which he brings together many significant observations, noting for example, about source criticism, the fragility of the ‘Q’ hypothesis, and about form and redaction criticism, the anti-supernatural prejudice of the Bultmannian school and the dubious usefulness of the criteria of authenticity. He, like other contributors to the volume, considers that the burden of proof is on those who deny the authenticity of the gospel traditions rather than on those who affirm it. He has less support from other contributors in arguing that the words of Christian prophets, speaking in the name of Jesus, have sometimes been incorporated in the gospels. Robert Guelich’s article is a look at ‘The Gospel Genre’, and usefully summarizes attempts to find analogies to the gospels in Jewish and Hellenistic literature. Guelich finds no close analogies, and believes that it was Mark who developed the gospel genre out of the sort of preaching ‘form’ that we find in Acts 10:34–43. Graham Stanton, writing on ‘Matthew as a Creative Interpreter of the Sayings of Jesus’, argues that Matthew did ‘create’ gospel material, but only to elucidate and apply the traditions he received. I suspect that Matthew is even more conservative than Stanton suggests. James Dunn invites us to ‘Let John be John’, arguing that the author of John’s gospel had access to and an interest in tradition, but that he developed that tradition in his own way to express his particular ascending-descending Christology and in interaction with late first Judaism. He rejects the more conservative views of John of scholars such as John Robinson and D. A. Carson.

In addition to the articles already mentioned, there are essays in German by O. Betz on Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom, in which he finds significant theological unity in Matthew, Mark and Luke; by Athanasius Polag on the theology of Q; by R. Feldmeier on the portrayal of Peter in the synoptic gospels; by L. Abramowski on Justin’s ‘reminiscences of the apostles’; by Otfried Hofius on ‘Unknown Words of Jesus’ (he finds very few dominical words outside the gospels); and by A. Dihle on Greek biography. Finally, there are two significant essays by the editor, Peter Stuhlmacher: in his article on ‘The Pauline Gospel’ he argues that there was a split between Paul and the Jerusalem church after Paul’s clash with Peter at Antioch (Gal. 2:11–14), which explains Paul’s resolutely independent stance. This controversial view may perhaps seem reminiscent of old-style Tübingen views, but Stuhlmacher goes on to argue that Paul was very much at one with the Jerusalem church in his theology and that various aspects of his teaching, for example on the atonement, were derived from the tradition of the Jerusalem church. In his essay introducing the whole volume Stuhlmacher ranges over a great many issues: like others of the authors he rejects the sceptical form critical view of the synoptic gospels, and argues that we should approach the gospels with critical sympathy, not mistrust: the gospel tradition was under the control of eye-witnesses, and the church was conscious of the need to resist false prophets. He sees John’s gospel as a much more theological and less historical gospel, though he admits that the Johannine question is one needing more study. (We may look forward to the publication of John Robinson’s 1984 Bampton Lectures for further light on John.) Stuhlmacher also looks at Paul’s evidence and at the question of the origin of the ‘gospel’ form, a question addressed by several authors.

Enough has been said to show the interest of this new book and to justify devoting much of this editorial to it, though that may also be justified by the likely inaccessibility of the book to many people because of its price—let us hope for a paperback edition!—and because of its use of two languages. The articles are not the last word on the subjects they discuss: that is made clear by the useful discussion-summaries that follow the articles and explain how the conference reacted to the arguments presented; conservative readers will feel that the authors have not gone far enough in questioning common critical views. But, if the book does reflect a new trend in gospel studies in Germany and around the world—if it reflects a return among critical scholars to an appreciation of the gospels as records of Jesus’ life (not primarily as reflections of church theology) and a return to an appreciation of the evangelists as historians concerned to preserve, not to create, tradition—then it is much more significant than the average symposium. If gospel scholars can escape the domination of sceptical approaches and rationalistic doubt, then they will still have many questions to answer and wrestle with but they are more likely to understand the gospels correctly and so to enable the church to proclaim the good news of Jesus effectively.

Another significant study of the gospels coming from Tübingen is Seyoon Kim’s “The Son of Man” ’ as the Son of God.3 Dr Kim is a Korean scholar who has already put students of the New Testament greatly in his debt by his stimulating book on The Origin of Paul’s Gospel,4 in which he shows the decisive importance of Paul’s Damascus Road experience for his theological thinking. In this new book Kim turns to Christology, summarizing research done by him at Tübingen. Studies of New Testament Christology very often examine the different titles ascribed to Jesus in the gospels, such as ‘Son of man’, ‘Messiah’, etc., without offering a coherent explanation of how the different titles and other aspects of Jesus’ person and work relate to each other (if they do at all). Kim, however, proposes an integrated approach to gospel Christology. His thesis is summed up in his conclusion: ‘With “the ‘Son of Man’ ”, Jesus intended discreetly to reveal himself as the Son of God who creates the new people of God (the children of God) at the eschaton, so that they may call God the Creator “our Father” and live in his love and wealth’ (p. 99).

The key text for his study is Daniel 7. He argues that at the time of Jesus it was quite possible to interpret the ‘one like a son of man’ in Daniel 7:13 as the Son of God (a divine, more than human, figure, cf. Ezk. 1:26), as the Messiah and as the embodiment of God’s people (the saints of the most high), and to take the vision of Daniel 7:13ff. as descriptive of the elevation of God’s people as embodied in their head, the Son of man, to divine sonship and kingly rule. He believes that this is how Jesus saw his ministry. And Jesus linked the representative Son of man figure of Daniel 7 with the representative Servant figure of Isaiah 40–55, seeing himself as bringing God’s people to ‘sonship’—or, to put it differently, as bringing God’s new covenant and kingdom—through his death as suffering servant on their behalf.

Kim reaches his conclusion through a highly compressed and often technical study of New Testament texts and of relevant Jewish texts (a study sprinkled with quotations in Hebrew, Greek and German). Some of his argument is, confessedly, rather speculative, but much of it is valuable. For example, he effectively criticizes H. E. Tödt’s view that only the future Son of man sayings go back to Jesus. He agrees with C. F. D. Moule that the article in the expression ‘the Son of man’ is significant, being intended to allude to Daniel 7. The title expressed what Jesus wanted to say of himself; it also had a measure of ambiguity about it, and no misleading messianic overtones. Kim has a useful discussion of Mark 10:45, seeing it as a genuine saying of Jesus (and as expressing ideas taken from Is. 43:3f. and Is. 53), and argues rather controversially that it originally belonged in the context of the Last Supper (cf. Lk. 22:27ff). He links John 13 and the ‘new commandment’ with the synoptic account of the Last Supper and the ‘new covenant’.

Kim’s book is only a brief interim research report; and the author plans a major study of Jesus as Son of man. No doubt this will deal with other recent discussions of the Son of man usage (such as that of B. Lindars, which differs radically from Kim’s). If this present book is anything to go by, we have something very good and important to look forward to.

1 Jesus als Lehrer (Tübingen: J.C. B. Mohr, 1981), now in its second edition, reviewed in Themelios 9:3 (1984).

2 Published by J. C. B. Mohr, Tübingen, 1983, viii + 455pp., DM 178.

3 Published by J. C. B. Mohr, 1983, x + 118pp., DM43.

4 Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1981; also published by Eerdmans/Paternoster and reviewed in Themelios 9:3 (1984).

David Wenham

Wycliffe Hall