Die Anfänge der Evangelientradition

Written by B. Gerhardsson Reviewed By I. Howard Marshall

In 1976 Dr Gerhardsson delivered a series of four lectures on ‘The Origins of the Gospel Tradition’ at a conference for theological students in Germany organized by the Pfarrer-Gebets-Bruderschaft. These lectures have now been published in a useful paperback. Dr Gerhardsson is already well known for his book Memory and Manuscript (Uppsala, 1961) in which he argued that the early church preserved its traditions about Jesus with the same care as the rabbis preserved their traditions. In the present book he summarizes his earlier research and shows how the beginnings of the gospel tradition should be understood in the light of rabbinic practice. He is well aware of the criciticisms brought against his position, but, while recognizing that he may have put his points too sharply in the earlier book, he firmly—and rightly—holds to his essential position. He argues that the early church uses the Jewish vocabulary of tradition and that people like Paul were the bearers of tradition. There was a continuity between Jesus and the early church due to the fact that his close disciples received teaching from him during his ministry and continued to transmit it after his death and resurrection. Various examples show that the early church’s understanding of Jesus was simply the unfolding and development of what Jesus himself had taught. Jesus’ teaching was given in a form intended for memorization. The early church treasured both what he said and what he did as constituent parts of the tradition. It is true that the tradition was passed on by people who saw it in the light of the resurrection and who modified it accordingly, but Gerhardsson claims that what happened was modification to bring out its original meaning and significance the more clearly—which is something quite different from creating new traditions and inventing new sayings which were attributed to Jesus. Various tell-tale signs that the tradition faithfully reproduces the historical conditions of the ministry of Jesus (such as the disciples’ misunderstanding of Jesus) add strength to the argument.

This is an extremely valuable booklet which should be helpful to students who are looking for an alternative to the scepticism that is so often associated with the form-critical method. Dr Gerhardsson has shown that such an alternative exists without turning his back on historical-critical method; on the contrary, the answer to scepticism lies in a more intensive study of the sources which will demonstrate that scepticism has a weak historical basis. It is much to be hoped that the author will demonstrate in greater detail how his approach works out in relation to the material in the Gospels.

I. Howard Marshall

I. Howard Marshall
University of Aberdeen
Aberdeen, Scotland, UK