The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus

Written by Michael F. Bird Reviewed By Mark L. Strauss

In this well researched and well organized volume, Michael Bird examines how the Gospels emerged and why they took their particular shape and character. In his introduction, “From Jesus to the Gospels,” Bird raises four key questions: For what purpose were Jesus’s words recalled in the early church and what was the point of preserving them? How was the Jesus tradition transmitted? What are the sources, genre and purposes behind the Gospels? And why do we have four Gospels (instead of just one, or instead of many more)? These questions become the framework for the volume. Two lengthy excurses follow in this chapter: the first on the meaning of the word “gospel” in the ancient world and the second on how the proclaimer became the proclaimed—that is, the continuity between Jesus’s preaching about the kingdom of God and the early church’s proclamation about Jesus himself as savior and lord.

In chapter 2, “The Purpose and Preservation of the Jesus tradition,” Bird raises two main questions: why did Jesus’s followers pass on the tradition about him and how did they preserve these traditions? He explores various reasons for the church’s preservation of the Jesus tradition: the whole story of Jesus, not just his death and resurrection, provided the content and basis for their faith; the teaching of Jesus was viewed as relevant to the contemporary needs of the early church; the Jesus tradition provided the foundation for the early church’s self-understanding, especially in its conflict with the larger Jewish community; and Jesus’s role as “movement founder” resulted in the deliberate conservation and perpetuation of his teaching.

Concerning the second question, the preservation of the tradition, Bird points to multiple factors that suggest the followers of Jesus reliably preserved the traditions about him. These include their deep interest in him as a historical person; rhetorical and pedagogical devices that rendered Jesus’s teaching highly memorable; the evidence of an Aramaic substratum for much of Jesus’s teaching; the likelihood that both oral and written sources existed from the beginning; the importance of eyewitnesses as authenticators of Jesus tradition; and the reality of the Jesus tradition as a community possession. The chapter ends with an interesting excursus on the unease of many evangelical students with historical critical methods and a defense of what Bird calls “believing criticism”—treating Scripture as the inspired Word of God but acknowledging the context and processes through which it came to be.

Chapter 3 examines “The Formation of the Jesus Tradition.” Bird looks at a variety of models of oral tradition, from the form-critics who posited a highly creative early church community and a radically fluid tradition, to the rigid Scandinavian school of H. Riesenfeld and B. Gerhardsson, which posited a near-verbatim memorization of the gospel tradition. Bird opts for a centrist approach, drawing insights from the “informed control oral tradition” of Kenneth Bailey and especially the more recent social memory theories of James D. G. Dunn and others. Bird writes, “Aided by eyewitnesses, teachers, a discernible process of handing-on and receiving traditions, and a rich mix of oral mnemonics and textual aide-mémoire [sic], the early church remembered Jesus, recounting him as a Judean sage as much as a divine Savior” (p. 113). A lengthy excursus on “The failure of form criticism” ends the chapter.

Chapter 4, “The Literary Genetics of the Gospels: The Synoptic Problem and the Johannine Question,” deals with the Synoptic Problem and the relationship between John and the Synoptics. After a judicious presentation of various views—Augustinian, Griesbach, Ur-Gospel, common oral traditions, Two-(Four) Source theory, Farrer—and a detailed discussion of the evidence, Bird concludes in favor Markan priority and a literary (not simply oral or fragmentary) Q. He allows, however, that Luke likely used Matthew at a latent stage. This would account for the minor agreements between Matthew and Luke and the anomaly of the Q-Mark overlaps.

On the relationship between John and the Synoptics, Bird briefly surveys nine different views. These range from John’s intention to supplement, complement, or displace the Synoptics, to direct literary dependence, to common oral traditions, common written sources, interlocking traditions, synoptic-like sources behind John, and (of course) complete independence. Bird’s nuanced conclusion is that we envision “the spasmodic interpenetration of Synoptic and Johannine tradition across each other in pre-literary stages, recognize the independent nature of many of John’s sources, and imagine also John’s exposure to the Synoptic tradition through either a prior reading or from observing an oral performance of a Synoptic text, probably Mark and perhaps also Luke” (p. 212).

Chapter 5, “The Genre and Goal of the Gospels: What Is a Gospel and Why Write One?” deals with the genre and purpose of the Gospels (the traditional domain of redaction and narrative analysis). The question of genre takes up most of the space (50 pages). After a detailed discussion of various proposals, Bird concludes that the Gospels are “biographical kerygma.” Though they have much in common with Greco-Roman biographies, they are unique in narrating the purpose of God in salvation history. As such, the Gospels “are purposed for a mixture of apologetics, instruction, social legitimation, worship, and evangelism” (p. 280). An excursus to this chapter examines a variety of non-canonical gospels and their relationship to the canonical four. Helpful charts summarize the names, sources, dates and provenance, and description of various apocryphal gospels: Jewish-Christian, Nag Hammadi, pseudo-apostolic, death and resurrection, infancy, and dialogues with the risen Jesus.

Bird’s final chapter, “The Fourfold Gospel of Jesus Christ: Why Four Gospels?” discusses the origins of the fourfold Gospel collection, evaluates the theological rationale for the fourfold Gospel, and seeks to explicate its significance for the wider biblical canon. There were certainly both heretical (e.g. Marcion) and orthodox (e.g. Tatian) rivals to the fourfold Gospel. Yet, contrary to the claim by some that Irenaeus almost single-handedly squashed others and elevated the four Gospels to canonical status, Bird cites early and widespread recognition of the existence and priority of the four. While Irenaeus has been criticized for claiming their authority based on illegitimate analogies (like the four winds and four corners of the earth), Bird notes that he also pointed to their apostolic connections, their “true and reliable” testimony to Jesus, and their consistency and coherence with the Law and the Prophets. He writes, “The bishop of Lyons was simply tapping into the vein of the proto-orthodox church when he set forth a theological justification for the apostolic gospel in its four witnesses.” In the tradition of Irenaeus and Origen, Bird concludes, “I would be prepared to argue that it makes much sense to place the fourfold Gospel at the head of the canon” (pp. 329–30).

This is an excellent book, a perfect complement for seminary level courses in the Gospels or New Testament introduction. While avoiding technical jargon and esoteric debate, Bird takes the student well beyond basic introductory issues. His mastery of the literature is impressive and his conclusions are balanced, judicious and often innovative. Though I did not agree with every conclusion (e.g., I think it unlikely Luke used Matthew), I always found his discussions helpful and engaging.

Mark L. Strauss

Mark Strauss is University Professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary.

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