Jesus of Nazareth in New Testament Preaching

Written by G. N. Stanton Reviewed By I. Howard Marshall

Not a few conservative evangelicals have chosen ‘safe’ subjects for post-graduate research, areas of study where the adoption of a conservative stance will not endanger their prospects of obtaining their doctorate. Happily the need for such circumspection is growing less in Britain, since there can be few, if any, supervisors and examiners who will penalise a student for reaching conservative conclusions on the basis of objective, reasoned, scholarly study of the evidence. Dr. Stanton stands in the vanguard of those scholars who have elected to enter controversial territory at the outset of their careers. In this book he tackles the common critical assumption that the early church had no historical interest in the life of Jesus: in the beginning, so we are assured by the Bultmann-school, the early church was interested purely in the ‘Dass’ of Jesus’ death and resurrection which formed the core of its preaching, and it was only at a later stage that this preaching began to be ‘historicised’, in the sense that the message was transformed into an apparently historical report about the life of Jesus created by turning what was said by the early church (especially by its prophets) into alleged sayings of the earthly Jesus and then giving these an alleged setting in His earthly life. Dr Stanton argues that, on the contrary, a historical interest in the life and character of Jesus can be traced back to the early preaching of the church, so that the Gospel accounts, so far from representing a late, imaginative ‘historicisation’ of the preaching, are based on the historical memory of what Jesus actually said and did which lay behind the church’s preaching.

It is probable that few readers who share the outlook of this journal would wish to question this thesis, and indeed they may regard it as affording a dazzling glimpse of the obvious. It is, therefore, all the more important that those who share the author’s point of view should scrutinise his arguments with the utmost care to see whether they are likely to convince others who do not share their outlook. Has the author made out his case?

Let it be said, first of all, that this book is typical of an increased respect for the historicity of the Gospels in scholarly circles. Thus J. Jeremias’s New Testament Theology I, deals with the proclamation of Jesus at considerable length, and regards it as the basis of NT theology. More recently the late L. Goppelt was able to produce before his sudden passing his own Theologie des Neuen Testaments, the first volume of which is entitled ‘Jesus Wirken in seiner theologischen Bedeutung’ (‘The theological significance of the ministry of Jesus’; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1975; a second volume, left in substantially complete form by the author, is promised for early publication). Here it is significant that ‘proclamation’ has been replaced by ‘ministry’. Something of the critical basis for this shift to a more positive evaluation of what Jesus did is provided by J. Roloff, Das Kerygma und der irdische Jesus (Göttingen, 1970), in which the author demonstrates that many stories in the Gospels were narrated out of interest in what Jesus did and not simply to answer questions about the church’s own problems. Stanton’s book takes the trend even further by claiming that the church was also interested in the character of Jesus. If the author goes further than many contemporary scholars, he assuredly does not stand alone.

Dr Stanton begins at the ‘top’, so to speak, and works his way backwards along the lines of tradition. Thus he commences with an examination of the missionary preaching of the church as conceived by Luke (i.e.without regard to whether Luke’s impression of it was based on tradition). He claims that whenever evangelistic preaching took place among people who would have been ignorant of the life of Jesus, some references to his earthly life would have been included: the references to this in Acts are not due to Luke alluding to and summarising his own Gospel but reflect what early preachers actually did.

It is generally conceded that historical interest in Jesus is to be seen in Luke’s Gospel, but that this interest stems from Luke himself. So in his second chapter Stanton argues that it is false to regard Luke as an innovator in this respect. Luke is not the biographer among the Evangelists, but merely takes further the emphases already found in the Gospel tradition. Where there is a greater wealth of detail in Luke, this is present not because of a theological bias but as a result of Luke’s superior stylistic abilities.

From Luke we are taken back to the material he used. Dr Stanton now takes a second look at the speeches in Acts and attempts to isolate traditional material in them. He finds evidence in Acts 10 and 13 that Luke was not creating his own references to Jesus but was using early material in which the life of Jesus was understood in terms of OT texts. In the following chapter he then faces up to the question of the comparative lack of material about the earthly Jesus in Paul, and shows that Paul had some interest in the character of Jesus, and that his missionary preaching may well have contained more reference to Jesus than might be suspected from the Epistles.

The next stage in the argument is to take a further look at the Gospels. Here the author takes the important step of comparing them with contemporary biographies. He establishes the important points that ancient biographies were not concerned with chronological order nor with detailed character sketches of their heroes. While the Gospels differ fundamentally in many respects from them, these differences are least in evidence when it is a question of portraying the character of Jesus, and the Gospels stand closer to such biographies than they do to such a writing as the Gospel of Thomas with its marked lack of biographical interest in Jesus.

Against this background it is insisted that ‘the gospel traditions … were intended, as one of their purposes, to sketch out the life and character of Jesus’ (p. 137). This point is defended by a detailed study of various pericopae in the form in which they may be presumed to have existed before incorporation in the Gospels. Here some of the points made take further various arguments by the author’s supervisor, Prof. C. F. D. Moule, himself a doughty defender of an essentially conservative approach to the Gospels. Of special interest is the author’s defence of the authenticity of the ‘present’ Son of Man sayings and his claim that in these Jesus made a direct link between his proclamation and reference to his character.

Finally, the author tackles the question: why were these Gospel traditions preserved in the early church? He rehabilitates the thesis that the primary Sitz im Leben for interest in the ‘past’ of Jesus was missionary preaching. And in his conclusion he suggests the implications for modern preaching.

This extensive summary is intended to whet the reader’s appetite for a fuller acquaintance with this important book. The nature of the evidence means that the author’s argumentation is often extremely delicate, and he is duly cautious in drawing firm conclusions. This reticence should help to commend the book in those circles where its message most needs to be heard, for it demonstrates that the conservative case is not built on sweeping generalisations or on ignorance of the evidence on the other side, but on a careful evaluation of the evidence and a refusal to push it beyond what it will bear.

My efforts to discover weaknesses in the argument have not been very successful. The two places where the book is less convincing are in the discussions of pre-Lukan material in Acts and of Paul’s interest in the historical Jesus. Stanton finds evidence of pre-Lukan usage of citations from the Old Testament in the speeches in Acts 10 and 13, but the evidence is rather allusive (and elusive!). The discussion of Paul is an attempt to meet an argument from silence, and in the nature of things there is little positive evidence to be produced. Where Stanton does score is in his proof that the early Gospel traditions were interested in the character and work of the historical Jesus, and that these traditions were used in missionary preaching.

This is not a book for the beginner, who will find that it presupposes a good knowledge of contemporary New Testament criticism, but the student who is prepared to work hard at it will be amply rewarded. It is a fine example of New Testament scholarship.

I. Howard Marshall

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