The Gospels and Jesus (The Oxford Bible Series)

Written by Graham N. Stanton Reviewed By Walter Riggans

The Oxford Bible Series is aimed at a general readership at an introductory level, but no punches are pulled in terms of the conclusions reached. In The Gospels and Jesus Stanton appears to commit himself fully to classical historical-critical methodology and to let the chips fall where they may. That said, the chips often fall into a pattern that an evangelical will find more or less congenial.

The book loosely fits into a ‘search for the historical Jesus’ mentality. The goal is not only to introduce the gospel and themes in modern gospel study, but also to say what the author believes a historian can say about Jesus, the subject of the gospels. Thus, the volume is divided in two: part one considers the nature of the evidence and part two considers the content of this evidence.

After an introductory chapter about the nature of the venture, there follows a chapter about the genre of the gospel, and the possible purposes of the gospels’ authors. After this, each of the canonical gospels is given a chapter of its own. Here Stanton relies mainly on redaction-critical methods to highlight the particular emphases of the individual gospels. Secondarily, these chapters are used to introduce, or explain more fully, critical theories and methods alluded to in the first two chapters. A deliberately subordinate and tertiary purpose is to discuss the authorship, provenance and dates of the documents. The first half of the book closes with a chapter asking the question ‘Why Four Gospels?’, introducing the reader to such evidence as fragmentary, gnostic and medieval ‘gospels’.

The second half of the book takes the discussion on to consider the Jesus behind the records. This half is introduced with two chapters assessing the evidence and bringing the reader to Stanton’s ‘working hypothesis’ about individual traditions in the gospels. This hypothesis is worth quoting in full:

Once we have taken account of four factors, we may accept that the traditions of the actions and teachings of Jesus preserved in the synoptic gospels are authentic. These are the four important provisos: (i) the evangelists have introduced modifications to the traditions; (ii) they are largely responsible for their present contexts; (iii) some traditions can be shown to stem from the post-Easter period rather than the life-time of Jesus; (iv) since certainty always eludes us, we have to concede that some traditions are more probably authentic than others. (p. 163)

If such a stance seems too pessimistic for most evangelicals, it should be appreciated that neither will this hypothesis receive warm acceptance in the other camp. For in such a climate it appears too optimistic: ‘a tradition is authentic unless …’, as opposed to the more usual working hypothesis of the critic: a tradition can only be authentic if it meets the criteria.

The second half of the book continues by examining several important themes in the gospels: there are chapters titled John the Baptist, Prophet and Teacher, The Kingdom of God, Parables and Miracles, Messiah/Son of God/Son of Man, Conflict, and The Last Days. The book is rounded off by a summary/conclusion chapter ‘Who was Jesus of Nazareth?’ Here Stanton succinctly presents both his aim and his conclusions. A representative sample:

Believer and non-believer will have to agree to part company on the answer to the question ‘Who is Jesus of Nazareth for us today?’ In study of the story of Jesus, however, believer and non-believer can join hands.… The key to the story is its ending … [Jesus] went to Jerusalem in order to confront the religio-political establishment with his claim that the kingdom of God was at hand.… Jesus believed that he had been sent by God as a prophet to declare authoritatively the will of God for his people: acceptance or rejection of him and of his message was equivalent to acceptance or rejection of God. (pp. 271–274)

We must note, however, that believer and non-believer cannot join hands on the issue of what the real ending, ‘the key to the story’, was. Stanton writes in an earlier chapter,’ … resurrection faith rests on the experiences of the disciples, on the reality of which the historian can say little’ (p. 270).

Stanton’s volume is a success. He is consistent with his method, the book treats its readers as intelligent adults but without getting too technical, and it covers a considerable amount of ground in a readable, even interesting, way. It is a book that I would recommend as a neutral text in a university course on the gospels. As I’ve indicated above, however, neither conservatives nor liberals will find it completely satisfying.

Walter Riggans

General Director of Churches’ Ministry among the Jews (CMJ) based in St Albans