The Past of Jesus in the Gospels (SNTS Monograph 68)

Written by Eugene E. Lemcio Reviewed By David J. Graham

This study (which unlike many in this series is not of the published thesis genre) tackles the question of the historical and biographical intentions of the gospels. Taking an interdisciplinary approach which is, however, mainly literary, Lemcio seeks to answer to what extent the evangelists were motivated by historical concerns: did they write ‘lives’ of Jesus, or were they rather theologians first and foremost? The answer given, in a thorough treatment of all four gospels independently, is that the gospels were intended to be explanatory historical accompaniments to the kerygma of the early church, and not the kerygma itself. The gospels are biographies, not kerygma. Such a conclusion may well intertwine comfortably with Richard Burridge’s recent work on the gospels, but coming from a different direction and using different methods.

The evangelists, we read, ‘tell it like it was’, and are not overly influenced by concerns of achieving a consistent theology. Some information in the gospels is there quite simply because it happened (p. 111)! But at the same time, historical faithfulness is not incompatible with narrative art (p. 114). Because the writers of the gospels were interested in the pre-Easter Jesus, and did not allow their later Easter faith in the risen Christ to overlay their records of his life and ministry, does not mean that they thereby forfeited all literary creativity.

In many ways, Lemcio brings Graham Stanton’s Jesus of Nazareth in New Testament Preaching up to date, albeit with a narrower remit. At the same time, the book runs counter to those (notably Eugene Boring and the Jesus Seminar) who see the early church as creative in producing Jesus traditions in the guise of prophecy. Our author is much more positive and confident about recovering the historical Jesus from the gospels than many scholars. The evangelists are ‘remarkably conservative’ (p. 113). Perhaps the era of Bultmannian hyper-scepticism is indeed in its twilight.

Having treated the gospels in detail, the book concludes with an appendix containing comments and outlines of the ‘unifying kerygma of the New Testament’ … and also of some extra-canonical literature. Interacting with, and critical of, the previous attempts of Dodd and Dunn to do the same, Lemcio leads us to expect a more successful offering. But when viewed in the helpful concluding table, this ‘unifying kerygma’ may claim more than it actually offers; it is quite a slender ‘unity’.

The thesis of the book, if accepted, would seriously damage many concepts of redaction and transparency as currently understood and practised. From my own work, I am not so sure that historical and literary investigation are mutually exclusive. Lemcio might well agree. This book stands near the boundary of historical and literary studies, a place where much of the discipline itself is at the moment. Cross-disciplinary approaches are the name of the current game (witness the volume edited by Jerome Neyrey on The Social World of Luke-Acts, or David Balch’s The Social History of the Matthean Community, or indeed Stanton’s recent A Gospel for a New People). Yet Lemcio does put a lot of store on the evangelists’ intentions. Authorial intention is not the only criterion by which to judge a piece of writing; its influence must also be reckoned with (Ulrich Luz’s Matthew is a classic case in point). But if Lemcio is correct that the ‘pastness’ (his word, p. 73) of the life of Jesus is treated seriously by the evangelists, the question of how that pastness becomes a ‘presentness’ for the reader is one which is not fully answered. The debate between Kingsbury, Luz and Strecker is thus taken forward, but not completed. Perhaps more interaction with literary theorists would have advanced the issues further (for instance, there is no reference to Kermode). Certainly, as this book makes clear, the full implications of literary studies of the gospels have not yet been explored.


David J. Graham

Glasgow Bible College, Scotland