The Rediscovery of Jesus’ Eschatological Discourse

Written by David Wenham and Craig Blomberg (eds) Reviewed By Graham Stanton

The Tyndale House Gospels Research Project has brought together a number of evangelical scholars who have examined the gospels from many angles. This is the only monograph among the five volumes which have been published by participants in the Project. It bears the same hallmarks as the four volumes of essays: careful scholarly work on some of the most complex and most disputed issues in current study of the gospels.

David Wenham is an able British evangelical scholar. In this, his first book, he explores in considerable detail the particularly difficult chapters in the gospels which contain Jesus’ eschatological discourse, Matthew 24–25, Mark 13 and Luke 21. He is primarily interested in the relationships between the traditions in these chapters; his monograph is essentially a sophisticated study in source criticism. Even though his own fresh proposals are unlikely to gain wide acceptance, his book will be welcomed as a major contribution to discussion of these passages. This is a learned and technical study—not the place at which one should start work on the gospels!

Dr Wenham believes that the two document hypothesis (i.e. Matthew and Luke have both used Mark and Q) needs review and defence, but not outright rejection. This would be widely accepted, but the author goes considerably further. He argues that there was an elaborate pre-synoptic eschatological discourse on which Matthew, Mark and Luke all drew, and which may well have been used both by Paul and by the author of Revelation. On this view Matthew is the evangelist who most often and fully reproduces the pre-synoptic discourse; Mark abbreviates it considerably; Luke rearranges and paraphrases the discourse fairly freely (p. 365). Since these conclusions about the work of the evangelists are in many ways an exact reversal of usually accepted opinions, Dr Wenham is nothing if not bold!

His theory is essentially a revival of the Ur-Markus hypothesis, i.e. the view that Matthew and Luke drew independently on an earlier form of Mark which differed considerably from Mark’s gospel as we now know it. But Dr Wenham also accepts that Matthew and Luke used our present Mark and a version of Q. He concedes that his hypothesis is complicated, but claims that it makes more sense of many synoptic similarities, differences and peculiarities than other explanations. He notes that the pre-synoptic discourse he has reconstructed is coherently ordered and arranged: ‘it may well be that Jesus himself was largely responsible for the logical and systematic presentation of his teaching’ (p. 374). But Dr Wenham accepts that the order and arrangement of the discourse has been lost to a considerable extent by the synoptists. So although he insists (correctly) that some redaction critics have made exaggerated claims about the freedom with which the evangelists have handled earlier traditions, he accepts that the teaching of Jesus has been shaped and re-ordered in its transmission.

In addition to the eschatological teaching of Jesus, Dr Wenham also considers (more briefly) the ‘mission’ traditions. Once again he envisages a pre-synoptic discourse known to all three synoptists: ‘Matthew … retains the form of the mission discourse best; Mark abbreviates it; Luke sits most lightly to original contexts’ (p. 251). He hints that similar results might emerge from thorough study of Matthew 5–7.

Dr Wenham’s observations on individual passages are always judicious and often perceptive. His judgments are cautious: the book abounds with words such as ‘perhaps’, ‘possibly’, ‘it could be’. But is he on the track (at last) of a solution to the synoptic problem? I must confess that although his suggestions are interesting and often plausible, they do not seem to me to be persuasive. Once one accepts that both Matthew and Luke have drawn (in part at least) on Mark and on some form of Q, it seems difficult to deny that Matthew has abbreviated, rearranged and reinterpreted his traditions and that Luke is the most conservative of the three synoptic evangelists. The synoptic problem will tease NT scholars for a long time to come. And scholars who share similar presuppositions will find themselves driven to adopt differing hypotheses.

Graham Stanton

King’s College, London