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Recent studies of early Christian traditions about the resurrection of Jesus have generally overlooked the objections which were raised by opponents of Christianity in the first and second centuries. This is somewhat surprising. Historians know how important it is to consider evidence or arguments which are an embarrassment to the eventual ‘winners’. Astute theologians always listen carefully to the voices of ‘outsiders’.
There are three reasons for taking this rather off-beat approach. (1) Criticisms of early Christian claims concerning the resurrection of Jesus give us some limited insights into the variety of ancient attitudes to life after death. (2) They help us to appreciate more keenly the ways Christian proclamation of the resurrection was understood or misunderstood by both Jews and pagans. (3) By paying attention to early criticisms we may be able to trace more readily the points at which early Christian traditions about the resurrection have been shaped by apologetic concerns.
The potential value of this approach will be clear. So why have the voices of the critics not been heard? They have been ignored mainly because it is undeniably difficult to uncover the critics' views. We have much more extensive evidence for early polemical comments on the actions and teaching of Jesus. However, by casting the net widely I believe that it is possible to make a number of observations which are relevant to inquiries into the setting, development, and reception of early resurrection traditions, observations which stimulate further theological reflection today.
The origins and the theological significance of the fourfold Gospel raise a set of teasing questions. Why did the early church eventually accept four partly parallel foundation documents, no more, no less? There is no precedent for this either in the OT Scriptures or elsewhere in earliest Christianity. Did retention of four gospels assist or hinder the early church in the presentation of its claims concerning Jesus? No doubt, to some, insistence that there were four gospels implied that there were basic flaws in the single gospels. Was the second-century church's decision to bring together four separate gospels wise? What were, and what are, the theological implications of the fourfold Gospel? A critical theology cannot avoid asking these questions.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, the views of the great giants, Theodore Zahn and Adolf von Harnack, were influential: many scholars accepted their view that the fourfold Gospel emerged very early in the se-cond century, well before Marcion. More recently, particularly under the influence of Hans von Campenhausen, most scholars have accepted that the fourfold Gospel emerged in the second half of the second century and that the Muratorian Fragment and Irenaeus are our primary witnesses.
However, the current consensus on the emergence of the fourfold Gospel is now being challenged from two entirely different starting points.
The completion of a book is a time for stock-taking. Why have I written on this topic, and not another? How have I managed to complete it, given the ever-growing demands teaching and administrative duties make on the time of an academic?
The topics explored in this book are at the very centre of the concerns of anyone interested in earliest Christianity and, indeed, in Christian theology. I have tried to approach them from fresh angles and, where possible, in the light of new evidence. So I have spread my net more widely than is often the case. The questions discussed have captured my interest for a variety of reasons. In some cases I think that I have found new paths through well-traversed territory. In others, I have become dissatisfied with the standard answers.
Chapter 2, ‘Jesus and Gospel’, is a considerably extended version of the Inaugural Lecture I gave as Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge on 27 April 2000. In my introductory remarks I referred to the debt I owe to my two predecessors in the Cambridge Chair, Professors C. F. D. Moule and Morna Hooker, who were both present.
An earlier version of Chapter 5, ‘The Law of Christ and the Gospel’, was one of eighteen seminar papers given as part of the celebrations of 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Lady Margaret's Professorship in 1502.
'Gospel' initially referred to oral proclamation concerning Jesus Christ, but was later used to refer to four written accounts of the life of Jesus. How did this happen? Here, distinguished scholar Graham Stanton uses new evidence and fresh perspectives to tackle this controversial question. He insists that in the early post-Easter period, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was heard against the backdrop of a rival set of 'gospels' concerning the Roman emperors. In later chapters Stanton examines the earliest criticisms of Jesus and of claims concerning his resurrection. Finally, he discusses the early Christian addiction to the codex (book) format as opposed to the ubiquitous roll, and undermines the view that early copies of the Gospels were viewed as downmarket handbooks of an inward looking sect. With half the material previously unpublished and the rest carefully gathered from sources difficult to access, this is a timely study with broad appeal.
The status of Jesus traditions and of the ‘canonical’ gospels gradually grew in the course of the second century. At the beginning of the century there was widespread respect for ‘words of the Lord’ and for ‘the Gospel’ (whether oral or written) in which Jesus traditions were embedded. By the end of the century the early church seemed to be within a whisker of accepting a ‘canon’ of four written gospels, no more, no less.
I do not intend to discuss all the developments and factors which led to the sea change which took place during the second century. In order to do so I would need to offer many hostages to fortune, for at crucial points the evidence is disputed, particularly with reference to the first half of the second century. For example, although the Didache has usually been dated to the first decades of the second century, it is now generally accepted that it contains several layers of traditions, the dating of which is problematic. A major challenge has been mounted to the consensus that Ignatius wrote seven letters in the early years of the second century. I do not think that the challenge is likely to be successful, but discussion of it would be a distraction from my primary task. And do we know the date of II Clement?
I shall focus my attention on two second-century giants whose substantial surviving writings can be dated with some confidence, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus.
The subject of this chapter is the origin and early Christian use of the noun ‘gospel’, the verb ‘to proclaim good news’ (or, ‘to gospel’), and a set of near-synonyms. Given its importance in earliest Christianity and for Christian theology more generally, discussion of this topic has not been as extensive as one might have expected. On several key points opinion has been keenly divided and no consensus has emerged. I shall revisit some of the disputed issues and hope to advance discussion by offering several fresh considerations. In particular, I shall focus on the function of the word group in the religious and social setting of the earliest Christian communities.
‘GOSPEL’ IN CURRENT USAGE
In the sixteenth century the term ‘gospel’ featured frequently in the language repertoire of Erasmus and the Reformers. Erasmus often referred to ‘the gospel philosophy’. In his ‘Prologue to the New Testament’ (1525) the translator William Tyndale included an astute summary of ‘gospel’:
Euagelio (that we cal gospel) is a greke worde,
and signyfyth good, mery, glad and joyfull tydings,
that maketh a mannes hert glad,
and maketh him synge, daunce and leepe for ioye.
In that tumultuous century the term ‘the gospel’ often functioned as a shorthand way of referring to the Reformers and their distinctive views. For example, in 1547 John Hooper noted in a letter that, if the emperor (Charles V) should be defeated in war, King Henry VIII would adopt ‘the gospel of Christ’.
The relationship of Jesus to first-century Judaism continues to be discussed vigorously. This continuing debate was sparked off initially by the publi-cation of Hermann Samuel Reimarus's Wolfenbüttel Fragments between 1774 and 1778. In deliberately provocative comments, Reimarus insisted that Jesus did not intend to abolish the Jewish religion and to introduce a new one in its place. The intention of Jesus, Reimarus claimed, was reversed completely after his death by both the actions and the teaching of the apostles. With their abandonment of the law, ‘Judaism was laid in its grave.’
In an equally influential publication two generations later, David Friedrich Strauss noted that a radical account of the origins of Christianity along these lines had been propounded by ‘the enemies of Christianity in its ecclesiastical form’, and that it had been done ‘most concisely of all in the Wolfenbüttel Fragments’, i.e. by Reimarus. Although Strauss was sympathetic to many of Reimarus's claims, he knew that any presentation of Jesus as a faithful Jew was built on a one-sided reading of the evidence. Strauss emphasized that there was clear strong evidence within the gospels to support the opposite viewpoint: Jesus was at odds with the religious leaders of his day.
Reimarus and Strauss both still have plenty of supporters, and many mediating positions are defended. After one hundred and fifty years of discussion, the relationship of Jesus to Judaism remains a contentious issue, as a cluster of influential book titles confirms: Jesus the Jew; Jesus and Judaism; Jesus and the Transformation of Judaism; Jesus within Judaism.
The transition from the roll format to the codex-book format in the early centuries of the Christian era was at least as revolutionary as its two later counterparts. Who doubts the importance of Johannes Gutenberg's mid-fifteenth-century invention of printing by using movable type? Or the late twentieth-century emergence of a CD-ROM only 12 cm in diameter yet able to hold a very large book in digital form?
In this chapter I shall refer to new evidence and try to account for early Christian ‘addiction’ to the codex along partly fresh lines. But I cannot hope to solve all the problems, for there are still too many gaps in our knowledge. I shall argue that attention to the origin of the codex forces us to reconsider several important issues. Even before Paul wrote his first ‘canonical’ letter c. ad 50, followers of Jesus were accustomed to use the predecessors of the codex-book format, various kinds of ‘notebooks’. They used them for Scriptural excerpts and testimonies, for drafts and copies of letters, and probably also for collections of traditions of both the actions and the teaching of Jesus.
I owe the phrase ‘addiction to the codex’ to Sir Frederic G. Kenyon. His publication in 1933–7 of the Chester Beatty Biblical papyri sparked off interest in the emergence of the codex which continues to this day, for all twelve Chester Beatty manuscripts are in the codex format.
There are some baffling phrases hidden in early Christian writings which are worth careful examination. The phrase ‘the law of Christ’ is one such. Although it is used only once in the New Testament (Gal. 6.2), it teases exegetes, it raises central questions of theological method, and it still forces us to ask awkward questions. Was this phrase part of Paul's Gospel? And should it be part of Christian proclamation today?
In his influential commentary, H. D. Betz insists that Gal. 6.2, and indeed all the ethical directives in Gal. 5.13–6.10, are not directly derived from the Gospel that Paul preached. Richard Hays has argued, surely correctly, that this disjunction of kerygma from conduct arises from an over-emphasis on individualistic soteriological elements at the expense of the corporate dimension in Paul's theological thought. Paul's encouragement to the Galatian Christians to ‘fulfil the law of Christ’ (Gal. 6.2) was surely part of the Gospel message he wished to convey to the Galatian churches and no mere ethical addendum.
But that leaves us with a further set of questions. Why did Paul not make good theological capital out of the phrase in his other letters? Did the apostle decide that the phrase was too ambiguous or too prone to misunderstanding to merit further use? If so, should we follow his lead and drop it from contemporary theological reflection and from liturgies? Is this a phrase which has ‘punched above its weight’ for far too long?
The main lines of inquiry pursued in this book are nearly all foreshadowed in the lengthy, wide-ranging Chapter 2, ‘Jesus and Gospel’. Here I explore the origin and the varied meanings of the ‘gospel’ word group all the way from its use by Jesus to refer to his own proclamation to its use as the title of a ‘book’ containing an account of the words and deeds of Jesus.
Although the term ‘gospel’ is as prominent in Christian vocabulary today as it ever has been, there have been very few detailed studies in English of the word group. It is difficult to account for the silence. Part of the answer may lie in the onslaught James Barr launched in 1961 against the then fashionable word studies. Only a fool would try to turn the clock back and ignore Barr's strictures. But I am not alone in thinking that it is now time to reconsider some of the most important theological terms developed by the earliest followers of Jesus. Of course, full attention must be given both to the whole semantic field of which a given word group is part and to the varied social and religious contexts in which it is used. I shall argue that, when that is done, we find that, in the decade or so immediately after Easter, followers of Jesus developed language patterns which differed sharply from ‘street’ usage in both the Jewish and the Graeco-Roman worlds.
In recent decades the question, ‘What are the gospels?’ has been discussed from three perspectives. I shall refer to two briefly, before concentrating on the third.
In discussion of this question, pride of place must always go the literary genre of the gospels. What kind of writings are we dealing with? Histories, religious novels, biographies, early Christian sermons in narrative dress, or catechetical handbooks? The very first step in the interpretation of any writing, whether ancient or modern, is to establish its literary genre. If we make a mistake about the literary genre of the gospels, interpretation will be skewed or even misguided. A decision about the genre of a work and the discovery of its meaning are inextricably inter-related; different types of text require different types of interpretation.
In this chapter I do not propose to consider yet again whether or not the gospels are biographies. I have had my say on that topic more than once. Following intensive recent discussion, broad agreement has been reached. The gospels are now widely considered to be a sub-set of the broad ancient literary genre of βίοι, biographies. Even if the evangelists were largely ignorant of the tradition of Greek and Roman βίοι, that is how the gospels were received and listened to in the first decades after their composition.
The question, ‘What are the gospels?’ has recently been given an unexpected answer: they were intended to be writings for all Christians.