I am currently finishing up a review (for Reviews in Religion and Theology) of the excellent book The Audience of the Gospels: The Origin and Function of the Gospels in Early Christianity (ed. E.W. Klink III). I was a little apprehensive about reviewing this, as I am a “Paul” guy by day, but I want to continue to expand my areas of expertise and work my way into Johannine studies as well. I was very pleased with this book because it is very accessible (esp. the intro and conclusion) and deals with a significant debate in Gospels research at the moment.
This book is meant to give a state of the discussion of the subject of the Gospel audiences. Mainly, it is a reflection on where we are in this field since the publication of Richard Bauckham’s edited volume The Gospels For All Christians (1998) where the viewpoint is challenged that the four Evangelists wrote specifically for their own “communities.” While this book was warmly received by a large number of people (it was a recommended book in my own Gospels courses in seminary), several dissenting voices also rang out (David Sim, Margaret Mitchell, Joel Marcus, Philip Esler, to name a few). Now that we are over a decade later, where have we come?
Klink gives a very nice update of what has been going on in an introductory essay and traces the shape of the debate – though he notes that we are far from a consensus (regardless of Gospel). This essay of Klink’s is a modified version of an article he wrote for Currents in Biblical Research – I recommend that every NT doctoral student read this article or essay of Klink’s as this debate is so very important for understanding how scholarship works and this particular debate has relevance for many other sectors of NT studies.
The remaining essays offer a spectrum of opinions on the views presented originally in The Gospels for All Christians (GAC). Michael Bird generally supports Bauckham and furthermore argues that, while some have countered that the non-canonical Gospels are sectarian, that does not mean that they offer evidence that the canonical Gospels should be read the same. In fact, the sectarian non-canonicals show some proof of being more widely circulated and read, and also, they may be differentiated from the canonicals as the former may have been reactions against the widely-distributed canonicals.
Bauckham himself offers an update and clarification of his position, especially as a rejoinder to the criticisms regarding Patristic evidence set forth by Margaret Mitchell. His use of analogies from Galen are particularly helpful.
Another helpful essay comes from Craig Blomberg who presents a sort of middle approach that considers it possible that (1) the Gospel writers were writing for local communities with local needs, but (2) they would have desired for a wider circulation of the writing. Actually, Bauckham already admits that he finds this consistent with his own approach, as he was simply wanting to argue that the Gospels were written in such a way as not to be hermeneutically dependent on knowing the problems and background of the local community.
Finally, the most critical position comes from Adele Reinhartz, who does not feel that Bauckham’s GAC actually helps Gospels methodology, even if it is correct. She still finds the community-hypotheses to be hermeneutically useful. What she considers to be the long-standing effect of Bauckham’s proposals is a necessary caution in the reconstruction of the community and how the Gospels are mirror-read.
There are a couple of other essays that are worth checking out as well.
1. The more you get into this discussion, the more complex it becomes. It is not a matter of whether Mark or John wrote for a local community or for ‘all Christians.’ There is a spectrum of possibilities in between these: primarily for local people, but also for outsiders; or primarily for all Christians, but with specific messages to the local community. You find that the more nuanced the position becomes, the more complex the process of figuring out what was ‘in the mind’ of the author – something that we know is notoriously difficult to discern.
2. Much of the discussion involves genre – if the general category is bios, how does that help? We have really just moved the same question to this other category – do we really know (for sure) why biographies were written and for whom? Also, how much wiggle room was there? And, we all recognize that the Gospels don’t match this genre-category perfectly. In what way does it change the utility of associating it was a bios when it becomes a Gospel? I personally think that focusing on genre will be a dead-end.
3. It used to be the case that when we taught our students about genre, we said that Paul’s letters and the Gospels should be read very differently. However, the development of these genres are both in a state of chaos. In Gospels, we have some saying that they are sectarian-like and one needs to understand to whom they were written and why (community approach). Others, like Bauckham, push the idea that they must be studied as documents that have a wider purpose beyond the local. For Paul, traditionally, Romans was read as a very general document that outlined his theology. Then, in the second half of the 20th century, there was a focus on how very contingent and local issues are the impetus for the letter. I think the days of easy ‘this or that’ answers are gone. Thus, I think Gospels scholars need to be more attuned to how this discussion has played out in Pauline studies and vice versa with the GAC issue.
4. I think we need to get away from ‘audience’ for this Gospels issue, as it is so difficult to ascertain this issue from the Gospels themselves, and the early-reception evidence is not necessarily crystal clear. Instead, it may be more fruitful to look at the Gospels’ own messages and figure out how much information in a story seems apologetic or corrective. This may help us figure out, not who the work was written to, but why it was written – and I think that is ultimately the big question. For example, in John, we have this repeated concern to explain that John the Baptist is not the Messiah, but a witness to him. That seems to be a very contingent issue, though it may not be a localized issue. Also, the comment about the supposed non-death of the ‘disciple’ in John 21:23 appears to be highly explanatory and instructive for clearing up a misunderstanding.
I don’t think that the GAC debate has been unfruitful. We have learned a lot, especially from Bauckham, about communication in the ancient world, the unity and diversity of the early Christians, and it has renewed interest in old questions like why we have four gospels. Also, it has, especially recently, encouraged us to dust off our copies of the Church Fathers and seek out their wisdom and knowledge.
Again, please order this book for your library and have students engage with it. Both GAC and this new book offer excellent specimens of what it means to think thoroughly and deeply about such issues, but it also shows that amazingly brilliant and respected scholars continue to disagree and interpret the evidence differently.