Who Wrote the Gospels? (part 3)

Who Wrote the Gospels? (part 3) April 1, 2015

Heinrich Hofmann, Christ and the Rich Young Ruler

Continuing this series, I would like to draw upon a quote from the Harper Collins Study Bible produced for the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). SBL is the oldest and largest international scholarly membership organization in the field of biblical studies. Their study bible is an outstanding resource that I often recommend to students. It includes comprehensive explanatory notes from leading scholars in the field of biblical studies; it is often used as the primary textbook in college-level courses. In his introductory notes for the gospel of Matthew, Dr. Dennis Duling provides the following assessment:

“[Matthew] is a narrative about Jesus that has a quality of historical ‘pastness,’ yet it speaks to the time of its composition and it stresses the future. . . Since anonymous works in antiquity were often attributed to prominent persons, cumulative evidence suggests that an unknown Greek-speaking Jewish Christian, probably a scribe, composed this Gospel and that in the second century it was attributed to the disciple Matthew primarily to lend it authority.” Dennis C. Duling, “Matthew Introduction,” in The Harper Collins Study Bible (New York: HarperCollings Publishers, 1989), 1857-58.

This quote presents yet another witness to the ideas raised in my previous posts. Through Dr. Duling’s observations, readers gain the following insights: 1) The gospel of Matthew (like the other three gospels) tells stories about the past influenced by the author’s concerns for the present (and future). 2) The book was originally written by an anonymous Greek-speaking Christian; and 3) The attribution to Jesus’ disciple Matthew occurred during the second century CE. This attribution gave the narrative stronger claims for authenticity. These three points parallel the issues I have explored in the previous two essays. They are not controversial, secular theories, but instead reflect the position of mainstream scholarship.

So the gospel of Matthew is not an eyewitness historical account of Jesus’ life. Instead, it is a creative rewritten version of Mark by a later Greek speaking Christian who believed that Mark was not fully adequate. If it had been, the author would have simply copied and transmitted Mark’s gospel word for word. This, however, is not what occurred. The writer of Matthew took the basic narrative sequence, together with many of the stories in Mark, and made alterations to match his own unique religious views—ideas that were, in fact, quite different from those that appear in Mark. This point can be illustrated through a comparison between Matthew and Mark’s accounts of Jesus’ interaction with the Rich Young Ruler.

Here is how the account reads in Mark:

“As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother’” (Mark 10:17-19)

Here is the way Matthew changes the story:

“Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt 19:16-19).

Matthew’s alterations are significant. They reveal some of the author’s concerns with Mark’s original account. Amongst other changes, Matthew took the original term “good” connected with Jesus and linked it with “deed.” Now, in the revised version of the account, Jesus no longer implies that he is not “good.” Rather than harmonize these discrepancies, readers who wish to understand the biblical authors’ ideas about Christ should take them seriously. Both stories have something significant to say about Jesus and his teachings. And although both cannot be reliable as “history,” they can be used to understand historical views early Christians held. Moreover, the unique ways these authors depict Christ and his teachings can prove inspiring to contemporary religious readers who accept that these accounts present theology rather than history.

Students of the New Testament should not be afraid to engage in this sort of analysis. Even evangelical scholars who embrace doctrines of scriptural “inerrancy” admit that the author of Matthew changed the text to better reflect his own distinct religious views. This fact, for instance, is discussed at length by Dr. Donald Hagner in the highly conservative Word Biblical Commentary series [1]. I bring this up to illustrate that a critical approach need not destroy a person’s religious connection to the accounts.

In his analysis of the pericope, Dr. Hagner notes: “following the Markan sequence, [Matthew] depends again on Mark (Mark 10:17-22’ cf. Luke 18:18-23).” Then despite the conservative nature of the work, Hagner goes on to identify each of the textual changes in Matthew’s rendition, concluding that “with obvious Christological interests, [the author of Matthew] avoids the conclusion that Jesus is not to be considered ‘good.’ In Matthew the question is solely the defining of what is ‘good’ ethically.”[2]

Thus like all biblical scholars, Hagner recognizes that these accounts use a story from the past to convey separate religious perspectives about Jesus.

This observation further illustrates what this series has shown: the gospel writers were not producing “history.” Instead, they used stories from the past to present their religious views concerning Christ. The evangelists are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. They are creative theological works that present distinct religious messages concerning Jesus’ religious relevance for their respective audiences.

This observation does not mean that the gospels always fail to provide correct historical views. There is, in fact, much historical truth in each of the accounts. But to uncover the real history within these religious records, scholars must approach the gospels using the tools of critical analysis. Given what we know about their authorship, the gospels cannot be accepted as historical works that provide a flawless portrayal of what Jesus said and did. They are historical accounts that lack historicity. The evangelists took creative liberties in the oral and written traditions they inherited. They wanted to convey something much more significant than a correct rendering of the past; they wanted to present a gospel.

[1] As stated in the “Editorial Preface,” the WBC takes an “evangelical” approach to the Bible “in its positive, historic sense of a commitment to Scripture as divine revelation and to the truth and power of the Christian gospel.”

[2] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28 (WBC; Waco: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 555.

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