Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Bock on the formation of the Gospels

…recollections that were initially a part of oral traditions passed on by word of mouth as opposed to written down, and eventually they got recorded. The people who did the recording had different concerns and and considerations that feed into the details that go into story. The church made the choice we're going to tell this story from four different angles, because four different angles give us a better look at what's going on that merely telling one story in one way.

In fairness to Bock, it's hard to say anything intelligent on such a complicated topic in just a few minutes. But with all due respect, I this his summary is consistently misleading. So many equivocations and inaccuracies:

1. Assume traditional authorship of the Gospels. And there's a good case to be made for that. On text-critical grounds, there's a presumption that the Gospel titles are original rather than editorial additions. That's in addition to other internal evidence consistent with traditional authorship–as well as traditions of authorship from church fathers and canonical lists.  

2. On that view, each of the four gospels has a distinct history. "Oral tradition" is inaccurate. The word "tradition" has connotations of a custom, belief, story, or information that outlives the source of origin. It's transmitted from one generation to the next. But assuming traditional authorship, that's not the timeframe of the Gospels.

i) In the case of Luke, his sources aren't oral traditions but oral histories. He's collecting anecdotes from contemporaries of Jesus. Eyewitnesses to the public ministry of Christ. Not traditions but living memory. And Luke is arguably the farthest removed from the source. But it's just one step.

ii) In addition, he has multiple informants. He had a wide range of contacts in the mid-1C church, in Jerusalem and Palestine. 

So even is his case, the image of a story that passes through several different hands before it's written down is very misleading. It's not like family lore, where you hear a story from your parents, who got it from their parents. 

iv) In addition, where multiple witnesses are available, the sources are synchronic rather than diachronic. Contemporaries to the same event who each have something to share. Consider recollections of high school by your classmates. They attended the same school at the same time. So the sources of information are parallel rather than unilinear. 

v) Consider Mark. He's often classified as a secondhand source, like Luke. But since his hometown was Jerusalem, and his home as a founding house-church frequented by the apostles (Acts 12:12), the presumption is that Mark's Gospel is a combination of firsthand and secondhand information. It's likely that he was an eyewitness to Jesus when Jesus ministered in Jerusalem. In addition, he had access to apostles living in Jerusalem at the time. 

vi) In the case of Matthew and John, they spend 2-3 years with Jesus during his public ministry. Not only were they firsthand observers to the key events, but it stands to reason that the disciples compared notes, compared recollections with each other. 

3. The gap between when something is seen and when it's written down is ambiguous. For instance, decades may elapse between youth and when an old man writes his memories. But it's firsthand information. It's the same informant. He's writing about his own childhood and youth. The individual writing about events is the same individual who experienced the events. Just consider conversations with the elderly, whose recollections of their childhood and youth are so fresh and vivid. 

4. Do the Gospels have different details because they reflect different concerns and considerations? To some degree that may be the case. But that's a rather artificial way of explaining differences generally. Isn't a main reason for the differences that each of them is writing down what he saw or heard, either directly or from others? Each narrator had a different experience. Different, albeit often overlapping, information. 

It's not like they have to start out with a theological agenda, and select material to illustrate the agenda. Rather, they just report what they know, and the message emerges from the facts. The agenda is not so much in how the account is narrated. Rather, Jesus had a theological agenda, God had a theological agenda. The events have a theological thrust. It isn't taking raw, neutral material, then giving it that editorial viewpoint. Jesus had a mission. A single-minded plan for what to do with his life. The narrators report what he said and did. 

5. No, the church didn't decide there would be four Gospels. It's not as if the church commissioned four biographies. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John took the initiative. 

There was, of course, a preexisting constituency for the Gospels. The church had a crucial role in sponsoring and disseminating the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were members of the nascent Christian communities, so initially there was a close relationship between author and audience. 

Bock is providing a stereotypical outline of the process, but in my view this is a formulaic explanation that's unhistorical and ill-considered. 

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I must say I find that comment about the church making the choice to have 4 to be a real head-scratcher. The somewhat hand-wavy reference to oral tradition is pretty standard fare (though not terribly helpful, as you point out), but the idea of the church choosing to have four gospels is new to me and...well...wrong on the face of it. One would have to mean something like "God" or "Providence" by "the church" to make it come out true.