What Are They Saying about the Study of the Gospels?

David R. Bauer

Over the past several years biblical scholarship has given vigorous attention to the character of our Gospels and to the most appropriate ways to read and understand them. And these recent years have witnessed significant developments in the study of the Gospels.

Developments in the recent study of the Gospels have pertained to two broad areas: the nature of the Gospels and the methods or approaches that are most viable for the interpretation of the Gospels. The issue of the nature of the Gospels has centered on their genre, or literary form, which has to do with the combination of form and content that would lead the intended reader to classify the book as belonging to a certain familiar category of works (say, novel or history) and therefore interpret the book by employing reading strategies that are appropriate to that genre. In the decades preceding the 1970s the importance of considering the genre of our Gospels had been largely set aside because of the view that the Gospels were either nothing more than primitive folk-tradition and hence were essentially sub-literary and insufficiently sophisticated even to qualify as having a genre, or that the genre of the Gospels was utterly unique to the Gospels themselves (sui generis) and therefore any attempt to read the Gospels according to genres familiar to first-century readers was wrongheaded.

The Nature of the Gospels

But the 1980s witnessed a growing appreciation of the literary artistry of our Gospels and an acknowledgment that connections with recognized genres was essential for readers to make sense of any document. These considerations led to a renewed interest in the genre of the Gospels that culminated in the appearance in 1992 of the groundbreaking work by Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, which has led to a general consensus today that our Gospels are in the form of ancient biography and that we should read them according to the expectations of that genre. (The Gospel of Luke may form a partial exception. Because of the organic connection between Luke and Acts, the latter apparently representing ancient historiography, some scholars consider the Gospel of Luke also to be a form of ancient history; yet the most recent scholarship suggests that the distinction between biography and history was somewhat fluid in ancient times and thus Luke can be read in terms of the same biographical features that we find in the other Gospels.)

In contrast to modern biographies, ancient biographies had no interest in the personal background of their subject or influences on their subject, nor in the psychological, moral, or spiritual development of the subject of the biography; indeed, ancient biographies gave little or no attention to development at all but rather presented the subject as constant throughout. In addition, unlike modern ones, ancient biographers found no reason necessarily to discuss every period of the subject’s life, including childhood and adolescence, but typically did attend to the end of their life, their death, and the consequences of their death.

Moreover, ancient biographies were generally read orally, at one sitting from beginning to end, at public gatherings. Consequently, today’s Gospel interpreters are more insistent than ever that we should give attention to the total impact of the whole Gospel, and that we must interpret individual passages by considering carefully the role of these passages within the program of the entire Gospel. The observation that ancient biographies were read out load has encouraged scholars to attend to matters of orality/aurality and to explore how such matters may contribute to the interpretation of Gospel passages and challenge long-held assumptions regarding the nature of the Gospels (and the Gospel tradition that lies behind our final Gospels) as well as the methods of Gospel interpretation. For example, it is sometimes claimed that the sounds or patterns of sounds persons experience as they hear the Gospel read may in some instances be as significant for constructing meaning as the words themselves. Yet we must acknowledge that we do not have complete confidence regarding the pronunciation of ancient koine Greek.

The recognition that ancient biographies were read at public events has contributed to the emergence of “performance criticism,” which insists that such readings entailed aspects that we associate with the theater or play and explores how this medium of Gospel reception impacted ancient audiences and indeed may provide modern audiences with a more robust experience of the Gospels. In fact, some scholars urge contemporary public performances of our Gospels. Yet we should note that this would involve ideally the performance of the koine Greek text to native Greek-speakers, which cannot be replicated in the case of modern audiences. And, with regard to ancient audiences, our Gospels offer few clues or indications about performance mechanisms (tone, gestures, etc.) that may have been operative in the original tellings.

In addition, insofar as ancient biographies centered virtually exclusively on the subject of the biography recent scholarship has come to a greater recognition of the Christological focus of our Gospels. It may seem obvious that our Gospels are primarily about Jesus and should therefore be studied accordingly. But earlier scholarship (especially in the twentieth century) often shifted attention away from Jesus himself to various abstract theological ideas, such as ecclesiology or eschatology. These are worthy areas of investigation, but scholars increasingly believe, on the basis of insights from the ancient biographical character of the Gospels, that such investigations should flow from the Gospels’ presentations of Jesus.

Then, too, recent scholarship has manifested some significant tendency to move away from an earlier fixation on the complexion and situation of the (church) community to which a Gospel was presumably addressed in favor of an emphasis on the Gospel’s presentation of Jesus. This backing away from a focus on Gospel “communities” has received impetus from the recognition that ancient biographies were typically intended for a general versus specific audience. Thus, Richard Bauckham and the others who contributed to the book that Bauckham edited, The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences, have rejected the long-held assumption that each of our Gospels was written for a specific church in a limited geographical area in favor of the view that each of our Gospels was intended to be read by all Christians. Not all recent scholarship has accepted this view, noting that the Gospels (with the possible exception of Luke) seem at points to contain implicit specific pastoral concerns. I myself have drawn attention to the fact that the relationship between the Gospel of John and the Johannine Epistles suggests that John’s Gospel, at least, appears to have been directed to a specific limited audience. Nevertheless, we observe that there is less attention to the reconstruction of these communities and to the significance of such reconstruction for the interpretation of the Gospels than in the past and an openness to the possibility that at least some of our Gospels were written for the entire Christian church.

Interpreting the Gospels

Our discussion thus far has focused on recent investigation into the character of our Gospels. In what follows we will examine briefly how recent scholarship has addressed the matter of method, or approach, to gospel interpretation. In sum, we can say that the study of the Gospels has moved from dependence on a single, dominant, author-centered method (redaction criticism) to a variety of approaches that, for the most part, give greater attention to the role of the reader, although we will note one newer approach that enriches the exploration of historical aspects that belong to the more traditional methods.

Redaction criticism dominated Gospel interpretation from the end of the Second World War into the 1980s. As its name suggests, redaction criticism discerns the meaning of Gospel material by analyzing the ways our evangelists redacted, or edited, the traditions at their disposal so as to communicate their theology with a view to addressing perceived deficiencies or problems among their “communities.” Conversely, redaction critics used these editorial alterations by the evangelist to reconstruct the community of each evangelist.

For their analysis, redaction critics generally assumed the two-source hypothesis of Synoptic Gospel relationships, namely, that Matthew and Luke used and edited two sources: the Gospel of Mark (thus deemed the earliest Gospel) and a hypothetical sayings-source called “Q.” They considered the Gospel of John to be either entirely distinct from the synoptic Gospels, in which case they attempted to analyze John’s redaction of earlier traditions which he alone possessed as these traditions were reconstructed by critical scholars, or a highly theologized revision (redaction) of one or more of the synoptics.

The earliest redaction critics attended almost exclusively to the changes, omissions, or additions that the evangelists made to received tradition, assuming that what the evangelists incorporated untouched from earlier tradition could tell us little about their distinctive theologies. As time went on, though, redaction critics came to realize that the teaching of the evangelists was reflected as much in what they incorporated untouched as in the changes they introduced, which led these scholars to infer the message of an evangelist on the basis of how the evangelist both incorporated and altered earlier tradition to compose his Gospel in its final form.

This kind of redaction criticism continues to be found in many scholarly works and commentaries on the Gospels. Yet it has its problems. Not only does the emphasis on specific gospel communities contradict insights from the ancient biographical genre of our Gospels, as we noted above, but also the two-source hypothesis, on which most redaction criticism is dependent, has been challenged by several scholars, some of whom have put forward alternative source theories. While most continue to espouse the two-source hypothesis, it is not held with the same measure of confidence it once enjoyed. But, most importantly, it is questionable to assume that the message of a Gospel is coterminous with the intention of the author (which is itself elusive, since we cannot hope infallibly to get into the heads of people who lived 2000 years ago). Should not the message of the Gospel be discerned by examining the Gospel itself?

Since the 1980s a significant number of scholars, employing insights from the study of literature in general, have insisted that we must grasp the meaning of a Gospel by analyzing the literary dynamics of the Gospel itself. These narrative critics draw heavily on secular narratologists, such as Seymour Chatman, who insists that every narrative has both “story” (what is told) and “discourse” (how it is told). The story includes events, characters, settings, and plot; whereas the discourse consists of the implied author (the author as he presents himself in the narrative itself), the implied reader (the reader that the narrative envisages, that we can infer from the text), and point of view (the relationship between the perspective of the implied author and that of the characters within the narrative). In contrast to redaction criticism, then, narrative criticism is a text-centered rather than an author-centered approach.

Although the earliest narrative critics tended to completely bracket out matters of historical background and to speak of the “narrative world” of the text as a self-contained reality, more recently narrative critics have recognized the importance of historical setting (including sociological and socio-rhetorical realities). Many have also considered more seriously the place of the actual reader in the construal of sense.

This concern for the role of actual readers has led to the emergence of reader-response criticism of the Gospels. Among reader-response critics we find a continuum between “formalists,” who focus on the ways elements in the text direct readers to develop meaning, and “contextualists,” who emphasize the role that the contexts of real readers play in drawing sense from the text. Those reader-response critics who stand on the formalist side have much in common with narrative critics and may be in some instances practically indistinguishable from them. Contextualists, though, give much greater importance to the perspective or concerns of actual readers in the interpretation of Gospel texts.

This contextualist reading has led to the emergence of what Raymond Brown called “advocacy criticisms,” which emphasize the cultural or political context of contemporary readers. Advocacy critics examine Gospel texts from the perspective of feminism, or disability concerns, or postcolonialism (which often employs insights from “Empire studies,” drawing a connection between the dominance of the Roman Empire in the Gospels and modern expressions of political/social power) in order to identify ways texts are either sympathetic or resistant to certain contemporary views on these social issues.

These critics are also concerned to show how the social or political biases of interpreters have influenced their construal of Gospel texts. Advocacy critics often operate with an implicit canon outside the canon in that they bring modern positions of advocacy to the text so as to determine whether the text should be affirmed (insofar as it agrees with the advocacy position of the reader) or resisted in that it is viewed as a text of oppression (insofar as it disagrees with the contemporary advocacy position). This kind of reading can have value in that it may draw our attention to a Gospel’s underlying assumptions regarding power or politics or gender that otherwise we might miss.

Along with these approaches that emphasize the role of readers we note the significance of social-scientific criticism, which employs insights from sociological and cultural/anthropological studies to illumine historical issues associated with the Gospels. Social-scientific criticism has been used to reconstruct the social character of the Gospel communities or to illumine events, persons or settings referenced in the Gospels. Social-scientific criticism is helpful in that it addresses an aspect of historical background that was long neglected in Gospel study. Yet it has limitations. For example, sometimes social theory rather than the text itself in its literary context drives interpretation. Still, if social-scientific criticism is used judiciously it can help to discover additional potential meaning and significance.

A welcome characteristic of most recent Gospel scholarship is a tendency toward integration. Scholars typically have a methodological “target,” but employ insights from various approaches so as to provide richness, depth, and greater plausibility to their interpretations.

Posted Feb 24, 2021