Baker Academic

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Hooks, Brushstrokes, and the Four Evangelists - Le Donne

A few days ago, the venerable Nijay Gupta posted an excerpt of Adam’s Parallel Lives’ of Jesus (WJK, 2011). Nijay asked what folks thought about these one-liners:
Matthew’s Gospel is the most Jewish of the four and the one that is most clearly oriented toward the Old Testament…
Mark’s Gospel is the most action packed of the four Gospels, with much more space given to the deeds of Jesus rather than his words…
Luke’s Gospel is the most social oriented of the four, laying special emphasis on Jesus’ concern for the poor, the disadvantaged, and those on the edges of society…
John’s Gospel is simultaneously the simplest and most profound Gospel…Its plainness and clarity make it accessible to new readers, and its depth continually challenges and stimulates those who know it well…
I promptly voiced my dissatisfaction and then promised to “check in later”, which I never did until this morning. So it seems that I’m something of a liar. You may want to take the rest of this post with a grain of salt.  But as it was Nijay's birthday yesterday (I could be fabricating this entirely), I thought that I'd revisit the topic.

I appreciated Chris Skinner’s comment:
Mark is concerned to present Jesus as the Christ and Son of God. These titles say something distinctive about Mark’s understanding of Jesus and what he accomplished. They also stand as a somewhat ironic testimony to the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom in the world. After all, how does one reckon with a cruficifed Christ and Son of God……
And I found this comment by Ben Blackwell particularly helpful:

I always find the “Matthew is the most Jewish” an interesting and unhelpful statement. Of course, he uses Kingdom of Heaven and has some direct fulfillment statements, but Luke’s Gospel is striking, to me at least, in its presentation of events as typologically (?) fulfilling the OT. Thus, rather than individual proof texts, the whole narrative attempts to show coherence with the OT, and so partially toungue-in-cheek I argue to students it is the most “Jewish” of the four. At any rate, to be the most “Jewish” means there is an implicit standard of Judaism, which begs the question of which Judaism.
I think that broad brushstrokes are always going to warrant dissatisfaction among specialists. That said, such pedagogical tools are inevitable.  We must commend teachers like Eddie Adams for attempting to provide students with hooks upon which their hats can reside.  But there is much more to be said about these particular hooks.

I agree with Ben that the statement "Matthew is the most Jewish" can be misleading. In a recent essay in this book Joel Lohr argues that Matthew's orientation is toward the great commission. Matthew leaves his Jewish opponents behind at the end and focuses entirely on gaining gentile disciples ("go unto all gentiles"). In this view, much of Matthew is about demonstrating that Matthew's synagogue counterparts have had ample time to accept the messiah and have chosen blindness instead. Texts like the "sheep and the goats" suggest a deep debt to Jewish eschatology while betraying a deep angst about the consequences for those on the wrong side of the fence. We might grant the statement that Matthew is most oriented toward "OT" fulfillment, but the ostensible agenda is to leverage the "OT" against Jewish disbelievers in Jesus.  I have argued elsewhere that Matthew's indebtedness to Jewish scripture and eschatology might project a more "authentic" light onto Jesus. Indeed, Matthew's most blatant revisions of Mark might give us the most plausible portrayals of Jesus' character and voice.

One wonders how much Matthew and Paul had in common... was the polemic itself a hope for Jewish discipleship? But, of course, Paul seems certifiably crazy to modern ears on this point (Rom 10:19). So good luck convincing anyone that Matthew is just taking the "tough love" angle.

We might see Luke as the yin to Matthew's yang. Luke is no less interested in the "OT", but his agenda is more proactive.  Whereas Matthew leverages the "OT" against failed disciples, Luke leverages the "OT" positively toward gentile discipleship. Within Luke's orientation toward the outsider, the movement of the Holy Spirit demonstrates that God has extended the spiritual benefits of chosenness beyond the borders of Israel.  Did this thought, framed this way, ever cross Jesus' mind?  I claim blissful ignorance.

I agree with Nijay, that John's "Jewishness" should not be understated. John is abstract, philosophical, interested in stark opposites, defining insiders and outsiders, and has little sympathy for the outsiders. There is a deep Hellenism at work in John; of this I have no doubt.  But is the Fourth Gospel any more or less Jewish than ben Sira?  Moreover, we could easily describe the Yahad (of Dead Sea Scrolls fame) as "abstract, philosophical, interested in stark opposites, defining insiders and outsiders, and has little sympathy for the outsiders."  John is nails on a chalkboard when heard against the reverberations of Chrysostom, the crusades, Luther, the holocaust, Billy Graham, etc.  It might actually serve our society better to downplay John's debts to Hellenistic Judaism(s). But no serious reader of John's Gospel can avoid the nature of his Jewishness. It is not whether he was Jewish and anti-Jewish, it is a question of how he was Jewish and anti-Jewish. The same could be said of Matthew. The key here is retrospect.  In retrospect, Matthew seems more Jewish through the lenses of anti-Jewish Christendom (otherwise known as the vast majority of Christianity), while John seems less Jewish.

Mark. Mark is a puzzle with half of the pieces missing and no image on the box-cover by which to compare one's progress. Still, there is something timeless about the recognition that Mark is a passion narrative with a biographical prefix.  From this perspective, Mark is an apologetic work that vindicates Jesus over and against the fact of the crucifixion.  But this still doesn't quite capture Mark's enigmatic view of the world and of Jesus as Christ.  I have tinkered with an idea for over a decade now: "Mark the Apocalyptic Gospel."




  1. You deserve a few one-liners in response. My thoughts on the four gospels are not the result of long years of study - but I did colour code the whole bunch about 15 years ago. For me - Matthew and his 5-part structure is like Torah and like the Psalter (David's Torah). Mark is two-part with the pivot in the middle, and the one that would be most easily performed from memory. Luke is the liturgist - and John is the recognition of the one and the many (as in the Psalms) 0 the 'I am the vine'...

  2. I find R.T. France still helpful ("Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher," Paternoster, 1989), especially in pointing out Matthew's paradoxical approach to the "people of God." Matthew is the "most Jewish" Gospel while at the same time being the least Jewish in certain ways. We should not neglect in this discussion the competing influences of Palestinian vs. Diaspora Judaisms (M. Hengel notwithstanding). Matthew's five-part organization of Jesus' ministry regularly blurs the boundary between the story of Jesus and his disciples and the story of Matthew and his readers: the use of ekklesia; the discussion of "life in the church" in the (artificial) setting of the disciples' short-term mission trip around Galilee; note the material on persecution located not in the Synoptic Apocalypse section, as in Luke, but in Matthew 10. At the same time, Matthew picks up the "Petros/Petra" word-play, as well as his use of the by-then technical term "ekklesia"-- things stemming from a Diaspora Jewish or a Gentile setting. Matthew emphasizes the reversal of fortunes visited on the "sons of the kingdom" in favor of tax collectors and sinners, and of Gentiles "from the east and the west" who will come into the kingdom instead of them (not just ahead of them). While Matthew's Jesus does condemn the Pharisees and "Scribes and Pharisees," he also condemns "this generation"-- the Israelites themselves. Truly Matthew himself comes off (intentionally or not) as the Scribe trained for the Kingdom of Heaven who brings out of his treasure things both old and new. In the process he defies close and simplistic categorization.

  3. "And he commanded the people to sit down on the ground" Mk.8-6.

    Is Mark anti-Jewish or anti-first or second century Jewish Messianism?

    Mark has noticed that messiahs of the type wandering around the Near East in the first and second C.E. centuries haven't done the Jewish people much good (70 C.E. & 135 C.E.). And since God wants what is best for the Jew's, it must be that these messiahs are misreadings of holy scripture.

    What's Mark doing other than rereading scripture in order to produce a messiah which he thinks will be pleasing to the Lord? That's hardly anti-Jewish.