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Friday, December 12, 2008

dating the gospels: does it matter?

Weekend Fisher has begun a series of posts on dating the gospels at her blog Heart, Mind, Soul, and Strength. Her first post looks at Jesus' prediction of the destruction of the Temple, comparing and contrasting it with other prophecies of Jesus in the same gospel.

By looking at the differences in how Mark handles Jesus' predictions of his death and Jesus' predictions of the Temple's destruction, Weekend Fisher tries to make the case that this gospel was written before the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD. I'm not fully convinced — though I'm not fully convinced it was written after 70 AD either.

I'm not going to address the pros and cons of the various dating hypotheses (not today, anyway). What I want to consider for the moment is whether we really gain anything from looking at the gospels this way.

I'll start by admitting that I'm fascinated by critical biblical scholarship. I find it very satisfying intellectually not just to read what a scholar has to say, but to evaluate his or her positions — examine the texts cited and decide: Do I agree with the conclusions, or is this scholar full of crap?

But whether or not it is intellectually stimulating, the question arises whether critical scholarship is edifying. Does it promote a healthier faith?

This is a more complicated question. It's certainly possible by looking at the Bible through the lens of scholarship, to gradually (or even suddenly) drift away from the faith. Bart Ehrman is the obvious example here. It's also possible to withdraw so completely in the ivory tower of academia as to lose touch with the practical application of the gospel message.

On the other hand, one of the reasons I find critical scholarship fascinating is because of the questions it raises, the evidence used to resolve these questions, and the further questions raised as a result. For example, we have four gospels. How long after Jesus' death were they written? Which gospel was written first? Were the gospels written independently of each other, or did the later writers know of, and have access to, the earlier gospels? And how could we tell?

One of the ways scholars try to answer these questions is by comparing how two gospels describe the same event. For example, this is how Matthew describes the baptism of Jesus:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:13-17)

Here is Mark's account of the same event:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." (Mark 1:9-11)

Luke's account:
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." (Luke 3:21-22)

And John's:
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, "After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel." And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God." (John 1:29-34)

There is only one element (other than the presence of Jesus) common to all four accounts: The Spirit descending like a dove. Neither John the Baptist nor the baptism itself is mentioned explicitly in all four gospels. Why not? And what does it mean?

Mark's account is the simplest: Jesus goes to the Jordan River and gets baptized by John. Jesus receives a private revelation, he sees the Spirit descend like a dove, and he hears a voice say, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." In this account, nobody else saw or heard the revelation.

Matthew's account differs in a few respects: In this account, John initially doesn't want to baptize Jesus, and Jesus has to talk him into it. Also, the voice from heaven says, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." This seems to indicate that it was a public revelation rather than a private one. On the other hand, Matthew uses the phrase "the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending…". So in Matthew it's not entirely clear whether this is a public or a private revelation, or maybe a mixture.

Luke's account differs even more. First we are told just prior to this that Herod has had John the Baptist arrested (v. 20). Luke thus does not mention John's presence at Jesus' baptism. Like Matthew's account, the public or private nature of the revelation is ambiguous. On the one hand, "the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove," but on the other hand, the voice says, as in Mark, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

John's account is perhaps the most radical departure from the others: In this account, John the Baptist is the one who sees the Spirit descending like a dove. And did you notice? This gospel does not actually say that John baptized Jesus.

How does all this help us date the gospels? Let's assume for a minute that the simplest account was the first to be written. This is a reasonable assumption because it makes more sense for a later author to add explanatory material than to remove explanatory material.

So, on this assumption, the gospel of Mark was the first to be written. To put it another way, at one time this was the church's only written account of the baptism of Jesus. He went to to Jordan river and was baptized by John. But wait! Wasn't John "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," (Mark 1:4)? And wasn't Jesus sinless? So why would he have needed to be baptized at all?

The other three gospels all differ from Mark on precisely this point. Matthew says John wants Jesus to baptize him. Luke changes the order of events to separate John and Jesus. And the gospel of John has John the Baptist give testimony about Jesus in lieu of baptizing him.

We can see a clear development of the gospel message from Mark to Matthew to Luke to John. Mark comments on the historical event without explanation. Matthew gives a vague explanation about "fulfilling all righteousness." Luke downplays the baptism, recognizing that the Spirit's descent is the important element of the story. And John eliminates the baptism entirely. This trajectory can give us a good working hypothesis about the order in which the gospels were written. From here, we can examine other parallel passages to see if the same pattern holds.

But — to get back to the question I'm trying to explore in this post — can this type of study enrich our faith?

For myself, the answer is an unequivocal yes. For one thing, I see the same type of theological development in my own faith journey. When I first started taking my faith seriously at age 17, my beliefs were rather simple. Subsequently I've had lots of questions that have deepened my faith — even as I've sought better explanations to replace tentative answers that have not been ultimately satisfying.

Additionally, looking at the gospels in parallel has underlined the themes unique to each one that are not always obvious reading them separately. These themes raise further questions for study: Why is Mark so obsessed with secrecy about Jesus' identity? Why is Matthew so obsessed with fulfillment of prophecy? What message is Luke sending by so frequently pairing stories of Jesus' encounters with Jews and Gentiles, with men and women? What is the importance of the seven signs or the seven "I am" statements in John's gospel?

Finally, my faith has grown with each new unanswered question. That may sound counter-intuitive, but the reality for me is that in a universe which could be easily understood, I would have a hard time believing in a God who transcends our knowledge. The real universe, where every answer yields new questions, is a good metaphor for a God who is ultimately beyond human understanding.

But that's just my answer. It's not for everybody. I can see how someone could get so caught up in the academic questions that they forget what the gospels are all about. I can also see how some people might get lost in the details and not get anything out of it. God loves and blesses those with a simple faith. But for chronic questioners like me, God provides a way to channel that curiosity to enrich our faith.

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