Guest Book Review: Martin Hengel's Die vier Evangelien
My thanks to Dr Thomas Scott Caulley, of Tübingen's Institut zur Erforschung des Urchristentums, for the following superb review of Martin Hengel's, Die vier Evangelien und das eine Evangelium von Jesus Christus, WUNT 224, Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2008. Before I hand over to Scott, I would point out that the Greek font used in the review is SPIonic, which can be downloaded here.
This work is an expansion of Hengel's book, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (SCM/TPI, 2000). The new volume is a re-working of the Vorlage from which The Four Gospels was translated, "um über 40 prozent auf den jetzigen Umfang". Both volumes are dedicated to Hengel's long-time translator and friend, John Bowden, who translated The Four Gospels. Some of this material has roots in Hengel's earlier work, including on the Gospel titles and John's Gospel.
While Hengel engages with the latest scholarship, this book is more than just an updating of the literature. The new section VII.2, "Die 'Minor Agreements' zwischen Lukas and Matthäus gegen Markus", is significant. The previous section VII.1 ("Das Rätsel 'Q'") includes changes which transition to the new material. On the other hand, most of the additions are supplemental to the overall argument, which remains unchanged.
Hengel begins with a two-part problem: (1) What is the relationship between the early Christian understanding of "Gospel" as the preached message (Paul); to the written "biographical" reports of the four Gospels, and how can both of these represent the same title ("Gospel")? (2) How is it that we possess these written "Gospels" in a four-fold form, which though canonical, presents us with several contradictions? He restates the problem in two overlapping questions: (A) "What was the 'Gospel' originally, as the message of salvation? Was it accounts of Jesus from his closest followers, or was it teaching about him as "christology" and "soteriology"? Or is this only an apparent contradiction? Must not the Gospel have necessarily contained both from the beginning? (B) Why, and from what time have we had the "Gospel" also as story (Erzählung), and indeed in such different literary forms?
Hengel's answer to these questions leads to the conclusion that the gospel was both "proclamation" and "story". He points to proclamation in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, but notes that "story" was not totally absent in Paul. The "narrated Gospel" is most important in the case of Peter, whom Hengel believes stands firmly behind Mark's Gospel. Finally, Hengel compares the Gospel to the Torah, two examples of the "Erzählung des Heilsgeschehens".
Hengel defends a traditional "slow-growth" theory of the development of the four-Gospel collection, against recent attempts to redefine that development as "punctiliar" (variously, T. Heckel; D. Trobisch). He faults H. Gamble (Books and Readers) among others for perpetuating the old assumption that the Gospels were circulated as anonymous documents—Hengel thinks the titles were necessarily present once the Gospels began circulating. "Jedes schriftliche Evangelium braucht den Nachweis der Autorität, die dahinter steht". The reception of Mark's Gospel in Rome, the congregation which emerged as de facto leader of the Christian west after the destruction of Jerusalem and Neronian persecution, marks the transition from the use of the term "Gospel" as preached message to written document.
Hengel's detailed account of the first Christian "book cupboards" is integral to his argument. As book titles met the needs of the libraries, scriptoria and book shops of hellenism, the titles of the Gospels were functional necessities in the church from early on. Hengel notes what others have pointed out, namely that in the manner of ascription, the titles of the Gospels break with convention found throughout the hellenistic world. This usual form is the genitive of the author's name, followed by the title of the work. Indeed, this conventional form is used with the Catholic epistles (Pe/trou e)pistolh/ A). The apparently unprecedented Kata\ Ma/rkon, etc. as ascriptive title is a shortened form, presupposing the collection title, "The Gospel(s)". The short titles within the collection should thus be rendered: "(The Gospel) in the version according to Mark", or "Luke", etc. But since "der eigentliche 'Autor' des einen Evangeliums war Jesus Christus selbst", the ascription to the "human author" in the genitive is inappropriate, and we find instead in Mark 1:1, "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ". Thus, the title of the work cannot read simply "Ma/rkou eu)agge/lion", as convention would dictate, and the double genitive Ma/rkou eu)agge/lion )Ihsou~ Xristou~ would be stylistically very awkward.
Hengel argues for the priority of Luke over Matthew. He sees in the Lukanischen Doppelwerk the work of a "direct" Paulusschüler as well as Pauline companion. Acts cannot have been written a long time after Paul. Where would an anonymous 2nd century author have acquired the historical details in Acts which are largely confirmed by a comparison to Paul's epistles? The "We" sections in Acts are not from an unknown source, but are autobiographical reports in the same style as the entire work. Citing Luke's Passion narrative with Jesus' admonition about the coming catastrophe (Lk 23:28-31), Hengel asserts that the author of Luke must have experienced those days, after which he also was involved in the disputes with fanatical Christians over the imminent expectation of the Parousia.
In the last part of the work Hengel outlines his case that Matthew is the latest of the Synoptics, and dependent upon both Mark and Luke. In general, Matthew reflects the Jewish War only where he inherits the material from Mark. On the other hand, like John Matthew reflects the later development of the Christian argument with the Synagogue that emerged as stronger after the war. Matthew presupposes the post-70 emergence of the Pharisaic Scribe as preeminent religious authority in Palestine, a situation reflected throughout the Gospel, but especially in Matthew 23 (the hendiadys "Scribes and Pharisees", and Matthew's special material "The Scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; so do what they say, but not what they do..."). The trinitarian formula of Matt 28:19 suggests a relatively late time of writing. Finally, next to John's Gospel Matthew presupposes the furthest development of the polemic between Jews and Christians. Hengel adds a section here not found in The Four Gospels expanding his argument for the early date of Luke-Acts. In closing, Hengel cites the irony that the two "non-apostolic" Gospels are the earlier of the four, and closely linked to the apostles. The other two are later, and bear the apostolic names with which they were provided. Once a Gospel had been identified as apostolic, all subsequent Gospels must also be apostolic.
Hengel builds a plausible case for the origins of the reception of the Gospels in the early churches. He notes that in hellenistic contexts, under certain circumstances a well-known pseudepigraphical name was given to a document so that it would not be anonymous. It is suggested that the first Gospel received its title in this manner. But this solutions begs the question, Who made such decisions, and how did they become nearly universally accepted, and, seemingly "over night"? The argument, "once a Gospel had been identified as apostolic, all subsequent Gospels must also be apostolic" seems a bit contrived. Was this not rather merely a function of advancing time and changing needs of the communities?
While Hengel makes an impressive case for the early superscription of titles to the Gospels, pushing the events back into early obscurity does not ultimately answer the questions about the remarkable uniformity of the Gospel titles, the near-universal popularity of the codex in Christian circles, and the seemingly universal use of the nomina sacra in early Christian texts. In fact, Hengel's argument against D. Trobisch (that "the Vierversammlung cannot have been the work of an individual Christian authority or school, since no person, no school, and no congregation in the early 2nd century possessed the authority and power to impose on everyone else their individual decision about a four-Gospel collection") appears to work against his own case. While we owe Prof. Hengel a great debt for illuminating the events and possible motivations behind the development of the four-Gospel collection, the search continues for more complete answers to these basic questions about the early Christians and their scriptures.
Thomas Scott Caulley