“The most ancient tradition of the Christian church is that the fourfold gospel came into existence in response to the needs experienced in some locality for an authoritative written word in addition to the continuous oral and unwritten preaching of the gospels by the earliest apostles.” Black, D. 2010, p.21
I first encountered the academic argument concerning the apostles as the original and authoritative eyewitnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus, in both oral and written form, while reading Richard Bauckham’s ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’. Until then much of my reading and understanding of the Gospels and their purpose had oscillated between Bultmann’s form criticism and Dunn’s oral tradition. Somewhere along the way I had settled for an inspired redaction theory of the gospels and their portrayal of Jesus; especially when it came to the gospel of Matthew. Upon reflection I am left wondering if both Bauckham and Black might provide a way through the haze, although it must be said there are some big assumptions which must be deconstructed if we are going to except the Patristic evidence as presented by Black!
In the 2nd chapter entitled of ‘Why Four Gospels’ entitled, “The Origins of the Gospels” Black seeks to bridge the gap between critical historical scholarship and the witness of the early church fathers. It is apparent, even to a novice such as myself, the majority of gospel scholarship has determined this witness to be unreliable. This strikes me as peculiar. Can someone explain it to me?
It all goes back to the Enlightenment (as do many of our academic and spiritual ills it seems). It is Black’s claim, and I would agree, the enlightenment sought to install human reason as the “final arbiter in all human affairs in place of Christian faith”. As it relates to Biblical studies, in particular studies of the Gospels, it would appear the overwhelming consensus of critical scholars is the witness of the early church fathers is unreliable. Personally I find this most puzzling. As Black argues, the philosophy of the 18th century determined it was impossible for the Gospels to have been written by the apostles and therefore were the result of “legend and hearsay”. The result for Gospel scholarship was enlightenment thinking was given precedence over Christian antiquity and tradition. Presumably if the Gospels were not reliable, those who supposedly gave witness to them were also unreliable!
I will not repost Black’s short but detailed account of the early church father’s writings on these matters. Needless to say it is Black’s conclusion that integrity of the early church father’s witness is solid. As a result of Black’s belief in the patristic witness he argues for Mathean priori over Markan priori arguing the sources reveal Mark as being written after Matthew. Black goes on to evaluate, and once again I won’t rewrite the argument, the Markan priori hypothesis (and we must remember that is what it is!). Black goes on to argue his belief that Matthew was followed by Luke and Mark was a written version of Peter’s preaching (which Black argues was based on Matthew and Luke) and John came some time later. I’ll leave it to Dave to explain how and why he believes this!
Essentially what Black does in this chapter is ground his working hypothesis regarding the purpose and order of the Gospels within the context of the earliest witnesses the church has. The results being his conclusions fly in the face of much modern critical scholarship. For this I am sure he wins few friends amongst the guild!
I like the extremely positive and trusting approach Black has to these earliest witnesses and the authority his hypothesis restores to the Gospels. It says that you and I can trust the historical Jesus of the Gospels. Black does not seek to recreate the Jesus behind the gospels as some Gospel scholars seek to do, or create an anonymous community within the Gospels as many, myself included, are prone to do over and above the Gospel witness of Jesus the Messiah! The result, in my mind at least, is a Jesus we can know and trust as if the Apostles themselves were preaching to us!