IT has become fashionable to relate the Gospels of Matthew and Mark primarily to Christian worship, and Luke-Acts to apologetic.But there is much to be said for finding apologetic as a prominent motive in all three Synoptic Gospels and perhaps also in St John's Gospel, in the sense that they constitute works of 'explanation'. Not that Matt. and Mk. are at all likely to have been written as tracts for the unbeliever to read: they are undoubtedly Church-books. But even so they are most easily explainable as instruction, certainly for believers in the first instance, but with special reference to unbelievers: aids to Christians in explaining their faith and defending it when occasion offered.
The attempts to relate Matt. and Mk. primarily to worship are not wholly convincing. Carrington's theory that Mk. follows a lectionary system does not seem to stand up to closer scrutiny; and although Kilpatrick makes possible the thesis that Matt. represents the adaptation of Christian traditions for reading at worship, Stendahl's thesis that it represents rather the work of a school of exposition is more plausible.And, when one comes to think about it, it is obvious enough that, once someone had accepted the kerygma, he would need a filling out of it and (as it were) an 'embodiment' of the Jesus who had been thus briefly proclaimed as Lord. The evangelistic message of Paul, as we deduce it from references in his epistles, would have lacked the power to hold the affections and loyalty of the believer if it had never been reinforced by a portrait of the Lord in his words and deeds; and, what is more, it would have been virtually impossible to explain Christianity to an enquirer or defend it against an antagonist without some circumstantial account of 'how it all happened'. It is all very well to say to the Jerusalem crowd very soon after the crucifixion that the Jesus whom they crucified has been made Lord and Christ (Acts ii. 36); but hearers remoter in time or place would necessarily ask, Who is this Jesus, and how came he to be crucified by his own people? And even the already converted would very soon ask, What is known about his story? What sort of words and deeds are connected with him? Why did he fall foul of his own people? It is in the context of such enquiry that the Gospels seem most likely to have taken shape.
Matt. has again and again been called the Gospel for the Jews. But it might more truly be called the Gospel against the Jews:so much of it reads like ammunition for Christians to use when attacked by non-Christian Jews who say, Your Master was no Messiah (answer – yes, he was: of Davidic descent, fitting into the pattern of prophecy (Matt. i. 1 ff., and passim)); or, Your Master was no true rabbi – he undermined the Law (answer – on the contrary, he set more rigorous standards than the Jewish rabbis (Matt. v. 17-20)); or, the Nazarenes' claim to be true Israel is false (answer – no, it is on the confession of Jesus as Christ that the assembly of Israel is built (Matt. xvi. 18)); or, What business have you to be going out to the Gentiles? (answer – the Lord, it is true, kept carefully within Israel during his own ministry, and directed his disciples accordingly; but his long-term sayings and his commission were universalist (Matt. viii. 11, x. 5, 23, xv. 26, xxviii. 19)). Here are just the sort of arguments that might have been used in such conflict, and it is easy to see Matt. as a text-book for Christians living very near (if not in) a Jewish ghetto: possibly 'near' rather than 'in', for it has been questioned whether the Christians from whom it springs were themselves Jewish. It is very clearly aimed at Jews: is it as clear that it is aimed by Jews? There are one or two details that seem surprising if they are assumed to have been written by one who knew the inside of Judaism. On the other hand, admittedly, there is the famous allusion to the scribe turned Christian (Matt. xiii. 52), and a respect for the ideals of scribes (Matt. xxiii. 2, 34). Is it possible that Matt. represents the work of a thoughtful group of Christians (Stendahl's 'school') – a kind of 'study-group' (cf. p. 74, above) – comprising both Jews and Gentiles, who had together assembled the traditions (including Mark) and formulated the arguments and presented a portrait of Jesus such as would help them and their community in standing up to non-Christian Jews? Here is a body of Christians 'explaining' themselves as true Israel, vis-d-vis near neighbours who spit out their name as unclean. The target of attack is the 'hypocrite' which (for this community), means the non-Christian Pharisaic Jew, just as the ethnikos is the non-Christian Gentile.
No doubt we are bound to find room, in any account of how Matt. came to be and what it was for, for the persistent early tradition of a Semitic writing by the apostle Matthew.The most often quoted form of that tradition is that in Papias (apud Euseb. H.E. iii. 39. 16), which speaks of 'the oracles' (τὰ λόγια), translated from the Semitic original by each reader as best he could. It seems to be widely agreed that the Gospel as we know it does not offer any clear evidence of being, as a whole, and in its more distinctive parts, a translation, and includes material which it is difficult to attribute to one of the Twelve. But it is difficult to see how the tradition of a Semitic and apostolic original sprang up at all if there is absolutely nothing behind it. It is simplest, probably, to postulate a Semitic apostolic sayings-collection – perhaps (as was said above, p. 84) the very one (usually called 'Q') which it appears Luke also used; and to assume that, at however many removes from the original, this contributed to the traditions drawn into our present Gospel. It still remains possible to see the Gospel as it now stands as a collection of 'explanations' for Christians to use among themselves for edification and in conflict with opponents.
If 'the oracles' are identified with some such early Semitic source lying behind both Matt. and Lk., then it is conceivable that Papias' allusion to diverse Greek versions ('each reader translated them as best he could') may help to explain some of the differences between Matt. and Lk. in these parallel passages.This is not, of course, to deny that many differences – perhaps the majority – may be traced to the theological and other predilections of the editors or collectors (in their common use of Mk. this is demonstrable); it is only to suggest that some of them may be accounted for as variant renderings of a common Semitic original. This would hold good in some measure at least, even if an extreme position were adopted, postulating (as is the tendency in Scandinavian scholarship) oral traditions rather than anything so rigid as a document ('Q').
One thing is clear about the enigmatic Gospel according to Matthew as we now have it: it embraces a considerable breadth of tradition, and no one absolutely consistent outlook can be extracted from it. It may be that the actual writer himself (or writers, if it was a group) had a consistent policy and outlook – for instance, approval of the evangelization of the Gentiles and a defence of the Christian Church as true Israel without making them proselytes. But respect for the traditions, and a desire to preserve them even when they could not be fitted into the scheme, have evidently weighed heavier than the desire for consistency. Hence particularist or rigorist sayings stand side by side with liberal and universalist ones. Perhaps the most glaring discrepancy is constituted by the presence within this Gospel of the famous saying in Matt. x. 23 'before you have gone through all the towns of Israel the Son of Man will have come'. Either the evangelist identified the coming of the Son of Man here with the Resurrection, despite other passages in which it seems clearly to relate to the remoter future; or he is interpreting the mission-charge of Matt. x without any relation to the context in the ministry of Jesus in which he has himself placed it, and applying it instead to his own contemporary situation; or he is faithfully preserving a saying found in his traditions, which (whether genuinely dominical or not) had ceased to have any relation to his own day; or, finally, the saying originally related to the 'coming of the Son of Man' in the crisis of the Jewish war.Of these difficult choices, the last is perhaps the least difficult to believe.
There is another Matthean saying, already touched on (above, pp. 73, 89), which is notoriously difficult to fit convincingly into the scheme – the 'rigorist' one in v. 18 about the permanence of the law and the prophets:' I tell you this: so long as heaven and earth endure, not a letter, not a stroke, will disappear from the Law until all that must happen has happened' (or, N.E.B. margin, 'before all that it stands for is achieved'). But it is possible that this was deliberately retained by the Evangelist from his traditions, in order to rebut charges levelled by Jews against Christians of undermining the high standards of Pharisaic Judaism. It would be as much as to say, Jesus himself set a maximum, not a minimum standard. Is not this a more likely explanation than the one more usually offeredthat it reflects strictures on antinomianism within the Matthean community? Is it not rather ammunition brought out from the armoury of the logia (though in this case not also used by Luke) against non-Christians who are attacking the Christians (as St Paul was attacked) for ruining Judaism?
If we view Matt. as a collection of traditions by a Christian group who may have had a definite view-point of their own and a definite defence to maintain against Jewish antagonists, but who yet were more anxious to preserve the traditions than to observe consistency everywhere, we shall perhaps be seeing it in its true light. It need hardly be added that its careful arrangement in topical sections makes plausible the idea that it was planned for the instruction of believers in their faith and its vindication. This is a manual (in this respect something like the Didache), a catechist's book: but it is for instruction in apologetic quite as much as in religion and morals.
Mk. , on a simpler scale, also furnishes material for explanation and defence. It shows how jealousy and antagonism arose; it points to the recognition of Jesus by the few as Christ and Son of God, and explains his rejection by the many. It contains a nucleus of the stories of his mighty deeds and words. It is not nearly so pointedly anti-Judaic as Matt.: it is suitable for the training of Christians generally, in explaining, whether to Jews or Gentiles, how it all began, and why they hold Jesus to be Christ and the Son of God. It opens with a pesher-style application of scripture (for which see pp. 61 f., above) – including the very scripture in Isa. xl ('the voice of one crying ...') which we now know was being used also in the Qumran circles (1QS, viii. 12-16), combined with another scripture (Mal. iii. 1 or Exod. xxiii. 20); these are declared to apply to the circumstances of John the Baptist. And throughout this Gospel Old Testament testimonia occur. Mk. is the apostolic kerygma – Old Testament evidence and all – built up into a vivid, narrative form.
Lk. and Jn, each in its own way, are different again. It is easier to imagine them as devised actually to be put into the hands of an opponent or a doubter, and not as dependent on verbal mediation by the Christian. If Matt. and Mk. are instructions to help Christians to explain themselves, both to themselves and to others, Lk.-Acts, at any rate, is a single individual's direct address to a catechumen (as Theophilus may have been) and to others of his type – the people on the fringe, the outsiders who are looking enquiringly within; possibly even, through them, to really antagonistic readers also.Not that it does not contain magnificent material for the building up of the Christian body; but if we are looking for primary purposes, it looks like something outward-aiming. It is most improbable that it would have been produced in many copies. Most likely the single autograph was handed to a single individual, Theophilus, only later to be copied (and perhaps embellished, as in the d-text). It is possible, admittedly, to exaggerate the apologetic character of Acts. From time to time it is described as though its one object was to prove to the Roman authorities (through His Excellency Theophilus) that Christianity has as much right to exist as Israel – or rather, that Christians alone are true Israel. It is doubtful (cf. p. 122, below) whether Luke would have done exactly what he has done if that had been his single aim. Without denying this motive as a contributory element, it is nearer the mark to see the Acts as, in the main, a grand vindication of the will of God. It is the story of the minute but mighty mustard-seed; it is the narrative of the Holy Spirit championing and vindicating the cause of Christ in such a way that prison-bars go down like clay before the divine decree; or, if a witness of the Gospel does lay down his life, then it turns out positively to be to the furtherance of the very cause that the enemy is putting to the sword. The whole story runs to its climax through storm and shipwreck, the plotting of evil men and the attack of the serpent: nothing can prevent the 'chosen vessel' from achieving God's design.
Here, then, in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, each with its peculiar emphasis, may be found the deposit of early Christian explanation: here are the voices of Christians explaining what led to their existence – how they came to be: telling the story to themselves, that they may tell it to others, or even telling it directly to those others.
What may be said about the genesis and purpose of St John's Gospel, the great enigma? It declares of itself that its object is to aid belief (xx. 31). Does that mean to strengthen belief in the already believing, or to create belief in the unbelieving? This is a familiar problem, and almost certainly cannot be settled on purely grammatical grounds. The clause (in either of its two variant forms) could, if need be, mean either or both.If we are to find an answer at all, it must be in the character of the Gospel (and its related epistles) as a whole. Recently, some strong bids have been made to have it as a Gospel for Jews – diaspora Jews, who are offered a brilliant representation of early Palestinian traditions of high historical worth in such form as to speak to their needs and hesitations and compel their attention. But it is almost impossible to explain certain phenomena if it was meant for Jews exclusively: that the Passover was a Jewish Festival is scarcely a gloss that such would need. It is easier to see it as meant for Jew and Gentile alike, and to read the glosses – so painfully elementary even for Jews of the dispersion – as put in for the benefit of Gentiles.
More important is its general outlook and approach. This Gospel, unlike the others, answers the question, 'What must I do to be saved?' The others mainly confine themselves to the story of discipleship; the Fourth Gospel speaks in terms not only of following and imitation, but of belief and incorporation. What is less often noticed is that it also answers the question 'What must I do ...' – it is an extremely individualistic message. Whereas St Paul sees Jesus as the New Humanity, the incorporative Body in which all are organically connected limbs, the one in whom the resurrection of all mankind has actually taken place, St John sees Jesus as the source of life, to be connected with whom is, for each individual, life eternal. He sees the Holy Spirit in each heart as the presence of the Lord, and he can speak already of fulfilment in this realm precisely because he does move on the individual level. He does not deny a general resurrection at the last day or a coming of the Lord at the end. But he is concerned with the individual's faith and contact with the Lord of life now. Here is a Gospel that – to that extent – could be readily accepted by the Gentile mind. Perhaps it is the evangelist's explanation of Christianity to the cosmopolitan people of Ephesus, Jew and Greek alike.
Yet it also contains tough polemic against Jews. The conflict of Jesus with his antagonists, especially in Chapters vii, viii, and ix, is reminiscent of the sternest Jewish controversy of other parts of the New Testament, including some of the Pauline Epistles, and Matt. In Chapter ix the story of the man born blind seems to be told in such a way as to typify the consequences of Christian baptism in an antagonistic Jewish setting. The human condition of being born in sin (v. 34) is equivalent to being (spiritually) blind from birth (v. i). Enlightenment (or Baptism) comes from washing in water which is (like Christ himself) divinely 'sent' (v. 7). Perhaps even baptismal anointing is hinted at by the ἐπέχρισεν ('smeared') of v. 11 (though in v. 6 it is ἐπέθηκεν, simply 'applied'.) There follows the simple Christian witness, 'once I was blind, now I can see' (v. 25); and ultimately this is found to imply the basic Christian confession – belief in Jesus as Son of God (? or Son of Man, the reading is uncertain) and Lord (w. 35-38). The inevitable result of 'enlightenment' is ostracism and excommunication from the synagogue (vv. 22, 34). Thus, although the order of events is not accommodated precisely to the pattern of baptism, the scattered phrases and the total picture add up to an irresistible impression that a genuine piece of dominical tradition is being retold in the light of the prevailing conflicts. And it is easy to believe the same of Chapters vii and viii, as well as of other less extended passages here and there.
Here, then, may be good traditions of the actual controversies of Christ's own life-time, preserved and re-set in such a way as to be entirely topical to the evangelist's own circumstances. In a city like Ephesus, the mystic and the rabbinic Jew, the gnostic and the ebionite jostled one another: and the story of the Word of God incarnate, with his mighty words and luminous deeds had messages for all.
In all four Gospels, the passion narrative is a prominent and proportionately large component part. In none of them is it told in such a way as to make the redemptive aspect of the death of Christ particularly obvious, although the Old Testament allusions make it clear that the whole story is treated as the fulfilment of God's design of salvation for his people – so much so that its very opponents unconsciously help to weave the pattern. Once again, then, it is an explanatory or an apologetic purpose that seems to underlie the telling; and this indeed seems to be served not only by the Old Testament allusions but also by what is ostensibly straight narration. It is precisely the apologetic purpose that has, according to one of the latest of the numerous reconstructions, grossly distorted the trial narratives of the Gospels. P. Winter argues