The New English Bible
© The Delegates of the Oxford University Press. The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1970. Standard Book numbers Oxford University Press: 19 326160 8. Cambridge University Press: 521 07705. Printed in Great Britain at the University Printing House, Cambridge. (Brooke Crutchley, University Printer)
Preface (page vii) THE NEW TESTAMENT (page 3) THE GOSPEL (page 13) According to MATTHEW (page 17) According to MARK (page 111) According to LUKE (page 222) According to JOHN (page 300) ACTS OF THE APOSTLES (page 401) LETTERS (page 503) The Letter of Paul to the ROMANS (page 505) The First Letter of Paul to the CORINTHIANS (page 540) The Second Letter of Paul to the CORINTHIANS (page 572) The Letter of Paul to the GALATIANS (page 598) The Letter of Paul to the EPHESIANS (page 617) The Letter of Paul to the PHILIPPIANS (page 630) The Letter of Paul to the COLOSSIANS (page 639) The First Letter of Paul to the THESSALONIANS (page 650) The Second Letter of Paul to the THESSALONIANS (page 656) The First Letter of Paul to TIMOTHY (page 660) The Second Letter of Paul to TIMOTHY (page 674) The Letter of Paul to TITUS (page 680) The Letter of Paul to PHILEMON (page 684) A Letter to HEBREWS (page 686) A Letter of JAMES (page 719) The First Letter of PETER (page 734) The Second Letter of PETER (page 751) The First Letter of JOHN (page 758) The Second Letter of JOHN (page 775) The Third Letter of JOHN (page 778) A Letter of JUDE (page 780) THE REVELATION OF JOHN (page 787) Index (page 843)
In this Companion I have been concerned with questions which anyone may be expected to ask who approaches the New Testament in general, and the New English Bible translation of it in particular, without any previous introduction. These questions are not always the same as those which occupy professional scholars; yet it is mainly their research which has made it possible to attempt to answer them. All that I have learnt from them I gratefully acknowledge; and I am aware that there are countless things I have still failed to learn.
This book could not have been written at all had it not been for the generosity of the Governing Body of Christ Church, Oxford, which readily accepted that I should devote to this work the main part of my time as a Research Student of the House. It would also hardly have been completed had it not been for the stimulus of eight months spent in Jerusalem in 1966-7, which again I owe to the liberality of Christ Church, as well as to the hospitality of the Right Revd Campbell Maclnnes, then Archbishop in Jerusalem, and of others in St George's Close, Jerusalem. I am also deeply indebted to the Ecole Biblique and its Director for permission to make use of its magnificent library during my stay in Jerusalem.
I should not have presumed to offer so ambitious a book for publication had it not first received the scrutiny of men wiser and more learned than myself. Chief among these is the Revd Dr C. H. Dodd, who was one of the first to conceive the project of a book such as this, who constantly encouraged me while I was writing it, and who patiently read and weighed every word of the typescript. After him, I owe the greatest debt of gratitude to the Revd Professor C. F. D. Moule, who read more than half the book in typescript and helped me with a large number of suggestions.
Others who have read parts of the typescript and made valuable comments are Pere P. Benoit O.P., the Very Revd Dr Henry Chadwick, Professors J. Duncan M. Derrett and E. R. Dodds, Mr E. W. Gray, the Revd J. L. Houlden, Mr Kenneth Pearce, Mr C. H. Roberts and Dr G. Vermes. Besides these, there are many others without whose help the work could hardly have been clone: my colleagues at Christ Church, who patiently responded to my insistent questions on matters lying within their special competence; my pupils, who helped me to keep my mind fresh on the basic questions which confront any student of the New Testament; and finally some of the students at St Augustine's College, Canterbury, who helped me with the proofs.
Two men, who in their different ways helped me most, died before the book was published. One was Dr C. A. Simpson, Dean of Christ Church, who read much of the typescript, made characteristically candid and thoughtful comments on it, and sustained me through this long task with his warmhearted encouragement. The other was my father: the small share which I may have inherited of his integrity, his powers of analysis, and his unusual ability to ask searching questions about what others take for granted, is largely responsible for any originality which this book may have. I have tried throughout to ask the questions which he would have asked and to seek the answers which he would have regarded as honest. The book, indeed, was written for him, and owes more to him than he ever knew.
To the memory of these two men I gratefully dedicate this Companion to the New Testament.
A. E. H.
St Augustine's College, Canterbury
Note: The English text referred to throughout is that of the New English Bible
The word TESTAMENT is a technical term with a long history. Strictly speaking, the English word, like the Latin word from which it is derived, means a legal document, a "will"; and the same was true of the Greek word, diatheke, of which TESTAMENT is a translation. But it is obvious that what has been known since the early centuries of the church as the New Testament is not a legal document, and has little in common with a will. That it bears this name is the result of a particular turn in the fortunes of the Greek word.
When, in the third century B.C., a group of Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek for the use of the Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria, they found themselves confronted by a number of words in the original which had no equivalent in the Greek language. One of these was the Hebrew word berith, of which the usual English translation is "covenant". This word was an exceedingly important one in the history and religion of the Jewish people: it expressed one of their most fundamental convictions about the relationship between God and man. God, they believed, had shown in the distant past his readiness to protect and care for his own people. He had miraculously rescued them from bondage in Egypt and settled them in a land of their own. He had undertaken to continue this relationship with them, so long as they, for their part, observed in their lives and in their worship those principles which he had revealed to them at the beginning of their history, and which were known to them as the Law of Moses. All this was often described in the Jewish scriptures as the "covenant" into which God had entered with his people. Indeed, the Jews' conception of this covenant embraced their deepest convictions about the faithfulness, the justice and the mercy of God. In rendering this important word by the Greek word diatheke, the translators virtually gave a new meaning to a familiar legal term. Thereafter, any Greek-speaking person who was familiar with the Hebrew scriptures knew that diatheke, though it normally meant "will" or "testament", was also a technical term for that "covenant" which the Jews believed God had made with his own people.
The documentary evidence, so to speak, for this covenant consisted in a collection of sacred books which had been formed gradually over the centuries and which, by the time of Christ, had already been complete for about I wo hundred years. This collection was not homogeneous. It consisted of books originally written at different times for different purposes. The Jews distinguished three broad divisions: first, the Law (the five books attributed to Moses); then the Prophets (which included most of the historical books); and finally the remaining books, which they called simply the Writings. The first of these divisions, since it included the code of religious and civil laws under which they lived, they regarded as the most important. Consequently, when they wished to refer to the whole collection, they sometimes called it "the Law". Otherwise, they called it "the Holy Writings", "the scriptures". These scriptures were regarded by the Jews with the greatest veneration. Elaborate precautions were taken to prevent the smallest alterations to the text, and the leather scrolls on which they were written were reverently preserved in the temple and the synagogues. It was not just that they were more important or more authoritative than other books. They were in a class by themselves. They were believed to have been inspired by God, and they formed the basis of all worship, all education and all justice in every Jewish community.
The first Christians, being Jews, inherited the same reverence towards the scriptures. When they referred to them, it was sufficient to call them simply "Scripture" or "the scriptures". No other writings had any importance for them. It would not have occurred to them to think that the scriptures had in any way lost their unique authority merely because a new way of understanding them had been made possible by Christ. On the contrary, they continued to take it for granted that the scriptures contained the authentic record of God's dealings with men, and (following the example of Jesus himself) they soon began to find in them numerous prophecies and oracles which seemed to have come alive for the first time in the light of their new faith in Christ. Christianity, they realized, was the crowning chapter of an old story. In Christ, God had done something absolutely new for new, yet it was something which complemented rather than superseded the historic faith of Israel. The matter was neatly expressed by Paul in one of his letters. God's previous relationship with men should be called, no longer "the covenant", but "the old covenant"; for now God had made a new covenant through Christ (2 Corinthians 3). The documents of the old covenant were the scriptures. Paul, indeed, on one occasion called the scriptures themselves 'the old covenant' (2 Corinthians 3.14), in order to help Christians (who now had a new covenant) to place them in the right perspective. But the terminology seems to have stuck. By the end of the second century A.D. the church had grown used to calling the original Jewish scriptures the "old covenant" (the Old Testament), in contrast to which the formative writings of the Christian faith inevitably began to be known as the "new covenant" (the New Testament).
For Paul, of course, no authoritative Christian writings existed. Indeed, he made much of the contrast between the old covenant which was expressed in written documents, and the new covenant which was expressed ' not in a written document, but in a spiritual bond' (2 Corinthians 3.6). The first generation of Christians drew their faith, not from a book, but from a living experience. They may even have shared something of the Jews' distrust for the idea of any religious writing apart from the Old Testament. Nevertheless, circumstances made them into writers. Paul himself travelled constantly, and kept in touch with the widely scattered churches which he had founded by writing them letters in which he strengthened their faith and discussed important points of doctrine. These letters are the earliest Christian writings in existence, and they were followed by others from other Christian leaders, who may or may not always have been in Paul's position of needing to communicate with a distant church, but who adopted the form of an apostolic letter in order to consolidate the faith of their fellow-Christians. At the same time, the need began to be felt to preserve in written form the sayings of Jesus and the events of his life. To meet this need several Christians, probably in different parts of the church, composed the books which we now call the gospels. These relate the story of Christianity from its very beginning; but they appear to have been composed later than Paul's letters, towards the end of the first century A.D. One of them was completed by a second volume (Acts of the Apostles) which carried the story on into the history of the early church.
Thus the first Christian writings were the result of particular circumstances and particular needs encountered during the early decades of the church's existence. Christians did not need to rely on a new "holy book"; their faith was sustained by the spirit active among them, and their teaching was based, partly on the Old Testament, and partly on facts and traditions which were remembered by their elders and which could be traced back to Jesus or to his immediate followers. But in the course of the second century A.D., as living contact with this first age of Christianity began to die out, it became necessary to assemble whatever writings still survived from that period in order to provide a solid and authentic basis for Christian teaching, and also in order to have some standard of Christian truth to appeal to against the attacks and innovations of heretical thinkers. The task was complicated by the fact that there were already books in circulation which purported to have been written by one of the original apostles, but which were in fact the work of later imitators. The church had to decide which of these writings were authentic. In theory, it had a simple criterion: only those which had been written by an apostle could be accepted. In practice, the matter was not so easy, since some of the books were originally anonymous, and some that were attributed to an apostle were plainly imitations. But in general it appears that only those were regarded as "apostolic" which were written during the first seventy years or so of the church's existence, and which seemed always to have held a firm place in the esteem of Christians. In essentials, the selection was settled by the end of the second century A.D., I hough the inclusion or exclusion of a few books continued to be debated for much longer. On the evidence available, it can be said that the church did iis work well. Almost all the writings in the New Testament belong unmistakably to the first century a.d. and have a note of authenticity which is absent from other surviving documents which the church might have been tempted to include.
As soon as the selection was established, it inevitably changed its character. By the end of the second century a.d. the New Testament came to be regarded, like the Old, as Scripture. Its various writings, regardless of the original differences between them, were all treated as equally authoritative documents of the Christian faith. Christianity became, like Judaism, a religion of a book. The methods which had long been used to find the Word of God in any verse of the Old Testament began to be used on the New. The New Testament, along with the Old, began to be called "the Bible", which means simply "the Books". This Bible, like the Old Testament before it (which it still included), became in its turn a book different from all other books, to be interpreted in a special way and possessing in its every part a unique degree of authority and truth.
It was only in comparatively recent times that it began to be realized that this approach does violence to the original diversity and vitality of the individual writings which make up the Old and New Testaments. To regard them as deriving all their authority from the fact that they bear the common name of Scripture is to do them an injustice. This Companion is written in the conviction that the New Testament gains in life and cogency when it is taken for what it originally was, that is, a collection of writings each of which was produced under particular circumstances. Sometimes these circumstances are lost beyond recall; but often it is possible to reconstruct them with reasonable certainty, and so to recapture something of the urgency and authority which these writings possessed for their first Christian readers.
All the books of the New Testament have come down to us in Greek. It is possible that some of them, or small parts of them, originally existed in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus himself, and were translated within a few years into Greek; but as we have it, the New Testament is written in the language which was understood by the majority of people in the eastern half of the Roman empire in the first centuries of our era. To understand it we need to know something of the culture of what is loosely called the Hellenistic world, that is, that part of civilization which, since the time of Alexander the Great, had come progressively under the influence of Greek ideas and Greek institutions, even though its political centre had passed to Rome. But Christianity was born in the one part of the Roman empire where there had been determined resistance to the influence of Greek civilization. The great majority of the Jews in the world spoke Greek, but their culture remained essentially Jewish. In Palestine itself they spoke for the most part Aramaic, a language which had spread over much of the Middle East since the days of the Persian empire, and their lives were still regulated by the pattern laid down in their scriptures. Even in the Dispersion they kept themselves at a certain distance from the ideals and institutions of Greek culture, and were allowed to dissociate themselves completely from Greek religion. The society of which we read in the New Testament is therefore not that of the Hellenistic world in general, but of that particular part of it which jealously retained its national religion and culture and way of life.
It happens that not many documents have survived which are evidence for this particular section of the population of the Roman empire. Very few non-Jewish writers had any interest in it; and the Jews in Palestine, for reasons already given, were far from being prolific writers. The recent discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has done something to dispel the darkness. They reveal in considerable detail the life and beliefs of a particular religious movement that was flourishing in Palestine in the time of Jesus. Our only other contemporary record is that of Flavius Josephus, a Jewish aristocrat who was involved in the fighting in the Jewish War of A.D. 66-70, and who subsequently wrote both a history of that war and a complete history of the Jewish people, in the hopes of gaining sympathy at Rome for the Jewish cause. Another Greek-speaking Jewish writer, Philo of Alexandria, was meanwhile devoting his life to interpreting the Jewish scriptures in terms that would be familiar to people educated in Greek philosophy. By temperament and circumstances Philo was remote from the concerns of the Jews in Palestine. Yet his writings were intended for readers of similar background to those addressed by early Christian writers, and they can occasionally be usefully compared with passages in the New Testament.
Apart from this, there is very little indeed. A few Jewish writings of a visionary and symbolic character known as "apocalyptic"), which were subsequently suppressed by the Jewish authorities, were preserved in translation by the Christian church. Otherwise, the characteristic Jewish distrust of any authoritarian writings apart from the scriptures continued right into the second century A.D., and it was only in about the middle of that century that the Jewish rabbis began to write down and codify the traditions which had been handed down to them. These rabbinic writings became voluminous in the centuries that followed, and often contain genuine recollections of customs, events and doctrines of first-century Palestinian Judaism. But their evidence is always fragmentary and often misleading. The picture they present is frequently idealized beyond recognition.
In this respect the New Testament stands very much by itself. Much of it is first-hand evidence for conditions and events of which we should otherwise be totally ignorant. Where we can check it against independent sources of information, it is usually faithful to the facts. Where we cannot, we have to judge it on its merits. On the whole, the historical evidence it provides is consistent and plausible, and for reconstructing the circumstances in which any part of it was written the most important information is usually to be found within the New Testament itself. Yet it is still necessary (and this is one of the objects of this Companion) to supplement this information so far as possible from the little we know about the history, religion and culture of the Jewish people in Palestine and in the Dispersion during the first century A.D.
Not that the Christians were ever merely Jews, or Christianity simply a form of Judaism. The Christian religion and the Christian church represented something new and unique in the ancient world. Yet Jesus was a Jew, and so were all his first followers and all the founders of the first churches. Christianity stood closer to Judaism than to any other religion or philosophy of life, and its history and its beliefs were written in predominantly Jewish terms. The clearest instance of this is the constant use of the Old Testament which is made by nearly every New Testament writer. Sometimes whole passages are quoted, sometimes just a word or a sentence, sometimes there are subtle allusions, and sometimes a writer seems deliberately to imitate the style of the Old Testament without actually quoting it. There is nothing surprising in this. The only form of literature with which most of these writers were familiar was either Scripture itself, or else some kind of commentary upon it; and it was natural that they should see their own work in the same light, however new the message was that they had to convey. To us their use of Scripture, and the interpretation they placed on particular passages, often seems recondite and artificial. It presupposes a long tradition of Jewish scholarly interpretation which was based on principles very different from those which would be acceptable today. But this does not alter the fact that the Old Testament was the most important single element in the background shared by all the New Testament writers.
The NEB, unlike most editions of the New Testament, seldom gives the reader any indication when a passage of Scripture is being quoted. But even if it did, it would not always be easy to turn up the relevant passage of the Old Testament and identify it with the quotation in the New. Most English translations of the Old Testament are based on a Hebrew text which did not become fully standardized until the early centuries of our era. In the time of Christ it is unlikely that every synagogue and religious group in Palestine used an identical text of the scriptures. Moreover, although in Palestine they were read in Hebrew, the reading was usually followed by a translation into Aramaic; and throughout the Dispersion the Jews read and listened to the scriptures in a Greek translation. The most famous of these Greek translations, the Septuagint (so called because of the legend that it was compiled by a team of 70 translators), was made in Egypt in the third century B.C. and bad a wide circulation. It siill exists, and by comparing it will) I he quotations which occur in the New Testament we can tell that this was the translation most frequently used by Christian writers. But they did not always use exactly the translation which we now possess. Sometimes their Greek version seems to have been different from that of the Septuagint, sometimes they seem to have quoted a version based on an Aramaic translation, and occasionally they may have made their own translation from the Hebrew. If all these translations had been strictly accurate by modern standards, this would not much matter. But in fact they show striking variations from each other. Sometimes the translators misunderstood the original, sometimes they rephrased it to make it (as they thought) more comprehensible or more edifying to their readers. In addition to this, the Septuagint included more books than were subsequently admitted into the Hebrew text which has survived. These books, having been "hidden away" by the Jewish scholars of Palestine on the grounds that they were not sufficiently important or authoritative to be included, have since the Reformation been printed separately in Protestant Bibles under the title Apocrypha (literally, "hidden books").
For all these reasons, quotations of the Old Testament in the New are not always easy to recognize and identify, and their function in the argument is often difficult to follow. In this matter as in others, this Companion represents an attempt to enter the minds of these writers, and so to bring out the tremendous importance which the Old Testament held for them as a prime source of inspiration and truth. Even the title, THE NEW TESTAMENT, can hardly be understood apart from that other term, "The Old Testament", from which it was originally derived.top
To the modern reader, the word gospel denotes the kind of book which has come down to us under the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But in the early church it was some time before the word took on this meaning. It is clear from the letters of Paul that "the Gospel" existed before any of the "gospels" came to be written down. Euangelion, "gospel", was a technical name given by the first generation of Christians to the message they had to impart. Literally, it meant "the good news".
When this message was first preached, it appears to have consisted of a fairly brief summary of those facts about Jesus of Nazareth which had caused his followers to believe that the Messiah, or Christ, of Jewish expectation had now come. For the purpose of convincing their Jewish hearers, the first preachers needed to concentrate primarily upon the fact of Jesus' resurrection, and on the consequences of that fact for faith and conduct. But as time passed, and as the membership of the church began to embrace more and more people of different backgrounds, it became necessary to give flesh to the bare bones of this simple proclamation. New questions were being asked. For example, Christians found themselves caught in a tense controversy with the Jews. What had been Jesus' own attitude to this people ? They suffered occasional persecution from the officials of the Roman empire. How far had Jesus himself provoked the hostility of the Roman occupying power in Palestine? They were confronted with problems about life and discipline within the Christian community. Had Jesus left any instructions that were relevant ? These and many other questions inevitably arose in the course of the early decades of the church's existence. To answer them, it was necessary to recall the life and teaching of Jesus. His sayings, and the main events of his life, were doubtless reverently preserved in the memories of his followers. We do not know how soon they began to be written down and gathered into collections of sayings or consecutive narratives. But between about A.D. 65 and 100, four books were written in Greek which gathered together much of what was still remembered about the life and work of Jesus. In point of literary form these books were unlike anything that had been written before. They were not biographies, since they omitted a great deal which the reader of a biography would expect to be told; but equally they were not religious treatises. What they contained was the original "Gospel" proclaimed by the church, though cast in extended narrative form. It seemed simplest to refer to them simply by the title of the message they embodied (THE GOSPEL) and to distinguish between them by adding "according to" Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.
These four names do not tell us very much. They were almost certainly intended to stand for four men who appear in the New Testament under the names of 'Matthew', 'John Mark', 'Luke the doctor', and 'John'. But it is only a tradition of the church, going back to the second century A.D., which attributes the gospels to these men; the books themselves are anonymous, and the environment they reflect is not, for the most part, that which one would have expected if they had been written by men who were among the earliest members of the church. Nevertheless, there must have been some reason for preserving these names; two of them (Mark and Luke) are not even the names of apostles. It may well be that at some stage the traditions contained in the gospels passed through the hands of the men whose names they bear.
More significant is the relationship between the four, and in particular between the first three. The gospels according to Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell what is essentially the same story, and sometimes they tell it in almost identical language, while at other times they diverge widely from each other. Usually they agree, sometimes they disagree; and each of the three preserves some material which is absent from both the others. Mark is the shortest of the three, and contains very little which does not appear in Matthew or Luke or both. On the other hand, Matthew and Luke have a number of passages in common which do not appear in Mark. In short, the relationship between the three is close, but very complicated. Evidently they originated in different places, for use in different churches: no church would have needed a second or third one so similar to the first, and it can only have been when they began to be circulated more widely that they were bound up together in the same book. On the other hand, they cannot all have been written quite independently of each other. The occurrence of almost identical passages in two different gospels is explicable only if one writer had the work of the other before him.
There is no completely convincing explanation of all these facts. The most popular hypothesis in modern times has been that Mark was composed first, and was used by both Matthew and Luke; that Matthew and Luke also used another document, now lost, consisting chiefly of sayings of Jesus (hence the appearance of passages common to both of them but absent from Mark); and that each of them had access to traditions not available to either of the others, which they worked as best they could into the narrative framework provided by Mark. To account for all the facts this explanation needs considerable refinement, and it cannot be said to have been proved correct. Nevertheless, as a working hypothesis it has probably aided the study of the first three gospels more than any of the other possible combinations, and it is adopted in this Companion, not because it can be taken for granted as true, but because it is impossible to make sense of the evidence without some explanation of this kind. Moreover, ii would have been a waste of space and ol the trader's time to provide a full commentary on the same passage each time it appears in different gospels. It was therefore a matter of convenience, as well as a deliberate exploitation of the most widely held hypothesis, to make the commentary on Mark more detailed than any of the others. Any passage which occurs in Mark and in one or more of the other gospels is fully discussed in its context in Mark. The commentary on a parallel passage in another gospel is confined to pointing out significant differences. Further, where a passage occurs in both Matthew and Luke, the discussion will normally be found under Matthew—though this is merely for the reader's convenience: it is not intended to suggest that Luke had read the gospel according to Matthew (although this, theoretically, is also possible).
However, more important consequences follow from adopting this hypothesis than the arrangement of a commentary. If Matthew and Luke used Mark, Mark must have been written first. It seems unlikely, for various reasons, that any of the gospels were written as early as the lifetime of Paul, or later than the end of the first century A.D. To allow time for Mark to have been circulated and then rewritten by Matthew and Luke, it seems sensible to place Mark near the beginning of that period—say between 65 and 70— and the other two a decade or two later. John's gospel seems to reflect external conditions and a stage in the development of Christianity which are somewhat later than those reflected in the other three. It is therefore usually dated between A.D. 90 and 100. But there is virtually nothing by which to check these dates—even the catastrophic event of the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 is not certainly alluded to in any of the New Testament writings.
There is another consequence of accepting this hypothesis which bears more directly on the interpretation of the gospels themselves. When a passage occurs in Mark and in one or two other gospels, it is necessary to account for the changes, sometimes very slight, sometimes quite substantial, which have been made in Matthew or Luke. By studying these changes, one can often see a certain pattern beginning to emerge: it is as if each gospel writer had a particular approach of his own to the material he was recording, an approach which he expressed by subtle editorial changes or careful rearrangement of the episodes. The case is clearest when we come to John, whose gospel, at first sight, tells a story very different from the others, and in a distinctive style of its own. It is possible that John, like Matthew and Luke, used Mark, but used it much more freely than they did. But he clearly also had other sources of information, and may indeed preserve traditions which are older than Mark's gospel. In any event, it can hardly be doubted that he was consciously recasting his material in a form which he felt expressed better the genius of Jesus' teaching and the significance of Jesus' life and work. Sometimes his narrative is incompatible with that in the other gospels, and we have to make a choice between the two. It is usual to regard Mark's gospel (assuming it is the earliest) as providing the most reliable historical information. But we do not possess the material which Mark himself may have been editing and adapting to his own purpose. It is possible that he, like John, imposed a certain pattern on his sources in order to bring out the significance of the events he was recording. There is no good reason to think that one gospel more than another was ever intended merely to present a bare chronicle of Jesus' life, death and resurrection.
Detailed analysis of the gospels has shown that much of the material out of which they were composed originally consisted of small independent units, sometimes amounting only to a single saying, sometimes running to the length of a complete episode. It was the writers of the gospels who put these units together in the form of a coherent narrative. The NEB subheadings are intended to indicate the broad shape which the story assumed at their hands; and to this extent a commentary which tries to elucidate the particular style and concerns of each writer is in line with the translators' purpose. But it does not follow from this approach that it is impossible to get behind the gospels and discover the original sayings and actions of Jesus. On the contrary, the individual contribution of each of the gospel writers is very slight and subtle; to present the message in their own way, each had to be content with comparatively small touches. It is as if the material they had to work on, having been reverently preserved by their fellow-Christians, set a strict limit to their editorial freedom. At any point the reader must be prepared to detect their hand; but it seems never to have been a free hand. There is an essential element in the works which have come down to us under the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John which the writers could never have created themselves.
Even this does not necessarily take us back to Jesus himself. By the time the gospel writers set to work, the traditions they possessed about Jesus had already been collected and preserved by the church and put to use in preaching, teaching, and defending the faith. They had also at some stage been translated into Greek, with all that that implies of subtle accommodation to a different culture. The gospels as we have them often betray the marks of this process. The circumstances and needs of the early church are discernible in the form in which Jesus' sayings and the events of his life have been preserved. Yet once again there is an essential element in the traditions so preserved which the church could not have created itself. It is this element which makes it possible to say with confidence that the gospels, despite the mysterious and complicated history of their compilation, still preserve an authentic recollection of the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.top