BNTC 2014: The Difference Between the Gospels and the “Gospels” image

BNTC 2014: The Difference Between the Gospels and the “Gospels”

The final main session at the BNTC was by Simon Gathercole, from Cambridge, and addressed "Jesus, the Apostolic Gospel, and the Gospels." Some scholars, most recently Francis Watson, have argued that the differences between the Synoptics and some of the extracanonical gospels (Thomas, Mary, Peter and so on) are no greater than those between the Synoptics and John. To the extent that this is true, the inclusion of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as Christian scripture, and the exclusion of all alternative gospels, could appear somewhat arbitrary: the result of power plays, later church councils, or who knows what else. Gathercole's aim is to challenge this perspective, on theological grounds.

At the outset, he explains the general background to the topic - the question of whether the extracanonical gospels were in principle of a different order to the canonical ones, and the ways people have tried to show that they are with reference to authorship, date, attestation and so on - and then lays out his approach, which is based on theological content, in the form of two main theses. One: the four New Testament Gospels are bound together by theological content which marks them off from most of the non-canonical ones.  And two: the reason for that is that their content conformed to a pre-existing apostolic creed, regula fidei (“rule of faith”) or preached gospel. Theological criteria, in other words, were embedded in the apostolic preaching from the beginning, and this was true before there was a written gospel. In fact, as he neatly puts it, a canon - in its original sense of a rule of faith - preceded the composition of the gospels.

The extracanonical gospels in view, for Gathercole’s purposes, are the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary, the Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians and the Gospel of Judas. This gives him an alternative canon of seven. He excludes the Egerton Gospel and the Gospel of the Saviour because the combined length of the fragments is so short (roughly equivalent to that of the Johannine prologue), and avoids also the documents known only to us through their citations in the fathers (the Gospel of the Nazarene and so on), since there we have no continuous text. The canonical gospels, obviously, are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

His argument is effectively threefold: (1) the apostolic preaching about Jesus, from the beginning, involved four key elements; (2) all four of the canonical gospels have these four elements in common; and (3) the extracanonical gospels do not, and in most cases do not clearly have any of them. These four key elements, identified by Paul in the mid fifties and clearly representing an even earlier tradition, are summarised in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: (i) the identity of Jesus as the Christ, anointed by the creator God of Israel, (ii) his fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures, (iii) his effective atoning death on behalf of others, and (iv) his bodily resurrection from death. These four elements, Gathercole argues, are the key constituent parts of the apostolic preaching from the start of the Christian movement, and therefore form the regula fidei against which subsequent accounts of “the gospel” are judged.

Is this just Paul, though? Are we illegitimately privileging Paul as the standard by which other tellings of the gospel may be measured? No, says Gathercole. Paul claims, of course, that “whether it was I or they”, this is what the Corinthians heard and believed, and his claim to represent the regula fidei may be defended in three ways. Firstly, when Paul elsewhere appeals to tradition (e.g. 1 Cor 11:17-34), he gets it right, almost word for word (cf. Luke 22:14-23). Secondly, in his instructions about the collection (1 Cor 16:3-4), Paul says the Corinthians can send whomever they like, which would be very risky indeed if Paul was making a false claim about the gospel of the Jerusalem apostles. And thirdly, the same four elements appear elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g. Heb 10; 1 Pet 1:10-11; Revelation; and so on). He might have added, but did not, the obvious familiarity the Corinthians had with Cephas/Peter, and therefore almost certainly with the gospel he preached as well. As such, Paul’s summary in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 can lay good claim to being an accurate summary of the apostolic preaching from the beginning.

Each of these four gospel-defining elements is clear in the canonical Gospels, and each is obscure, ignored or explicitly denied in most of the extracanonical ones. Working through them one at a time:

The identity of Jesus as the Christ, anointed by the creator God of Israel. This is clear in all four canonical Gospels. Mark begins with it, and reiterates it throughout; Matthew includes Mark’s references but adds a Davidic genealogy; Luke includes Mark’s material and begins with a heavily Davidic introduction; and John has Jesus identified as Messiah, salvation as coming from the Jews, and the revelation of Jesus as Christ as the punchline of the whole Gospel (20:31). The extracanonical gospels, on the other hand, either reject the Christ title for Jesus entirely (Judas), give the title new content by distancing it from the creator God of Israel (Egyptians, Philip, Truth), or have no reference to the title at all (Thomas, Peter, Mary). Their theological shape is completely different to that of the canonical gospels when it comes to the Messianic identity of Jesus.

Jesus’ fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures. Mark, like Matthew and Luke, sees the passion and resurrection of Jesus as necessary from the Old Testament, has Jesus welcomed into Jerusalem in fulfilment of Psalm 118, describes the stone which becomes the cornerstone after rejection, cites Zechariah’s reference to the shepherd being struck and the sheep scattering, and obviously sees multiple connections with Psalm 22. Matthew adds the link between Jesus and Jonah, and Luke’s infancy narrative alludes to Scripture everywhere, as does his resurrection narrative (24:46 and so on). John, for his part, uses all sorts of Old Testament allusions in his account of Jesus’s death: the serpent in the desert, the division of clothes, none of his bones being broken, being pierced, and the famous statement that Peter and John “as yet did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (20:9). The extracanonical gospels, by contrast, either see Scripture as irrelevant or unnecessary, with only the occasional reference to an Old Testament character to speak of (Judas, Truth, Philip), or as unhelpful (as Thomas does with the dead prophets, Mary does with the instruction “not to give a law like the lawgiver did”, and the Gospel of the Egyptians does in claiming that nobody has known the truth since the time of Seth). The Gospel of Peter does, admittedly, have a reference to “fulfilling all things” - but this refers to sins, not the Jewish scriptures. Again, the difference between the canonical and extracanonical gospels, when it comes to Jesus as the fulfilment of the scriptures, is stark.

Jesus’ effective atoning death on behalf of others. Mark has the Son of Man dying as a ransom for many, as well as more controversial atonement references like the Barabbas exchange and the tearing of the temple curtain. Luke adds the remarkable atonement theology of Acts 20 (as well as, we might add, the Isaiah 53 allusions in his crucifixion narrative), and Matthew’s description of the Last Supper mentions Jesus shedding his blood for the forgiveness of sins. John, perhaps most strikingly, has the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, flesh and blood which bring eternal life, the shepherd who dies for the flock, Caiaphas saying one man will die for the nation, and the kernel of wheat which dies and bears much fruit. (He also, of course, has propitiation made explicit in his epistle - which shows that although the Gospel writers communicated the significance of the death of Jesus in their stories, they didn’t copy and paste their theology into Jesus’ speeches). Once more, however, most of the extracanonical gospels are very different. Judas and the Egyptians both reject Jesus’ death entirely, and Thomas, Philip and Peter see it as of only limited significance. (Mary is fragmentary, so we don’t know whether she mentioned it or ascribed importance to it.) Only the Gospel of Truth, surprisingly, sees the death of Christ as having atoning power.

Jesus’ bodily resurrection from death. Mark, given the shorter ending, is light on the resurrection - there are no appearances or descriptions of what Jesus is like, for example - but he still makes reference to the resurrection being necessary. Matthew, Luke and John all narrate both the predictions of the resurrection and the appearances, with both Luke and John insisting on the physicality of the risen Jesus (touching, eating, and so on), and obviously Jesus rises on the third day in all four canonical Gospels. Most extracanonical gospels are hugely different: Philip has the resurrection preceding Jesus’ death (!), Truth has an ambiguous reference to him putting on imperishability, Thomas is uninterested in it, and Judas and the Egyptians have no real death in the first place. Only Peter, with the famous speaking cross, has a bodily resurrection and a reference to the third day.

Gathercole concludes, then, that the apostolic proclamation summarised in 1 Corinthians 15 is represented fully in the canonical Gospels, but is a far cry from that narrated in the extracanonical ones. His paper received some helpful challenges - from Richard Burridge and Eddie Adams who felt that he had neglected the life and ministry of Jesus, from Paul Middleton who pointed out that if the creed continued to 1 Corinthians 15:5 then you would have to lose Mark (given that he has no appearance to Peter), and from Watson himself, who argued that the apocryphal gospels are not a homogenous lump to be contrasted en masse, and that Egerton should possibly have been included - and there was a general acceptance that the Gospel of Peter was closer to the canonical Gospels than the others. Yet if the goal of Gathercole’s paper was to establish that canonicity emerged not from a power-play, but from a comparison of each Gospel with the original apostolic proclamation, then he certainly succeeded. A fitting end to a great conference.

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