How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus

How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus

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gospel of lord bookcoverThe study of the Gospels in relation to oral history, eyewitness testimony, and social memory has experienced a tremendous surge in the past decade.  While many New Testament scholars have been contributing to this fruitful field of study, three of the most important “pillars” of recent oral history and memory-related studies of the Gospel studies are James D. G. Dunn and his massive Jesus Remembered, Samuel Byrskog and his Story as History—History as Story, and Richard Bauckham and his masterpiece, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

With the publication of Michael Bird’s book, The Gospel of the Lord: How The Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus, (Eerdmans, 2014) it may well be time to add a new, “fourth pillar” to this group of key scholarly voices.  Not only does Bird extensively interact with and build upon the work of Dunn, Byrskog, and Bauckham (as well as other key voices, such as Richard Burridge and the late, great German scholar Martin Hengel), he adds a new understanding of what exactly the Gospels are as ancient biographical documents and what they were intended for in the earliest Christian churches.

While an extensive interaction with Bird’s assessment of the major scholarly views of the genre and function of the Gospels would require far more space than is available here, it will suffice to say that he is in agreement with the growing consensus among New Testament scholars that the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) fall under the categorical umbrella of Greco-Roman biographies. In itself, this is not all that new in the world of New Testament studies. What Bird does though, is take a deeper look at the proclamatory nature of these biographies within and for the early Christian churches.

Bird notes how quotes, echoes, and allusions to the Old Testament are woven deeply throughout the Gospels.  Just as one cannot dismiss the Gospels’ historical-biographical emphasis on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, so too one cannot dismiss how heavily indebted these same texts are to the story of Israel and what they view as that history’s climactic point in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospels (and the rest of the New Testament) are directly and intimately connected with the Old Testament. Thus, contrary to popular opinion, it simply will not do to be a “red-letter Christian,” relying only on the words of Jesus and ignoring the black text that make up the rest of the Bible. The red letters only make sense in the context of the surrounding story of the black letters.

With this equal focus on the story of Israel’s climax and on the biographical emphasis on Jesus of Nazareth, Bird labels the Gospels as biographical kerygma.  They are meant to function within the Church in a kerygmatic role, proclaiming what God has done in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  At the same time this kerygma is anchored in and reliant upon the fact that the events proclaimed happened in space and time as attested to by eyewitnesses.  There is a reason, for example, that Luke places this technical prologue at the beginning of his Gospel. He wanted his readers to know the truth of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection:

Now many have undertaken to compile an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, like the accounts passed on to us by those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. So it seemed good to me as well, because I have followed all things carefully from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know for certain the things you were taught.

Luke (as well as the rest of the Gospel writers) wants his audience to have confidence in their faith. It is not a belief in some event in the ethereal, primordial past, but rather is within recent history, attested to by eyewitnesses who saw, touched, spoke, and ate with the risen Jesus. Bird helps communicate this same confidence to Christians today. The Gospels are not myths, legends, or works of fiction. They are biographies speaking of a Galilean prophet who proclaimed the Kingdom of God, healed the sick and dying, died on a Roman cross under Pontius Pilate, and three days later was resurrected by the God of Israel. The Christian faith from the very beginning has staked its proclamation on real events in history.

While this assessment of the Gospels by itself would be more than worth the price of admission for the book, Bird also places extensive supplementary sections at the end of each chapter. Each section deals with a subject related to the study of the Gospels, such as the failure of liberalized form criticism, the writings of the Church Fathers on the Gospels, and the nature of the various non-canonical “gospels” such as the Gospel of Thomas.  Combine all of this with one of the best discussions on the Synoptic Problem (the question of how to explain the similarities and differences in Matthew, Mark, and Luke) I have read and you have what may be a new standard text in the field of Gospel studies.

Michael Bird’s The Gospel of the Lord is a must read for anyone involved in Gospel studies, New Testament studies in general, or anyone (from seminary students to lay people) interested in better understanding the foundational documents of our Christian faith. If I were to recommend one book that not only critically interacts with the major scholarly voices in Gospel studies over the past two centuries, but that also paves a new way forward in understanding the Gospels in their oral-historical and social memory contexts, it would be Bird’s volume.  Of all of the books I read in 2015, this one takes first place.

Image attribution: Paul-Daniel Florea / Thinkstock


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