In his article published on Blogging Theology earlier today Denis attempted to refute some of the reasons scholars have for seeing Christological development in the gospels. I will focus on a few points by way of rebuttal. I assume the standard solution to the synoptic problem, namely that Matthew and Luke used Mark (and other sources) in the writing of their respective gospels. For this article I focus on how Matthew used Mark. (For introductions to the Synoptic Problem see here).
Examples of how Matthew uses Mark.
According to the dominant sources theories, Matthew preserves about 90% of the stories and passages found in Mark’s Gospel, but he edits/changes this material according to his purposes. Studying these editorial changes is the job of ‘redaction critics’ (the discipline is called redaction criticism).
Here are some examples of Matthew’s alteration of Mark. I have listed them in order of significance: minor changes to major ones.
- Five miracle stories are moved to Matthew 8-9, where other miracle stories occur.
- Details or characters that are not immediately relevant are pruned away: the demoniac’s chains and behaviour (see Matthew 8:28; compare Mark 5:2-5).
- instances of questionable accuracy are corrected: reference to Abiathar as high priest in Mark 2:26 is omitted (Matthew 12:4; compare 1 Samuel 21:1-6).
- Some changes make things more relevant to the church Matthew was writing for: Matthew leaves out Mark’s explanation of Jewish customs (Matthew 15:1-2; compare Mark 7:3-4) because he is writing for Jewish Christians.
- Matthew changes the way major figures are portrayed including Jesus, his disciples and religious leaders. Questions that suggest a lack of knowledge of Jesus’s part are omitted: Mark 5:9, 30; 6:38; 8:23; 9:12, 16, 21, 33; 10:3; 14:14.
- statements that suggest a lack of ability or authority on Jesus’s part are modified (compare Matthew 13:58 with Mark 6:5).
- references to Jesus exhibiting human emotions are dropped: pity (Mark 1:41), anger (Mark 3:5), sadness (Mark 3:5), wonder (Mark 6:6), indignation (Mark 10:14), love (Mark 10:21).
- stories that might seem to portray Jesus as a magician are omitted (Mark 7:31-37; 8:22-26).
- “No faith” is changed to “little faith” (compare Matthew 8:26 with Mark 4:40).
- The theme of not understanding Jesus is adjusted so that the disciples are merely slow to understand (compare Matthew 16:12 with Mark 8:21); Matthew 17:9-11 with Mark 9:9-13).
- references to the disciples “worshipping” Jesus and calling him “Lord” or “Son of God” are added to stories taken from Mark (compare Matthew 14:32-33 with Mark 6:51-52).
- Jesus’s denial that he is “good” in Mark 10:17 is subtly altered by Matthew (Matthew 19:17) to remove the embarrassingly low christology.
- The parenthetical declaration in Mark 7:19 is omitted by Matthew for whom the food laws are still in force.
As to the difference in content between the synoptics and John, it is almost sufficient to present the stats for the number of times the world ‘kingdom’ appears on the lips of Jesus and the number of times he uses ‘I’ in self reference.
When we read the synoptics we get the clear impression that kingdom (or kingdom of God) was a key term in the preaching of Jesus (see Mark 1:14-15; Matthew 10:7; Luke 10:9). Contrast John’s gospel where Jesus is never shown as preaching or proclaiming the kingdom. Only in two passages is it mentioned, in conversations with Nicodemus (John 3) and Pilate (John 18).
Denis cites Joachim Jeremias who argued ‘that different authors deliberately abstained from including deeper traditions in certain texts, out of concern that such was not appropriate for the uninitiated.’
This initially attractive proposal does not ultimately convince. Consider the opening verses of the gospel of Luke:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
According to the gospel of John Jesus went around Jerusalem publicly proclaiming himself to be:
I am the bread of life 6:35, 48, 51
I am the light of the world 8:12; 9:5
I am the door of the sheep 10:7, 9
I am the good shepherd 10:11, 14
I am the resurrection and the life 11:25
I am the way, the truth, and the life 14:6
If Jesus had made such claims, why do Luke and the other gospels writers make no use of them? What evangelist having among the traditions which had been passed to him such wonderful sayings as the ‘I ams’- would ignore them completely and utterly? These are not private, esoteric teachings for the inner circle to be hidden from the uninitiated. No. They are public statements to the crowds, including the Pharisees.
Luke took the trouble to ‘carefully investigate everything from the beginning, so that I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus’. There is no indication that he deliberately concealed the most spectacular public teaching of Jesus from his gospel account.
In conclusion I cite the acclaimed conservative evangelical scholar Richard Bauckham in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (2006, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co). Bauckham acknowledges that,
“All scholars, whatever their views of the redactional work of the Synoptic Evangelists and of the historical reliability of the Gospel of John, agree that the latter presents a much more thoroughly and extensively interpreted version of the story of Jesus.” (p. 410.)
This is why, to my knowledge, no modern New Testament scholar uses the ‘I am’ sayings attributed to Jesus in John as historical evidence for the historical Jesus. The default is always the synoptic gospels. But as I have shown, even they modify and embellish their sources to exalt Jesus (and the disciples).