Recently a major new book on the Bible was published by one of the world’s leading scholars, John Barton. I highly recommend it as the best single volume available for the general reader. There are so many golden nuggets of information and insight. Here is just one significant extract that gives us a flavour of the book and the Book.
In chapter 8 Professor Barton discusses the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and notes how each Gospel writer exercised some narrative skill in joining the fragments of the sayings of Jesus together. Mark is now almost universally agreed to be the earliest (and shortest). Barton notes some significant discrepancies. He considers the following parallel accounts in Mark and Matthew:
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”
Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? Three is only one who is good.”
Barton comments as follows:
The discrepancy in Jesus’ response when he is addressed as “Good Teacher”: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone”: (“Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good” probably represents Matthew’s toning-down of a saying which originally implied that Jesus was not to be identified with God). The early Church would have been uneasy about Mark’s wording, since Jesus’ divine status had come to be widely accepted among Christians. Mark would thus preserve an older version of the saying, perhaps the original one: no one in the early Church would have altered Matthew’s blander statement into it, thereby casting doubt on Jesus’ divinity. We do not know that any of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are genuinely original, that is, that he actually uttered them. But one such as this, in its Marcan version, is highly unlikely to have been made up in the early Church.
There are several points to note about Barton’s observations:
i) the earlier Gospel of Mark has a saying of Jesus which ‘implied that Jesus was not to be identified with God’.
ii) given the beliefs of many about Jesus it is ‘highly unlikely to have been made up in the early Church’.
iii) Matthew is guilty of ‘toning-down a saying which originally implied that Jesus was not to be identified with God’.
iv) it will come as a shock to many to hear that, ‘We do not know that any of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are genuinely original, that is, that he actually uttered them.’
John Barton was Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford from 1991 to 2014 and since 1973 has been a serving priest in the Church of England. He is the author of numerous books on the Bible, co-editor of The Oxford Bible Commentary and editor of The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2007 and is a Corresponding Fellow of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.