Martin Hengel: One Gospel or Four?

Hengel, Martin. The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ. Translated by John Bowden. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000. 354pp. $30.00.


Martin Hengel, Emeritus Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism at the University of Tübingen, has produced a monograph of massive importance for gospel studies. In The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ, Hengel attempts, “starting from Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria and applying all the references from the early church and the New Testament textual tradition, to give a plausible historical account of the development of this collection and to evaluate its historical and theological significance” (p. xi). In this work, Hengel brings early post-apostolic Christian testimony to bear upon the modern understanding of how the four canonical gospels came into being. This is a learned treatise in which Hengel draws together in one place reflections that that have occupied him over decades of Gospel study (p. xi).
Important Material in Chapter Three
In chapter three, Hengel introduces material in an effort to answer questions posed at the beginning of the book, “why and for how long have we also had this Gospel in such different narrative forms? How did these different forms develop, and why were they not summed up in one normative narrative?” (p. 7). In pages 34-56, Hengel argues that Irenaeus “has preserved for us the most important external evidence for the historical order of the four Gospels” (p. 34): Matthew, Mark, Luke, then John. This evidence comes from the following quotation,

“Matthew composed his Gospel among the Hebrews in their language, when Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome and founding the church (there). After their death, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, handed down to us the preaching of Peter in written form. Luke, the companion of Paul, set down the Gospel preached by him in a book. Finally John, the disciple of the Lord, who also reclined on his breast, himself composed the Gospel when he was living in Ephesus in (the province of) Asia” (p. 35).

Chastising critical scholarship for either ignoring or marginalizing this testimony (pp. 34-35), Hengel goes on to contend that Irenaeus’ words reveal the contents of the “Roman community archive” of apostolic writings that were regularly read in public worship (pp. 36-38). “There in Rome where, after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, all the threads of the communities in the empire came together, in the first decades of the second century they must already have had the four Gospels” (p. 36). This fact is confirmed by another Roman churchman, the apologist Justin, who considers this Gospel collection to be a “normative testimony” from Christ’s messengers (pp. 37-38).

As a reflection of the Roman community archive, Irenaeus’ testimony “shows some kind of historical remembrance about the making of the Gospels” (p. 39). Namely, “It shows that the names of the evangelists cannot be separated from the Gospels” (p. 38) and that Irenaeus’ order is “oriented on the chronological order of their composition” (p. 41). In other words, Irenaeus’ remarks simply reflect how the community in Rome understood the development of the items in its own apostolic archive. Because this Gospel collection in Rome is presupposed by Irenaeus, it follows that the collection must have been in existence before he penned the above remarks (p. 48). Hengel goes on to argue that the “superscriptions were not added to the Gospels secondarily, at a later time, long after their composition,” but were a “part of the Gospels as originally circulated” (p. 50). This observation leads Hengel to conclude that, “The Gospels did not first circulate anonymously and their collection is not the result of an official decision in the church” (p. 53).[1]
Evaluation & Critique

Hengel makes a solid case for traditional conclusions regarding the formation of the canonical gospels. He makes a convincing argument for the authenticity of these writings. This contribution should in no way be diminished by the following critiques.

Pseudepigrapha and Historical Veracity
Hengel assumes that some of the canonical books of the New Testament are pseudepigraphal, and this assumption weakens his argument at crucial points. Hengel is clear that he regards at least seven New Testament books to be inauthentic: 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, the Pastorals, 1 Peter, and 2 Peter (pp. 52; 240 ns.209-210). Oddly enough, he makes this statement in the very same paragraph in which he argues that, “there was an interest in the authorship and therefore at the same time in the ‘apostolic authority’ of the writings read aloud in worship” (p. 52). This statement begs the question as to how a real concern for ‘apostolic authority’ is manifested in the phenomenon of pseudepigraphy. On the contrary, it would seem that the practice of pseudepigraphy would be evidence against the view that there was a real concern for ‘apostolic authority.’ If one allows the possibility that some of the canonical writings are pseudepigraphal, then the most that can be said is that the early church had an interest in the appearance of apostolic authority. Furthermore, the allowance of pseudepigraphal writings in the early church’s worship undermines Hengel’s notion of “the conservative character of the textual tradition that here people did not simply invent an appropriate author” (p. 52).

Hengel’s allowance for “apostolic” pseudepigrapha is even more remarkable in light of the fact that he acknowledges the specific early testimony that militates against the acceptance of such a practice in the early church.[2] Hengel rehearses the famous exchange between Bishop Serapion of Antioch (A.D. 190) and his heretical opponents (p. 13). At least twice, Hengel notes Bishop Serapion’s “negative judgment on ‘pseudepigrapha’” (p. 243 n.218) and his “resolve to reject writings under a false name” (p. 13). One wonders if Serapion’s testimony is marginalized at this point in order to make room for modern critical opinion. Hengel’s disregard in this respect results in a failure to emphasize other testimony from the Fathers that contradicts the popular opinion that pseudonymity was widespread and embraced by the early church.[3] Indeed, there are indications that pseudonymity was almost entirely restricted to apocalyptic works.[4]
Hengel examines the historical veracity of Irenaeus’ claim that Paul and Peter preached and founded the church in Rome (p. 35). He introduces 1 Peter 5:13 as evidence that Peter spent time in Rome during his ministry, “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, and so does my son, Mark” (p. 35). This too begs a question: how can this text be turned into evidence that Peter was in Rome when this letter is regarded as not coming from Peter? Given Hengel’s presupposition, would not one be forced to regard the historical value of this evidence as uncertain (p. 35-36)? At the very least, this text cannot be considered a support for Irenaeus’ claim that Peter was in Rome.

Paying Closer Attention to the Public Reading
Hengel makes a strong case for the gospels’ having been originally intended for public reading (p. 37). Hengel argues that the gospels’ being read aloud in early Christian worship is “decisive” for his argument (p. 20). Hengel shortchanged the force of this argument in at least one way. A simple citation of Mark 13:14 does not immediately establish the idea that Mark was originally intended to be read out loud in the church (p. 37), “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where it should not be (let the reader understand).” This last remark (largely regarded as a parenthetical insertion from the gospel writer) may very well be intended to be read as coming from the mouth of Jesus. In this case, Jesus would be focusing attention on the public reading of Daniel in the synagogues. Admittedly, the objection raised here is a small one, but since Hengel urges that the gospels were used in public worship in the earliest period, he could have laid out a more thoroughgoing case for his view of Mark 13:14.[5]

Gospel Texts “Running Wild”
In a related matter, Hengel states in at least two places that the gospel traditions were “running wild” until the end of the second century (p. 31; 44). In other words, the texts of the canonical materials themselves were very malleable in the hands of the copyists during this period (pp. 44-45). Yet two items in Hengel’s analysis seems to oppose the existence of a fluid tradition in the first two centuries. First, Hengel notes that the “constant” use of canonical material in worship would have required “fixed forms of text” (p. 31). Second, he argues that the gospels were originally written for the purpose of being read aloud in public worship (p. 37).
These two observations taken together do not cohere with the idea of the tradition “running wild” in the first two centuries. Rather, early Christian worship would likely have required a “relative consistency” and stability in the tradition (p. 30). Furthermore, if it the Roman community presumably maintained a gospel collection as early as the opening decades of the second century (as Hengel argues, pp. 36-38), it becomes hard to imagine how canonical material there would have run wild.

Taking the Fathers Seriously. . .
Except Concerning Matthean Priority

In one final matter, Hengel exposes the soft vulnerable underside of his argument. As has been noted above, Hengel urges the reader to take the early church Fathers’ testimony more seriously in making critical judgments about gospel origins. But it is precisely at this point that he repeatedly contradicts this course. While appealing to Irenaeus and other early evidence in favor of his position, he persists in ignoring the fact that each of these early sources identifies Matthew as the first gospel to be written. Not only does Irenaeus place Matthew first (p. 35), but so also do,

“the great uncials of the fourth/fifth centuries, Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, Ephraemi Syri rescriptus and nearly all later majuscules and miniscules,. . .the Muratorian Canon,. . .Origen, Eusebius, Athanasius and the later church fathers, at least one very early Egyptian papyrus, nearly all later parchment codices since the fourth century, and later canon catalogues” (p. 41).

The “Western order” puts Matthew first (Matthew, John, Luke, Mark; p. 42) and so does the “old Syriac Gospel” (Matthew, Mark, John, Luke; p. 44). Yet after all this, Hengel makes the baffling statement, “the order Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, which appears for the first time in Irenaeus, which is meant to reflect the chronological origin of the Gospels, and which, apart from Matthew [!], in fact does, rests on very old tradition” (p. 44, italics mine). In spite of all these early witnesses that he wants the reader to take seriously, Hengel assumes that Mark is “the earliest evangelist and narrator known to us” (p. 2; cf. 42, 49, 242 n.216).

Hengel does not explain here why he assumes Markan priority, but his opinion appears to be based upon the decidedly modern judgment embodied in the two-source hypothesis, “The text of the earliest Gospel ‘according to Mark’. . .can be dated quite precisely to around the year AD 69/70, and. . .was first used between around AD 75-80 by Luke and then around 90-100 by the author of the Gospel of Matthew” (p. 29). This move seems counterintuitive in a work whose stated aim is to listen carefully to the long neglected testimony contained in early Christian writings (pp. 34-35). Indeed, Hengel could apply his reproof of modern critics to himself, “New Testament scholars persistently overlook basic facts and questions on the basis of old habits” (p. 55). In this case, Hengel’s “old habit” is to ignore the one consistent aspect of the early Christian testimony (Matthean priority) in favor of a modern invention (the two-source hypothesis and Markan priority).
As noted above, time and again Hengel highlights certain aspects of various gospel lists from early Christian sources while diminishing their nearly unanimous assertion of Matthean priority. While some of these texts reflect one part of Hengel’s order (Mark, Luke, John), all of these early witnesses contradict Markan priority. Hengel never sufficiently explains why the reader should listen to this early testimony at one point while ignoring it at another. Furthermore, an appeal to these early writings seems not to argue for Hengel’s order, but for the order reflected in the Griesbach Hypothesis. As William Farmer has pointed out, one of the chief arguments in favor of the Griesbach Hypothesis is that the early Church Fathers gave pride of place to Matthew.[6] That Hengel would hang so much of his argument upon the Fathers’ testimony and yet marginalize this one aspect that contradicts his modern critical assumption mystifies the present reader.
In the face of the overwhelming early Christian testimony adduced by Hengel, it would seem more consistent for him to temper his commitment to Markan priority. The present writer is somewhat sympathetic to the conclusion of E. P. Sanders, “that the basis for deciding on a solution to the Synoptic problem is somewhat elusive.”[7]
Hengel’s methodology at this point requires a close inspection. Hengel’s claims seem to show a preference for external testimony over the more hypothetical evidence available through modern critical methods. It is on this basis that he elsewhere urges scholars to see the distinction between textual criticism and literary criticism (p. 30). He points out that literary criticism, “as a rule works in a much more hypothetical way than textual criticism, which is based solely on textual evidence and above all on manuscripts” (p. 30). Such preference for external testimony would have been helpful in his evaluation of the Fathers’ witness. After noting the hypothetical nature of literary criticism, Hengel should have been a little less committal in his endorsement of the two-source hypothesis. Hengel’s argument would more consistent if he were to give more weight to the external evidence present in the Fathers’ testimony than to modern scholarly opinion.

Hengel offers much positive material in his account of the origin of the fourfold Gospel tradition. One of his most significant observations is that the gospels never circulated as anonymous works in the churches. From the very earliest period, there was a concern that these writings be connected to an apostle. Hengel gives convincing evidence that the Gospel superscriptions were a part of the Gospels as originally circulated. In spite of its strengths,
Hengel’s argument could be shored up at numerous points. First, his allowance of pseudepigraphal writings in the canon undermines some of his historical statements. Second, Hengel should have made a better case for understanding the evangelists’ original intention that their texts be read aloud. Third, in spite of Hengel’s remarks to the contrary, the evidence does not seem to support the notion that the canonical materials ran wild up until the end of he second century. Fourth, Hengel’s assumption of Markan priority erodes the credibility of his plea for the reader to listen more closely to the early Church Fathers.
[1]“Let those who deny the great age and therefore basically the originality of the Gospel superscriptions in order to preserve their ‘good’ critical conscience, give a better explanation of the completely unanimous and relatively early attestation of these titles, their origin and the names of authors associated with them. Such an explanation has yet to be given, and it never will be. New Testament scholars persistently overlook basic facts and questions on the basis of old habits” (p. 55)

[2]The predominant practice in the early church was to use only those writings that were deemed to be authentic.
[3]Apparently, pseudonymous epistles were rare indeed (Donald Guthrie, “Epistolary Pseudepigraphy,” in New Testament Introduction, revised edition [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990], 1011-1028; D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, Leon Morris, “Pseudonymity,” in An Introduction to the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992], 367-71).
[4]Carson, Moo, Morris, Introduction, 67.
[5]Hengel may intend for the reader to refer to his argument elsewhere on this point (see p. 37 and p. 233 n.154).
[6]William Farmer, The Synoptic Problem: A Critical Analysis (Dillsboro, N.C.: Western North Carolina Press, 1976), 224-27.
[7]E. P. Sanders, The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series, ed. Matthew Black (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 277.

Wengert on Melanchthon and John Agricola

Wengert, Timothy J. Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia. Grand Rapids, MI/Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans/Paternoster, 1997. 231pp. $19.99.

Timothy Wengert has distinguished himself as one of the world’s leading contemporary Melanchthon scholars.[1] The book Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia has caused Wengert to become widely regarded as the premier Melanchthon scholar in North America.[2] The following essay commences with a brief summary of this landmark study and is followed by a short evaluation and critique of the same.

The heart of Wengert’s study is to examine the historical development[3] of a debate between Philip Melanchthon and John Agricola of Eisleben concerning the proper place of poenitentia in the Christian life. Poenitentia and its German equivalent Bube may be translated “repentance,” “penitence,” or “penance.”[4] Because the Latin term and its meaning are precisely the point of dispute between Melanchthon and Agricola, Wengert leaves it untranslated throughout the book.

Wengert focuses attention on how Melanchthon “came to define the relation between poenitentia and law” during the time his theology came under attack by John Agricola (p. 15). While both reformers united with Luther in their protest of the Roman doctrine of penance[5], they disagreed over how to formulate a positive response to what they believed was an erroneous definition of poenitentia. They also disputed concerning the relationship of the God’s law to poenitentia. On the one hand, Philip Melanchthon retains the traditional three-fold Roman division of poenitentia and with new definitions[6] enlists it in the Protestant cause (p. 98). He argues that God intends the Law to provoke poenitentia not faith; the gospel provokes faith (p. 147). After the Law terrifies the conscience unto poenitentia, the gospel moves the conscience to faith in Christ. Thus for Melanchthon, poenitentia precedes faith.

On the other hand, “Agricola completely severs poenitentia from the sacramental system of the church” (p. 74) and jettisons the traditional three-fold division of poenitentia. Contending that the gospel, not the law, stirs people to sorrow over sin, Agricola argues that the “gospel itself takes over all salvific functions by both condemning and making alive” (p. 29). Since the gospel is that which condemns, Agricola said the law “had no role to play in the life of the believer” (p. 29; cf. 31). Therefore, “one does not move from an anxious conscience to absolution, but from the promise of God to sorrow over sin” (p. 45). For Agricola, the gospel (not the Law) terrifies the conscience and moves it to faith in Christ. Thus, faith precedes poenitentia, and the Law is taken totally out of the salvific equation.

Wengert shows how the controversy between Agricola and Melanchthon unfolded historically in two distinct phases. The first phase dealt with, “the general charge of returning to Rome, the specific complaint [from Agricola] regarding the division of poenitentia, and the dispute over the content of preaching and its relation to Christian freedom” (p. 141). The second phase concerned, “the role of fear in contrition, the relation of faith and poenitentia, the preaching of the law, and the interpretation of Galatians 3:19” (p. 142).

Evaluation & Critique
One positive aspect of this study is Wengert’s decision to leave poenitentia untranslated. This move respects the debated meaning of the term and keeps the question open for the reader.[7]
Wengert can also be credited for helping to liberate Melanchthon from the “antiquated but still used stereotype of the hesitating and cautious theologian.”[8] This unfortunate caricature of Melanchthon is perhaps a result of an uncritical appropriation of misrepresentations from an earlier era. In this connection Robert Kolb notes, “This study reminds us how much we continue to pass on images of certain aspects of the story of Wittenberg reform in much the same form as the original sixteenth-century assessments.”[9] Wengert brings to the fore Melanchthon’s initiative in advancing his theological position. In this way, Wengert’s portrayal cuts against the hackneyed image of the “hesitating and cautious” theologian.

Wengert also helps the reader to see that the early reformers’ thought went through a process of development and refinement throughout this period. As Scott Amos has pointed out, “Wengert stresses the necessity of recognizing the there was a fluidity in the theological context within Lutheranism during these years.”[10] It is not as if Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door one day, and the next day out came the Formula of Concord. Discussions concerning the central doctrines of the Lutheran reformation continued during this time, and “many issues remained open for development.”[11] Even though Melanchthon’s view ultimately “won widespread acceptance among Lutherans” (p. 174), this uniformity was achieved through the birth pains of controversy.

One critique concerns the relationship of the final chapter to the rest of the book. Scott Amos charges that chapter six “does not seem to be integrally related to the rest of the book.”[12] Whereas the bulk of Wengert’s study focuses on the definition of poenitentia and the relationship of the Law to the same, the final chapter on Melanchthon’s third use of the law departs from this discussion. However, it should be stated that this chapter functions as an important bridge to understanding some of the issues at stake in the later antinomian controversy between Luther and Agricola (p. 178).

Also, Wengert does leave the reader wondering about the relationship between Melanchthon’s development of the third use of the law and that of Luther, later Lutheranism, and the rest of the reformed tradition.[13] With regard to the latter, one wonders how this third use of the law became such a prominent part of Calvin’s theology. Wengert acknowledges that Calvin may have been influenced by Melanchthon on this point (p. 206, n.123), but surely “there is more to be said in this regard.”[14] Robert Kolb is correct in saying, “Understanding these developments in Melanchthon’s thinking opens up new perspectives on the long-running but continuing theological discussion regarding the relationship between justification and sanctification in Reformation theology.”[15]

This volume is a great help in understanding the historical roots of the Law-Gospel debate in Protestant theology. Indeed even today, students of the Bible continue to debate the proper way to think about the Law’s relationship to the gospel. In many ways, Melanchthon’s controversy with Agricola concerning poenitentia and the subsequent antinomian controversy established a framework for understanding the modern discussion. Wengert’s book offers a fresh glimpse of the origins of this dispute.
[1]Martin I. Klauber, review of Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia, by Timothy J. Wengert, JETS 43 (2000): 349
[2]Robert Kolb, review of Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia, by Timothy J. Wengert, Church History 68 (1999): 455. It is noteworthy that such high praise should come from Kolb, upon whose work Wengert built (Klauber, 350).
[3]It is significant to note that Wengert “self-consciously” intends this work to be “a history of the dispute,” and not a thematic treatment of theological concepts (Wengert, Law and Gospel, 20).
[4]The term poenitentia is derived from the Latin translation of Jesus’ command in Matthew 4:17, “metanoei’te.” As Wengert points out, Matthew 4:17 employs the verb “poeniteniam” (Wengert, Law and Gospel, 15, n. 1).
[5]Luther’s first formal renunciation of the Roman Catholic doctrine of poenitentia appears in the first four theses of the famed “Ninety-Five Theses” (Wengert, Law and Gospel, 15).
[6]Melanchthon acknowledges that, “the doctors of the church divided poenitentia into three parts, contrition, confession, and satisfaction” (p. 98). Melanchthon argued that as long as satisfaction is attributed to Christ, the three-fold division is useful for teaching (p. 105). Agricola strenuously objected to this division, contending that it was a throwback to Roman error (pp. 113-114).
[7]Gregory A. Walter, review of Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia, by Timothy J. Wengert, Word & World 19 (1999): 102.
[8]Nicole Kuropka, review of Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia, by Timothy J. Wengert, Calvin Theological Journal 34 (1999): 484.
[9]Robert Kolb, review, p. 455.
[10]Scott Amos, review of Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia, by Timothy J. Wengert, Westminster Theological Journal 61 (1999): 130.
[12]Ibid, 132.
[15]Robert Kolb, review, p. 456.