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.
“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).
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).
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.
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 “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’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.
“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)
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).
Carson, Moo, Morris, Introduction, 67.
Hengel may intend for the reader to refer to his argument elsewhere on this point (see p. 37 and p. 233 n.154).
William Farmer, The Synoptic Problem: A Critical Analysis (Dillsboro, N.C.: Western North Carolina Press, 1976), 224-27.
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.