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.

2 thoughts on “Martin Hengel: One Gospel or Four?”

  1. That’s a great review you made of Hengel’s book. It’s indeed puzzling that after giving such strong reasons for believing the external evidence of Matthean priority, that Hengel would opt for Markan priority!

    Has anyone besides myself seen a strong argument for Papias having supported the priority of Matthew over Mark? He’s quoted as having written, “Mark became Peter’s interpreter, and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not indeed in order, of the things said or done by the Lord.” If it was not in order, that could only have been determined by comparing it with a written document that had come earlier. This had to have been Matthew, for which Mark’s order disagrees often until Matthew 12 is reached.

  2. Have you considered that maybe Martin Hengel is simply trying to make something strong out of what is innately weak? In other words, How many other books have been written along these lines? Millions? What make this book different? Martin Hengel is drawing from the same spring as many others before and after him. There is nothing new to what he says about tradition. Here is something not “new” but rare: There is only 1 Gospel, and only one (1) book in the NT that claims to be a Gospel: The Gospel According to Mark. All the others, after all, are really only “talking about” their reading of Mark. If you would like to know more, contact me.


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