The idea that the Gospels comprise layers of development is widely accepted. Such is taken for granted in scholarly literature, is taught at most seminaries (perhaps all highly regarded seminaries), and is certainly taught in all courses on the New Testament at secular universities. As a result, the concept is often put forth in polemics against the Christian faith, though sometimes such is done in a rather uncareful fashion. This blog entry will seek to briefly bring a bit more nuance to at least certain kinds of charges of doctrinal development in the Gospels.
A Non-Christian Thought Experiment
The problems with some of these ideas dawned on me more than a decade and a half ago, before I became a Christian —- back when I was still an atheist, in fact. When I was an undergrad, among my friends were two close friends whom I’d like to focus on, here, in particular. One was a philosophy major and the other was a communications major. The philosophy major was a great writer, very eloquent and verbose, and a bit of a mystical pantheist. Meanwhile the communications major was a great guy, but honestly didn’t seem to express a lot of deep thoughts, and his papers seemed to reveal he struggled to put together even a consistent paragraph.
Now, when I was an undergrad, I though it was plainly obvious that the Christology of John was a later development than the Christology in Mark. However, in a bit of a thought experiment, one day, I had imagined what it would be like if we (i.e. myself and the two friends just mentioned) concocted a new religion, and each of those friends wrote texts arguing for that religion. I very quickly concluded that the more eloquent, verbose, mystical, philosophically inclined friend would almost certainly produce something more cerebral and complex than the friend who wasn’t a particularly deep thinker, and this would be the case even if they wrote at the same time. Within that scenario, it would be a mistake to think the simpler text was older and the more complex text a much later development.
Now, as a disclaimer, I’m not saying that thought experiment reflects the fact of the matter with the Gospels (i.e. I’m not claiming, for example, that Mark was some sort of a dullard while John was a deep philosopher). I’m simply sharing how I realized nearly two decades ago that an apparent difference in depth or concepts between two texts does not entail a development over time from one to the other. As for what actually might be the explanation for the differences between the Gospels, I will get into that, later, below.
Can A High Christology Be An Old Christology?
For an example of how a conclusion of Christological development can be reached, consider a few widely accepted propositions:
(A) A fairly straight forward reading of the Gospel of John has Jesus depicted as a divine Person who took part in creation and who took on a human likeness.
(B) Such is not found in Mark.
(C) John is later than Mark.
In propositions (A) through (C), we have a later text apparently putting forth a much higher Christology than an earlier text, and many take this as a sign of Christological development over time. However, note two more propositions:
(D) Scholars are mostly agreed that Philippians and 1 Corinthians predate the Synoptics, and, while scholars are more divided on Colossians, there are still a number of scholars who treat that text too as authentically Pauline, and thus (perhaps tacitly) predating the Synoptics.
(E) Philippians 2:5-7 can be understood as referring to Christ as a divine Person who took on a human likeness. So too, 1 Corinthians 8:6 and Colossians 1:16 can be understood as referring to Christ as having a role in creation.
Taking into account propositions (D) and (E), it seems entirely plausible that some of the more “developed” Christological positions in John actually predate the Synoptics.
How Might Differences Between The Gospels Be Explained?
If one were to propose that a high Christology existed for the entire period in which the four Gospels were composed, that would raise a question: how then does one explain the obvious difference between the Gospels in general, and between John and the Synoptics in particular? Why isn’t such a high Christology explicit in the Synoptics? Why does John have material found nowehere in the Synoptics?
One possible explanation is that each Gospel pulls small portions from a much larger spectrum of true tradition about Jesus, and the initial catechetical or pedagogical intentions for each Gospel determined what content was employed (as they could have initially been intended for audiences at different stages of development). The Greek Orthodox priest John Romanides stated such a position as follows:
[T]he Gospel of John has the mysteries as its basis and as its purpose the correlation of the historic life of Christ with the present mysterial life in Christ and experience of the community. When we take into account that the Christians carefully and systematically avoided all discussions of the deeper meaning of the mysteries, not only with the hostile outside world but even with the catechumens, then we are able to understand the use of the Gospels in the first Church, and many of the problems raised by biblical criticism are solved. Since the baptized Christians did not discuss the mysteries even with the catechumens, it is sufficiently clear that the fourth Gospel was used in the ancient Church for completing and finishing the catechism of the recently illumined, that is newly baptized. It was particularly suited to this purpose and distinguished from the other Gospels mainly because of its clear dogmatic, mysterial, and apologetical tone. We do not find in John the systematic preparation of catechumens for that is found in Matthew and Mark. This is why John does not begin with the baptism of Christ but with “In the beginning was the Logos…and the Logos was made flesh.
Somewhat similarly, Joachim Jeremias argued at length that there is evidence within the New Testament itself that different authors deliberately abstained from including deeper traditions in certain texts, out of concerm that such was not appropriate for the uninitiated. Jeremias also argues that such carefulness was common among both Jews and non-Jews in the ancient near east.
Such a practice lasted for centuries among Christians, as, even in the fourth century, bishops in Alexandria expressed alarm at the fact that the deeper mysteries of the faith were being exposed to catechumens and non-believers, when they wrote:
They are not ashamed to parade the sacred mysteries before Catechumens, and worse than that, even before heathens: whereas, they ought to attend to what is written, ‘It is good to keep close the secret of a king;’ and as the Lord has charged us, ‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast your pearls before swine.’ We ought not then to parade the holy mysteries before the uninitiated, lest the heathen in their ignorance deride them, and the Catechumens being over-curious be offended.
Therefore, it should not be any surprise that the aforementioned Father Romanides summed up the issue thusly:
The differences between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John, therefore, are not disagreements as many maintain. On the contrary, they clearly pertain to a difference in depth and fulfillment of the Synoptics by the fourth Gospel in accordance with the catechetical needs of the Church.
Methodological Rules of Thumb
In closing (or summation), the reader is invited to keep in mind certain points when attempting to explore the subject of alleged development in the Gospels.
- First, the relative dates of texts cannot be determined via their level of complexity or explicitly stated theology (i.e. it does not follow that a text which seems more “full throated” in its Christology has to be later than a text which apparently has less to say on the subject).
- Second, a high Christology may very well predate the Synoptics.
- Third, the authors of the Synoptics may have been of the mindset that deeper truths should be revealed in stages.
- Fourth, and finally, attempts to discuss the alleged motivations of the Gospel writers regarding what content they included needs to also include discussion on their intentions and their understandings of their intended audiences.
By no means do I think this blog entry ends all debate; on the contrary, I think there remains considerable room for further discussion. But I suspect that if such points are taken into account, a more careful and nuanced approach to the subject can be taken.
(1) To be clear, this is not in reference to Christ’s disciples having an evolving understanding within their lives (e.g. believing one thing during Christ’s ministry, but having a different understanding after the first Pentecost after the Crucifixion, and perhaps continuing to grow after that). Rather, the focus will be on the idea of, for example, one New Testament text (e.g. the Gospel of Mark) having a primitive, low Christology, and another text (e.g. the Gospel of John) having a later developed, higher Christology.
(2) I realize there are some who seek to interpret the text differently, and that can be discussed, but for now I will move forward with this understanding.
(3) Or, put another way, Mark is the earliest of the four canonical Gospels while John is the latest of that set. This is not a position I am actually affirming; rather I think attempts to date the texts of the New Testament are invariably mired in speculation, so I am willing to take a position of agnosticism on such questions.
(4) Interestingly, even Dunn tentatively puts himself among those who are willing to treat Colossians as authentically Pauline; cf. James D.G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 39-41.
(5) Similar to the case with John, I realize some try to interpret the text of Philippians differently. Nonetheless, I will move forward under the popular understanding. As Hurtado states, “[m]ost scholars take these verses to reflect a belief in the personal preexistence and incarnation of Christ.” [cf. Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003), p. 121].
(6) On an interesting side note, while this might be unpopular among Christians who adhere to a 66-book canon, it may be worth noting that some posit a connection between Matthew 27:39-41 and Wisdom 2:12-21 [the current Dean of the Lousiville Seminary even argued for a relationship between Mark and Wisdom; cf. Susan R. Garrett, The Temptations of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 68-69]. This has relevance, because if the Synoptic writers were familiar with that text, they plausibly were already familiar with a belief in a divine, personified Logos (as the all-powerful [παντοδυναμος] Logos of God leaps from the throne and stands on earth as a man, in Wisdom 18:15-16).
(7) This would be the implication of John 21:25. Separate from that text, note that there are apparently slightly over 18,300 words in the Greek text of Matthew, approximately 11,300 words in Mark, slightly under 19,500 words in Luke (putting the total for the Synoptics at just under 50,000 words), and slightly over 15,600 words in the John. Only a portion of those words are quoting Jesus, and even without such numbers, those familiar with the text know that one could read all the words attributed to Jesus in the Synoptics or John in a matter of hours. Therefore, in the spirit of John 21:25, these corpora of quotations must only reflect a small fraction of what would have been said over the course of a multiple-years long ministry. With such in mind, the argument of E.P. Sanders (in The Historical Figure of Jesus, (London: 1993), p. 70), against the idea that the Synoptics and John were each conveying “50 per cent” of Christ’s teaching, constitutes an attack on a straw man.
(8) John S. Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, (Glen Rock, NJ: Zephyr, 2002), pp. 72-73.
(9) Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, (Oxford, 1955), pp. 73-86.
(10) Separate from Jeremias’ argument, I would propose that allusions to this sort of concern can be seen at various points in Mark. For example, in Mark 1:40-45, we are shown that one point of keeping aspects of Jesus’ deeds (and what they reveal about Him) secret is such has a direct effect on the trajectory (or unfolding?) of His ministry. In Mark 4:11-12, we see that there was a deliberate plan for many people to have an only partial sense of the truth. In Mark 9:9, we see that the embargoing of details was temporary, which is to say certain secrets would be revealed at a later time. In Mark 11:27-33, we see religious authorities trying to get Jesus to elaborate on His position, and Jesus subsequently using their own uncertainty as grounds for not being entirely explicit and forthcoming on the subject. Then the text immediately transitions from there to Jesus teaching those same authorities the parable of the vineyard, in Mark 12:1-9. In that parable, Jesus subtly depicts the Messiah as being above every prophet, and as God’s son in a unique sense. He could have just said that was His position, but instead He presented it to them in a parable (à la the aforementioned Mark 4:11-12). In the trial scene, in Mark 14:61-64, we see that once Jesus does speak openly about His own self-identity, those same authorities are nearly floored, and have apoplectic reactions. Ergo, it would seem His prior unwillingness to give them everything was not without good reason. The overall picture from Mark conveys to the reader the idea that the truth is slowly revealed, in pieces, at their appropriate times (à la Ecclesiastes 3:7), with deeper ideas being revealed at a later stage.
(11) The Encyclical Letter of the Council of Egypt, in Athanasius, Defence Against the Arians, part I, chapter 11, in Philip Schaff & Henry Wace (eds.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, (New York: Cosimo, 2007), vol. IV, p. 106.
(12) Romanides, opere citato, p. 73, n. 18.