Joshua Scott Reviews Reception of Jesus in the First Three Centuries

Reviews of the Enoch Seminar 2021.01.02

Chris Keith, Helen K. Bond, Christine Jacobi, and Jens Schröter, eds. Reception of Jesus in the First Three Centuries. 3 vols. London: T&T Clark, 2020. ISBN: 9780567000194. £ 405. Hardback.

Joshua Scott
University of Michigan

In recent years, approaches to Jesus Studies have broadened to include the interpretive lenses of postcolonialism, social linguistics, gender studies, social memory history, and reception history. This new magisterial study from T&T Clark adopts reception history as the means of exploring the memory of Jesus in the earliest Christian communities. Building upon principles from Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jan Assmann, and Jens Schröter among others, the project explores individual texts as a “mixture of what the interpreter has inherited from the past and the present circumstances from which he or she receives that past” (xv). It is a conscious movement away from redaction and source criticism rooted in historical positivism of previous generations to appreciate how “traditions about Jesus have been appropriated, adapted, and re-portrayed in a variety of early sources” (xx). Volume one includes a detailed introduction to the project as a whole as well as to volume one specifically (Bond), 18 chapters on literature from the first century CE, and an index. Volume two contains a volume introduction (Schröter and Jacobi), 39 chapters on literature from the second and third centuries CE, and an index. Volume three is comprised of a volume introduction (Keith), 23 chapters that focus upon the non-Christian, visual, and liturgical reception of Jesus, and an index. Chapters in each volume are organized by genre (e.g., Gospels, Apocalypses) or by topic (e.g., Amulets, Nomina Sacra), and follow the same general outline: an introduction, portrayal of Jesus, reception of Jesus, conclusion, and suggestions for further reading. This review highlights four chapters relating to the earliest Jesus community explored in volume one of the Reception of Jesus in the First Three Centuries, and concludes with a few comments on common threads between the entries.

Christine Jacobi emphasizes that the authentic letters of Paul, written between approximately 50–56/60 CE, “provide access to the oldest versions of some of Jesus’s sayings” (3). The “Christ event,” Jacobi highlights, was the central experience for Paul that defined his understanding of God and community. Paul communicated this understanding with topoi from every facet of his life, including Israel’s scriptures, Jewish apocalyptic and wisdom systems, Greco-Roman literature, legal tradition, and his own revelatory experience on the road to Damascus (5). According to Jacobi, Paul’s experience with Jesus created a clear break in his identity as persecutor and serves as “a hermeneutical key” that comprises “a new worldview and foundation” to engage the world (7). Beliefs and practices, such as Christology, baptism, and communal meals, shaped traditional language into confessional formulas that incorporated Jesus into the definition of God, defining “a new image of God’s nature” (15). Jacobi defends that reading these traditions together permitted receivers to interpret Jesus as the promised descendant of David (17). For Jacobi, Paul’s letters represent an important stage of transition from oral Jesus traditions to written reception. Thus, the epistles “provide evidence for the oldest Jesus tradition by adapting Jesus’s words to the needs and current problems of Pauline communities in the Mediterranean world of the first century” (25). In this way, concern for the historical Jesus in Paul’s epistles is subjugated to and reinterpreted by the problems of Paul’s respective faith communities.

Alan Kirk argues that the reception of Jesus begins at the complex intersection of Q studies. Kirk understands Q as an “artifact of Jesus-reception that by virtue of its instructional genre configuration commemorates the normative dimension of Jesus’s proclamation” (73). Its genre, which represents a “cultural and cognitive repertoire” (93), indicates an intentional act to shape the memory of Jesus as a particular ethos. A bulk of Kirk’s essay addresses the reception of Q in secondary literature, especially in the accounts of Kloppenborg, Schröter, and Labahn, which have shaped the relationship between the historical Jesus and the earliest (hypothetical) document of Jesus followers. According to Kirk, Kloppenborg utilizes redaction-history and genre-history to demonstrate that Q is a distinctive kerygma of a Galilean Jesus movement, but misunderstands the efficacy of genre form between the several strata of Q in shaping that tradition. Unraveling Kloppenborg’s premises, Kirk proposes that “conflicting form-critical and genre-critical lines of analysis lead to conflicting models for Q that stand in unresolved tension: on the one hand Q1 materials, aggregated by primitive means such as a catchword and topic association, undergoes a ‘redaction’ (Q2); on the other hand Q1 is a literary stratum, a scribal artifact that is ‘relatively well-organized, with clearly-constructed arguments and with a degree of topic organization that places it among the best organized ancient saying collections’” (78).[1] Kirk understands Schröter as arguing that Q was an “act of reception that brought diverse traditions together within a unified literary conception” (87), classifying Q as a Spruchbiographie (“sayings biography”). This classification calls into question the coherence of Q and the interpreter’s ability to engage Q as a “self-standing reception of the Jesus tradition” (89). Labahn follows Schröter’s classification of Q as Spruchbiographie, but draws upon narrative theory to reframe the collection as temporally organized and sustaining an implicit narrative arc. Labahn’s elaboration resolves Schröter’s literary incoherence, Kirk argues, but goes too far into a “pan-narrativism” that traps Q between false genre binaries (90). Kirk’s solution to these missteps is found in the distinction of genre. He argues that “genre is independent of social setting: a genre might find application in several Sitze im Leben, and a given Sitz might make use of several genres” (94). Q is organized in perlocutionary rhetorical patterns that institute a new cultural ethos. Kirk finds that while the death and resurrection of Jesus (narrative) are essential to the Jesus tradition, it cannot be separated from the normative impulses preserved in the saying tradition. “It is the artefact of the normative dimension” or effect of the historical Jesus (103).

Sandra Huebenthal finds that despite uncertain origins or authorship, the Gospel of Mark accomplishes three main things: (a) it narrates the passion and resurrection of Jesus; (b) offers one model for understanding Jesus while not disparaging other models; and (c) illustrates discipleship according to that understanding (43). The portrait is crafted from the perspective of the bystander (1:37); the important distinction that Huebenthal draws out is “how is Jesus presented”? (43) Huebenthal contends that after Mark’s prologue that foreshadows Jesus’s identity as Son of God (1:1), Mark’s messiah is constantly frustrated at the myopic limitations of his audience: they seek physical restoration rather than salvation and their inquiries into the law indicate a misunderstanding of the Kingdom of God. Mark’s Jesus is interested in the small details, but not impressed with the large, speaking in plain language that “ordinary people can relate to and which is ambiguous enough to provoke those who have a say” (45). As the story develops, Huebenthal speculates, readers learn what it means to believe in Jesus through the negative evaluation of characters (e.g., crowds, Pharisees, scribes, Herod). The text’s three different stages—1:16-8:26, Galilee; 8:27-10:52, king of Israel; 11:1-15:37, passion story—frame messianic titles and allusions to traditional material (e.g., Isaiah, 1 Enoch, Daniel) to link Jesus to images of the Anointed One, Son of Man, and Son of God (59). The text’s attribution to Mark as well as the structure and main features are all a part of the reception of Jesus in the early Christian tradition.

Matthias Konradt builds on recent scholarship that views the Gospel of Matthew’s relationship with Judaism as a hermeneutical key. The chapter engages this premise through (a) a literary analysis of major parts and (b) titles ascribed to Jesus. “One of the main objectives of Matthew’s Jesus story,” Konradt reflects, “is to connect the focus on Jesus’s ministry to Israel with its universal significance… and to demonstrate that this universality is rooted in the Scriptures themselves” (108). The conflict between Jesus and Jewish authorities likely reflects a dominant concern of synagogues connected to Matthew’s audience. Matthew’s reception of Jesus, interpreted through Christological titles, is revealed through the development of the narrative. Konradt argues that Matthew is composed of five major discourses: Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), the missionary discourse (Matt 10), the parable discourse (Matt 13), the community discourse (Matt 18), and the eschatological discourse (Matt 24-25). Outside of the five major discourses, Matthew adapted Q in three major blocks (11:2-27; 12:22-45; 23:1-39), suggesting that Matthew is closer to Q than Mark in his theology (133-34). Konradt believes that the conflict with the Jewish authorities sets the stage for the eschatological discourse, in which the basis of conflict with the authorities become a microcosm for the eschaton: “the one who will now be judged and put to death by his wicked opponents is in fact the one who will ultimately judge them” (112). Matthew interweaves messianic titles, such as the dual sonship of God and of Man and teacher, throughout the narrative in an attempt to reconcile Jesus’s authority and earthly fate with the belief that Jesus is God’s son (119, 121).

Whereas Mark and Matthew begin with brief origin stories, Michal Beth Dinkler highlights that based on Luke’s introduction, the third Gospel is crafted more like a Greco-Roman biography or ancient historiography. Luke’s command of rhetoric and positive depiction of wealth suggests to Dinkler that the author was an elite or closely connected to the elite class (141, 162). Furthermore, the preference to cite and allude to the Septuagint and the omission of Jewish halakhic concerns prevalent in Mark and Matthew, together implies that Luke is a gentile God-fearer writing to other gentiles. The identity of Luke’s Jesus, Dinkler highlights, is especially notable in 4:16–30, in which Jesus’s reading of the Isaiah passage (a) outlines his purpose, (b) corrects the audience’s understanding of a messiah, and (c) describes the conflict that then ensues by the misconception, which ultimately leads to Jesus’s death and resurrection (144). These three central characteristics, Dinkler argues, play out through interactions with those frequently viewed as “others” or outcasts in ancient society. “Luke’s Jesus is not only God’s messenger and miracle-worker; the citation from Isaiah also suggests he is the Messiah who will restore Israel” (149). Whether Luke is ultimately pro- or anti-imperialist is still debated, but Luke’s depiction of Jesus as a prophet like Isaiah casts him as savior for those in need. Luke further reinforces this image through the dialogues between Jesus and the Pharisees over Jesus’s identity and authority (cf., ch. 7; 158).

Helen Bond defends the view that the Gospel of John knew the Synoptic Gospels, despite the significant differences in content, organization, and presentation. Unlike Luke, who attempts to compile and edit resources as a biography, John claims to be an eye-witness account of Jesus (19:35; 21:24), a unique claim among the Gospels. The text alludes to the “Beloved Disciple” as the author’s narrative. For Bond, this attribution is important to understanding the meaning of the Gospel. The Gospel of John records a prolonged conflict with other Jews, suggesting the collaborator was not the “Disciple” but a receptor of a distinctive tradition. His witness becomes a literary device in John’s Gospel that communicates distinctive knowledge to the audience “while simultaneously giving it the authority of a character who was present at the same time” (166). The employment of several traditional titles and motifs that serve to exalt Jesus – Christ (4:25-26), Lamb of God (1:29, 35), Son of Man (1:51; 8:28), King, Prophet, Word (1:1, 14), Light (1;8), Life (1:4), God (20:28), “I am” statements borrowing from Exodus (cf., 6:35, 48, 51; 10:9; 11:25; 15:1) – suggests Jesus’s divinity was at the center of the theological conflict between the Johannine community and others. Although John did not lose sight of God’s eschatological power, his overwhelming concern was “the individual’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus in the present” (169; cf. 20:31). Bond posits that only two pre-Johannine sources can be detected with certainty, the Jewish scriptures and the Synoptic Gospels, and the author combined these sources together with the cultural memories by “John’s Christ-following circle” (“we have seen” (1:14); “we know” (21:24); cf. 1 John 1:3) to address the conflict with the synagogue (176–77). This is especially noticeable in the prominent title of Jesus as “lamb”: “by ‘keying’ the death of Jesus into the feast of Passover, specifically regarding Jesus as the new paschal lamb, they made the crucifixion the new liberation from bondage and oppression, the new means by which they were signaled out by God for salvation” (184). According to Bond, the combination of these motifs suggests the Johannine community was still intimately connected to the life of the synagogue, but experienced strained or recently broken relations.

Every entry analyzes the reception of Jesus according to its medium and representative community, which paints a vivid image about the origins and progression of the Jesus movement. This reviewer found some entries more willing than others to acknowledge the challenges of engaging the cross-textual dialogue between traditions. For instance, Jacobi’s argument concerning Paul’s access to oral tradition begs the question of whether he really had a complete ideological break from Judaism at the “Christ event.” It seems like Jacobi’s certainty stems from a desire to see the uniqueness of the Christian Paul. In contrast, Andrew Gregory raises a similar issue in relation to 1 Clement: “the letter’s own ‘configuration’ of Jesus itself depends on ‘prefiguration’… to which text can be related” (325). Gregory repeatedly calls us into the gray space between text and context without the need to posit breaks in knowledge or context.

Despite the slight differences in approach, the depth of research in each entry is impressive and mostly accessible to those with a basic knowledge of terms and concepts related to the New Testament, like advanced undergraduate or first-year seminary students. This encyclopedia contains a wealth of knowledge from leaders in the field of biblical studies. Researchers will find the subject/author appendices in each volume extremely helpful for reference. Beyond the acuity of contributors, the volumes are elegantly organized and cover a diverse collection of textual and non-textual evidence. I find the greatest value of this resource is its online component. Data is protected behind a pay-wall, but individuals and institutions with online access will benefit from increased accessibility through digital cross-searching. 

[1] Cf. John S. Kloppenborg, “The Sayings Gospel Q: Recent Opinion on the People Behind the Document,” CR:BS 1 (1993): 9-34, here 25; idem, Formation, 89.

Joshua Scott

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