Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Gospels: For All Christians?

Were the Gospels written for specific early Christian audiences, perhaps even particular congregations, or did their authors intend a wide dispersion for a general audience?

And why would it matter? Two reasons come to mind. First, if the Gospels aimed at particular audiences, identifying those audiences could greatly enhance our understanding. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a literary classic that transcends its particular time and place, but knowing the circumstances in which King wrote and the behavior of white moderate clergy in Birmingham sure sharpens our appreciation of the letter. Second, it might help us to know whether to read the Gospels as evangelistic (for a wide general audience) or pastoral (for a specific believing audience) literature.

In this decade Richard Bauckham has gained both notoriety and influence for positing that the Gospels targeted a wide general audience, much like the popular novels of the ancient world. His edited volume, The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences, argues that he believes the Gospels were designed to serve believers wherever they might reside. Thus, Bauckham suggests neither a specifically evangelistic aim (since the Gospels were for Christians) nor a narrow pastoral aim (one specific audience). Rather, “an evangelist writing a Gospel expected his work to circulate widely among the churches, had no particular Christian audience in view, but envisaged as his audience any church (or any church in which Greek was understood) to which his work might find its way” (11).

Bauckham stands among the scholars I admire most. He’s a genuine polymath whose erudition is simply humbling to the rest of us. As it happens, I think he’s both wrong and importantly right at the same time.

I do believe the Gospels envisioned specific early Christian audiences. How else would one explain the profoundly touching reference to Alexander and Rufus in Mark 15:21? Surely this passage points to a group familiar with Simon’s two sons. What about Luke’s obscure and controversial reference to Theophilus? Even if Theophilus is just a generic term for Luke’s audience (the name means, “Lover of God”), would a general audience have appreciated Luke 17:7 (“Which of you, who owns a slave…?”)? Most ancient people were poor, hardly likely to identify with slaveowners. The Gospel of John says its aim is to help people believe (as if it were an evangelistic tract), yet it clearly relies on the testimony of a authoritative disciple with whom the audience would be familiar (21:24). If Matthew intends a general audience, everyone agrees it speaks to people who follow Israel’s law – not quite a universal audience. (Bauckham addresses some of these objections on p. 24, but I’m not persuaded.)

Thus it seems to me – and to most reviewers – that Bauckham is wrong. At least in a narrow sense. But I think his basic emphasis is entirely correct. Perhaps the Gospel authors intended specific audiences, but remarkably and rapidly early Christian communities decided to do something else with the Gospels. (The same thing happened with Paul’s letters.) They made copies and shared them. By the middle of the second century, it seems that just about any church around in the Mediterranean had copies of four Gospels and ten letters of Paul, among other literature. Whatever the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John intended, their earliest readers sensed something more profound: the Gospels were for all Christians after all.

Bauckham and his colleagues are fully aware of how rapidly early Christian literature spread among the churches. In that same volume appears a terrific essay by Michael B. Thompson, “The Holy Internet: Communication Between Churches in the First Christian Generation.” Bauckham himself spells out the implications: earliest Christianity perceived itself as a global movement nearly from the beginning, maintaining active networks of communication all over the Mediterranean world. (The evidence for this network extends well beyond New Testament literature.)

When I pause to contemplate the energy and investment early Jesus people devoted to keeping in touch with one another, it inspires a sense of wonder. Most of us are old enough to remember copying documents by hand; imagine doing so with long documents, on animal skins or natural fibers, using basically pointy sticks and ink wells, with no punctuation and no spaces between words to guide your work. Yet that’s what these people did, time and again, so that they could have copies of these works – and in the long run, so that we could as well.

5 comments:

Rachel said...

Interesting. I think the same is true (broadly speaking) of sermons: A sermon is usually written for a specific community within a specific context, yet a good sermon also is relevant to all of its listeners. So, for example, the pastor's Sunday sermon may be written with a single congregation in mind but should also hold some accessible good news for visitors to the church that day. Preaching "out of context" as a visiting speaker poses some challenges, but still I'd argue that the basic balance between contextual/universal holds true.

Michael F. Bird said...

Greg,
Bauckham never denied that the Gospels were meant for an initial audience in their particular location, but ALSO that the Gospels were intended to circulate beyond that initial audience. I've written two articles in JTS and EJTh in defence of Bauckham against Esler, Mitchell, and Sim. Also, Micky Klink is editing a follow-up book on the Gospel audiences.

BTW, I'm hoping to do a mini review of your book on Jesus and the sinners.

Greg Carey said...

Hi, Michael. I apologize for the delayed response. In my view, Bauckham's argument is as much negative as it is positive. That is, he's as concerned to refute interpretations that handle the Gospels as allegories of a specific faith community (primarily), perhaps even reconstructions that rely on specific audience at all (secondarily). I'd agree with the primary rebuttal. Not so much the secondary one. Is this a helpful reply?

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