Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Passion Narrative

We now come to the third (and final) major section of the current series entitled Jesus and the Gospel Tradition (cf. the Introduction). The first part of the this series was devoted to a detailed examination of the Baptism of Jesus. The second part dealt with the Galilean Period of Jesus’ ministry, especially as an organizing principle within the Synoptic Gospels. I had noted previously this basic two-part structure of the Synoptic narrative—(i) the Galilean ministry (Mk 1:28:30), and (ii) the journey to Judea/Jerusalem and the events there (Mk 8:3116:8). Luke, through his expanded treatment of the journey to Jerusalem, has a three-part division (+ the Infancy Narrative):

  • [The Infancy Narrative]
  • The Galilean ministry (3:19:50)
  • The Journey to Jerusalem (9:5118:34)
  • The time in Judea/Jerusalem (18:3524:53)

The Judean/Jerusalem period may likewise be divided into two main sections, along with shorter introductory and concluding episodes:

All three Synoptics essentially follow this basic outline, though it has been modified and expanded in places by Matthew and Mark (especially the Resurrection episodes in Luke). We may outline the Passion Narrative itself as follows:

  • Narrative Introduction (Mk 14:1-2)
  • The Anointing Scene (14:3-9)
  • Excursus 1: The betrayal by Judas introduced (14:10-11)
  • The Passover: Jesus with his Disciples (14:12-25):
    —The Preparation (vv. 12-16)
    —The Passover scene at mealtime (vv. 17-21)
    —Institution of the “Lord’s Supper” (vv. 22-25)
  • Excursus 2: The denial by Peter foretold (14:26-31)
  • The Passion Scene in Gethsemane (14:32-52)
    —Jesus’ Passion and Prayer (vv. 32-42)
    —The Arrest of Jesus (vv. 43-52)
  • The Jewish “Trial”: Jesus before the Sanhedrin (14:53-72)
    —The Scene before the Council (vv. 53-65)
    —Peter’s Denial (vv. 66-72)
  • The Roman “Trial”: Jesus before Pilate (15:1-20)
    —The Scene before Pilate (vv. 1-5)
    —The Judgment (vv. 6-15)
    —The Preparation for Crucifixion (vv. 16-20)
  • The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus (15:21-40):
    —The Crucifixion Scene (vv. 21-32)
    —Jesus’ Death (vv. 33-40)
  • Narrative Conclusion (15:42-47)

There are six principal episodes, each of which will be discussed in turn, beginning with the Anointing Scene (Mark 14:3-9 par).

It is generally felt by most scholars that the Passion Narrative was the first (and earliest) part of the Gospel Tradition to be given a distinct narrative shape. This can be glimpsed by the early Gospel preaching recorded in the book of Acts, as well as by the kerygmatic elements common throughout the New Testament (especially the Pauline Letters). The death and resurrection of Jesus formed the center of the Gospel message, so it is natural that those traditions would be the first to take shape as a simple narrative, to make the details easier to communicate and commit to memory. This also means that a number of these traditions are relatively fixed, and evince less development than in other portions of the Gospel. Details such as Judas’ betrayal or Peter’s denial of Jesus simply had to be included in any telling of the story. Even so, each Gospel writer handles the material in his own distinctive way, “ornamenting”, if you will, around the core traditions.

In analyzing the Passion Narrative, I will continue utilizing the method I have adopted for this series. For each passage, narrative, or set of traditions being studied, I examine—

    • The basic Synoptic narrative (as represented primarily by the Gospel of Mark)
    • The so-called “Q” material (shared by Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark)
    • Traditions and details preserved only in Matthew and/or Luke (so-called “M” and “L” material), as well as original (literary) contributions by the authors
    • Johannine tradition and the Gospel of John

Generally speaking, this order of study is chronological, reflecting ‘layers’ of development—but not strictly so by any means. Indeed, there is some evidence that the Gospel of John, usually thought of as the latest of the canonical Gospels (c. 90 A.D.?), contains early/authentic historical traditions in a form that may be older than those of the Synoptics. Wherever possible, I will attempt to trace the manner of development in the Tradition, and how/why it may have taken place.

The next note in this series will begin examination of the first episode of the Passion Narrative—the scene of Jesus’ Anointing.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period

This is a good moment to stop and re-set the current series entitled Jesus and the Gospel Tradition (cf. the Introduction). The first part of the this series has been devoted to a detailed examination of the Baptism of Jesus. This was chosen because it provides an ideal case study (using extensive evidence from all four canonical Gospels) for analyzing how the early (historical) traditions came to be developed and adapted over time, leading to the composition of the Gospel narratives as we have them. It was demonstrated rather clearly, I think, in these notes, how the account of Jesus’ baptism (and his relation to John the Baptist) were preserved (independently) in multiple strands of tradition. Each Gospel writer gave his own interpretation and treatment of the material, but was essentially obligated to hold to a basic narrative, and to the preservation of certain fundamental traditions.

The remaining two parts, or divisions, of this series will be focusing on: (1) the Galilean Ministry of Jesus (Pt  II) and (2) the Passion Narrative (Pt III). These are also useful as divisions since they reflect the basic two-part structure of the Synoptic narrative—(i) the Galilean ministry (Mk 1:28:30), and (ii) the journey to Judea/Jerusalem and the events there (Mk 8:3116:8). The other Synoptics have more complex structures; indeed, Luke rather clearly has a three (or four) part division:

    • [The Infancy Narrative]
    • The Galilean ministry (3:19:50)
    • The Journey to Jerusalem (9:5118:34)
    • The time in Judea/Jerusalem (18:3524:53)

However, it is easy enough to see how the core Synoptic narrative has been adapted and expanded. In the case of Luke, the Infancy narrative (chaps. 1-2) has been added and the journey to Jerusalem (Mk 10) has been filled out by including a wide range of sayings/teachings of Jesus, and other episodes, most of which do not occur in the Gospel of Mark (i.e., so-called “Q” and “L” material).

Here is a preliminary list of some of the areas and topics I will be addressing in the next set of notes (for the remainder of February and into March), dealing with the Galilean Ministry of Jesus, traditions and passages related to:

    • The call of the Disciples
    • Jesus’ relatives and family
    • The Sabbath Controversies
    • Collection/joining of sayings, parables, and miracle stories
    • The Feeding miracle(s)
    • The Son of Man sayings

The next several notes will deal with the first topic—the Call of the (first) Disciples of Jesus.

It is worth mentioning, that these Galilean ministry passages and traditions are, for the most part, exclusive to the three Synoptic Gospels. The main reason for this is that a large percentage of scenes and dialogues in the Fourth Gospel are set in and around Jerusalem, so there is less material with which we can definitely work. However, it may be surprising how many parallels we will find between the Synoptic and Johannine traditions, and that the latter may well have included (and reworked) numerous episodes and traditions which are set in the “Galilean” section of the Synoptic narrative.

It may also be helpful to remind readers of the method I have adopted for this series. For each passage, narrative, or set of traditions being studied, I examine—

    • The basic Synoptic narrative (as represented primarily by the Gospel of Mark)
    • The so-called “Q” material (shared by Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark)
    • Traditions and details preserved only in Matthew and/or Luke (so-called “M” and “L” material), as well as original (literary) contributions by the authors
    • Johannine tradition and the Gospel of John

This order of study is roughly chronological, reflecting ‘layers’ of development—but not strictly so by any means. The Gospel of John certainly contains (separate) early/authentic historical traditions which are not found in the Synoptics. However, more often than not, the Fourth Gospel also shows the most evidence of extensive development, adaptation, and interpretation, of Gospel tradition. Indeed, this is a primary reason why it is usually regarded as the latest of the canonical Gospels—often dated around 90 A.D., in the form it has come down to us.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: Introduction

This series, entitled Jesus and the Gospel Tradition, will be a feature on this site. An initial series of notes and articles were originally posted on the earlier version of Biblesoft’s online study site in 2019, and are being reposted here (with some modification) leading up into Easter season 2020. Eventually, new articles will be added which expand and build upon these original notes.

This subject, in my view, is central to any proper study of the New Testament. Before proceeding, I would recommend that the reader consult my earlier article in which I discuss the meaning and use of the term “tradition“, as well as the expression “authentic tradition”. When specifically referring to “Gospel tradition”, this may be understood several ways:

  • Traditions related to Jesus which became part of the early Christian preaching and proclamation (kerygma) of what we call the Gospel—the “good news/message” of Christ.
  • Traditions which were combined and integrated to form a core Gospel narrative regarding the life and teachings of Jesus.
  • Traditions which came to be part of the written Gospels, as we have them.

When cited with capital letters—i.e., “Gospel Tradition”—it should be taken to mean that all three elements, or phenomena above, are included for consideration. An important aspect of this study, which I will especially be exploring in this series, is the development of the Gospel tradition. Contrary to the view, perhaps, of some traditional-conservative Christians in generations past, the four (canonical) Gospels as we know them did not come down out of heaven fully formed; rather, they are the product of a definite process of transmission and creative/artistic adaptation. Any serious view of the divine inspiration of the New Testament must take this into account. The three components of Gospel Tradition, listed above, hint at this developmental process; however, I would outline it even more precisely, here below, as follows:

    1. The words and actions of the historical Jesus and his contemporaries
    2. Jesus’ words/actions, etc, passed down (from eye/ear-witnesses) and transmitted orally among the first generation of Christians—i.e. early oral tradition
    3. Collected sayings of Jesus, and stories/episodes involving him, joined together thematically (catchword-bonding, etc) into somewhat larger traditional units—transmitted orally, but early on they began to be written down as well
    4. The first coherent and developed Gospel narratives and other related written texts. Many scholars would include the Gospel of Mark, as well as the so-called “Q” material, in this category (cf. below).
    5. The written Gospels—certainly Luke, Matthew, John, and perhaps others surviving (as fragments) from the 1st century. These larger, more complex works incorporate earlier existing source documents, as well as (perhaps) various developed oral traditions.

Admittedly, this sequence is largely theoretical, but there are many indications of it, I believe, preserved in the text of the Gospels as they have come down to us. Sometimes this requires a little detective work, but, as often as not, the process of development can be traced to some extent. What is unique about the New Testament—and the Gospels in particular—is how quickly this development took place, and how well documented it is, relatively speaking, for us today. If we consider the period of Jesus’ ministry as taking place during the few years around 30 A.D., the Gospels had all come to be written, more or less as we have them, by the end of the first century (c. 80-90 A.D., for the latest of them)—only a generation or two (30-60 years) after the events they record. The vast preserve of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament (including a fair number from the 3rd century), along with the many versions (in Latin, Syriac, et al), and scores of citations in the early Church Fathers (2nd-3rd centuries), allows the dedicated scholar the unusual opportunity of studying the Gospels at a level of detail unparalleled for texts from the ancient world.

If we were to consider the five layers above from a chronological standpoint, they would be, roughly speaking:

    • Layer 1: The actual words, etc, of Jesus and the historical events—c. 28-35? A.D.
    • Layer 2: Early oral tradition—the period c. 30-50 A.D.
    • Layer 3: Gospel tradition, collected sayings and narrative units—sometime before 50 A.D.?
    • Layer 4: The first developed Gospel narratives and written texts—c. 50-60 A.D.
    • Layer 5: The written Gospels as we have them—60-90 A.D.

Throughout this series, I will be looking at many examples—passages in the Gospels—where this development may be studied. Why is this important? One of the great failings of a strict traditional-conservative view of Scripture, in the case of the Gospels, is that it tends to treat Layer 1 as essentially identical with Layer 5, often ignoring (or even denying) the layers of development in between. But it can be demonstrated rather clearly, at hundreds of different points, that the Gospels evince various layers of adaptation and interpretation, by which the historical words and events (taken in their concrete, documentary sense) have been transformed into something far greater than a mere stenographic record. I would maintain that any approach which downplays or ignores the developmental (and creative/artistic) process, risks severely misunderstanding and misreading the Gospels. I hope to encourage students of Scripture, along with all other interested believers, to look at the Gospel narratives in this light, with a fresh perspective, so as to explore more fully the depths of the truth and beauty which they possess.

I begin this study where the Gospels themselves begin, on the whole—with the account of the Baptism of Jesus. This episode, found in all four Gospels (and also in Acts), serves as an interesting and appropriate test case for our examination. This is particularly so since, as we shall see, the narrative of Jesus’ baptism preserves numerous historical details and associations which seem to have largely disappeared from Christian tradition during the first century. On the one hand, this confirms the fundamental historicity of the Gospel tradition(s); on the other, it makes it somewhat easier to distinguish between historical details and elements which possibly indicate an early Christian interpretation of them.

When referring to the four Gospels, in terms of the Gospel Tradition, scholars and commentators generally recognize three main strands: (1) the core Synoptic tradition, represented primarily by Mark; (2) the so-called “Q” material, common to Matthew and Luke; and (3) Johannine tradition, i.e., traditions preserved only in the Gospel of John.

As a method of study, I will be adopting the following approach whenever possible, examining in sequence:

    • The Synoptic tradition, as recorded in Mark
    • The “Q” material in Matthew-Luke
    • Details unique to Matthew
    • Details unique to Luke
    • Johannine tradition as developed in the Gospel of John

In preparing for the notes dealing with the Baptism of Jesus in the Gospel Tradition, I will be using the following outline, which, first, isolates three primary components of the Baptism narrative—

    1. The ministry of John
    2. The relationship between John and Jesus
    3. Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah), in comparison with John

and then, secondly, I will explore the place that the Baptism has in the structure of the Synoptic narrative—the two-part division, and the parallels between the Baptism and Transfiguration scenes.

The initial set of notes will follow the sequence indicated above, beginning with an examination of the ministry of John the Baptist (Mark 1:3-6 par).

February 9: Word study on “Gospel” (conclusion)

Today’s note concludes the series of word studies on the eu)aggel- (“gospel”) word group in the New Testament. I will begin with a summary of the results, followed by a short survey of how the word group was used in other early Christian writings in the late-first and second centuries. The results of our study may be presented as follows:

1. The original context of the eu)aggel- word group had to do with the delivery of (good) news, lit. a “good message”, especially that which involved the outcome of military action or other important events related to the public welfare. Since the public good was often connected with the action of the ruler, thought (according to the ancient mindset) to be appointed and/or gifted by divine power, the idea of the “good message” was extended to the ruler himself—esp. his birth and accession, his own health and welfare, etc. This was specially so in the case of the Roman emperors of the first centuries A.D., who, as “Caesar” and successors to Augustus, were understood to be divine (“son of god”). The peace, protection (i.e. “salvation”), and prosperity brought about by the emperor’s rule, was “good news” for the population, and, as such, the eu)aggel- word group became associated prominently with the imperial cult. This certainly would have affected the early Christian use and understanding of eu)aggel-, though there is relatively little direct evidence for this in the New Testament itself. The contrast, between Jesus and the Emperor, in terms of the “good message”, is most apparent in the Gospel of Luke (esp. the Infancy narrative), and, less directly, in Luke-Acts as a whole. Neither the common noun eu)aggeli/a (“good message”) nor eu)a/ggelo$ (“good messenger, messenger of good [news]”) occurs in the New Testament. The neuter noun eu)agge/lion is used, but only in the singular, never the plural (eu)agge/lia). Originally, the neuter noun referred to the response to good news—i.e., the reward given to the messenger, or an offering of celebration and thanks, etc. It is this aspect that was notable in connection with the Roman imperial cult—offerings and celebration for the good news of the emperor’s accession, etc.

2. The verb eu)aggeli/zw (Koine middle eu)aggeli/zomai), “bring/declare a good message”, also occurs a number of times in the New Testament, largely under the influence of the Greek translation (LXX) of the Old Testament Scriptures. The verb translates the Hebrew rc^B* (“bring [good] news”), just as eu)aggeli/a/eu)agge/lion translates the derived noun hr*c)B=. The theological significance of the verb is more or less limited to its use in the Prophets, especially several key passages in (Deutero-)Isaiah, all of which came to be interpreted in a Messianic and eschatological sense—40:9; 52:7; 60:6, and (most notably) 61:1. It is Isa 61:1 which exerted the greatest influence on the New Testament, rooted in the Gospel tradition. According to Lk 4:18ff and 7:22 par, Jesus identified himself with the Anointed (Messianic) herald of the passage, especially in the context of the teaching and healing miracles performed during his ministry in Galilee. Indeed, this may well define Jesus’ own use of eu)aggel- (Aramaic rcb), recorded in several important sayings within the Synoptic tradition. It clearly influenced the frequent use of the verb in the Gospel of Luke (and the book of Acts). Luke virtually never uses the noun (only the verb); the opposite is the case in the core Synoptic tradition (of Mark-Matthew, cf. below).

3. With the Gospel and earliest Christian tradition, the verb eu)aggeli/zomai, i.e. the announcing of good news to God’s people, came to be understood in two primary (and related) senses: (a) that one may obtain forgiveness of sin, and (b) will thus be saved from the coming (end-time) Judgment by God upon humankind. The Gospel message was thus originally (and primarily) eschatological in orientation. Both forgiveness and salvation were experienced only by believers who repented and trusted in Jesus. This was the essence of the “good news” proclaimed by Jesus and his first followers, and represents the core of the apostolic preaching. However, in both the Pauline letters and the early sermon-speeches preserved in the book of Acts, this was expanded to form a core message proclaimed by missionaries and preachers during the first century. The announcement of the opportunity for salvation (in Jesus’ name) came to include a brief narrative outline of Jesus’ life—from John the Baptist, through to Jesus’ own ministry, and his death and resurrection. To this was added a pair of fundamental theological/Christological statements: (i) that Jesus was the Anointed One (Messiah) prophesied in the Scriptures, and (ii) that God exalted him (as Son of God) to a divine position/status in heaven, from whence he will appear (as a heavenly savior-figure) at the end time to rescue believers and usher in the Judgment. This is the “good message” proclaimed by Peter, Paul, and other early missionaries.

4. In Paul’s letters (c. 49-60 A.D.), this use of both the verb eu)aggeli/zomai, and, in particular, the noun eu)agge/lion, took on still deeper theological significance. Already in the earliest surviving letters (1-2 Thessalonians), Paul was using the noun in three distinct expressions, each with an important point of emphasis:

    • “my/our good message”—Paul and his fellow ministers have been specially appointed by God to proclaim the message
    • “the good message of God”—God is the source of the message, having brought it about for believers in Jesus
    • “the good message of the Anointed {Christ}”—the message is about the person of Jesus, who he is and what God has done through him

It is in Galatians and Romans that Paul expounds and explains what he means by the word eu)agge/lion. In Galatians, it is central to the conflict (with certain Jewish Christians) over the religious identity of believers. Paul argues forcefully for the central doctrine that it is through trust in Jesus alone that human beings are justified (“made right” in God’s eyes) and saved from Judgment; adherence to the Old Covenant and its Torah plays only a negative role in this process. In Romans, Paul adds to this an exposition of the nature of salvation (see esp. chapters 5-8). The twin ideas of forgiveness of sin and deliverance from the coming Judgment are deepened in Paul’s thought, being expressed now in terms of the belief that, through trust in the Gospel, human beings are delivered from the power of sin that is dominant in the current world-order. In the mode of thought and expression by Paul, eschatology truly has become soteriology. Moreover, we find the important point that trust in Jesus (i.e. the good message) activates and makes effective the saving power of his sacrificial death and resurrection. This is central to Pauline theology and is expressed more clearly in his letters than perhaps anywhere else in the New Testament. We can thus begin to glimpse in Paul’s letters a wider and more expansive meaning of the word eu)agge/lion, so that it very nearly becomes synonymous with the Christian faith itself.

5. First Peter was probably written c. 60 A.D., roughly contemporary with the latest of Paul’s letters. In this work too we find a theological expansion (and exposition) of the meaning of eu)agge/lion. It is identified with the living and eternal word of God, with its creative and life-generating power, as also with the living Spirit of God (and Christ) that comes to dwell in the believer (1:23-25). The eschatological aspect is also sharpened, so that acceptance of the “good message” becomes the entire basis for deliverance from the coming Judgment and inheritance of eternal life through the Spirit (4:6, 17, and the surrounding context). The eu)aggel- word group does not appear in the Gospel or Letters of John at all, but does occur several times in the (Johannine) book of Revelation, where the early/traditional eschatological aspect is emphasized, much as we see elsewhere in the New Testament. Other NT occurrences are rare, and generally follow the usage and semantic range detailed above.

6. The Gospel of Mark, probably written some time in the 60’s A.D., represent the earliest usage of eu)agge/lion to refer to a written work. The author (trad. John Mark) identifies his literary work specifically as eu)agge/lion, virtually serving as its title (1:1). At one other point—the declaration by Jesus in 14:9 (par Matt 26:13)—the noun appears to be used in the same context, whereas elsewhere it seems to refer to the message and teaching of Jesus in a comprehensive sense (8:35; 10:29; 13:10). The noun is less frequent in Matthew, which generally follows the Synoptic (Markan) usage.

By about 150 A.D., roughly a hundred years later, the earlier meaning of eu)agge/lion had largely disappeared from use. The relatively rare occurrences of the word group in writings of the mid/late 2nd century demonstrate a rather clear shift in meaning—from an oral proclamation about Jesus to an authoritative written record. We can see this, for example, in the writings of Justin Martyr. In the rare instances where the word eu)agge/lion occurs, it clearly refers to written works, most likely corresponding to some (if not all) of the canonical Gospels. In his First Apology 66:3, the “memoirs of the Apostles” (ta\ a)pomnhmoneu/mata tw=n a)posto/wn) are specifically called eu)agge/lia, the plural of eu)agge/lion. The word a)pomnhmoneu/mata literally means “(thing)s given/coming from memory”; that written works (i.e. written/recorded from memory) are meant is relatively clear from the context, and is confirmed by the use of the singular eu)agge/lion in the Dialogue with Trypho (twice, 10:2; 100:2). The Letter to Diognetus (author unknown), probably written around the same time, uses the plural eu)agge/lia to refer to written Gospels (11:6). Two or three decades on, Irenaeus, in his famous work Against Heresies (c. 180), has gone a step further: not only does eu)agge/lia refer to authoritative written works, it is used specifically for the four canonical Gospels—these four and no other (III.10-11, etc).

Concluding note on the Apostolic Fathers

An examination of the so-called “Apostolic Fathers”, a collection of Christian writings surviving from the period c. 90-150 A.D., allows us to fill in the gaps a bit, to see how the use of the eu)aggel- word group in the New Testament developed to the point that the “good message” became defined in terms of authoritative written documents (“Gospels”).

It is a bit surprising that, in the lengthy letter-treatise of Clement (1 Clement) to the congregations in Corinth, written c. 95 A.D., the eu)aggel- word group is so rare. The author clearly is familiar with Paul’s letters, and is writing to congregations founded by Paul, yet this important Pauline terminology is absent. In 42:1, 3, the verb eu)aggeli/zomai is used in the older, traditional sense of the “good news” proclaimed by Jesus in his ministry, and which was subsequently declared by the Apostles (cf. also the Letter of Polycarp, 6:3; Barnabas 5:9; 8:3; 14:9). At 47:2, where the noun eu)agge/lion occurs, the author is citing Paul (cf. Phil 4:15).

The noun also is used several times by Ignatius of Antioch in his letters (c. 110)—to the Christians of Philadelphia and Smyrna. In Philadelphians 5:1-2 he appears to use eu)agge/lion as synonymous with the Christian faith and one’s religious identity (as a believer in Christ). He describes the eu)agge/lion of Christ as being manifest or embodied in the Eucharist. Elsewhere in the letter, however, the term seems to refer to an authoritative record (oral and/or written) of Jesus’ teaching and saving work (8:2; 9:2; also Smyrneans 5:1; 7:2). This is in accord with the later strands of the Synoptic tradition (c. 60-70 A.D., cf. above). Passages such as Smyrn. 5:1 seem to imply a written record.

The work known as the Didache (“Teaching”), and attributed to the Twelve Apostles, is properly called a Church Manual, composed sometime before 150 A.D., but containing traditional material that may go back to the late 1st century A.D. The noun eu)agge/lion occurs four times (8:2; 11:3; 15:3f), signifying an authoritative body of teaching by Jesus (and the Apostles), and perhaps intended to correspond to one or more of the canonical Gospels. In tone and approach it is closest to the Gospel of Matthew, yet even where the Lord’s Prayer (close to the Matthean version, 6:9-13) is cited (at 8:2ff), eu)agge/lion probably is not meant as a reference to Matthew per se, since the expression is “in his [i.e. Jesus’] eu)agge/lion“, i.e. the teaching of Jesus which is recorded in Matthew. In the Martyrdom of Polycarp (written c. 155-165), the noun is used repeatedly, where it similarly refers to an authoritative record of Jesus’ teaching and life-example (including his suffering and death), without necessarily intending any particular written Gospel (or Gospels).

In the work known as 2 Clement, on the other hand, eu)agge/lion does refer to a specific written work; however, interestingly, the saying of Jesus cited (8:5) does not correspond precisely to anything in our canonical Gospels (cp. Lk 16:10-12). It may be a reference to the so-called “Gospel of the Egyptians”, or a similar extra-canonical work. Another extra-canonical saying of Jesus is cited by the author in 12:2.

The custom of referring to the canonical Gospels by the title [to\] eu)agge/lion kata\ … (“the Good Message according to…”), which may have been established by the middle of the 2nd century, was probably inspired by the Markan title (Mk 1:1). Given Luke’s reluctance to use the noun, it is highly unlikely that he would ever have referred to his own work that way (he uses the noun dih/ghsi$ in 1:1). Matthew is more likely to have followed the Markan usage. The title appears to have the sanction of Jesus himself, at least in the Synoptic formulation of the tradition in Mk 14:9 par, which implies the existence of an account more or less corresponding with 14:3-9 as part of a larger narrative. Such a narrative is represented by the Gospel of Mark, and followed, with certain additions and modifications, in the Gospel of Matthew. The author of the latter may well have understood Jesus’ statement in 24:14 as encompassing the publication and distribution of his own work narrating “the Gospel of the Kingdom”. In the centuries since, the New Testament title “Gospel according to…” has become so familiar that there is little thought given as to how this custom was established in the first place. I hope that this series of notes has helped you to appreciate better the rich heritage surrounding the eu)aggel- word group as it was used and developed by believers in the first two centuries.

January 26: Mark 1:1

Having looked at important aspects of the background and usage of the eu)aggel- word group in the previous notes, we will now examine a number of key verses and passages which indicate how early Christians made use of the word group. I will not treat every occurrence, but only those which are especially representative of usage within the earliest Christian and Gospel traditions. I begin with the opening words from the Gospel of Mark.

Mark 1:1

“(The) beginning of the good message of Yeshua (the) Anointed[, Son of God]”
a)rxh\ tou= eu)aggeli/ou  )Ihsou= Xristou= [ui(ou= qeou=]

The words in square brackets are absent from a number of manuscripts (a* Q 28c al) and may represent a scribal expansion. In any case, this opening statement functions essentially as the title of the work, which may be called the “good message” (to\ eu)agge/lion). Clearly, we have gone a step beyond the basic meaning of the word; though not yet at the point where eu)agge/lion refers to a Christian literary genre (“Gospel”), by referring to the entire book as to\ eu)agge/lion, it is pointing in that direction.

You may recall that the original meaning of the neuter noun eu)agge/lion had to do with the response to “good news”, such as the reward given to the messenger, or acts/offerings of celebration and thanks. The eu)aggel- word group was often used in the context of military action, the “(good) news” relating to the outcome of battle, deliverance from enemy forces, etc. As we shall see, for early Christians, [to\] eu)agge/lion came to have the technical meaning of the message of Jesus Christ—who he is and what he has done (or what God has done through him)—proclaimed by missionaries during the 1st century A.D. This is the meaning which attends the use of the noun here in Mk 1:1: eu)agge/lion refers to the Christian message regarding Jesus, in a thorough (and developed) written form—as a biographical and paraenetic narrative.

Thus, even though eu)agge/lion occurs here at the start of the Gospel (and the Synoptic narrative), it actually reflects the end of a process of development; it is this development which we will be examining in these daily notes, beginning with the saying of Jesus in Mk 1:15 par.

Some scholars have suggested that the use of the noun eu)agge/lion as a key word within the Gospel narrative itself, may be a specifically Markan innovation. As evidence in support of this, we may point out the following:

    • The position in Mk 1:1 as a title of the Markan Gospel (cf. above)
    • The occurrence at important points elsewhere in Mark (6/7 times): 1:14-15; 8:35; 10:29; 13:10; 14:9; [16:15]
    • The fact that the noun is rarer in Matthew, and only in passages that are part of the core Synoptic tradition (i.e. shared with Mark): 4:23/9:35; 24:14; 26:13
    • The noun does not occur at all in either the Gospel of Luke or John

This is not to say that the author of Mark (trad. John Mark) invented the use and significance of the word, only that he may have been the one who introduced it (as such) into the Gospel tradition, giving it a place of prominence.

The Lukan omission of the noun was already mentioned in the prior note; it occurs in Acts 15:7; 20:24, but is entirely absent from the Gospel. Given the fact that Matthew retains the noun in several passages that are part of the core Synoptic tradition (passages otherwise share by Luke), the Lukan omission must be intentional. However, if so, the reason for this has never been satisfactorily explained. It is conceivable that the author (trad. Luke) wished to avoid the noun eu)agge/lion because of its implicit association with the Roman emperor and the Imperial cult (cf. the previous note); however, this is unlikely, since he uses the related verb eu)aggeli/zomai (“bring/proclaim a good message”), which had similar associations with the Imperial cult. In fact, it is clear that Luke consciously prefers use of the verb over the noun. The noun never occurs in the Gospel (and only twice in Acts), while the verb is used 25 times in Luke-Acts (including 10 times in the Gospel), and the verb is never used in Mark (and only once in Matthew, nor is does it occur in John). Thus, it is fair to say that the use of the verb eu)aggeli/zomai is as distinctly Lukan as the use of the noun eu)agge/lion is Markan. Is Luke reacting against the Markan usage? Some commentators see this as a possibility, in the light of the semi-negative comparison with other Gospel accounts in the Lukan introduction (1:1ff). In other words, Luke has intentionally avoiding using eu)agge/lion as it occurs in Mark, preferring instead the verb eu)aggeli/zomai. The actual reason for preferring the verb, however, in this case seems clear: it is due to the usage in important Scriptural (Isaian) passages such as LXX Isa 40:9; 52:7; 60:6, and, especially, 61:1. This will be discussed further in upcoming notes.

If Matthew knew and utilized the Markan Gospel, as many suppose, he has eliminated the title line of Mk 1:1. This would be due to the practical consideration that he has included an Infancy narrative (1:18-2:23), prefaced by a genealogy of Jesus (1:2-17), ahead of the core Synoptic narrative. A title, similar in form to Mk 1:1, was adapted(?) and set at the beginning of the genealogy; compare:

“The (sc)roll of the coming-to-be of Yeshua the Anointed, son of Abraham, son of David” (Matt 1:1)
“The beginning of the good message of Yeshua the Anointed[, son of God]” (Mk 1:1)

As for Luke, he also includes an Infancy narrative, prefaced by a short introduction (1:1-4) to the work as a whole, written in good Greek literary style. There he calls his work, not eu)agge/lion, but a dih/ghsi$. This noun, which occurs only here at Lk 1:1 in the New Testament, is derived from the verb dihge/omai, which has the literal meaning “lead through”, here in the technical sense of bringing out an account (i.e. narrating something) through from beginning to end. The author compares his work with that of others (including the Markan Gospel?) who have attempted to set down the traditions regarding Jesus into a clear narrative form. He makes a point of his having sought to record everything accurately, and in order—implying, perhaps, that others have not done this so well. In any event, his use of dih/ghsi$ to characterize his work gives it an altogether different emphasis than the Markan title of eu)agge/lion.

On the (generally accepted) theory that Mark is the earliest of the four canonical Gospels, it is likely that that the conventional title attached to each of the four (“the eu)agge/lion according to [kata] …”) was inspired by the Markan title in Mk 1:1. By the mid-2nd century, at the very latest, the noun eu)agge/lion was being used as a (semi-)technical term for established written accounts such as the four canonical Gospels, with their rather unique blend of biographical, paraenetic and exhortative elements.

In the next daily note, we will examine the first words of Jesus, as recorded in the core Synoptic narrative—the saying in Mark 1:15.