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An Evaluation of “For Whom Were Gospels Written?” by Richard Bauckham and “Patristic Counter-Evidence to the Claim that ‘The Gospels Were Written for All Christians’” by Margaret M. Mitchell

9780802844446_p0_v1_s260x420Introduction:

Bauckham begins his argument introducing two questions: 1) Were Gospels written for Christians or for non-Christians? 2) Were the Gospels written for a specific Christian audience or for a general Christian audience? The first of these questions he answers according to the scholarly consensus that all of the Gospels were written for a Christian audience. In answering the second question, Bauckham addresses whether or not the gospels were written for specific local churches or for the purpose of circulation to every late first century Christian community.

Position:

Bauckham constructs his argument by confronting the assumption on which arguments concerning the Gospels have been based, particularly, the view that the Gospels were written to specific Christian communities. He says, “The unargued assumption in every case is that each Gospel addresses a localized community in its own, quite specific context and character.”[1] Bauckham proposes an alternative to this view. The alternative consists of the Gospel writers writing for the purpose of reaching an audience in any church to which the Gospel might circulate and the Greek language understood. Bauckham’s purpose for arguing this alternative view is to open discussion that has not taken place, and to propose this view as more plausible than the localized view that the Gospel writer’s wrote for specific communities.

Bauckham makes some good points that require further investigation, but he makes certain assumptions regarding the Gospel writer’s intentions, especially in the Synoptic relationship. He says, “Most likely Matthew and Luke each expected his own Gospel to replace Mark’s.”[2] Although this is a possibility, Bauckham does not address the probability of Matthew and Luke adapting Mark’s story and style to meet specific needs for a specific purpose. While he does acknowledge that the churches in the first and second centuries were connected and diverse, Bauckham does not acknowledge the effect that the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70ce would have had on the Gospel writers. The possibility of Jewish-Christian sectarian groups (groups that consisted of Jew and Gentile Christians that lived in isolation)  arising outside of Jerusalem immediately following its destruction in 70ce is not mentioned.

Argument:

Bauckham argues that redaction criticism in the late 1960s attempted to claim that the Gospel writers were writing for specific situations within a Christian community. He says that redaction criticism developed an allegorical reading of the Gospels in hopes of “reconstructing not only the character but the history of the community behind the Gospel.” In her article, “Patristic Counter-Evidence to the Claim that ‘The Gospels Were Written for All Christians’,” Margaret M. Mitchell responds to Bauckam’s essay by examining patristic evidence for a pre 1960s interpretation of the Gospels being written for a localized community. Mitchell agrees with Bauckham, in that, redaction-critical readings can use allegory to the point of projecting onto the life of Jesus the concerns of a “hypothetically reconstructed local church community.[3]” However, Mitchell argues against Bauckham’s view that “all readers without exception before the mid-twentieth century missed the (alleged) hermeneutical relevance of the Matthean community to the interpreter of Matthew.”[4] Mitchell insists that the interpretation of gospels is more complex and ancient than what is presented in Bauckham’s essay.[5]

Reading Strategy:

Bauckham’s argument against a particular ‘reading strategy’ would be strong if every Gospel contained the same accounts. In using the example of J. Louis Martyn’s proposal for interpreting John 9 as a narrative of the Johannine community’s expulsion from its local synagogue[6], Bauckham argues for a general process that was taking place throughout the Diaspora. A question for this proposal is that if it really were a general process, then how come the other Gospel writers do not address it?

Another argument made by Bauckham is that everything that was written in the Gospels did not necessarily need to be pertinent to everyone who read them. One example he uses is Mark 15:21, where Mark mentions Simon of Cyrene as the father of Alexander and Rufus. Matthew and Luke do not mention Alexander and Rufus in their Gospels. This raises the question of why they were important enough for Mark to mention them in his gospel. Bauckham makes the observation that Matthew and Luke’s exclusion of Alexander and Rufus could be another example of how the latter of the Synoptic Gospels would abbreviate Mark’s texts.[7] Another possibility that Bauckham offers for Alexander and Rufus’ exclusion from Matthew and Luke is that they may have been alive when Mark wrote and dead by the time Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels. But if Alexander and Rufus were such important figures that most of the first century Christian communities would have known them (if Mark truly wrote for all the churches), then it seems that Matthew and Luke, having been recipients of Mark’s Gospel, would have known of their importance also.[8]

Gospels and Letters:

Bauckham makes a good observation concerning the Greco-Roman bios in asking, “Why should he [the Gospel writer] go to the considerable trouble of writing a Gospel for a community to which he was regularly preaching?”[9] Bauckham defines the genres of letters and Gospels in order to illustrate their use in the context of the writer’s absence. He says, “The obvious function of writing was its capacity to communicate widely with readers unable to be present at its author’s oral teaching.”[10]

Bauckham does not address the possibility of the Gospel writers writing for the sake of permanence and distinction. David C. Sim in his book, Apocalyptic Eschatology in the Gospel of Matthew, argues for reading the Gospel of Matthew as a work to an apocalyptic-eschatological Jewish Christian sect who has broken ties with Jerusalem and ‘formative Judaism’. Sim goes on to say that Matthew’s community was affected by a combination of factors stemming from the aftermath of the events from 66-70 CE. These factors included conflict with Jews, Gentiles, and the wider world of Christians. Matthew’s community was considered to be withdrawn from society as an alienated group.[11] If an apocalyptic-eschatological sectarian group of Christians were experiencing persecution from the rest of world around them, then a leader of the community may have seen the need for writing a Gospel that would distinguish those on the inside from those on the outside. A Gospel written in this context could have been used to promote group solidarity and social control within the sectarian group.[12]

Patristic Evidence:

Mitchell notes that although Bauckham uses the patristic sources from the second century to illustrate the travel patterns of the church leaders during the first century, he does not cite second century patristic sources regarding the origin and interpretation of the original readers of the gospels.[13] She says a possible obstacle for Bauckam’s argument is that early traditions associated each of the gospel writers with a specific locale: Mark with Rome (and/or Alexandria)(or Syria[14]), Matthew with Judea, Luke with Achaia, and John with Ephesus (and/or Patmos).[15] Bauckham dismisses the influence of Clement’s statement as proof that patristic sources thought of the gospel writers as writing locally, and says that it does not “strictly require this conclusion.”[16] Mitchell illustrates that Bauckham’s interpretation of Clement of Alexandria concerning Mark’s Gospel is incorrect. In her translation of Clement of Alexandria, Mitchell shows that in the tradition about Mark’s gospel there was no “‘envision[ing] of a gospel beginning to circulate’; here Mark’s gospel (singular – the text says nothing about ‘copies’) does not move beyond the Roman Christians who asked him to write it, who are presented as a rather specific group who in turn receive the document from him.”[17]

In another instance, Mitchell recalls Papias’s tradition about Matthew’s peculiar language, particularly about Matthew composing “the sayings” in the Hebrew language, which Bauckham does not discuss.[18] Mitchell makes the point that “for Papias language of composition differentiated Matthew’s readers from Mark’s readers.”[19] This would seem evident since not every Christian in the late first century spoke or read Hebrew. Mitchell notes that, “this presumption about the Semitic original of Matthew was to be a constant in patristic and medieval gospel interpretation, and from it considerable inferences about Matthew’s local community were made.”[20] In the third century, Origen inferred that Matthew’s gospel was written specifically for Jewish Christians.[21] Furthermore, Mitchell explains that this tradition “depends upon the assumption – held already in antiquity by such scholars as Origen and Jerome – that language, place and addressees of the gospels can be correlated with one another.”

Hermeneutics:

Bauckam states in his essay that reconstructing the historical situation of the Gospel writer’s community has “no hermeneutical value since the Gospels were not addressed to or intended to be understood solely by such a community.”[22]  Contrary to Bauckham, Mitchell notes the importance of recognizing the historical situation of the gospels before encountering the text.[23] This is important for Mitchell’s argument because she illustrates that early Christian biblical interpreters were concerned with historical validation of apostolic or sub-apostolic authorship.[24] Bauckam makes the statement that only modern redaction critics “simply assum[e] that the question about the context in which a Gospel was written and the question about the audience for which a Gospel was written are the same question.”[25] Mitchell counters this statement with examples of Christian commentators who combine these two questions in their writing gospel prologues in medieval manuscripts, “which are based on complex histories that extend back to late antiquity.”[26]

Conclusion:

Mitchell provides significant evidence from the patristic writings to show the plausibility that the thought of the Gospel writers writing for a localized community did not originate in the 1960s, as Bauckham proposes. According to Mitchell’s research, “patristic interpreters of the gospel thought it important to ask where when and to whom each of the four gospel was originally written.”[27]

Mitchell’s conclusion calls for movement beyond extreme dichotomies (“either the gospels were written for ‘relatively isolated, introverted communities’ or for ‘any and every Christian community’”).[28] Furthermore, Mitchell utilizes the works of Irenaeus and Origen to argue for a both/and theological approach to interpreting the audience of the gospel writers as local and universal.[29] I agree with Mitchell in her assessment that modern scholars should strive for “methodological flexibility” as we encounter questions that require different approaches.[30] Mitchell’s illustration of “universality and particularity in a deliberate theological and rhetorical tension”[31] in John Chrysostom’s work provides insight for modern biblical scholars to leave room for the mystery of God’s work and revelation.


[1] Richard Bauckham, ‘For Whom Were Gospels Writen?’, in The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 11.

[2] The assumption here is that since Matthew and Luke utilized Mark’s Gospel in their own works, they must have anticipated that their own Gospels were going to be circulated also (Bauckham, 13).

[3] Margaret M. Mitchell, “Patristic Counter-Evidence to the Claim that ‘The Gospels Were Written for All Christians’”, New Testament Studies, Vol. 51, Issue 01, January 2005, (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 37.

[4] Bauckham, 47.

[5] Mitchell, 46.

[6] Bauckham, 23.

[7] Bauckham, 25.

[8] Joel Marcus makes this rebuttal also (Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary [The Anchor Bible; New York, NY: Doubleday, 2002], 27-8).

[9] Bauckham, 29.

[10] Ibid.

[11] David C. Sim, Apocalyptic Eschatology in the Gospel of Matthew [Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2001], 182.

[12] Sim identifies the specific functions of apocalyptic eschatology in five distinct groups that may overlap on certain points: 1. Identification and legitimation, 2. Explanation of current circumstances, 3. Encouragement and hope for the future, 4. Vengeance and consolation, 5. Group solidarity and social control (Ibid, 64).

[13] Mitchell, 47.

[14] Marcus, 36.

[15] Mitchell, 47.

[16] Mitchell, 48.

[17] Ibid, 49-50.

[18] Ibid, 53.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Bauckam, 45.

[23] Mitchell, 55.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Bauckam, 16.

[26] Mitchell, 57.

[27] Mitchell, 77.

[28] Ibid., 78.

[29] Ibid., 61-67.

[30] Ibid., 78.

[31] Ibid., 74.

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