The Evolution of the Gospel


To study documents with a view to discovering how they are related to one another and how their respective contents are to be accounted for is the business of literary and textual criticism rather than of history. But it would be absurd to pretend that the results have no implications for history. In themselves documents belong to history: they were produced at a particular time in a particular place by people who were not insulated from the society and the world around them. In that sense, the mutual relationship and the manner of origin of the gospels belong to history. But their content belongs to history in another sense too. To conclude, as this study does, that the contents, because they are part of a theological debate, are not reportage or narratives is not to conclude that they presuppose no historical events or persons. The Iliad is poetry and imaginative creation; but it would not have existed if there had not once been a great war and a long siege. The results of this study therefore raise historical issues, which ought not to be pretended away.

There was a moment when somebody first pointed to a piece of bread and said: ‘It is His body.’ That action implied on his part and on that of those to whom he spoke that they knew who was the ‘He’ implied in ‘His’. There was also a moment when that knowledge first came to be entertained – a moment before which no such notion existed. The crucial element turns out to be that ‘He was the son of God’, a statement so startling that it needed to form part of a narrative which explained it and would be capable of being transmitted in writing. The making of that statement and its committal, in whatever form, to writing were also events in history; and the examination of a document purporting to contain that narrative is a study of history, none the less so if the only reliable evidence for it is provided by the document itself. The attempt to account for the widespread acceptance and prevalence of the ritual meal through time and place belongs to disciplines other than history and criticism, and forms no part of this book. The document, along with others, constitutes, and from an early stage has always constituted, the accompaniment – as the chorus of a Greek tragedy accompanies and interprets the action upon the stage – of the liturgical worship of the Christian Church. That worship does not stand or fall by whatever may have been the textual history of the document, but derives its authority and its persuasiveness from the immemorial practice and the experience of the Church itself.

To ask questions which a document itself poses and to persevere in attempting to answer those questions as rationally as any others offered to human curiosity cannot infringe belief or worship. Indeed, for many of those who find themselves confronting perplexities in their study of the first gospel, it may be a relief to know that those perplexities are not private to themselves but exercised the minds of others from an early stage in the creation and transmission of the book. For me the most surprising experience has been to be led to perceive from how early a period in the evolution of the gospel the forms and ideas of worship were recognizably the same as they have continued down the ages.

The scholarship of centuries has been devoted to the document which forms the subject of this book. It was my method in studying it to clear the mind as far as possible of preconceptions or conclusions arrived at earlier by others; and I have deliberately therefore neither ascertained nor recorded previous agreement or disagreement with the results I propose.
The evolution which I am concerned to explore was complete before the divergences in manuscript transmission which apparatus critici record arose. I have used the British and Foreign Bible Society text and apparatus as published in 1958, but those who use a different edition will find no serious inconvenience.



Whitsun 1994