Friday, October 06, 2006


Kerygmata and Resurrection in the Gospels

Breward S. Childs, in his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, states that one of the main achievements of modern NT critical research, specifically on the formation of NT writings, is the consciousness that the very first level of the primitive Christian tradition is linked to the faith of those witnessing the resurrection of Christ. The focus of this kerygma was oriented in a missionary way toward those who were not Christian believers yet, and was centered on the resurrection.

In some sense, this a reasonable conclusion, especially perhaps to modern eyes, in light of the importance that one should attribute to the Resurrection event and to the spreading of the faith. But it is also a conclusion that - it seems to me - does not flow very easily from the Gospel texts we have today. Let's ask ourselves: What relevance does Resurrection have in the Gospels? (Note that I am specifically not considering Pauline writings here, where the missionary purpose and the stress on the importance of the death and resurrection of Jesus are much more evident.)

It looks like here we touch a problem similar to the one we have when we want to produce a theological synthesis of the Gospel of Mark, namely, how do we reconcile the apparent presence in Mark's gospel of both a theology of glory and a theology of suffering? Did Mark correct a theology of glory with a theology of suffering, as a common solution to the Markan "literary problem" maintains? If we say yes, how do we explain the fact that in Mark the so-called "theology of glory" still outweighs in content the so-called "theology of suffering", and that, on the other hand, the theology of suffering is only properly introduced at chapter 8? Why not earlier, if Mark considered it so important? And why not in a more comprehensive way?

Similarly, if we say that the original kerygma focused on the spread of a Christian faith that was centered on the Resurrection, how do we explain that for example in Mark, allegedly the earliest Gospel, the Resurrection only accounts for the very last part of the Gospel (strictly speaking Mk 16:1-8 - with the three passion/resurrection predictions of Mk 8:31;9:31;10:33-34,45 laid out in the context/genre of the suffering servant), and in a way that would not seem so pastorally convincing? Pastorally, that is, assuming again, as per the hypothesis I mentioned above, that the kerygma had as a primary goal that of winning people to Christ, showing the all-encompassing significance of his resurrection. Saying that the primitive kerygma affirmed the death and resurrection of Jesus -- would not that require a bigger stress (than what we find in the gospel texts today) on realized eschatology, rather than on future eschatology? (cmp. the tension between these two in John's gospel.)

If we maintain that the original kerygma centered on the Resurrection as the foundational event of the new faith (new: to non-Christians), we need to come to terms with the fact that the "Pauline gospel" seems to be the real gospel, while later accounts1 do not seem to pay as much attention to that kerygma. Perhaps all this points out how difficult it is to find a satisfactory classification for the litereray genre of the Gospels, beyond the generic term of "narrative". Perhaps this means that, if the original kerygma really concentrated on the death and resurrection of Christ (1 Cor 15:1-17), the gospel writers, or, maybe better, the gospel communities, fulfilled a real need of the expanding Church, i.e. one of encapsulating that kerygma in historical or pseudo-historical settings, within frameworks that were meaningful to those same writing communities. Finally, perhaps this means that the very concept of kerygma is an impossible one to define properly, and that we should really speak of kerygmata.


1 The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, John. Let us also recall here the peculiar importance that - when speaking of the kerygma - Mark's gospel is often considered to have:
Some scholars assert that, contrary to the other gospels, Mark’s gospel does not only contain preaching (kerygma) but that it is also kerygma. It is maintained that, in comparison to the other canonical gospels, Mark’s gospel is unique. Matthew made use of Mark in the compilation of his gospel but laid far more stress on the teaching of Jesus. The gospel of Matthew is a composition of halachic and apocalyptic discourses in a narrative framework. John’s gospel is a composition of semeia (signs) and revelatory speeches, and Luke wrote a vita (life), or history, of Jesus. According to this view, Mark’s gospel is the only true “gospel.” (W.S. Vorster, in Gospel Genre, Freedman, David Noel, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Doubleday, 1997)

This leads me to several related questions:

1. Why were the three synoptic gospels written? Was it didatic, homilitical, or evangelistic?

2. Part and pacel of the preceeding question: to whom were they individually written?

3. What is the "gospel"? Does the meaning change or stay static through the early decades of the Church? Does the term have a different meaning (or components) when spoken by Jesus, when referenced in Mark 1:1, when it is used in Acts by Peter or Paul, when it is referenced by Paul, and when used by the latest strata of documents?

yours are good and appropriate questions, and I'm afraid they would require substantial time and space to answer, if they can be answered at all. Perhaps, as a start, you could consider consulting one or more introductory textbooks; I've found the "New Testament Theology" series published by Cambridge University Press to be very useful for these matters.

Your last question raises a particularly thorny issue I think. "Meaning" is a very overloaded term, and one needs to specify whether by "meaning" (of what? of a text [the "gospel" as a text]? of a literary category [the "gospel" as a genre]? or, atomically, even of a word [the "gospel" perhaps as etymologically meaning "good news"]? see how many interpretations of the same word "gospel" could be "meant") one intends: the "original writers' meaning" (can it ever be known), the "meaning as understood by the original audience[s]" (ditto), the meaning we ourselves (who, where) may attach to the text/word, etc.

Very generally speaking, yes, I would say that different texts, written, composed, edited and copied at different times in different places do attribute different meanings to what may seem a single word to us (in your example, "gospel").
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