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Mr. Philip Yim Kwok Hung

Critique on

Theissen, Gerd. The Gospels in Context: Social and Political History in the Synoptic Tradition.

tr. by Linda M. Maloney.(Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1992.)


Table of Content of the book


His Idea:

Theissen has assumed a 3-Stages hypothesis on the fomration of the synoptic traditions. He believes that the first stage includes the fragmentary traditions from Galilee. The Gaius Galigula Crisis has forced Christians to response and they formulate large units of traditions. These traditions are from Jewish territory especially in or around Jerusalem. In this second stage the synoptic apocalypse and the passion account are formed. Later in reaction to the Jewish War in 66-74 C.E., the synoptics are written. Mark represents the Syrophoenician (North) perspective. Matthew shows the East view. Luke reveals the West viewpoint (Mediterranean cities).

My Comments:

It is plausible to believe some traditions are formed before the Gospels are written, but how can we be sure that the Gaius Caligula Crisis is the catalyst? Though the events in Palestine during the years 39-41 C.E. are mentioned in the writings of Philo, Josephus, Tacitus, but none of the first-century Christian writers explicitly refer to this Crisis. When discussing the relationship between the temptation of Jesus and the self-apotheosis of Gaius Caligula, Theissen proposes three similar motifs: prostration, conferral of power, and the conflict with Jewish Monotheism. As Theissen confesses, "the two motifs dicussed so far - prostration and conferral of power - would fit any Roman emperor with absolutist tendencies, but conflict with Jewish monotheism is attested only for Gaius Caligula. (p.215)." Theissen argues, "Prostration before the diabolical "ruler of the world" is identical with refusal to worship the one and only God." He uses Codex Alexandrinus (fifth century C.E.) of Mt 4:10 and Lk 4:8 and minuscule in Deut 6:13 (82, from the twelfth century) to support his linkage of these two. Obviously this link is not very convincing because it depends on later sources. Contrary evidences can be seen in prostration to Gaius by Agrippa I (p.215) and Jewish delegation (pp.211-212) when they met Gaius. Jews must develop a different interpretation in order to meet Gaius' demand of prostration. If they do not have different view, how can they prostrate before Gaius and be accepted by their Jewish counterpart. Though for Christians, we don't have the data, but it is plausible to have similar approach. To confess Gaius as the God and reject Jesus Christ as the only God will not be tolerated by Christians.

The link between the temptation story and Gaius Crisis is quite vague. We need more data to confirm this. Does it possible that the other two temptations give us some clues too? The temptation of hunger may relate to famine or the life of poor farmers ( c.f. Jn. 6). The temptation on the top of the Temple relates to the Temple and personal security relating to Divine protection. Besides, all the answers provided by Jesus are quoted from the Deuteronomy. The theme of this book may be relate to the motifs of the temptation story. For example, the centralization of shrine (Jerusalem Temple), the shema, and remembrance of God's acts may be related to it. I propose that the appearance of the Temple in the temptation story is a clue to the event too. The security of the people is depended on Satan or God? The answer is God. The diabolical ruler (Gaius) is not the one who provide protection, but the only God. Note that this contrast is made on the "pinnacle of the Temple" (Lk. 4:9). The Deuteronomy story is a reminder to the Jews, in midst of difficulties, God is still controlling. Remember the shema in Deut and don't serve other gods (Lk. 4:8).

If Theissen is right, the fragmental evidences of other events may be presented in the Gospels and Acts too! How can we follow his lead in the search of these events? Theissen has not told us how to do this, but from his work I find some hints. Firstly, one have to study the contemporary history of N.T. times. Then he has to search for some important events which is mentioned by other contemporary writers, but ignored by the Synoptics. Using these new insights to re-study the Bible texts, until some possible texts are found. After that, one has to reconstruct all the data found by the study.

Theissen has tried to narrow the range of the Sayings Source, which is commonly accepted between 40 to 70 C.E., to 66-74 C.E. He studies the interpretation of Israel, the Gentile, and Pharisees in Q. For example, the positive portrayal of a gentile centurion reminds him of Syrian legate Petronius who tried to avoid war in the Gaius Crisis. Though Theissen refuses to accept the story as a reflection of the Crisis, but Theissen proposes that it is incorporated in the time of the Crisis. This association is very vague, but very insightful. If Theissen is right, then Q must have appeared as a "form" of literature long before scholars previously assumed. The Synoptics may have been written earlier then we previously proposed. Theissen has continued to discuss the dating and location of the Synoptics, in chapter 6, the Gospels and their provenance.

Theissen has used the geographical feature heavily. The interpretation on the sea of Galilee is insightful. The lake of Galilee is unlikely to be accepted as "the sea"; by the people who have contacted the Mediterrean Sea. However, the people in the region of Syria should have contacted the Great Sea, nick-name of the Mediterrean Sea. The so-called of neighborhood expression is insightful, but is an argument from silence. Theissen observes that there are four influences: community traditions, popular tales, disciple traditions, and the conflicting Christian interpretations. The dynamic of these traditions demands more attention which may help us to apprehend the complexity of traditions in the apostolic churches. The "wrong" geographical statements in Marks, location of Gerasa and naming of Syrophoenician woman, are too controversial and cannot be served as proofs. I appreciate Theissen's work which has opened a new look in the study of the New Testament, but we need more proofs in sustantiating this understanding.

In determining the location of Matthew, the usage of peran tou Iordanou is essential. This interpretation is insightful, but too weak evidence to support it.. As Theissen says, the interpretation of this expression "depends on the standpoint of the one using it." This phrase has a relative meaning but the standpoint is hard to determine.

Theissen proposed that wind conditions in Palestine is different from that of Luke's Gospel. For example, in Lk 12:54-56, the south wind is described as source of heat, but in Palestine it is the east wind which has this effect. However, in biblical sense, the ' "east wind" is de facto a south wind.' Thus, the argument is not strong enough. Luke has relutantly referred lake of Galilee as a sea, and the we passages are in fact sea experience will give some force to his arguments.

If Theissen is right, then the Synoptics may reflect three branches of the earliest Christianity: Syrian (Mark), Jewish in the East Jordon (Matthew), and West (Luke). The Syrian branch includes Antioch and Dasmascus. It may be a mixture of Jewish and Gentile understanding, while the other two reflect opposing stance.

Theissen further suggests that Mark is written near but after the War in 66-74 C.E., but the other two Gospels are written long after the War. I think Theissen is right in putting Mark near the War, but Theissen puts it after the War is not right. Theissen proposes that the temple prophecy has been refined ex eventu." I think this is the problem. If the prophecy is refined ex eventu, then similar to Daniel more details may be supplied to enforce the credence of the prophecy. The use of "hode" is not a strong proof. To understand it as a postwar situation demands much more explanations, than taking it as a pre-war situation. I propose to put Mark near but before the War. If Mark has to write about the situation, he has to prepare his sources. It may takes him at least one to two years before he can write it. Shortly after the War, anything closely relate to the Temple and the War are highly political. This does not fit the portrayal of Jesus in Mark. Jesus is depicted as a prophet who is politically low tone. The pre-war situation will provide a better ground for reception and distribution of the Gospel. After the War, the prophecy has been fulfilled and it is accepted more easily.