For Whom Were the Gospels Written?

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by Neil Godfrey

the-gospels-for-all-christiansBefore Richard Bauckham wrote Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2006) he had challenged another common assumption among his peers with The Gospels for All Christians (1998). Since the 1960s it had been the common assumption that each of the canonical gospels had been written for a local religious community. Each gospel had been written for a small “group of churches . . . homogeneous in composition and circumstances.”

Each gospel was generally thought to have addressed the particular situation facing its community. Accordingly the gospels could be read as allegories that told us more about those communities than they did about the events in the life of Jesus.

  • James Louis Martyn led the way in 1968 with History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel. He argued that the Gospel’s account of the excommunication from the synagogue of the man healed of blindness was about “the formal separation of the church and synagogue” occasioned by the decision of the rabbis at Jamnia to reformulate a standard curse against heretics to include Christians in the late first century.
  • Theodore Weeden followed in 1971 with Mark: Traditions in Conflict which persuaded many that when the Gospel of Mark characterized the disciples as completely failing to understand Christ it was in order to criticize Christians in the author’s own day who taught that Christ called them to perform signs and miracles to demonstrate the truth of the gospel. The author represented those in his community who believed Jesus called his followers to suffer and die with him.
  • Philip Esler, 1987, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts, finds in the image of the “flock” in both Luke and in Acts (the church at Ephesus) a symbol of  a small church that is beset by dangers both within and without. The implication (as described by Bauckham) is that the author is addressing that one small troubled community and not the entire church.
  • Andrew Overman, 1990, Matthew’s Gospel and Formative Judaism, explained the gospel as an expression of the struggle of a Galilean Jewish community in conflict with another Jewish sect moving towards what was to become rabbinic Judaism.

What grounds does Richard Bauckham offer for us to think that the gospels were not written for local churches but rather for “all Christians” in all churches everywhere? Or at least a very generalized Christian audience wherever its churches were to be found.

Prior probability: Genre

If we think of the gospels as more akin to biographies than any other type of literature — and Bauckham wrote, referencing Burridge’s What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, that this has been “all but conclusively established” — it is difficult to imagine them being written for a relatively small local group of churches in response to specific circumstances they were experiencing.

A “biography” is normally thought to be written for more general inspiration and guidance.

Prior probability: Why set down a gospel in writing?

If the audience of the author was local then what need was there for going to the trouble of writing down the narrative? Why not simply tell one’s associates and regular contacts about it? If one was regularly preaching to a community what need would there have been to write things?

Things written were normally intended to be conveyed to audiences at some distance. It is reasonable to think that anyone who wrote about the life and sayings of Jesus would have expected it to circulate beyond his known circle.

Main argument: The Character of the Christian Movement

Bauckham begins:

The early Christian movement was not a scattering of isolated, self-sufficient communities with little or no communication between them, but quite the opposite: a network of communities with constant, close communication among themselves. In other words, the social character of early Christianity was such that the idea of writing a Gospel purely for one’s own community is unlikely to have occurred to anyone. (p. 30)

I am not being quick to agree with Bauckham. The arguments is very much one of extrapolation guided by assumptions. (I do not agree with Bauckham’s interpretation of the gospels as a form of “biography”.) Bauckham’s view might be right. It’s a possibility to keep in mind. So I’m outlining the very basic points of the argument here to help keep its foundations in mind.

Communication and mobility in first century Roman world

Good roads, safe sea travel, inexpensive common foot travel. It was a time of travel for business, pilgrimages, healing, games and festivals, searching for work . . . Bauckham includes in his list of the many types of people who freely traveled the brigands! So we are reminded it was not entirely a safe venture.

Of course ease of travel does not itself mean the Christian communities were all one. And what if we should think of the earliest movement mushrooming in the late first and early second centuries?

A strong sense of being a world-wide movement

The Christian movement carried the concept of being a universal phenomenon. Traditional social and racial divisions were apparently broken down to some extent according to the usage of fictive kinship terms.

Again, we are assuming here “a Christian movement”, singular, which is actually begging the question. What evidence do we have of this universal idea? Is it found across “all possible groups”?

Church leaders moved around

The evidence from the epistles is that most Church leaders were regularly on the move. Paul, Timothy, Titus, Tychicus and others. Other names are not explicitly said to be moving but we do find them at different locations at various points in the narratives: Peter, Barnabas, Mark, Silas/Silvanus, Apollos, Philip the evangelist and his prophet daughters, Aquila and Priscilla, Andronicus and Junia, Agabus, the “brothers of the Lord”.

Then there is John, the churches of Revelation, the Johannine letters and the Didache. Bauckham goes beyond this earliest generation and sees the same habits continuing with Polycarp, Melito, Hegesippus, Justin, Marcion, and so on.

Do we somehow assume the author of a gospel spent his whole time within one community?

Letter writing and messengers

We know the evidence for Church leaders writing letters. It extends beyond the New Testament, too, with Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Dionysius of Corinth, etc.

Bauckham points out that letters imply messengers. Messengers imply hosts and social interaction, gossip, greetings, personal ties, news.

Evidence for close contacts among churches

Bauckham gives three examples:

  1. Papias’s reported claim that he spoke with and learned from church travelers and leaders of churches traveling and stopping by.
  2. Ignatius, (I don’t think Roger Parvus’s views contradict the point here) testifies of close relations with several churches on his captive travels.
  3. The Shepherd of Hermas tells us of Hermas being told to write several copies of his revelations for various audiences: the Roman church via Clement; another to be passed on to Grapte for instruction of widows and orphans.

Evidence for conflict and diversity

Diversity and conflict implies regular communications. I like this point by Bauckham:

This picture should not be misunderstood as though it portrayed the Christian movement as entirely harmonious and homogeneous. . . . The network of communication among the early Christian churches was a vehicle for conflict and disagreement, as well as for fellowship and support. . . .  Teachers of one version of Christianity do not keep to a small patch of like-minded churches. On the contrary, itinerant teachers of any persuasion are always liable to turn up in any church. . . . Churches take an intense interest in conflicts arising elsewhere. Leaders and teachers actively promote their versions of the Gospel anywhere and everywhere in the Christian world. (p. 43)

I am reminded of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians complaining that people of all kinds of allegiances were there: those who followed Peter, those who followed Apollos, and those who followed no-one but Christ directly, and even some who followed Paul.

I have just completed reading a work by Robert L. Wilken describing fourth century Christianity around Antioch, John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the late 4th Century. The fourth century is a very long time from the first or second, but the possibilities that emerge from the realities of the fourth century churches are fascinating. Imagine a preacher striving mightily to hold on to the loyalty of his fickle audiences who gather around to be entertained by his eloquence. As soon as the day is over some of those same people may well return to earning their living by carving idols, and within a few days some will be attracted enough by Jewish preparations for a festival to join in those entertainments and even stop by to hear the preaching of a rabbi. Others (or even many of the same ones) may find a pagan celebration offering a lot of enjoyment, dancing and laughing. Then it’s back to hear what their Christian bishop has to say on Sunday again even though it may well be a harangue for them to stop their fickle ways!

Then what would happen if a bishop of a rival sect, say an Arian, turned up and proved to be far more eloquent than their old stick-in-the-mud?

Other proposed communities

But before closing off, one should not forget that the gospels do not represent the only Christian communities acknowledged by New Testament scholars. Burton Mack postulates the following:

  1. The Itinerants of Galilee (or the Q community)
  2. The Pillars of Jerusalem (e.g. James, Peter/Cephas, John)
  3. The Family of Jesus (connected with the later sect of the Nazarenes or Ebionites?)
  4. The Congregation of Israel (authors of the miracle stories that found their way into the gospels of Mark and John; associations with the figures of Elijah, representing the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Moses, representing the Samaritans)
  5. The Synagogue Reform (authors of the pronouncement stories and criticisms of the Pharisees)

Maybe another time I can discuss some details of what lies behind these proposed communities.

Time will not permit me to speak of those who produced the Odes of Solomon, the Ascension of Isaiah (earliest redactions), the letter to the Hebrews, the Shepherd of Hermas . . . .


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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “For Whom Were the Gospels Written?”

    1. I would guess that Neil thinks, as I do, that a lack of concern for grammatical accuracy is not only a kind of contempt for one’s intended audience, but also a hindrance to proper, clear thought.

      And after seeing what passes for literacy on the Web, even among the supoosedly educated, it’s a good thing that he does.

  1. You can’t really understand early Christianity without understanding jewish history, jews are all over the Roman Empire and also had a strong presence in Mesopotamia where Christianity was very popular early on.

    Even the so called Gnostic movements who had a anti-hebrew bible theology were created by persons of Jewish origin.

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