In his introductory chapter to The Framework of the Story of Jesus, Karl Ludwig Schmidt examined the overall outline and implied duration of Jesus’ ministry. (Note: We’ll be looking at both the German original and the new English translation by Byron McCane.)
The chronological debate
In the case of canonical gospel chronologies, debate on the matter of Synoptic vs. Johannine has continued decade after decade with no apparent end in sight. Apologists, for whom clever harmonization is a virtue, have diligently tried to make all the pieces fit, using every well-known tool. Sadly, the plain meaning of the text will rarely survive the most ingenious attempts at harmonization.
When confronted with two bits of contradictory evidence, X and Y, we have four possibilities:
- X and Y are both true. (We simply need to explain away the “apparent” contradictions.)
- X is true, and Y is false.
- Y is true, and X is false.
- Neither X nor Y is true. (Or at least, not entirely true.)
Schmidt surveyed the existing works on the subject, pointing out how champions of either chronology (Johannine or Synoptic) easily saw the discrepancies on the opposite side while blind to their own — mote vs. beam, so to speak. Ultimately, we can’t rely on any of the gospels when it comes to sequence or duration.
Those brave souls who tried to fit both chronologies into a single coherent timeline earned some measure of admiration in Schmidt’s eyes. Heaven knows they put forth a valiant effort. However, at some point, such scholars must argue for an interpolation here or there, or argue that the plain meaning of this or that verse actually meant something else. Or perhaps, as Hans Windisch would insist, some of the chapters must be out of order.
In our own day, we still see scholars arguing that Jesus cleansed the Jerusalem Temple early in his career (John) and then again during his last week on Earth (Synoptics). Maybe he did it several years in a row without ever getting arrested, because — well, why the hell not? If we step back and honestly evaluate the process of apologetic harmonization, we see that it is at least as corrosive as “skeptical” critical analysis. Why, we must finally ask ourselves, do we continually rework the evidence to fit an unchanging (and unchangeable) conclusion? At best, it is harmless busy work. At worst, it’s dishonest mental gymnastics. [I’m expressing my own thoughts here, not Schmidt’s, by the way.]
As regular Vridar readers already know, a number of scholars in Germany around the end of the 19th century began to evaluate the nature of the Gospel of Mark in light of the new consensus that it was the earliest. Today’s scholars may speak of William Wrede, focusing exclusively on the messianic secret (more often than not with the singular purpose of debunking the idea), but Schmidt and Bultmann saw its deeper implications. For if stories in which Jesus strictly orders silence and secrecy exist alongside others in which he allows his fame to be proclaimed far and wide, then Mark clearly must have been working with materials from different tradition streams. (Recall that Wrede insisted Mark did not invent the messianic secret, but had inherited it from his sources.)
Wellhausen and others further demonstrated that Mark’s gospel consisted of short pericopae arranged in a somewhat haphazard formation, bricks held in place with a slim layer of Markan mortar. Using the vague hints of time and place that appear in this mortar as markers for actual history would, for Schmidt, demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of the gospel’s composition and purpose.
A lack of order
But this was hardly a new point of view. In fact, the notion that gospel formation had followed this pattern has a long history. Oddly enough, gospel harmonizers were among the first to understand that the Synoptic evangelists did not seem to care at all about historical order.
Bishop Cornelius Jansen (d. 1576) [author of Concordia Evangelica] asserted that the narratives of the first three evangelists clearly show a lack of concern for the sequence of events in the deeds of Christ; rather they wrote in random order (miscellanea quaedam scripsisse). Thus Bishop Jansen selected individual pieces from the Synoptics and fit them together, without touching the Gospel of John. . . .
[Many] harmonizers tacitly assumed that the Gospels are completely without order, treating the Gospels (as one nineteenth-century Catholic scholar aptly put it) as a kind of curio cabinet that could be rearranged, or as a quarry from which choice material could be mined. (Schmidt 2021, p. 9)
In Schmidt’s day, Protestant scholars had generally agreed that John’s Gospel contained no historical value at all and confined their historical research to the study of the Synoptics. Only later did scholars such as C.H. Dodd embark on their valiant, pious effort to salvage John, a solemn activity that continues to this day, especially among conservative Brits and evangelical Yanks.
A lack of historical reliability
Once the priority of Mark became “an assured result of scholarship,” (Friedrich Loofs) people started faithfully writing Lives of Jesus based on the Markan outline. But in the end, we cannot solve historical problems with literary methods. After a thorough review of the existing literature on the subject, Karl Ludwig Schmidt concluded:
Historical and literary methods have been mixed up with each other too often. Advocates of the Markan hypothesis make the right literary observation, i.e., that Mark is the oldest Gospel, but then draw the wrong historical conclusion, i.e., that Mark has greater historical value than the other Gospels. Others (like [Friedrich] Spitta) make the right historical observation, i.e., that Mark has no historical value, but they draw the wrong literary conclusion, i.e., that it is not the oldest Gospel. The present investigation will show that Mark does indeed contain the oldest outline of the story of Jesus, but that this outline is every bit as schematic as that of the Gospel of John. (Schmidt 2021, p. 14).
In Schmidt’s view, our best course of action is to examine closely the individual stories in the gospels and see what sense we can make of them, using text criticism while paying close attention to the Synoptic problem. “Perhaps a thorough study of this kind will elucidate the Synoptic problem especially well, and the problem of the original text may find a distinctive solution as well.” (Schmidt 2021, p. 15) Here he has distinctly declared his intentions for the remainder of the book.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I will from time to time offer an alternative English rendering of a passage in Framework that seems important and that could possibly be stated more clearly. Early in the introduction, Schmidt addresses the often quite strong inclination to view the mission of Jesus as a strictly one-year affair. Among the Gnostics, for example, there seems to have been a mystical understanding with respect to the one-year theory.
Die Grundstelle für die Vertreter der Einjahrtheorie ist das sonderbare Wort Lk 4, 19 vom ἐνιαυτός κυρίου δεκτός, vom angenehmen Jahr des Herrn. Weithin sah man in dieser Stelle einen geheimnisvollen Beleg für eine einjährige Wirksamkeit Jesu. Auf Grund dieser Notiz, die man streng astronomisch fassen zu müssen glaubte, scheinen sich alle Gnostiker die öffentliche Tätigkeit Jesu im Rahmen eines Jahres gedacht zu haben. (Schmidt 1964, p. 2)
The starting point for advocates of the one-year theory, for example, was the saying in Luke 4:19 about ἐνιαυτὸ κυρίου δέκτος, “the acceptable year of the Lord.” This verse was seen as clandestine proof for a one-year ministry of Jesus. Apparently it was on the basis of this phrase, which was taken as an assertion about astronomy, that many gnostic groups conceived of the public activity of Jesus within a framework of one year. (Schmidt 2021, p. 2)
The fundamental passage1 for the proponents of the one-year theory is the peculiar expression2 in Luke 4:19 about ἐνιαυτός κυρίου δεκτός,3 the pleasant4 year of our Lord. This was widely seen as arcane evidence for a one-year ministry of Jesus. On the basis of this remark – which, it was believed, had to be conceived in a strictly astronomical sense – all Gnostics seem to have thought of Jesus’ public mission5 within the time frame of one year.
1 Usually, in theological German, Stelle can safely be translated as “verse” or “passage.” Literally, Luke 4:9 is the “foundation-verse” for the one-year theory.
2 In this case, das Wort obviously means “the expression” and not simply “the word.”
3 In all Greek mss, the “acceptable/agreeable/pleasant year” appears in the accusative (ἐνιαυτὸν κυρίου δεκτόν), because it follows the infinitive “to proclaim.” Schmidt puts it in the nominative, because he’s merely talking about “the pleasant year of the Lord” free of its grammatical context. McCane puts drops the final sigma – ἐνιαυτὸ – for reasons that are not clear to me.
4 The German word angenehm is normally translated as “pleasant.” This translation of δεκτόν goes back to Martin Luther. Several new translations in English have substituted “favorable [acceptable] year of the Lord” with “year of the Lord’s favor,” which is quite literal and quite correct! (See NIV, ESV, ISV, etc.)
5 öffentliche Tätigkeit – theol., public mission; Wirksamkeit – theol., ministry
Next: John the Baptist and Jesus
Schmidt, K. L. (1964). Der Rahmen Der Geschichte Jesu: Literarkritische Untersuchungen Zur Ältesten Jesuüberlieferung (Reprint ed.). Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. [Originally published in 1919.]
Schmidt, K. L., & McCane, B. R. (2021). The Framework of the Story of Jesus: Literary-Critical Investigations of the Earliest Jesus Tradition. Cascade Books.
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