The Gospels in Context

by Gerd Theissen (2004), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

It’s an old book, first published in 1992, but a treasure I found once more illuminating and insightful. Theissen attempts ‘a history of the synoptic tradition from its oral prehistory to the time when it was written down in the gospels’ (p 2) to identify where and when the sources originated, both small units and text segments ,with attention to cultural context.

Three foci are identified.  (1) An oral Jesus tradition (eg Luke 1:1-4), John 21, talking about the many stories circulating about Jesus; Papias’ collection of oral traditions about Jesus, Paul’s references (1 Cor 7:10,11; 9:14).  (2)  Small individual units (p 4), eg where the author of Matthew’s gospel placed the ‘Our Father’ within a series of associated rules for religious devotional practice. (3)  The oral prehistory of texts, eg the political dimensions of the texts, where ‘events in the political world intrude into the text world of the New Testament (p 7), eg the Jewish War of 70 CE.

The general history of Jesus’ period and the synoptic texts have few clear points of contact, eg the opposition to the emperor Caligula when he proposed erecting his own statue in the Jerusalem temple, or the major political upheavals of 8-70 CE with the climax in the Jewish war (localizable data).

Theissen gives several examples of ways in which the political content affects the shape of the synoptic stories (the Syro-Phoenician woman and political boundaries, events in Palestine, the Caligula story and the great War).  A fascinating and illuminating study.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.