How Gospels Began

Dennis E. Smith, ed.

Copyright © 1991 by Society of Biblical Literature.

Published in Atlanta, GA.



Contributors to This Issue


Narrative Beginnings in Ancient Literature and Theory

Dennis E. Smith

Reading a Beginning/Beginning a Reading: Tracing Literary Theory on Narrative Openings

Mikeal C. Parsons

How Narratives Begin: A Bibliography

Mikeal C. Parsons

    I.    Mark 1:1–15 And the Beginning of the Gospel

M. Eugene Boring

    II.    The Birth of the Reader

Bernard Brandon Scott

    III.    The Birth Narratives and the Beginning of Luke’s Gospel

Joseph B. Tyson

    IV.    The Birth of a Beginning: John 1:1–18

Werner H. Kelber

    V.    City and Wasteland: Narrative World and the Beginning of the Sayings Gospel (Q)

John S. Kloppenborg

    VI.    The Beginning of the Gospel of Thomas

Marvin W. Meyer


Ending at the Beginning: A Response

Elizabeth Struthers Malbon

Beginning to Study “How Gospels Begin”

Robert C. Tannehill


Dennis E. Smith

Phillips Graduate Seminary

This project began as a series of papers I solicited for the Southwest Regional Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in 1989 when I served as coordinator for the New Testament program. The topic “How Gospels Begin” had originally been suggested to me by my colleague, Bernard Brandon Scott. He also agreed to present a paper on the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. I then recruited M. Eugene Boring, Joseph B. Tyson, and Werner H. Kelber to present the remaining papers on the canonical gospels.

It soon became apparent that this collection of papers on such an important subject should be published. In order to make the collection more complete and more responsive to current emphases in gospels research, two more authors were added, John S. Kloppenborg on Q and Marvin W. Meyer on the Gospel of Thomas. The initial presentation of papers (except for those of Kloppenborg and Meyer) took place at the March, 1989, meeting of the Southwest Region of the Society of Biblical Literature in Dallas. Here, in addition to the presentations, there was also a panel discussion to allow the authors to interact with one another. As a result of this interaction, several important revisions were incorporated into the final versions of the papers. A new contributor was also drafted, Mikeal C. Parsons, who added considerable expertise in the area of literary criticism, particularly on the current scholarship on literary beginnings. He agreed to contribute an introduction to the literary-critical study of narrative beginnings.

The plan of the project is as follows. Participants were chosen who are currently engaged in major research on the particular gospel on which they would be writing. Each was asked to present his own analysis of the beginning of his gospel according to whatever perspective seemed appropriate to him. Although all were encouraged to utilize perspectives from recent forms of literary criticism, especially narrative analysis, they were allowed to apply whatever methods they deemed appropriate. The emphasis throughout has not been on methodological purity but rather on acquaintance with current issues in the interpretation of the gospel in question as well as openness to new methodological inquiries. The goal is to provide studies that represent the best in current New Testament scholarship. That there are multiple approaches found here is reflective of the fact that there are multiple methods being utilized in New Testament research today.

This volume is not merely a collection of isolated exegetical studies, however. It also represents an exploration of the issue of narrative beginnings as exhibited in the gospels. In order to spotlight the complexities of this issue, two introductory essays have been provided. In the first essay, I survey formal aspects of narrative beginnings in ancient literature and literary theory. In the second essay, Mikeal Parsons has contributed an important and seminal survey of the issue of narrative beginnings in current literary theory and has appended an extensive bibliography on the subject.

It is often the case in literature that the beginning of a work is actually written last. That is the case here as well. The introductory essays to this volume were written last and in response to the body of the work. This means, however, that the authors of the essays on the gospels did not have access to the introductory remarks and were unable to respond to them.

Two responses to these studies are also included. The respondents, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon and Robert C. Tannehill, are both recognized leaders in literary criticism of the gospels. Malbon was able to respond to all of the papers, but Tannehill was unable to respond to Scott’s paper since it was not available to him at the time he prepared his response.

Contributors to This Issue

M. Eugene Boring

Texas Christian University

Ft. Worth, Texas

Werner H. Kelber

Rice University

Houston, Texas

John S. Kloppenborg

University of St. Michael’s College

Toronto, Ontario


Elizabeth Struthers Malbon

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Blacksburg, Virginia

Marvin W. Meyer

Chapman College

Orange, California

Mikeal C. Parsons

Baylor University

Waco, Texas

Bernard Brandon Scott

Phillips Graduate Seminary, Tulsa Center

Tulsa, Oklahoma

Dennis E. Smith

Phillips Graduate Seminary, Enid Center

Enid, Oklahoma

Robert C. Tannehill

Methodist Theological School in Ohio

Delaware, Ohio

Joseph B. Tyson

Southern Methodist University

Dallas, Texas

Narrative Beginnings in Ancient Literature and Theory

Dennis E. Smith

Phillips Graduate Seminary


This paper provides an introduction to three forms of narrative beginnings in ancient Greek and Latin literature: the preface, the dramatic prologue, and the incipit. A summary of data on each form is presented, including a description of how the form was understood and used in ancient literature, how it has been discussed in modern scholarship on Greek and Latin literature, and how it has been utilized in modern scholarship on the gospels, including the essays in this volume. A fourth category, the “virtual preface,” is briefly presented as a transition to the discussion of modern literary analysis of narrative beginnings.

0. Introduction

How a document begins may be decided by various criteria. This was as true for the ancients as it is for us today. In this collection of essays we will be looking at ways to understand the purpose and function of gospel beginnings from both ancient and modern perspectives. Here I will begin with an overview of ways in which literary beginnings were understood by the ancients.

1. The Preface

Known as the prooimion (ΠΡΟΟΊΜΙΟΝ) or phroimion (ΦΡΟΊΜΙΟΝ) in Greek and the exordium in Latin, the preface was understood to be a formal introduction to a written work in which the author would state his purpose for writing according to conventions of the day. The Gospel of Luke uses a formal preface and has often been analyzed in comparison with ancient prefaces (Alexander; Cadbury: 194–204; Robbins).

The use of prefaces has often been related to characteristics of certain genres of ancient literature. Earl analyzes prefaces in Greek historical writings; Janson deals more broadly with prefaces in Latin prose writings in general, including rhetoric, history, and various types of “scientific” works. In each case, there are special features that develop in relation to the conventions of those specific genres. Such insights have been utilized in the various studies of Luke. Thus Cadbury has compared the prefaces of Luke-Acts to those of historical works (194–204; also Aune: 120–21); Robbins to biographical works; Alexander to scientific works.

One important result of Janson’s study is to note how influential the conventions of rhetoric were on the development of prefaces in other genres of literature. This point is buttressed by the fact that rhetoric was the dominant subject taught in the schools (Bonner). Thus an understanding of the way in which prefaces were described in rhetoric would aid us in interpreting how prefaces were viewed by authors in general.

Aristotle defines the purpose of the preface in rhetoric as follows:

So then the most essential and special function of the prooimion is to make clear what is the end or purpose of the speech; wherefore it should not be employed, if the subject is quite clear or unimportant (Rhetoric 3.14.6).

Quintilian defines in more specific terms three characteristics of the exordium:

The sole purpose of the exordium is to prepare our audience in such a way that they will be disposed to lend a ready ear to the rest of our speech. The majority of authors agree that this is best effected in three ways, by making the audience well-disposed, attentive and ready to receive instruction (4.1).

A study of the actual uses of prefaces in rhetorical works reveals several patterns being followed in the adaptation of these features. Janson, for example, notes that the early forms of rhetorical prefaces tended to include 1) a dedication, 2) a reference to a request for the work made by the dedicatee, 3) an expression of the unwillingness of the author to write, and 4) a final expression of submission by the writer to the dedicatee’s request (64). The attempt by the author to win the approval of his audience by referring to his reluctance to write was especially characteristic of Latin works since writing was not considered an appropriate activity for a Roman of noble blood. Such an attitude toward the writing of books was not characteristic of the Greeks, however (27–29).

By the time of Cicero, literary activity had become a more acceptable activity for a Roman statesman (35–36) but the conventional feature of the “mock modesty” of the writer continued to be used in the standard preface (64). This was bound up with a continued reference to a request made by the dedicatee, with an emphasis being placed on the friendship of the author for the dedicatee. The overall idea here was that the writer was repaying a debt to his patron and thus showing gratia (gratitude) to his amicus (friend) (43–45). In addition, the standard preface in this period tended to include a statement in praise of the subject being discussed.

The conventions of rhetoric can be compared to the use of the preface in historical writing. When Lucian described the historical preface (φροίμιον) in How to Write History, he adopted wholesale the model of the rhetorical preface. As he states,

Whenever he [the historian] does use a preface, he will make two points only, not three like the orators. He will omit the appeal for a favourable hearing and give his audience what will interest and instruct them (53).

Here he eschews the use of the conventional expression of authorial modesty and instead places an emphasis on introducing the importance of the work to the reader.

For they [the audience] will give him their attention if he shows that what he is going to say will be important, essential, personal, or useful. He will make what is to come easy to understand and quite clear, if he sets forth the causes and outlines the main events (53).

Lucian claims that these are the types of prefaces used by the best historians, such as Herodotos and Thucydides (54).

In actuality, as Janson points out, Lucian does not present a description of how prefaces were actually being written but rather describes them according to standards he has adopted from the rules of rhetoric (65–66). An analysis of standard prefaces used by historians, however, would reveal several basic themes: 1) a statement in praise of history, 2) a statement of the reason for choosing to write on this subject, and 3) a statement of the historian’s attitude to his work (66–67). Aune has also produced a list of themes in which Janson’s list is supplemented with four others: 4) “requests and dedications,” 5) “apology for defective style,” 6) “mention of predecessors (often critical),” and 7) “use of appropriate methodology” (90).

2. The Dramatic Prologue

Another type of formal literary beginning was the dramatic prologue. The prologue was a regular though not required feature of both Greek and Roman drama (Stoessl; Duckworth: 211–18, 390–91). In some cases it functioned much like the preface, in which the author would address the hearer in the first person, defend himself against the attacks of his critics, and appeal to the spectators for favor (Duckworth: 211).

More important, however, is the expository prologue, in which the author would set up the action or situation of the play. The function of such a prologue is defined by Aristotle as providing “a paving [of] the way for what follows” (Rhetoric 3.14.1). He further states:

But in speeches and epic poems the exordia provide a sample of the subject, in order that the hearers may know beforehand what it is about, and that the mind may not be kept in suspense, for that which is undefined leads astray; so then he who puts the beginning, so to say, into the hearer’s hand enables him, if he holds fast to it, to follow the story … Similarly, tragic poets make clear the subject of their drama, if not at the outset, like Euripides, at least somewhere in the prologue, like Sophocles … It is the same in comedy (Rhetoric 3.14.6).

Thus the prologue functioned to introduce the audience to the opening action of the drama. In comedy, a prologue would often apprise the audience of information unknown to the characters in the play. In this way it would function to give an ironic twist to the action. Thus the elimination of the prologue is said to have been a means to introduce suspense and surprise into ancient comedy (Duckworth: 390).

In this volume, Joseph B. Tyson argues that the beginning of Luke’s Gospel has a literary function most like that of the dramatic prologue. His argument includes a helpful summary of relevant features of the dramatic prologue. Elsewhere, the Gospel of Mark has been compared to the genre of ancient drama (Bilezikian), which has led to the further suggestion that the beginning of Mark functions as a prologue (Puskas: 128).

The dramatic prologue has also been proposed as the model for the poetic beginning of the Gospel of John (Bowen: 298; Puskas: 135). For the majority of scholars today, however, Bultmann’s interpretation of the prologue of John is representative. He refers to the form of the Johannine prologue as that of “cultic-liturgical poetry” (14) and identifies its function as comparable to an “overture” (13). Unfortunately, these comments do not sufficiently relate the prologue of John to formal features of beginnings in ancient literature. It is here that the dramatic prologue provides a suitable model, since it is, of course, a poetic introduction, often utilizes divine characters to explain the action, and, especially in comedy, is important for developing the motif of irony. This would correlate with the importance of the Johannine prologue for the development of irony in John, as is emphasized in Kelber’s essay in this volume.

3. The Incipit

In some cases, however, we may be dealing with a less formalistic type of beginning, known by the technical term incipit. This term refers to the use of a brief phrase to introduce a document or selection from a document. This is thought to be the model for the opening lines of Mark and Matthew (see references in Boring’s essay in this volume), Q (Kloppenborg: 2–3), and Thomas (see Meyer’s essay in this volume).

Some openings are clearly incipits, such as the beginning of the Gospel of Thomas: “These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.” More questionable are the beginnings of Mark and Matthew (see Boring’s essay in this volume). It should also be noted that the incipit came to be used later in the history of the gospel texts as a introduction to lectionary readings. Thus when portions of the gospels were read they were provided with suitable introductions. Consequently, we find incipits provided in the texts or in the margins of many of the Greek manuscripts of the gospels. Common phrases include “on a certain occasion,” “the Lord said,” “the Lord spoke this parable,” and so on (Finegan: 35–36; Metzger: 44).

Thus if we take the opening lines of the gospels to be incipits, we still must determine how much of the original work was intended to be included in such an introduction. In other words, were the opening lines meant to function as an introduction to the gospel as a whole or only to the first section? It is helpful to consider the context in which these works would have first functioned. The first “readers” were, in fact, “listeners,” for ancient works were normally read aloud in public (Achtemeier: 15–17; Hadas: 50–64; Havelock: 29; Knox: 14; Moore: 84–85). We may envision, then, that the gospel writings were intended to be read aloud before the Christian community, presumably while it was gathered at worship (Boomershine: 53–54; Moore: 84–85).

But how much would be read at any one time Here it should be noted that in their continued use, the gospels were apparently rarely, if ever, read as complete works. Rather, much in the manner of our scripture readings in worship today, selections were read out of context (see evidence in Achtemeier: 20–22) and even collected for that purpose in the early lectionaries. This is indicated by the addition of new incipits in lectionary collections and in lectionary notations to Greek manuscripts of the gospels (Metzger: 43–44, 53 n. 153, 106, 114, 124).

This overview of the ancient practice of public reading of the gospels provides another perspective for narrative analysis. That is to say, if, in fact, the gospels were rarely if ever experienced by the ancient listener as single documents we may be placing too much emphasis on the plot of the whole. This raises questions concerning how the beginning of a gospel, and especially the opening incipit, could function as an introduction to the whole.

On the other hand, the incipit has also been identified and utilized as a form of ancient title. Such incipits would then be intended to introduce and define or describe the document as a whole. In fact, as titles for documents became more commonly used, in the Hellenistic period especially, it was often the incipit that was utilized for that purpose (Hadas: 14). By the Roman period, however, title-making had become as much a literary art as the writing of the document itself, as evidenced by Lucian’s inveighing against pretentious titles (How to Write History, 32). Titles were used especially to identify the contents of a scroll when it was rolled up. A tag was attached, known in Greek as a sillybos (σίλλυβος) or in Latin as a titulos, on which the name of the author and title of the work was inscribed (Kenyon: 62).

In the case of the gospels, the current titles were clearly attached later. Indeed, one could speculate that before there was a collection of gospels, the current titles (“The Gospel According to Matthew”, The Gospel According to Mark, etc.) would not have been necessary. Consequently, if the original documents were intended to have titles the beginning lines, or the incipits, might well have been intended to function as such. Davies and Allison suggest this for Matthew 1:1, for example (149–60).

The “published” form of the Nag Hammadi codices provide us with an excellent example of the complex ways in which a title to a document might develop. Here we find incipits that seem to be candidates for titles as well as more formal titles attached at the beginning (superscriptions) or at the end (subscriptions) of documents (Meyer: 163 n. 1; Robinson: 74–85). The form of the Gospel of Thomas is a case in point. Here there is an incipit (quoted above) as well as a subscription at the end of the text: “The Gospel According to Thomas”. To be sure, it is more reasonable to conclude that the incipit predates the subscription (Robinson: 78). Nevertheless, this example brings to our attention the fact that the concept of “title” in the ancient world, and the relation of the incipit to the title, was not as clear and stable as we might wish.

4. The “Virtual Preface”

Lucian refers to what the Loeb translator, K. Kilburn, calls a “virtual preface” (ΠΡΟΟΊΜΙΟΥ ΔΥΝΆΜΕΙ; How to Write History 23 and 52; see Loeb Classical Library edition, 35 n. 3) which lacked the formal characteristics of the regular preface. He refers, for example, to Xenophon who begins his work in medias res. He assumes that some subjects require no preliminary explanation, so a formal preface is not necessary. The good writer, however, will nevertheless be sure that his beginning has clarity and sufficiently prepares the reader for what is to follow.

It is helpful to note that Lucian’s “genre” description of history is “narrative” (διήγησις, 55). For him, an effective preface must flow with a “gentle and easy” transition to the narrative proper (55). Thus his discussion of the “virtual preface” spotlights a narrative that simply begins with the story, without any preliminary remarks by the author. His attempt to define such works as having an “implied” preface represents his recognition that they do in fact have effective beginnings. To be sure, what he means by this is that such “informal” beginnings would still meet his criteria for what a preface should contain. Yet he is unable to define those beginnings according to the categories with which he has to work, namely those of rhetoric. Thus there developed his lame but ingenious reference to a “virtual preface.”

At the point where Lucian’s categories of classification break down is the point where our interest is especially focused today. Clearly ancient writers had a sense for the beginning of a narrative that was not tied to the form of the preface. We now have new methods for understanding narrative beginnings that have developed in modern literary criticism. Applying these criteria to ancient narratives, therefore, can help not only in identifying how narrative beginnings function for us today but also in identifying how they functioned for the ancients.

Works Consulted

Achtemeier, Paul J.

1990    “Omne verbum sonat: The New Testament and the Oral Environment of Late Western Antiquity.” JBL 109:3–27.

Alexander, Loveday

1986    “Luke’s Preface in the Context of Greek Preface-Writing.” NovT 28:48–74.

Aune, David E.

1987    The New Testament in its Literary Environment. Library of Early Christianity 8. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Bilezikian, G. G.

1977    The Liberated Gospel: A Comparison of the Gospel of Mark and Greek Tragedy. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Bonner, Stanley F.

1977    Education in Ancient Rome: From the Elder Cato to the Younger Pliny. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of Calkfornia Press.

Boomershine, Thomas E.

1987    “Peter’s Denial as Polemic or Confession: The Implications of Media Criticism for Biblical Hermeneutics.” Semeia 39:47–68.

Bowen, Clayton R.

1930    “The Fourth Gospel as Dramatic Material.” JBL 49:292–305.

Bultmann, Rudolf.

1971    The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Cadbury, Henry J.

1958    The Making of Luke-Acts. New York: Macmillan.

Davies, W. D. and Dale C. Allison, Jr.

1988    A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Vol. 1. ICC. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Duckworth, George E.

1952    The Nature of Roman Comedy: A Study in Popular Entertainment. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Earl, Donald.

1972    “Prologue-form in Ancient Historiography.” Pp. 842–56 in ANRW 1.2.

Finegan, Jack.

1974    Encountering New Testament Manuscripts: A Working Introduction to Textual Criticism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Hadas, Moses

1954    Ancilla to Classical Reading. New York: Columbia University Press.

Havelock, E. A.

1982    The Literate Revolution in Greece and its Cultural Consequences. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Janson, Tore

1964    Latin Prose Prefaces: Studies in Literary Convention. Studia Latina Stockholmiensia12. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.

Kenyon, Frederic G.

1951    Books and Readers in Ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford: Clarendon.

Kloppenborg, John S.

1988    Q Parallels: Synopsis, Critical Notes, and Concordance. Foundations and Facets. Sonoma: Polebridge.

Knox, B. M. W.

1985    “Books and Readers in the Greek World.” Pp. 1–16 in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature. Volume I: Greek
Literature. Ed. P. E. Easterling and B. M. W. Knox. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Metzger, Bruce M.

1981    Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introduction to Greek Palaeography. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Meyer, Marvin W.

1981    The Letter of Peter to Philip. SBLDS 53. Chico, CA: Scholars Press.

Moore, Stephen D.

1989    Literary Criticism and the Gospels: The Theoretical Challenge. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Puskas, Charles B.

1989    An Introduction to the New Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Robbins, Vernon.

1978    “Prefaces in Greco-Roman Biography and Luke-Acts.” SBLASP 17: 2.193–207.

Robinson, James M.

1971    “Logoi Sophon: On the Gattung of Q.” Pp. 71–113 in Trajectories through Early Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Stoessl, Franz

1957    “Prologos.” RE 45: 632–41.

Reading a Beginning/Beginning a Reading: Tracing Literary Theory on Narrative Openings

Mikeal C. Parsons

Baylor University


Until recently, most of the studies of narrative beginnings have been isolated investigations of individual authors and have contributed little to our theoretical understanding of the forms and functions of narrative beginnings. Several of the more recent “poetics,” however, include substantive treatments of the strategies involved in beginning a narrative. In general, these studies can be categorized as text-oriented, reader-oriented, or poststructuralist in perspective. Interestingly, despite the varying perspectives, almost all critics agree that some kind of relationship, however ambiguous, exists between literary beginnings and endings.

An analysis of the major studies of literary beginnings, then, can shed light not only on the role and function of beginnings in critical theory, but on the development of theory itself. These various approaches have made their way into current gospel studies and are representative of the methodological pluralism in biblical studies today. This essay is an exercise in metacriticism, that is, a reading of readings of beginnings, and as such, provides a window on the current trends in literary approaches to the gospels. Learning to read a gospel beginning is one way to begin an informed reading of the gospels.

0. A Beginning

I begin with two epigraphs:

These are among the reasons why beginnings count for more than endings. They require more concentration on the part of the author, more significant decisions, albeit personal ones, on the part of the reader, and they dominate the total texture of the works they initiate. I believe, too, that they are more various than endings (Watson:541).

I have heard too much of what beginnings must mean to the writer of fiction; I am always dissatisfied. In the background I hear a chorus: the flat, nasal voice of the journalism teacher whining her singsong cliché, Well begun is half done; the speech teacher who suggested that the speaker fire a pistol beside the inattentive ear of his unwilling listener; the writer of texts who referred to the first line and the first paragraph as the narrative hook; the writer of fiction who discussed the means of achieving tension within the first few lines, the first few paragraphs, asserting that many editors read no further, imagining beginnings as a grand cleverness competition; even the writer who in passing insisted that each first sentence must be the seed from which every other sentence grows, for these are most often crafty considerations of craft (Pope:733).

The truth about beginnings (if there is one) probably lies somewhere between (or beyond) these two assessments. Lack of agreement, however, is not due to a dearth of serious reflection on the roles and functions—the problematics—of narrative beginnings. In 1976, James Bennett claimed that “the opening and closing of works of literature, or of segments of literature, have not received systematic stylistic treatment” (184). I am not sure that Bennett’s claim was true in 1976—certainly not of narrative endings—but it surely does not represent the state of things today (see e.g., the attached bibliography on “How Narratives Begin”).

To be sure, the beginnings and endings of individual biblical books as literary beginnings and endings have simply not been the subject of much reflection by biblical scholars—at least not until recently. Endings have fared much better on this score than beginnings. Informed by the theoretical works on narrative endings (see Kermode, Miller, Smith, Torgovnick, Welsh), several Gospel scholars have explored the issue of closure (Magness, Parsons, Petersen, Tannehill). And with the publication of this issue of Semeia, beginnings come to the forefront. Most of the works listed in the bibliography on beginnings are specific readings of particular beginnings in the field of literature. Likewise, this issue of Semeia, “How Gospels Begin”, is devoted mostly to particular readings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Thomas, and Q. And that perhaps is how it should be. But these particular readings are balanced on either side (this issue has its own “beginning” and “ending”) with essays dealing both with the theoretical and practical problems associated with narrative beginnings.

My task, at least as I have understood it, is to provide a survey of narrative beginnings in critical theory. But that assignment has proven far more difficult than I could have imagined when I began this project. To trace the treatment of beginnings in critical theory is to narrate the convulsive history of literary criticism from its formalistic, “New Criticism” phase through reader-response on to poststructuralism. Such a history is further complicated by several factors. First, the history is not a simple story of evolutionary progress. Academic wars have been waged over these theoretical issues, and representatives—vital, vigorous advocates—for most of the perspectives represented here are still easily found. Second, biblical criticism tends to lag a decade or so behind current theoretical debate, so when I discuss the most recent poststructuralist perspectives on beginnings, very few voices of practicing biblical scholars will be heard—a claim confirmed by the fact that of the six readings in this issue, only the essay by Kelber could be classified as poststructuralist.

Not only are the treatments of beginnings far-ranging, diverse, and at times incompatible, the current postmodern mood in critical theory also makes any survey suspect. I have tried to avoid a “totalizing” survey which so delineates the issue as to close off discussion; rather, I have attempted to trace literary theory on beginnings in such a way as to invite dialogue and debate. The “trace” is an appropriate metaphor for such a presentation of a particular segment of theory, for as Joseph Natoli has argued: “Tracing does not circumscribe but leaves openings” (18). And by describing the various approaches to beginnings as text-oriented, reader-oriented, or poststructuralist in perspective, I am not trying to marginalize the voices of those who do not so easily fit such categorization, but rather am intentionally leaving gaps in my survey to invite criticism and, hopefully, further conversations. The appended bibliography is another attempt to preserve the disparate analyses of narrative beginnings. Of course, the bibliography itself should not be viewed as totalizing either, since it is certain to be riddled with inadvertent omissions as well as to be at least a year or more out-of-date by the time it appears in print.

This essay is an exercise in metacriticism, that is, it is a reading of readings. If, as Stephen Moore suggests, such metacriticism “has tended to work best when the surveyor has also had his or her own ax to grind” (17), then I should at the outset make clear the particular ax, however modest, I intend to grind. In an earlier work, my reading of literary theory led me to conclude that there exists an intimate, if ambiguous relationship between beginnings and endings. My most recent reading in preparation for this essay has confirmed that initial impression. Though the theoretical models used in text-centered and reader-response approaches differ widely, theorists from both perspectives do speak of beginnings and endings or entry and closure in the same breath and in similar terms. And even poststructuralists who are attempting to “spoil the borders” of the text assume that foundationalistic beginnings and endings are engendered by the same Western, ontological impulse. So in my evaluation of each of these approaches to beginnings, I spend some space indicating how this theoretical perspective relates beginnings to endings. By the end of the paper, the reader should have some understanding of the issues at stake in narrative beginnings.

1. Literary Frames and Focalizers

A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not necessarily come after something else, although something else exists and comes after it. An end, on the contrary, is that which naturally follows something else either as a necessary or as a usual consequence, and is not itself followed by anything. A middle is that which follows something else, and is itself followed by something. Thus well-constructed plots must neither begin nor end in a haphazard way (Aristotle, “On the Art of Poetry”).

The disciples said to Jesus: Tell us how our end will be. Jesus said: Have you then discovered the beginning so that you inquire about the end? For where the beginning is, there shall be the end. Blessed is the one who stands at the beginning, and that one shall know the end and shall not taste death (Gospel of Thomas, Logion 18).

Narratology is, according to Robert Funk, a sub-discipline of poetics (5). Funk makes the following distinction which is followed in this essay:

In its modern sense, now well established among literary critics and linguists, poetics treats the formal properties of literary texts. Narratology, for which this new term was coined, is a subdivision of poetics: narratology is concerned with the formal properties of a special kind of discourse or text, viz., narrative (5).

Narratologies have been published with some regularity since Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction appeared in 1961. In 1978, pride of place among narratologists fell to Seymour Chatman with the publication of Story and Discourse. At the beginning of his book, Chatman provided a literary model to facilitate exploration of the taxonomy of texts. Also influential has been Gérard Genette’s Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. And within this family of text-oriented approaches belongs the work of the Russian formalist, Boris Uspensky, whose interest in the surface structure of narrative beginnings and endings has had considerable impact on literary and biblical critics alike.

The literary frame of a narrative—its beginning and ending—like its counterpart in art, marks the boundaries of the artistic work and separates it from the space of the real world which surrounds it. In A Poetics of Composition, Boris Uspensky explains the functions of the frame:

The importance of the problem of the frame, that is, of the borders of the artistic work, is evident. In a work of art, whether it be a work of literature, a painting, or a work of some other art form, there is presented to us a special world, with its own space and time, its own ideological system, and its own standards of behavior. In relation to that world, we assume (at least in our first perceptions of it) the position of an alien spectator, which is necessarily external. Gradually, we enter into it, becoming more familiar with its standards, accustoming ourselves to it, until we begin to perceive this world as if from within, rather than from without. We, as readers or observers, now assume a point of view internal to the particular work (137).

It is this transition from the real world to the represented one, or from a point of view external to the narrative representation to one internal to it, that gives the literary frame its crucial function. Uspensky goes on to explain that the phenomenon of framing may be observed on the various levels of an artistic work: the psychological plane, the spatial plane, the temporal plane, the phraseological plane, and the ideological plane. In various ways, these planes assist in the shift from external to internal point of view, but the spatial and temporal planes have drawn the most attention from biblical scholars interested in narrative beginnings.

Often when a narrator wishes to describe a beginning scene, he or she may employ a point of view with a wide angle. The narrator might provide “a bird’s-eye view” where much though not all of the narrative scene can be taken into view (64). Or the narrator could begin with a “silent scene” in which the characters in their action and dialogue can be seen but not heard (65). In either case, the function of the frame on the spatial plane is to move the reader from a point of view external to the narrative to one internal, thus facilitating the entrance of the reader into the narrative world (149).

On the temporal level, a narrator may employ a “retrospective point of view” to assist the transition into the narrative (149). This retrospective point of view may be described as follows:

… the narrative often begins with hints about the denouement of the plot which has not yet begun; this indicates the use of a point of view external to the story, a point of view located in the future in respect to the time which unfolds within the narrative. Subsequently, the narrator may shift to an internal position, adopting, for example, the point of view of a particular character and assuming his limited knowledge about what is to come—so that the reader forgets about the predetermined course of events in the story, despite allusions to it made previously (149).

In fact, Uspenksy cites the Gospel of Luke as an example since it begins retrospectively with a direct address to Theophilus (149).

Like the background of a work of art, the literary frame belongs “to the periphery of the artistic text” (165). Such comments should not be taken as trivializing the function of the literary frame, however, since this external point of view serves the crucial role of assisting the reader to enter the narrative world of the text. Failure to do so would result in an unread text—from the narrator’s viewpoint, the most disastrous of consequences.

Uspensky’s work has been widely used by biblical scholars to describe point of view in biblical narratives (see Culpepper, Rhoads and Michie, Kingsbury). In several instances, biblical scholars have used Uspensky’s notion of the literary frame to analyze the beginnings or endings of biblical texts (see Tannehill; Parsons). In his analysis of the Third Gospel found in this volume, Joe Tyson has made use of Uspensky’s model, particularly insights about the temporal plane.

Though a biblical scholar by training, Robert Funk has established himself as one immersed in the field of literary theory, particularly narratology, and The Poetics of Biblical Narrative is the fruit borne from such pursuits. What is of interest here is Funk’s analysis of the introduction, nucleus, and conclusion of the basic narrative unit or segment. He contends:

In order to tell a story, a narrator must bring a limited number of participants together in a particular time or place. This may be termed the focusing process. The narrator must then allow something to happen: between the focusing introduction and the defocusing conclusion lies at least one narrative nucleus. A nucleus consists of a cluster of actions or happenings that constitute an event. At the conclusion of the story, the narrator must reverse the focusing process and defocus the story. Defocusing is achieved by dispersing the participants, expanding or relocating the space, lengthening or blurring the temporal focus, or by introducing a terminal note (60).

According to Funk, the “focalizing process” of bringing two participants together in the same place at the same time is achieved by means of “focalizers” (102) A focalizer is “any narrative device that instructs the reader where to focus the senses, where to look for the action that is about to take place” (102). Funk identifies three main categories of focalizers: an arrival, a perception, and a perception precipitator.

An “arrival” functions as a focalizing device when “someone arrives on the scene and the story begins, or both (or all) parties arrive on the scene and the action begins (mutual arrival)” (103). Funk cites four types of arrivals and illustrates them all from the narrative material of the New Testament (103–106):

someone arrives or comes forward (see Mark 1:40; John 3:1–2, 4:7)

someone is brought, sent, or called (see Mark 7:31–32, 8:22)

persons meet (mutual arrival) (see Acts 16:16, 10:25)

someone finds someone (John 1:43, 9:35, 5:14)

Occasionally these focalizers may occur in tandem to open a particular scene (see Luke 17:12–13).

Perception may also focalize the scene for the reader. According to Funk, this device is internal to the narrative discourse: a participant in the story is made to focus his or her senses on a particular person or object as a means of bringing the senses of the reader to a pinpoint. Again Funk cites at least four categories of such sensory contact and illustrates them with examples from the New Testament (107–9):

someone sees or notices something (Mark 1:16, 2:14; Luke 5:12; John 5:2)

someone hears something (John 9:40; 7:32)

someone finds (i.e. perceives) something (Acts 5:10; John 11:17, 2:13–14)

someone tastes something (no examples cited)

Finally, Funk argues: “The perceptions of participants may be precipitated in more powerful ways by the forces of nature or by unusual visual and aural occurrences” (110). Such perception precipitators may include:

unusual visual or aural signals (Acts 2:1–6, 9:3–4)

vocatives and attention-getters (Acts 27:21; Matthew 25:6)

These “macrofeatures” of temporal and spatial markers, participant sets and focus, as Funk calls them, allow for the description of the function of the introduction, namely to focus the reader’s attention on the narrative transaction about to occur.

For those committed to text-oriented literary approaches to the New Testament, Robert Funk has enhanced our understanding of narrative beginnings and the focalizing process of segment introductions. In his contribution to this issue, “Mark 1:1–15 and the Beginning of the Gospel,” Eugene Boring endorses Funk’s basic approach, though he disputes several of Funk’s conclusions regarding the extent of Mark’s introduction.

Both Uspenksy and Funk recognize the relationship between narrative beginnings and endings. Uspensky has claimed:

… the narrative often begins with hints about the denouement of the plot which has not yet begun; this indicates the use of a point of view external to the story, a point of view located in the future in respect to the time which unfolds within the narrative. Subsequently, the narrator may shift to an internal position, adopting, for example, the point of view of a particular character and assuming his limited knowledge about what is to come—so that the reader forgets about the predetermined course of events in the story, despite allusions to it made previously (149).

The beginning and ending of a narrative, from Uspenksy’s point of view, share a similar function in assisting the reader into and out of the story.

By employing the terms “focalizer” and “defocalizer,” Funk has also indicated his sense of the relationship between introductory and concluding scenes. The focalizer brings the scene and its participants into focus for the reader while the defocalizer contains the narrative markers—the terminal functions—indicating that the scene is over and the story has returned to a state of narrative rest (71). The beginnings and endings of well-formed narrative units, whether scenes or whole narratives, according to Funk, serve to move the story “from equilibrium to a state of disequilibrium or tension, which in turn is resolved or relieved, producing narrative rest” (71).

Others have also noted the similarities in form and function between narrative openings and closings from a text-oriented perspective. Alexander Welsh, for example, has noted: “Beginnings and endings of narrative have much in common since both are arbitrary disjunctions in a sequence of events that is presumed continuous, extending before and after the events that are narrated” (10). And Marianna Torgovnick, though more interested in endings than beginnings, has argued for a close relationship between beginnings and endings through the literary strategy she labels “circularity.” She claims: “When the ending of a novel clearly recalls the beginning in language, in situation, in the grouping of characters, or in several of these ways, circularity may be said to control the ending” (13). She even refers to the ” ‘frame’ technique common in narratives” as a “familiar and obvious kind of circularity” (13).

The metaphor of the frame should be employed cautiously when dealing with literature (see Barbara Hardy’s critique [7]). After all, as the reader is drawn into the plot of a story, the frame (i.e. in this case, the “beginning”) is metamorphosed because our memory, unlike our eyes, cannot hold the whole artistic expression together all at once. Furthermore, in a literary text, unlike a portrait, it is difficult to tell where a “beginning” ends and an “ending” begins. Used judiciously, however, the notions of the frame and the focalizer are helpful in conceptualizing the function of a beginning and its relationship to the rest of the narrative (for other limitations of this approach, see Poland).

2. The “Primacy and Recency Effects”

I hate the prologue to a story

Worse than the tuning of a fiddle,

Squeaking and dinning;

Hang order and connection,

I love to dash into the middle;

Exclusive of the fame and glory,

There is a comfort on reflection

To think you’ve done with the beginning.

(Sir John Henry Moore, The Duke of Benevento)

Both Uspensky and Funk make mention of the “reader” in their analyses of narrative beginnings. But it is clear in the work of both that this “reader” is afforded no prominent place in their models. The identity and role of the reader, however, have received increasing attention in recent literary theory. And the fact that the beginning of a narrative work stands at the critical junction between the “real” world of the reader and the represented world of the text makes taking the “reader” into account unavoidable, as the works of Uspensky and Funk demonstrate.

M. H. Abrams has characterized the most recent developments in literary criticism as belonging to the “Age of Reading” (566). The works by Culler, Freund, Iser, Eco, Fish, Tompkins, and others demonstrate the shift of interest by varying degrees from text-oriented to reader-oriented theory. Edgar McKnight has noted this shift of emphasis in The Bible and the Reader by tracing the inception of reader-oriented literary criticism through the structuralist-formalist tradition, the European contributions, and the American context (1985, see also McKnight, 1988).

Discussion has clustered primarily around text-centered and reader-centered models. The earlier and later writings of Stanley Fish represent most clearly the two distinct responses. In Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature (1972), Stanley Fish articulates his earlier position that the text controls the reading experience. Seymour Chatman has also suggested that the implied reader is “the audience presupposed by the narrative itself” (150). Similar is Wayne Booth’s suggestion that the author “makes his reader, as he makes his second self …” (138). This approach which seeks to ferret out the “reader-in-the-text” has been the brand of reader-response criticism most often applied to biblical narratives (see, e.g., McKnight; but see the critiques by Wuellner and Moore).

The other side of the reader-response coin is equally important. In Is There a Text in This Class? (1980), Fish argues that the reader objectifies the text, and thereby controls its meaning. Stanley Fish’s informed reader is “neither an abstraction, nor an actual living reader, but a hybrid—a real reader (me) who does everything within his power to make himself informed” (145). In other words, the implied reader is not the sum of all the reader clues derived from the clues; the term also describes real readers who attempt to be “informed” readers by conforming their reading to the textual markers of the narrative. Or more radically, the “reader” creates meaning according to the rules set down by the interpretive community of which he or she is a part. So far, this more radical approach has made little impact on biblical scholars (though see McKnight, 1989, and Fowler, forthcoming).

Some of the most interesting work by those who hold that the text “controls” the reading process has been produced by scholars at Tel Aviv University who certainly have come under the influence of each others’ thinking: Meir Sternberg, Menakhem Perry and Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan. First impressions go a long way in shaping the reader’s response to a narrative text. Sternberg, Perry, and Rimmon-Kenan have labeled this doctrine of “first impressions” the “primacy effect.” This primacy effect can be used to manipulate the reader’s response. Or as Sternberg put it, the narrator “can maneuver his reader into regarding the same character either as a good fellow with some human frailties or as an ugly customer surprisingly possessed of a few attractive or redeeming traits by doing little more than presenting a given aggregate of motifs in different sequences” (96).

Giving or withholding information can be used to create certain first impressions and the primacy effect of those first expressions insures that the reader will cling to those first thoughts as long as the narrative will possibly allow. Perry has observed: “There are cases in which meanings, constructed at the beginning of the text as a result of the distribution of information in the text-continuum, will remain stable until the reading is over simply because once constructed there is nothing in the sequel of the text to contradict or undermine them so as to cause their final rejection” (48).

At times, though, hypotheses formed at the beginning of a text are subverted by later information. Perry claims that there is

a tendency to assimilate what has actually appeared to what had been expected, to make it conform as much as possible to the expectation. When this proves impossible, and the expectation is not fulfilled, there is a sharp confrontation between the expected and the actual, which may sometimes lead to reexamining the particular place in the text where this expectation arose, and correcting it in retrospect (52).

Revising hypotheses in light of new information has been labeled the “recency effect” by Perry (57): “The literary text, then, exploits the ‘powers’ of the primacy effect, but ordinarily it sets up a mechanism to oppose them, giving rise, rather, to a recency effect” (57; see also Rimmon-Kenan:120).

So again, both Perry and Rimmon-Kenan recognize the similarities between beginnings and endings, even though these literary units may be required to be held in tension with each other. As Rimmon-Kenan has argued:

Thus, placing an item at the beginning or at the end may radically change the process of reading as well as the final product. Interestingly … both the primacy and the recency effects may be so strong as to overshadow the meanings and attitudes which would have emerged from a full and consistent integration of the data of the text (120–121).

Thus both primacy and recency effect can hold significant sway over the reading. For some, the significance of beginnings and endings for the reading process is due to “how the order of a text creates its meaning” (see the subtitle of Perry’s article). In this view, the text places critical information at the beginning or end in an effort to manipulate the reader. Others, on the other hand, claim that the readers themselves are responsible for attaching significance to narrative beginnings and endings. What Peter Rabinowitz has said about endings applies equally well to beginnings: “readers assume that authors put their best thoughts last, and thus assign a special value to the final pages of a text” (121–122).

In the midst of this debate, the common thread that runs throughout the works of Sternberg, Perry, and Rimmon-Kenan is the attention they pay to the effect of the narrative on the reader. Over against those like Rabinowitz who argue the reader is responsible for the cruciality assigned to beginnings and endings, these three argue that the order of the text, from beginning to end, manipulates the reading. Of course, the reader can refuse, as it were, to play the game, but to do so requires leaving the text and going home. These Tel Aviv scholars have pushed the relationship between text and reader, hinted at by Uspensky and Funk, in the direction of the reader, but the view that readers themselves create beginnings has not been fully explored.

3. Spoiling the Borders

Jacques Derrida, of course, is the most influential and visible of those figures who have advocated deconstructive readings of texts. Gary Phillips, one of the few NT scholars who has taken seriously the challenges of deconstruction for biblical studies has suggested: “One of the consequences of deconstructive reading, as discovered by literary critics and others, is the recognition that the boundaries which have traditionally defined, organized and empowered the study of certain subject matters and methods within established fields are historically imposed, i.e. arbitrary, borders” (1989:80).

Derrida has much to say about literary beginnings, particularly prefaces. In fact, in Dissemination, he spends nearly sixty pages in which, according to his translator, Barbara Johnson, “his preface at once prefaces and deconstructs the preface” (1981:32). Paying close attention to Hegel’s prefaces to his philosophical texts, Derrida observes:

Prefaces, along with forewords, introductions, preludes, preliminaries, preambles, prologues, and prolegomena, have always been written, it seems, in view of their own self-effacement. Upon reaching the end of the pre (which presents and precedes, or rather forestalls, the presentative production, and, in order to put before the reader’s eyes what is not yet visible, is obliged to speak, predict, and predicate), the route which has been covered must cancel itself out. But this subtraction leaves a mark of erasure, a remainder which is added to the subsequent text and which cannot be completely summed up within it. Such an operation thus appears contradictory, and the same is true of the interest one takes in it (1981:9, see also Taylor).

It might prove helpful to watch Derrida reading a particular beginning. We may also see how beginnings and endings are related (in a subversive enterprise) in Derrida’s thinking. My reading of Derrida’s reading is taken from his remarkable essay, “Living On. Border Lines”, published in the so-called “Yale Manifesto” in 1979 (cf. Derrida, 1979). In this essay, which is actually two independent essays running concurrently across the top and bottom of the pages, Derrida devotes much attention to beginnings and endings:

If we are to approach a text, it must have an edge. The question of the text, as it has been elaborated and transformed in the last dozen or so years, has not merely “touched” “shore,” le bord …, all those boundaries that form the running border of what used to be called a text, of what we once thought this word could identify, i.e., the supposed end and beginning of a work, the unity of a corpus, the title, the margins, the signatures, the referential realm outside the frame, and so forth. What has happened, if it has happened, is a sort of overrun [débordement] that spoils all these boundaries and divisions and forces us to extend the accredited concept … (1979:83).

The problem of “spoiled boundaries” is, Derrida insists, “a problematic” which “has not been explored, at least not adequately, by the institution of literary studies in the university” (1979:88). Derrida seeks to “work out the theoretical and practical system of these margins, these borders, once more, from the ground up” (1979:84) through his analysis of Maurice Blanchot’s La folie du jour (Eng. trans. “The Madness of the Day”). This remarkable piece begins and ends in the following way:

I am neither learned nor ignorant. I have known joys. That is saying too little: I am alive, and this life gives me the greatest pleasure. And what about death? When I die (perhaps any minute now), I will feel immense pleasure. I am not talking about the foretaste of death, which is stale and often disagreeable. Suffering dulls the senses. But this is the remarkable truth, which I am certain of: I feel boundless pleasure in living, and I will take boundless satisfaction in dying.


I had been asked, “Tell us exactly what happened.” A story? I began: “I am neither learned nor ignorant. I have known joys. That is saying too little.” I told them the whole story, and they listened with interest, it seems to me, at least in the beginning. But the end was a surprise to all of us. “That was the beginning,” they said. “Now get down to the facts.” How so? The story was finished!

I was forced to realize that I was not capable of forming a story out of these events. I had lost the thread of the narrative; that happens in a good many illnesses. But this explanation only made them more insistent. Then I noticed for the first time that there were two of them and that this departure from the traditional method, even though it was explained by the fact that one of them was an eye doctor, the other a specialist in mental illness, kept making our conversation seem like an authoritarian interrogation that was being supervised and guided by a strict set of rules. Of course neither of them was the police chief. But because there were two of them, there were three, and this third was firmly convinced, I am sure, that a writer, a man who speaks and argues with distinction, is always capable of recounting facts that he remembers.

A story? No. No stories, never again (quoted by Derrida, 1979:95, 97).

About these passages, Derrida remarked: “This ‘narrative’ seems indeed to begin with a certain sentence that will subsequently be quoted towards the end as part of the narrative, unless the first sentence quotes in advance the one that comes at the end and that relates the first words of a narrative. I shall return to this structure, which deprives the text of any beginning and of any decidable edge or border …” (1979:92–93). Derrida then offers these further thoughts about La folie:

we learn that this opening paragraph (the upper edge of La folie …) corresponds in its content and form, if not in its occurrence, to the beginning of the account [récit] that the narrator tries to take up [aborder] in response to the demands of his interrogators. This creates an exceedingly strange space: what appeared to be the beginning and the upper edge of a discourse will have been merely part of a narrative that forms a part of the discourse in that it recounts how an attempt was made—in vain!—to force a narrative out of the narrator. The starting edge will have been the quotation (at first not recognizable as such) of a narrative fragment that in turn will merely be quoting its quotation (1979:96).

Derrida labels this literary strategy “invagination” which is “the inverted reapplication of the outer edge to the inside of a form where the outside then opens a pocket” (1979:97). In La folie du jour, Derrida argues, we see double invagination, that is, the two edges of the story fold back on themselves and each other. So here is a story (un récit) which at the end demands a story (un récit) which the narrator is unable to deliver (“I was forced to realize that I was not capable of forming a story”). The collapse of the ending into the beginning, the folding in of the story’s edges on itself—the double invagination—”is the structure of a narrative [récit] in deconstruction” (1979:100). Beginnings and endings, far from providing stable boundaries separating text from context, finally collapse in on themselves.

The borders are not dissolved, but “spoiled.” Gary Phillips has commented on Derrida’s view:

Hyperbole notwithstanding, why should Derrida’s view of text and what it implies about the text’s place within history be so disturbing? In part it is because he does not honor traditional boundaries which distinguish between literary criticism and literary history, boundaries which define the latter as a search for the cause, origin, goal, purpose of a text, an approach predicated upon the fundamental separation of text from history, text from reader, text from context. The more serious irritation, however, is the recognition that he forces the metaphysical investment in these boundaries. The very idea of borders as an enigma is a blow to a tradition which views its borders as a given (1985:113).

Derrida’s comments about beginnings and endings—the borders of the text—should be seen in light of his overall critique of Western metaphysics. His criticisms focus on the privileging of the spoken word over the written word, logocentrism, of presence over absence. “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte.” “There is nothing outside the text.” Such a statement is not to be taken as a denial of the external world by Derrida, but rather, as Phillips argues, that “there can be neither escape from the Western tradition and its boundaries nor an overlooking of these borders, only an overrunning of the limits” (1985:116). And part of “overrunning the limits” includes “de-centering” the center and marginalizing the borders by recognizing the collapse of beginnings into endings—spoiling the borders in which both writers and readers have invested so much.

Though certainly no deconstructionist, Edward Said offers another poststructuralist approach to beginnings in Beginnings: Intention and Method. This work has “concentrated on beginnings both as something one does and as something one thinks about” (11). Said examines the psychological and phenomenological approaches to understanding beginnings, emphasizing the beginning of writing (the literary process) more than the beginning of the writing (the literary product). Said’s thesis is:

invention and restraint … ultimately have conserved the novel because novelists have construed them together as beginning conditions, not as conditions for limitlessly expansive fictional invention. Thus the novel represents a beginning of a very precisely finite sort insofar as what may ensue from that beginning (83).

One significant contribution of Said is the distinction he makes between transitive and intransitive beginnings. The transitive beginning is one which is characterized by “beginning with (or for) an anticipated end, or at least expected continuity” (72–73). In other words, a transitive beginning is integrally related to the rest of the story. An intransitive beginning, on the other hand, is one “which has no object but its own constant clarification” and is totally unrelated to the rest of the narrative, that is “beginning at the beginning, for the beginning” (73). The first, then, is “projective and descriptive, the other tautological and endlessly self-mimetic” (73).

Most biblical scholars who attempt to apply literary critical categories to the gospels would argue (or sometimes simply assume) that the beginnings of the gospels are intimately related to the rest of the story, that is they are “transitive beginnings.” But the poststructuralist approaches of Derrida and Said open up the possibility that a narrative beginning might undo itself, that it might be unrelated to what follows in the story, that it may finally fail (intentionally) to provide the “foundation” for the rest of the narrative which follows it. With this poststructuralist perspective in mind, then, here is the epigraph for the preceding section:

I have reached no conclusions, have erected no boundaries,

shutting out and shutting in, separating inside

from outside: I have

drawn no lines:


manifold events of sand

change the dune’s shape that will not be the same shape


so I am willing to go along, to accept

the becoming

thought, to stake off no beginnings or ends, establish

no walls:

(A. R. Ammons, “Corsons Inlet”: cited by Fowler, 1990:28)

4. A Lingering Question and a Preface

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev 1:8)

That of all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident my own way of doing it is the best I’m sure it is the most religious—for I begin with writing the first sentence—and trusting to Almighty God for the second. (Tristram Shandy)

One of the subplots of David Lodge’s wonderful academic satire Small World is the quest for the prestigious UNESCO Chair of Literary Criticism. The end of the novel is set at the MLA annual meeting in New York City where all of the leading candidates for the Chair have been invited to participate in a panel discussion on the topic “The Function of Criticism”: Morris Zapp, the American poststructuralist; Philip Swallow, the British traditionalist; Fulvia Morgana, the Marxist critic; and Siegfried von Turpitz, the reader-response critic. The session is presided over by the doyen of the international community of literary theorists, Arthur KingFisher. KingFisher also happens to be advisor to the Committee responsible for filling the UNESCO post. After each of the panelists has presented his or her views on the “functions of criticism,” the novel’s young protagonist, Persse McGarrigle, who holds an M.A. from the University College, Dublin, and teaches in the English Department at a small, lowly agricultural college in Limerick, Ireland, rises to ask a question:

“I would like to ask each of the speakers,” said Persse, what follows if everybody agrees with you? He turned and went back to his seat.

Arthur KingFisher looked up and down the table to invite a reply. The panel members however avoided his eye. They glanced instead at each other, with grimaces and gesticulations expressive of bafflement and suspicion. “What follows is the Revolution,” Fulvia Morgana was heard to mutter; Philip Swallow, “Is it some sort of trick question?” von Turpitz, “It’s a fool’s question.” A buzz of excited conversation rose from the audience, which Arthur KingFisher silenced with an amplified tap of his pencil. He leaned forward in his seat and fixed Persse with a beady eye. “The members of the forum don’t seem to understand your question, sir. Could you rephrase it?”

Persse got to his feet again and padded back to the microphone in a huge, expectant silence. “What I mean is,” he said, “what do you do if everybody agrees with you?”

“Ah.” Arthur KingFisher flashed a sudden smile that was like sunshine breaking through cloud. His long, olive-complexioned face, worn by study down to the fine bone, peered over the edge of the table at Persse with a keen regard. “That is a very good question. A very in-ter-est-ing question. I do not remember that question being asked before.” He nodded to himself. “You imply, of course, that what matters in the field of critical practice is not truth but difference. If everybody were convinced by your arguments, they would have to do the same as you and then there would be no satisfaction in doing it. To win is to lose the game. Am I right?”

“It sounds plausible,” said Persse from the floor. “I don’t have an answer myself, just the question.” (319)

At the end of such a survey of theory—fraught as it is with competing and contradictory understandings of the functions of literary beginnings—one is tempted to wonder aloud with Persse McGarrigle, “what do you do if everybody agrees with you?” And if Professor KingFisher is right, then this essay which began by searching for the “truth” about beginnings now ends by celebrating the differences in critical theory. At this point, however, I must confess with Persse, “I don’t have an answer myself, just the question.” Whether the search for such a truth must be endlessly deferred or ultimately abandoned is a lingering question to be pursued another day …

In his MLA Presidential Address, J. Hillis Miller observed that “the triumph of theory is the resistance to reading” (288). My own brief tracing of literary theory on narrative openings stands as a witness to the triumph of theory. But this essay is not only an exercise in the triumph of theory, it is a “preface” to reading; and this beginning to a volume on beginnings, then, has deferred the reading long enough. What follows are unique readings of the beginnings of four canonical and two non-canonical gospels. After finishing those essays and the responses to them (back to readings of readings again!), the reader may wish to (re)turn to this preface to test the theory against the particular readings and the readings against the theory. For as T. S. Eliot has mused:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Let the reading begin!

Works Consulted

Abrams, M. H.

1979    “How to Do Things with Texts.” Partisan Review 46:566–88.

Bal, Mieke

1988    Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in Judges. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bennett, James. R.

1976    “Beginning and Ending: A Bibliography.” Style 10: 184–88.

Booth, Wayne

1961    The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cain, William E.

1984    The Crisis in Criticism: Theory, Literature, and Reform in English Studies. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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How Narratives Begin: A Bibliography

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1978    Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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1974    Animate Illusions: Explorations of Narrative Structure. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

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Wales, Kathleen

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Whitlock, Baird W.

1985    From These Beginnings: Openings of Fifty Major Literary Works. New York: Schocken.

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Wyatt, D. M.

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Mark 1:1–15
And the Beginning of the Gospel

M. Eugene Boring

Texas Christian University


The thesis advocated in this paper is that the Gospel of Mark is a narrative structured with some care, divided into a bipartite outline determined by the author’s Christology, and provided with a title and introduction carefully composed in a manner appropriate to introduce the narrative as a whole. The variety of textual readings and syntactical options, as well as Mark’s purpose, are best understood by construing Mark 1:1 as the title to the whole narrative, with the introduction extending through 1:15. The introduction is itself carefully structured into two sections paralleling John and Jesus, while simultaneously subordinating John to Jesus. The introduction functions to introduce the main characters, introduce the main themes of the narrative as a whole, to focalize the narrative, and to relate the time of the Gospel to that of the readers, i.e. to contemporize the message of the narrative set in another time and place.

0. Introduction

“Beginnings are for the most part hidden.” Käsemann’s pregnant comment (82) was concerned with research into historical movements, but the words apply equally to the beginnings of literary documents. The first word of Mark is usually translated “beginning,” and yet it is not immediately clear how Mark begins. Since Mark’s narrative is, like every discourse, a selection from the story he narrates, he could have begun at an infinite number of different points in the story, in an infinite number of ways. The beginning he did choose could be thought of as a random selection, or as determined by external constraints, or as the author’s own construction, composed in a specific manner in order to communicate a particular meaning.

1. The Structure of Mark as a Whole

The thesis advocated in this paper is that the Gospel of Mark is a narrative structured with some care, divided into a bipartite outline determined by the author’s Christology, and provided with a title and introduction carefully composed in a manner appropriate to introduce the narrative as a whole.

All writings, of course, have some structure; otherwise they would not be intelligible. But many documents are composed rather randomly and lack a particular, intentional “strategy of communication built into the form of the text” (Craddock: 20). Their elements could be arranged in other ways with no significant difference in the meaning intended by the author of the text. During the era when Gospel studies were dominated by form criticism, scholars tended to regard the Gospels, especially Mark as the first Gospel, as compilations of traditional material without significant outlines. These randomly-constructed documents may also be outlined, but the resulting outlines would not be recognized by the author. Such outlines are all impositions on the material for the sake of the reader’s having a convenient conceptual handle by which to summarize and grasp the document’s contents.

Other documents are so composed that they communicate their meaning not only by their contents, but by their arrangement. By claiming that Mark is a structured document, I mean that Mark was not composed randomly, but that the narrative embodies a certain strategy of communication in the way the author structured it. Mark belongs to this class of well-formed writings. Determining the outline of Mark, then, is not a matter of devising convenient rubrics by which to summarize its content, but of discovering the communications strategy already present, but beneath the surface of the text itself.

The question of how Mark is structured has received a variety of answers: Granted that Mark is not a random composition, perceiving and analyzing Mark’s structure is “not entirely unambiguous” (Funk, 1988:14). Editors, translators, and commentators have divided Mark’s text in a variety of ways. The major categories of Markan outlines may readily be classified in terms of how many major sections Mark is thought to have. Baarlink (75–78), gives an analysis of 27 different outlines of Mark, dividing them into seven categories based on the number of major sections in each, from two to “Zehn- und mehrteilig” (ten and more divisions).

Form criticism tended to regard Mark as simply the stringing together of small individual pre-Markan pericopae on a Markan string without major divisions. The famous dictum of Martin Kähler (80) that Mark is “a passion story with an extended introduction” is only a variation of this view: “Etwas herausfordernd könnte man die Evangelien Passionsgeschichten mit ausfürliche Einleitung nennen” (“Somewhat provocatively, one could designate the Gospels passion stories with extensive introductions”). For Kähler, the Markan outline has one point, with all the Markan material strung together either introducing or elaborating it. The Gospel is only the pericope writ large.

Some later Markan scholars who recognized Mark as composer rather than mere collector divide the Markan text into several sections of considerable size. For example, Norman Perrin (1971:5), following the clue of the Markan summaries as division markers, finds five “major sections” plus the apocalyptic discourse and the passion narrative, arriving at a Markan outline of seven major headings. Funk (1985:169–74) lists sixteen major parts on the basis of “narrative grammar,”4 which in this case means primarily on the basis of the geographical markers in the text. A new section begins whenever the geographical setting changes.

The view has become common that Mark divided his composition into two approximately equal halves. The basis for the bipartite division has been variously explained. In the nineteenth century, during the highwater mark of the “Markan hypothesis,” a biographical explanation was given: the two parts of Mark correspond to the two phases of the ministry of Jesus, a period of Galilean popularity followed by the trip to Jerusalem, rejection and death. More recently, scholars who advocate a two-part geographical division of Mark’s narrative see it as Mark’s own structuring of the narrative. Some have seen this merely as a convenient and natural means of Mark’s ordering his material. Others have seen Mark’s outline as polemical theology in the guise of geography, contrasting the unbelief and rejection of Jerusalem with the faithful response and success in Galilee, where according to 14:28 and 16:7 Jesus was to meet his disciples after the resurrection (Lohmeyer, 1963:312). In the current discussion, several scholars who approach the material with literary-critical methods also advocate a two-part outline (e.g. Rhoads and Michie: 48–49, 112; Tolbert: 113–21).

Those who argue for a bipartite outline and attempt to identify the precise point of transition locate it at different points: 8:22 (Mann:177–179); 8:27 (Pesch, 1984:36); 10:1 (Grant: 636); 11:1 (Tolbert: 118–21). Tolbert’s division is especially attractive in that 10:52 would end on a significant inclusio with 1:2–3 (ὁδός, “way”), as Bartimaeus is transformed from a blind man παρὰ τὴν ὁδόν, “by the roadside,” (10:46, cf. 4:4, 15!) to a person who sees, and who follows Jesus ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ, “on the way.” Regarding 10:52 as the end of Part One also has the advantage of including all Jesus’ mighty acts of messianic salvation in the first major section of the Gospel. On the other hand, against Tolbert’s choice of 11:1 as the transition point between Parts One and Two is that this makes the two sections rather unequal in length (37 pages of Greek text vs. 22 pages in Nestle26), and the fact that it requires some straining to fit chapter 10 into a Galilee/Jerusalem outline as “Galilee” (114).

It is not necessary for the present purpose to attempt a resolution of this issue. Mark may have composed a transitional section rather than a specific transitional point. The unit 8:22–10:52 would qualify well for such a section, since it contains the key scene 8:27–30 and represents the transition from blindness to sight and following Jesus, being framed by the only two stories of the healing of blindness in all of Mark, ending with the symbolic transformation of Bartimaeus. Part One or the transitional section may also be seen as ending at 9:32. This would close Part One with the last reference to secrecy and misunderstanding, and ἐφοβοῦντο, “they were afraid,” would be the last dramatic word of each major part.

It is important to see that this transition, however defined or identified, is thoroughly christological. I subscribe to the thesis that Mark is structured in two major parts corresponding to his christological emphases, with “the” division between parts one and two coming somewhere between 8:22 and 10:52. The following characteristics distinguish the two parts:

Part One

Part Two



Miraculous ministry

Non-miraculous ministry




No exorcisms

Kingdom parables typical

Kingdom parables atypical

Calling disciples

No calling of disciples

Secrecy commands

No secrecy commands

Unhealed blindness

Blindness healed

No valid confession

Valid confession: Jesus, centurion

The carefully-structured section 8:22–10:52 both separates and joins these two sections by representing the transition from blindness to sight.

Of these two sets of characteristics, only “Galilee/Jerusalem” is geographical-biographical. The others have to do not with the location or chronology of Jesus’ ministry, but with its christological character. At this point we might remind ourselves of the other indications that Christology is the principle concern of Mark’s narrative: the title is thoroughly christological; “son of God,” the key christological title in Mark, plays a crucial role at key points in the narrative (1:1, 1:11; 9:7; 14:62; 15:39). This suggests that the structuring principle of Mark’s narrative is not something to do with the life of Jesus as a “great man,” but the role of Jesus in the plan of God. In a word, the structural principle of Mark is not biographical but christological; Mark is not a biography of Jesus but a narrative Christology. The narrative is structured in two major parts corresponding to the emphases of Mark’s Christology. Mark prefaces this bipartite structure with an introduction and a title.

2. Mark 1:1 As Mark’s Title to the Whole Narrative: Syntax and Meaning

To perceive how Mark has chosen to begin his narrative, one must first determine the syntax of the first four verses. One can construe Mark 1:1 as the title for the whole Gospel, as a section head for the introduction, as the first sentence of the Gospel, or as part of a longer introductory sentence. To understand properly the meaning of Mark 1:1, it must be seen as a title to the whole Gospel, rather than as an element in the first sentence of the narrative.

2.1    Textual Options and Meaning: The Issue Posed

To identify 1:1 as a title for either the first section or for the Gospel as a whole, the syntactical options presented by the opening words of the Gospel must be considered. A look at the editions of the Greek text of Mark 1:1–4 and its translations will immediately reveal that the syntax of these verses is not obvious. The major issue is, how many independent syntactical units are comprised by these verses, i.e. how many full stops are there? This issue is complicated by the text-critical issue; text criticism and grammatical analysis go together. The major textual issue affecting syntax is how to handle the ὁ and καί of 1:4. The options are as follows:

Textual option 1—ἐγένετο Ἰωάννης βαπτίζων ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ καὶ κηρύσσων βάπτισμα … (TEV represents this option: “So John appeared in the desert, baptizing and preaching.”) This option omits the article and preserves the καί. It is the smoothest reading, which makes it suspect. Further arguments against it are the facts that it has no support in either א or B, which differ on this reading, that it introduces John abruptly without any “title,” and that it does not correspond to Mark’s “titular” use of Ἰωάννης ὁ βαπτίζων, “John the Baptizer,” in 6:14 and 6:24. Further, this reading would produce a grammatical structure unique in Mark. Ἐγένετο occurs in Mark with the participle only in 9:3 and 9:7, and never with two participles. This reading is found in A, K, P, W, Π, f1, f13, and the majority of late MSS, and is adopted by the TR, von Soden (without brackets), UBS1–2, and Huck and Greeven.

Textual option 2—ἐγένετο Ἰωάννης ὁ βαπτίζων ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ κηρύσσων βάπτισμα (Represented by RSV: “John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching …”)

This version omits καί and keeps the article with ὁ βαπτίζων. It is supported by good manuscripts (B, 33, 892, copbo/mss), and corresponds to Mark’s “peculiar” usage of ὁ βαπτίζων in a “titular” sense. It is adopted by Westcott and Hort (without notes or brackets), Nestle20–25, BFBS2, The
Greek New Testament (NEB text, 1964), and by a number of translations and commentators.

Textual option 3—ἐγένετο Ἰωάννης ὁ βαπτίζων ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ καὶ κηρύσσων βάπτισμα (This option can be translated two different ways; see 3A and 3B below.) The third option preserves both the article and the καί, thereby creating a certain awkwardness. In its favor is the fact that it is the lectio difficilior, and that it is supported by good MSS (א, L, ד, geo, copbo). This reading is adopted by Souter2 (1947) without brackets, and by UBS3 and Nestle-Aland26 with the article in brackets. There are two ways to construe the grammar on the basis of this text:

Textual option 3A—Read ὁ βαπτίζων … καὶ κηρύσσων βάπτισμα as one syntactical unit, a double participle governed by one article and combined by καί, an attributive participle modifying “John.” This option is represented by the New Century Bible (1925): “John came, who baptized in the wilderness and preached …” That this is a possible construction is well argued by Reiser (134–35), but the examples he gives are from Herodotus. This is not a typically Markan construction. Elsewhere in Mark the construction of one article plus two participles occurs only in 12:40 and 15:29. Further, reading it this way makes ὁ βαπτίζων a descriptive phrase parallel to [ὁ] κηρύσσων rather than a “title,” which is Mark’s usage elsewhere (6:14, 24; cf. 6:25, 8:28).

Textual option 3B-Read ὁ βαπτίζων as a “title” and κηρύσσων as the second component of a compound verb paired improperly with ἐγένετο. This is faulty, but possible syntax. Much recent German scholarship adopts this reading, and it is so translated in the Einheitsübersetzung der Heiligen Schrift: “So trat Johannes der Täufer in der Wüste auf und verkündigte …”

These are the major possibilities, although Strathmann’s commentary posits the reading ἐγένετο Ἰωάννης ὁ βαπτίζων ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ καὶ [ὁ] κηρύσσων βάπτισμα (“John who baptizes and preaches baptism appeared”), with a conjectural additional ὁ inserted before κηρύσσων. In addition, the Nestle25 and preceding editions reports that in some manuscripts 1:4 begins with καὶ ἐγένετο (א*, W) and some versions presuppose ἐγένετο δέ (syrpal, copbo).

2.2.    The Possible Syntactical Construals of Mark 1:1–4

On the basis of these textual reconstructions, Mark 1:1–4 can be construed syntactically in several different ways. Verses 1–4 can be seen as all one sentence, with 2–3 a parenthesis. Mark 1:1 joins directly to 1:4. This seems impossibly awkward to me, needing some kind of connecting verb, but the text was so construed by Origen, Basil, and Victor of Antioch, and in moderntimes by C. H. Turner (145) and A. E. J. Rawlinson (250–51). Ἐγένετο is construed with ἀρχή to read: “The beginning of the proclamation of good news about Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, was John the Baptizer’s preaching in the wilderness of a baptism of repentance for remission of sins.”

There are a number of ways of seeing Mark 1:1–4 as two, three, or four syntactical units:

(a).    1:1 is set off as a title without punctuation, and a full stop is placed after 1:4 (Westcott and Hort).

(b).    Place full stops after 1:1 and 1:4, so that 1:1 stands alone and 2–4 is one sentence. (so TR, von Soden, Nestle19–26, UBS1–3, Souter’s Novum Testamentum Græce, ASV, Goodspeed, RSV, Le Nouveau Testament (Segond), Le Nouveau Testament7 (Synodale), Klostermann, Handbuch, Cranfield, Gospel according to Saint Mark.

(c).    Place full stops after 1:1 and 1:5, making two independent units, 1:1 and extending 2 to the end of 1:5 (Moffatt).

(d).    Place full stops after 1:3 and 4, construing 1–3 as one sentence, and 4 as another (so Tischendorf, BFBS2, Meyer’s KEK1, J. B. Phillips). Gerhard Arnold argues on the basis of grammar and syntax that this arrangement is “die einzig vertretbar Auffassung” (“the only defensible construal”) (124). In 1982 Robert Guelich lamented that this view had found almost no proponents among contemporary scholars (1982:7). He argued for it on the basis that the καθώς, “as,” introducing v. 2 must be syntactically related to the preceding. Tolbert is the most recent advocate of this view (108–13; 239–47), which is also adopted in the forthcoming work on Mark by Joel Marcus, The Way of the Lord—though Marcus also sees 1:1 as a superscription unrelated syntactically to the following.

(e).    Place full stops after 1:1, 1:3, and 1:4, construing 1:1, 2–3, and 4 as separate units (so NAB, NIV, H KAINH DIAQHKH [BFBS1972]).

(f).    Place full stops after 1:3, and 1:5, dividing 2–3 from 4, but extending the sentence begun at 4 to the end of the next verse, construing the units as 1, 2–3, 4–5 (so The Greek New Testament, Being the Text Translated in the New English Bible, 1964).

(g).    Place full stops after 1:1, 1:2, 1:4 (so The Jerusalem Bible).

(h).    Place full stops after 1:2, 1:3, and 1:4, construing the units as 1–2, 3, and 4 (so KJV, הברית החדשׂה1983, H KAINH DIAQHKH1967, Gute Nachricht für Sie1968, Einheitsübersetzung1979).

(i).    Place full stops after 1:1, 1:2, 1:3, and 1:4 (So Luther1956, 1975, TEV).

(j).    Place full stops after 1:1, 1:2, 1:3, and 1:5, extending the sentence of 1:4 to the end of the next sentence (so NEB; note the difference from the Greek text on which it is supposedly based).

This practically exhausts the possibilities, though perhaps it should be noted that the 1967 Die Gute Nachricht achieves something of a record by placing stops after 1:1, 2a, 2b, 3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, producing a translation with seven independent syntactical units from these words.

It is clear that by far the majority opinion is to construe 1:1 separately, only those editors and translators listed in (d) and (h) above joining 1:1 syntactically to the following words. Except for Westcott and Hort, one cannot determine whether the editors of the Greek texts construed Mark 1:1 as a title or as a verbless sentence. Some translations that separate v. 1 as an independent syntactical unit insert a verb and understand it to be the first sentence of the text (e.g. NEB, TEV), but most construe it as a verbless title, as do many commentators.

I agree with this majority view that 1:1 is indeed a title, and add the following reasons: (1) As will be argued below, the ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου, “beginning of the Gospel,” here spoken of refers not to the next verses, as would be the case if this were the first sentence of this pericope, but to the document as a whole. (2) The clause beginning with καθώς is best construed with what follows, as will be argued in the exegesis below (cf. Lührmann: 33–34). (3) The lack of verb is more readily accounted for as a title than as a verbless sentence. (4) The absence of the article before ἀρχή favors understanding the verse as a title, i.e. it corresponds to the titular style.

Tolbert has recently objected to construing 1:1 as a title for the following reasons (241–46). Apart from the persuasiveness of her own alternative exegesis, she offers two objections:

(1).    It is difficult to see καθὼς γέγραπται “As it is written,” as the start of a new sentence. True enough, but a document that ends with γάρ, “for,” can well begin with καθώς. Just as Mark brings his narrative to an end in mid-sentence, so that the reader must write the conclusion in her or his own life (see below), so Mark begins in media res, with the action of God long since underway and in fact coming to its fulfillment (1:14!).

(2).    If 1:1 is a title, then one must answer the question, “to what does ἀρχή refer?” Again, true enough, though this does not constitute an objection when a cogent interpretation of the meaning of ἀρχή is presented (see below).

2.3.    The Meaning of Mark 1:1 as a Title to the Whole Narrative

It is important to see Mark 1:1 as a title for the whole Gospel, not the heading for a particular sub-section, the introduction. Yet it is possible to think of Mark 1:1 as the title to the introductory segment of Mark’s narrative, i.e. as a section heading. Matthew 1:1’s βίβλος γενέσεως Ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ υἱοῦ Δαυὶδ νἱοῦ Ἀβρααμ, “the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham,” is sometimes understood this way (most recently, Luz: 88). But Matthew 1:1 is better understood as the title for Matthew’s document as a whole (most recently, Davies and Allison: 150–54). If Mark 1:1 were a section heading, then ἀρχή “beginning,” would refer to the introductory section of the document, and the document itself would then have to be understood as the εὐαγγέλιον, “Gospel.” This interpretation of εὐαγγέλιον is rejected below. Furthermore, “introduction” (of a document or book) is not among the definitions of ἀρχή given in Liddell and Scott (1953). So far as I know, ἀρχή was never used in all Greek literature as the label for the introductory segment of a narrative. No place in Mark is there a heading for a particular section; no place in Mark does a sub-unit of the Gospel begin with a verbless clause. All the key terms of this title refer to the narrative as a whole; none of them refers exclusively to the introduction.

2.3.1. ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ

Even though the phrase “Son of God” was most likely a part of Mark’s original title, these exact words are not found in the introduction. They do recur at key points in the body of the narrative itself (3:11; 5:7; 14:62, 15:39), and the idea without the precise words is found more often (8:38; 9:7; 12:6; 13:32). There can be no doubt that “Son of God” is a theme of the Gospel as a whole, and not merely the introduction.

2.3.2. εὐαγγέλιον

The same is true of εὐαγγέλιον. Outside the introduction, where it serves as a frame, εὐαγγέλιον is found four times (8:35; 10:29; 13:10; 14:9). In all four of these, εὐαγγέλιον is certainly an objective genitive referring to the post-Easter church’s message about Jesus, not to the message preached by the pre-Easter Jesus. Thus in 1:1, εὐαγγέλιον refers to the contents and subject matter of Mark’s narrative as a whole, the story of Jesus, the saving act of God in his Son Jesus the Christ, his words, deeds, death, and resurrection, as these are expressed in the following document and as they continue to be preached in Mark’s own time. That is, εὐαγγέλιον in the title refers to the story of Jesus, not the Markan discourse, to what is told, not the tale. Those who argue that εὐαγγέλιον cannot refer to the Gospel as a whole because there was as yet no such label for the literary genre are correct; εὐαγγέλιον is not here a genre-label. They are thinking, however, of the Gospel narrative as discourse, and are quite correct that Mark does not apply the term εὐαγγέλιον to his narrative in the sense of discourse or text. But the word εὐαγγέλιον in the title nonetheless refers to the whole story that is about to be narrated, not just to the introduction. As the introduction proceeds, it becomes clear that the εὐαγγέλιον preached in the church is in continuity with the αὐαγγέλιον preached by Jesus. Εὐαγγέλιον in the title and εὐαγγέλιον in 1:14 form a bracket around the introduction that binds together the gospel about Jesus and the gospel Jesus preached, without confusing or identifying them.

2.3.3. ἀρχή

This has implications for the meaning of the key and disputed word ἀρχή. What is the ἀρχή? The following possibilities have been offered: ἀρχή as “beginning”

If ἀρχή is understood as “beginning,” then the most pedestrian sense in which to read the first verse is in the sense “the narrative begins here,” somewhat analogous to the liturgical “Here begins the reading.” In this case the ἀρχή would be 1:1 itself. Ἀρχή and ἄρχομαι occur in this sense in opening lines of ancient books, though there are no exact, or even very close, parallels to Mark’s own opening words.

If the beginning expressed in ἀρχή is thought to be the preliminary event of the larger story, this beginning can be thought of as (1) the prophecy of “Isaiah,”20 or (2) John, his preaching and baptism, or (3) the preaching of Jesus (so most recently Lührmann: 32), (4) the whole narrative of Mark 1–16 as the beginning of the Christian dispensation or age (so Feuillet: 163–72). ἀρχή as (laying the) “foundation”

In this reading of ἀρχή, the word is understood to point not merely to the story about Jesus as the first events of a series, but to their foundational character. Ἀρχή can mean simply “foundation,” as in ἀρχὴν ὑποθέσθαι (Demosthenes 3.2). Recently Leander Keck (367), Rudolf Pesch (1984:75), and John Donahue (986) have argued that the ἀρχή/foundation of the (present) εὐαγγέλιον is the story of Jesus from baptism to resurrection. They argue Jesus’ preaching and activity was the source, ground, and foundation from which the church’s preaching about Jesus grew; there was a shift in the content at the cross-resurrection, but the common denominator and element of continuity was preaching as εὐαγγέλιον. One might agree that there is some validity to this reading without claiming that Bultmann’s old problem of how the proclaimer became the proclaimed is so easily resolved (33). Although I do not agree that this reading is totally satisfactory or exhausts the meaning of Mark’s first line, it is on the right track in seeing ἀρχή as more than a mere temporal beginning point. This line of interpretation can be extended. ἀρχή as “norm”/”canon”

If, as is here argued, αὐαγγέλιον is not the document Mark composes (discourse, narrative text) but the larger story to which it refers, then what is the ἀρχή If 1:1 is a title for the whole document, then the whole document ought to be considered the ἀρχή. The document is not the εὐαγγέλιον, but it is entitled the ἀρχή by Mark himself. There is a sense in which this is the case in those interpretations mentioned above which understand the ἀρχή to refer somehow to Mark 1–16 as a whole. Yet they generally understand this in terms of story rather than discourse. Is there not another sense in which the whole of Mark 1–16 is ἀρχή for Mark, namely as text?

It will be helpful here to remember the other senses of the word ἀρχή. In addition to the meanings “beginning” and “first cause,” ἀρχή also means “ruler” (agent, person) and “rule” (abstract, of the office and function) (Bauer: 111–12). The idea of canon, and the word κανών, are not far distant. It is clear that Mark composes a narrative which he intends to function as a normative statement for preaching the εὐαγγέλιον Ἰησοῦ Ξριστοῦ, and that his way of doing this is to narrate the events which form the ἀρχή of this preaching, i.e. their beginning and foundation. He expresses this by carefully choosing as the first word of his title for his whole composition a word which means not only “beginning” and “first principle” but “rule, norm.” This rule is not an abstract statement, a discursive-language creed, but a narrative. As Paul Ricoeur (76) has reminded us, the word of the Lord, prophetic speech, needs narrative to keep it from degenerating into oracle. The title would then announce “The rule, normative statement, for preaching the good news of Jesus Christ is the following narrative of the beginning and foundation for the church’s contemporary preaching of this message.”

3. Mark 1:2–15 As the Introduction to Mark

Except for Kähler’s legendary and hyperbolic remark about all of Mark except the passion story being an introduction, all scholars consider Mark’s introduction to be confined to the opening verses of chapter one. How far does this introduction extend? On the analogy of a drama, the question might be discussed in terms of scenes (Funk: “segments”) and acts (Funk: “sequences”). It is generally agreed that 1: (2)4–8 is one scene (John), that 1:9–11 is another (John and Jesus), and that 1:12–13 is a third (Jesus). The issue is whether the next segment/scene, 1:14–15, belongs to the same sequence/act as the preceding or to the following sequence/act. Does the introduction, the first sequence in Mark, extend through the first segment (1:8), the second (1:11), the third (1:13), or the fourth (1:15)? Each possibility has been defended:

3.1.    The introduction extends through 1:8

The text of Westcott and Hort left a large space between 1:8 and 1:9, the only similar one being the break before 14:1 at the beginning of the passion story, an arrangement that became traditional, being preserved in the Nestle text through the 25th edition. Westcott and Hort clearly intended to signal that Mark’s narrative consisted of introduction (1:1–8), body (1:9–13:37), and conclusion (14:1–16:8). Supposing that Mark was something of a biographical report, it was natural for them to assume that the introduction of the book ceased when the main character appeared on the stage. This happened in 1:9, so the introduction was supposed to consist of the preliminary stage-setting dealing with John the Baptist. Contemporary support for this division of the text has all but disappeared (Mack: 390 is the sole exception known to me).

3.2.    The introduction extends through 1:11

Wolfgang Feneberg has written the only monograph known to me devoted exclusively to Mark’s introduction. Despite the promising subtitle, there is no argument made for the shape of Mark as a whole or the extent of the introduction. Feneberg is primarily interested in the baptism pericope, deals with the text in historical and theological categories rather than literary ones, and assumes without argument that the prologue consists of 1:1–11.

3.3.    The introduction extends through 1:13

A more substantial case has been made that the introduction consists of 1:1–13. Already Lightfoot (16), reacting against the short introduction posited by Westcott and Hort’s text, assumed that the introductory unit should be 1–13, as is now suggested in the paragraphing and space breaks of the 26th edition of Nestle-Aland. This division remained popular, with eighteen of the twenty-seven Markan outlines examined by Baarlink opting for it, though several of these are older works (75–78). It has been adopted by the New English Bible, by several standard English-language one-volume commentaries on the Bible, by a number of significant exegetical studies,24 and has recently been argued for by Vernon Robbins (1982:220–36) on the basis of rhetorical criticism, by Frank J. Matera (3–20) on the basis of the change in the way the narrator speaks to the reader after 1:13, by Robert Funk (1988:218–26; cf. Funk 1985:169, 482) on grounds of narrative grammar, and most recently by Mary Ann Tolbert on the basis of rhetorical and literary criticism (108–113).

Some of those who argue that the introduction ends at 1:13 still consider 14–15 to be closely related to the preceding verses (so already Lightfoot: 20). Vernon Robbins’ 1969 Chicago dissertation, The Christology of Mark, had already argued that the Markan “summaries” are in effect transitional, belonging both to what precedes and what follows (1969: 56–60), a suggestion taken up and affirmed by Norman Perrin and Jack Kingsbury. Funk (1988:223) and Tolbert (116) argue that 1:14–15 is a part of the body of the narrative as a whole. They thus place them in the “body” rather than in the “introduction,” yet as the “introduction” to the “body.” These two verses are indeed transitional, pointing both backward and forward, but of course the introduction as a whole points forward. I regard them as the concluding summary of the introduction, so that the first scene of the body of the narrative is 1:16–20, the calling of the four fishermen to be disciples. As the concluding summary of the introduction, with the introduction as a whole they point forward both to the body of the Gospel and to the readers’ present, but they do this as an intergal part of the introduction, which they bring to a conclusion. This interpretation is made explicit by those authors who see the introduction as extending through 1:15.

3.4.    The introduction extends through 1:15

The majority of recent students of Mark, however, follow Leander Keck’s reassertion of the view of Wellhausen that the introduction of Mark is represented by 1:2–15 (Wellhausen: 9; Keck: 352–70). Though differing on other fundamental issues, all the recent major commentaries agree on this, as do a number of specialized Markan studies. Keck’s arguments appeared prior to the influence of literary criticism on New Testament studies, but they have hardly been improved upon in the more than twenty years since his article appeared and may be briefly summarized and strengthened by the insights of recent literary criticism.

(1). Mark 1:1–15 are united by the prominence of εὐαγγέλιον in both 1:1 and 1:14–15. One could add that, though much traditional material is found in 2–13, 1:1 and 14–15 are Markan compositions, stamped with his theology and vocabulary (cf. e.g. Strecker: 77–78). Mark builds his introductory unit from traditional materials, but composes a frame for this unit himself, with εὐαγγέλιον the key term in each half of the frame. “This is clearly the rubric under which Mark wants to place his material.… Mark 1:14f not only complements the title of the book but rounds out the whole introduction in such a way that the entire fifteen verses stand as a genuine prologue to the whole subsequent text” (Keck: 359–60).

(2). Mark is interested in relating Jesus to John the Baptist, not separating the two. “Efforts to split 1:14f from 1–13 always assume, implicitly, that the purpose of 1:14f is to introduce the ministry of Jesus by separating it from that of John; that is, they make out Mark’s interest to be biographical in some unexpressed way, usually revealed by the subsequent division of the ministry into Galilean and Judean periods” (360). This misses Mark’s point, Keck argues, because (a) the use of παραδοθῆναι, “arrest,” “hand over,” in 1:14 is not a chronological marker that separates a supposed “period of John” from that of Jesus, but is a theological signal that binds the fates of Jesus and John together: they are both delivered up (by God). The “divinely willed deathward work of John” corresponds and prepares for the work of Jesus. The picture of John as preacher is complemented and fulfilled by the picture of Jesus as preacher in 1:14–15. Our analysis below will show the paralleling and binding-together of John and Jesus accomplished by Mark’s compositional technique, which also subordinates John to Jesus while affirming his heilsgeschichtlich importance.

(3). Keck’s third reason for including 14–15 in the introduction rests on the original meaning of εὐαγγέλιον as “good news of victory from the battlefield.” This connotation of “victory” inherent in εὐαγγέλιον is to be combined with the Markan understanding of the encounter of Jesus and Satan in 12–13 as a power struggle, not a “temptation” in the moral sense. 1:14–15 is not a new beginning, but completes the action of 1:12–13 by announcing its results. “In any case, this interpretation of the passage supports what was said about Jesus as the Stronger One: Mark’s Jesus is the victorious Son of God who returns from the testing-ground with the εὐαγγέλιον” (362).

(4). Recent narratological study seems to offer grounds for extending the introduction through 1:15. It is particularly important to point this out, since the most recent narratological study of Mark, Funk’s Poetics of Biblical Narrative (218–26), offers reasons for reasserting the older view that 1:1–13 is the introduction.

(a). Funk’s first argument is that there is a temporal change signaled by μετὰ δὲ τὸ παραδοθῆναι, “after (John) was arrested,” at 1:14. But: Within the introduction, there are also temporal shifts signaled in 1:9ἐν ἐκείναις ἡμέραις, “In those days,”) and 1:13 (ἦν τῇ ἐρήμῳ τεσσεράκοντα ἡμέρας, “he was in the wilderness forty days”). To be sure, these are not as disjunctive as that of 1:14, yet it is not the case that all the introduction to 1:14 is in one time plane, which is then shifted to another at 1:14. Μετά to signal a temporal change occurs in Mark elsewhere in 8:31; 9:31; 14:1 and 14:28; and 16:1. Of these, Funk takes only 14:1 to begin a new sequence.

(b). Funk’s second argument concerns the spatial markers in the text. There is a change of locale in 1:14. But again, there is a previous change of locale in the introduction, without signaling that the introduction is completed and a new sequence begins (1:12). It could be objected that all of 1–13 takes place ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῷ, “in the wilderness,” and that 1:14 first takes us out of this area (cf. 1:9). Yet 1:13 clearly intends that for the testing by Satan Jesus is “cast out” into a different locale from the scene of John’s baptizing. Thus all Funk’s arguments indicate a new segment, but not necessarily a new sequence, may begin at 1:14—a new scene, but not a new act.

(c). Funk’s third argument has to do with the role and identification of the participants in the segment. He regards Jesus as patient (passive) in the narrative until 1:14, where he first becomes the agent (active). The new sequence thus begins at 1:14. But is it the case that Jesus is patient until 1:14? In 1:9, Jesus is active, the kai; ἐγένετο … ἠλθεν being parallel to the ἐγένετο of 1:4 with reference to John. Cf. also the ἀναβαίνων, “he came up,” and the εἶδεν, “he saw,” of 1:10.

Funk considers the reidentification of a continuing participant in the narrative to be a mark of a new segment or sequence. When a participant has been tracked through the narrative by repeated use of the pronoun, he or she may be reidentified to signal a new beginning (1988:166–67). He relies heavily on this as a marker (1988:176), but does not use this argument in his discussion of the extent of the Markan introduction. Mark 1:14 offers a reidentification of a continuing participant. “Jesus” is named instead of continuing the preceding with a pronoun. Furthermore, 1:16 then continues with the pronoun. By this criterion it could appear that 1:14 is a new beginning, and that 1:16 is a continuation. But: it is the reintroduction of John in this sentence that makes it necessary to mention Jesus again in 1:14 for the sake of clarity. The occurrence of Ἰησοῦς here is thus not a signal of a narrative transition. Also, Funk’s discussion of John 5 shows that a reidentification can occur, by his criteria, at the conclusion of a sequence (1988:108, 171). This can be the case here as well. On the other hand, in Funk’s view (1988:117) 1:35–39 “sums up and defocalizes the first sequences in the Gospel of Mark,” so 1:40 must open a new segment, if not a new sequence. Yet 1:40 continues with the pronoun, as does 1:16. There is thus no objection on these grounds to seeing 1:16 as the beginning of the new section.

This formal phenomenon of Mark’s narrative style is itself a weak criterion of his sequencing. Using Funk’s delineation of the Markan outline, Ἰησοῦς is “reintroduced” in 1:17 and 1:25 not only in the midst of a continuing sequence, but in the midst of a segment. The new segment Funk sees beginning at 2:1 continues with the pronoun for Jesus, while Ἰησοῦς is “reintroduced” in 2:5 without beginning a new segment. A glance at the concordance will indicate that throughout Mark there is little correlation between the choice of the name Ἰησοῦς or the pronoun and the beginning of narrative sequences. Of the sixteen Markan sequences identified by Funk, only five “reidentify” Jesus by switching from the pronoun to Ἰησοῦς. On the other hand, the narrative that had been using the pronoun often “reintroduces” Jesus without beginning a new sequence or even a new segment (cf. 1:17, 25; 2:5, 8, 17, 19 in the first two chapters—and so throughout Mark). These data thus cannot be used to argue that Mark 1:14 begins a new sequence.

(d). Funk’s fourth argument has to do with the mode of narrative discourse. The introduction is primarily iterative; the body shifts to the reporting of singular events, i.e. basically the shift from the imperfect to the aorist. Funk locates this transition between 1:14 and 1:15.

On the other hand, there are narratological arguments, using Funk’s own criteria, which bind 1:14–15 to 1:2–13 and make them the conclusion of the introduction rather than the introduction to the body of the narrative.

(a). Mark 1:14 gets John off the stage and forms a closure (“defocalizing,” in Funk’s sense) of this section. It represents the conclusion of something rather than the beginning of something.

(b). A further evidence that this is a defocalizing segment for the preceding is the summary, general nature of the scene pictured in 1:14–15. The preceding section 12–13 was more sharply focused.

(c). The unit cannot close with Jesus in the wilderness. The reader needs to know the outcome. Mark 1:13 is still incomplete and unfulfilled without 1:14. “Cohesiveness” is a criterion of sequencing, i.e. of which segments belong to which sequences, which scenes belong to which acts. The unit 2–15 has a cohesiveness which is lacking in 2–13.

(d). There are no new participants, one mark of a new sequence, in 14–15. But 1:16–20, which I would take as the opening scene of a new sequence, introduces new participants.

(e). The shift from predominantly diegetic to predominantly mimetic narrative occurs at 1:16, not at 1:14. Funk offers the following helpful table of contrasting characterizations of the two types of narrative (1988:134):




focused scene


unfocused segment










The shift to mimetic narrative occurs with the scene of the calling of the disciples in 1:16–20. The verbs of 1:2–13 are primarily iterative, summarizing activity which the narrator recounts. There are no mimetic words of Jesus in 1:2–13. The introduction gives one speech each to John and Jesus, neither in the mimetic mode of direct discourse, but in the summarizing iterative mode of indirect discourse more common to introductions. Each speech is introduced by an aorist finite verb plus the present participle. The first words of Jesus in direct discourse, i.e. the first words the reader gets to hear Jesus say are 1:17, “Follow me.…” With this sharply-focused scene, the body of the narrative begins, with one of its major themes, Jesus’ call to discipleship.

4. The Structure of Mark’s Introduction

The popular Hellenistic literature to which Mark belongs was typically episodic except at the beginning, the central turning point, and the final recognition scene (Tolbert 74). Mark fits this general pattern. The introduction is carefully structured to introduce the themes that appear in the body of the narrative. It was probably written last, after the body was complete.

Mary Ann Tolbert has argued that 1:1–13 is a carefully-structured rhetorical unit of four subsections on the pattern ABB1A1. An alternative structure for the introduction as 1:2–15 will be argued below. Here I only point out that her proposal requires some straining of the material in order to fit the chiastic structure she proposes for 1:1–13. She sees anaphora (word repetition) as the key to segmenting the unit, with ἐγένετο, “appeared,” “came,” beginning each new unit at vss. 4, 9, and 11. But in her structure the first unit begins with ἀρχή, “beginning,” not ἐγένετο, and by using ἐγένετο as a division marker between verses 10 and 11, the voice from heaven is separated from the baptism scene and related to the scene of Jesus tested in the wilderness. The anaphoric argument is well taken, but it most naturally supports another divisioin of the text, ἐγένετο beginning one unit at v. 4 (John) and καί ἐγένετο beginning the second unit at v. 9 (Jesus).

It is thus better to see the introduction as composed of vss. 2–15, and having two parts, the first (2–8) featuring John and the second (9–15) featuring Jesus. John is brought on the stage with ἐγένετο in 1:4, while Jesus is introduced into the narrative with καί ἐγένετο in 1:9. The two parts are of almost identical length (123 v. 118 words). Each part identifies the character, places him in the wilderness, and describes his preaching. One is tempted simply to label these two parts “Introduction of John” and “Introduction of Jesus” without further ado. Yet if Mark had simply begun with John and then introduced Jesus in relation to him, this would have tended to subordinate Jesus to John. Since Mark did not want to do this, he would have needed some kind of exchange between John and Jesus such as Matthew 3:14–15, or some long prologue that puts the relation between Jesus and John into proper perspective such as Luke 1–2, or some extensive elaboration from the Baptist himself such as we find in John 1. Mark handles this by prefacing the sentence that introduces John with a complex series of subordinate clauses beginning with καθώς, “As,” which allows Jesus the κῦριος, “Lord,” to be addressed “offstage” by the transcendent voice of God before the plotted narrative begins. The result is that when John appears in 1:4 his identity and significance are already determined by his relation to Jesus, not vice versa. This is precisely the effect Mark intended, for which he was willing to construct a complicated and somewhat awkward opening sentence.

The voice of God in 1:2 is not only “offstage” in the transcendent world, it is chronologically prior to the action that begins with the appearance of John in 1:4. The voice is the voice of God in the prophecy, promising that he will send his messenger before the face of the one he addresses, to prepare his way. It is often noticed that Mark has changed the pronoun of Mal. 3:1 from “my,” referring to God, to “thy” (=”your”) referring to the one addressed in this transcendent off-stage scene. It is not so often made explicit that by this narrative technique the reader gets to overhear the voice of God addressing Jesus, the one whose way is to be prepared, and that this one is then called κύριος, a title never given to Jesus in the body of the narrative. This is in contrast to the other Gospels, which do not hesitate to designate Jesus unambiguously as κύριος, “Lord,” in the body of the narrative. With wonderful ambiguity, κύριος occurs in Mark only in 1:3; 5:19 (=God, applied to Jesus through a misunderstanding of the healed demoniac); 7:28 (=”sir,” the only κύριος addressed to Jesus in the body of Mark after 1:3); 11:3 (=”owner” of the colt) and 12:36–37 (where κύριος is equated with ὁ χριστός “The Christ,” in “David’s” quote from Ps. 110:1). In all these situations the reader knows that Jesus is Lord in the Messianic sense, from 1:3 onward, but the characters in the narrative do not know this. The reader gets no picture of when, where, or how this declaration from God to Jesus as “Lord” occurred, only that it is a prophetic word “before” the plotted narrative begins, and that the story of Jesus does not in fact begin for Mark in 1:9. Reading Mark 1:2–3 in this way is not a retrojection of Johannine theology into the Markan introduction, but a dim prefiguring of what came to flower in the Johannine prologue.

These considerations lead to the following outline of Mark 1:1–15:








Identified by off-stage transcendent voice



John in the wilderness: baptizing



Preaching: repentance/in terms of promise






Identified by off-stage transcendent voice



Jesus in the wilderness: testing/being tested



Preaching: repentance/in terms of fulfillment


5. The Functions of Mark’s Introduction

Mark’s introduction functions to introduce the main body of his narrative in four literary-theogical ways:

5.1.    The introduction Introduces the Main Character(s)

Long before New Testament studies became sophisticated in literary criticism, it was recognized that a principle function of the introduction was to identify the main characters. R. H. Lightfoot’s lectures of forty years ago argued that the introduction, which he understood to be 1:1–13, was intended to introduce the main character, forming a prologue to the Gospel as a whole. He understood the fundamental problem addressed to be “who is Jesus?” and thus wrote “… we find placed in our hands at the outset the key which the evangelist wishes us to have, in order that we may understand the person and office of the central Figure of the book.” (17) This insight is still correct. Identification of the characters is a main function of the introduction, though it is not the only one. But two qualifications need to be added to Lightfoot’s statement.

(1) The first has to do with the relation of John and Jesus as characters in Mark’s narrative. In Mark’s introduction, the purpose is not merely to “identify John and identify Jesus,” as though they were two main characters. We have already seen that Mark has so constructed the narrative that John is identified with respect to Jesus, who is addressed first, in both offstage voices. John’s identification is incorporated into that of Jesus, not vice versa.

The question “who is John?” was in fact an issue in early Christianity. Mark deals with that question en passant. The identities of John and Jesus are bound up with each other, with the identity of Jesus being primary.

Yet Mark could have begun in some other way without a reference to John. Why not simply begin with Jesus and incorporate John into the narrative later, making his subordinate role clear? Should we here heed the admonition of some literary critics that probing behind the text into its earlier forms, the events to which it refers, or attempting to read the author’s mind is not the interpreter’s task anyway, and look for purely inter-textual explanations? I myself affirm that historical and literary considerations are not mutually exclusive, so that a combination of literary and historical approaches is most often helpful in determining the meaning of a text. Here, it is probably the case that the historical fact of Jesus’ having been baptized by John34 initiated a tradition that came to Mark with some momentum. Yet Mark is skillful enough and autonomous enough as a composer not to be determined by the momentum of this tradition. He was not bound to begin with John; he was creative and free enough to have found another way. He wanted to begin with John. As John Alsup has pointed out, it is compositionally significant that “the inception of Jesus’ public ministry and the content of his preaching should be presented in such direct connection with the ministry and destiny of John the Baptist” (395). Mark seems to begin with John for the same reason that he prefaces the appearance of John on the stage by the offstage voice citing the promise of “Isaiah,” namely, he is concerned to fit the Jesus-story he is about to tell into the larger plan of redemptive history. By beginning in this way, the story of Jesus is seen to be not a fresh beginning, but a segment of a line that includes Isaiah and John.

Frank Kermode, on purely literary grounds, has argued that Mark as a whole is a narrative intercalated into a larger story, the story of the world from creation to consummation (133–34). The plotted narrative implies a narrative world that stretches from creation to consummation. The central segment of this narrative world is formed by the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The non-narrated period from creation to Jesus is comprised of Israel and the prophets; the non-narrated period from Jesus to the consummation, the period of the church, is comprised of the disciples who have become faithful witnesses. Mark’s narrative really makes no sense apart from this implied narrative world.

The relation of the story here told to the Old Testament story is thus absolutely fundamental. The narrative begins with an announcement from the Scripture. Then John appears ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ “in the wilderness,” and there can be no question of which is “the” wilderness Mark intends. “It is the wilderness of the exodus where Israel was for forty years before entering the land by crossing the Jordan” (Drury, 1973:31). Thus when Mark says that all Judea and all Jerusalem went out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan, this is not to be seen in historical terms and labelled an excusable “exaggeration.” John Drury again:

Mark is running the nation’s history backwards. Once they had all come out of the wilderness over the Jordan and settled in Judea and the city of Jerusalem. Now city and land stand empty as they go back to the threshold of their inheritance, the Jordan; and not just to it but into it, to be baptized, and to be baptized by the forerunner who is dressed as Elijah (2 Kings 1:8), and whose wildness and belonging to the world before culture are evident in his dress and his diet, which includes the wild honey eaten by the wild Samson (Judges 14:9). It is a vast backtracking. As we follow it as readers we are told what baptism is. There is no immediate need to consult historical encyclopaedias. The Bible is the place to look it up. It is Jordan baptism, a going through water to get the promise (1973:31).

This understanding of the plotted narrative of the story of Jesus as a segment intercalated in the larger story of God’s creation and redemption of the world is one of the fundamental aspects of what I mean by adapting Tannehill’s term “narrative Christology” for the Gospel of Mark. The introduction of Mark serves to “identify” Jesus, but Mark as a whole is not written to identify Jesus but to narrate the key christological segment of the story of God’s dealing with the world.

(2) Lightfoot’s statement that the fundamental question of Mark’s introduction is “who is Jesus?” thus needs to be modified in a second, more fundamental way. If Mark is indeed narrative Christology, the fundamental issue of Mark as a whole is not “who is Jesus?” but “who is God?” As Shubert Ogden has argued, this is always the “point of Christology.” The introduction of Mark serves to introduce Jesus only in the sense that as the Christ, Jesus’ identity is bound up with his role as agent of God. God is the hidden actor, the behind-the-scenes main character, throughout Mark, so Mark’s introduction serves also to introduce God as the main character, albeit in the hidden, indirect way appropriate to Christology. In sum: Mark’s introduction presents John and Jesus as “parallel,” yet subordinates John to Jesus in the mode of narration. This same mode of narration subordinates both John and Jesus to God, the hidden actor behind the whole story. It is only in this christological sense that the function of the introduction can be said to introduce Jesus as the “main character.”

5.2.    The Introduction Introduces the Main Themes

Like the overture of an opera, the introduction introduces the main themes that recur in the body of the narrative. There are five main themes which are all elements of the one primary christological theme as Mark understands Christology. All these occur in the introductory section 1:1–15:

(a).    the power of the Christ who is a manifestation of the power of God;

(b).    the story of the Christ as the key, climactic segment of history as the mighty acts of God;

(c).    the weakness of the Christ who is a representation of the weakness and victimization of humanity, and is thus the true power of God;

(d).    the secrecy of the Christ as Mark’s literary-theological means of holding divine power and human weakness together in one narrative and the result of Mark’s conviction that the Messiah cannot be truly known as Messiah until he is crucified and risen, i.e. raised by God;

(e).    the disciples of the Christ as the messianic people of God.

It is immediately obvious that the first two of these represent traditional Christology in accord with some streams of Jewish messianic expectation. These first two themes are represented prominently in the introduction. That is, Christology as traditionally understood is a point of contact and entrée into the introduction as it is into the Gospel as a whole. Jesus is introduced as the Christ as the mighty one who represents the power of God at the climactic segment of Heilsgeschichte. The elements in the introduction that fall under these headings are easily identified:

(a). The Power of Christ is the power of God.

The first picture one receives of Jesus in the plotted action of the narrative is from the announcement of John that the Mightier One is to come (1:7). John has no message independent of Jesus in Mark. His message is concentrated entirely on Jesus as the coming mighty one. Throughout the first part of the body of Mark’s narrative (1:16–8:22/10:52), Jesus is pictured as the mighty one who overcomes demons, Satan, hunger, natural evil, sickness, and the ultimate enemy, death. This theme is introduced in the introduction. One aspect of Jesus’ power—the only particular given by John—is that Jesus will baptize in the Holy Spirit. This picture receives an unexpected reversal in the next segment, but the initial picture is of the powerful Jesus who baptizes. Jesus as baptizer is Jesus as the Mighty One. When Jesus is called God’s Son, the first impression is that “Son of God” means “power.” By virtue of the way Mark has handled vv. 2–3, Jesus appears on the scene as divine Son. Jesus has already been addressed “offstage” by God, and identified as the κύριος, before he ever appears in the narrative. This means it says too little about Mark’s Christology to call him adoptionist, just as it says too much to say he has a doctrine of preexistence. Mark identifies Jesus in a way that transcends history without being any more explicit. In these opening lines Mark identifies Jesus as the mighty Son of God who baptizes in power.

(b). The Story of the Christ is the key, climactic segment of history as the mighty acts of God. Mark is not interested in the story of Jesus as the story of an individual man, Jesus. Mark’s interest in telling the Jesus-story is not to present the “essence of the individual”; thus “biography” is not the best term for what Mark does. The first word in the summary of Jesus’ message (πεπλήρωται, “is fulfilled,” v. 14) signals that there is a heilsgeschichtlich line of promise and fulfillment, of which the story of Jesus forms the fulfillment. This time was promised through the prophets, but its fulfillment begins in the time of Jesus. When Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God is at hand (but not yet fully present, in Mark’s understanding) he introduces a dominant theme of the body of the Gospel. One dimension of its meaning and function in Mark is to set Jesus into a heilsgeschichtlich framework. The same is true of the picture of Jesus being tested by Satan (1:12–13). In the apocalyptic view of history shared by Mark, just prior to the climactic Endtime comes the time of great testing by Satan. This theme of the Gospel is also introduced by the opening verses.

In contrast to the traditional christological themes dealt with by Mark in (a) and (b) above, other elements prominent in the introduction and in the body of the Gospel are not usually considered aspects of Christology. That is, they are not traditional elements of Christology as defined in the Jewish messianic expectation, but represent Mark’s redefinition of Christology in terms of Jesus.

(c). The Weakness of the Christ is the representation of the weakness and victimization of humanity, which is the true power of God. The “weakness” motif is ambiguously but really present. There is an allusion to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 in the voice from heaven (παραδοθῆναι, “arrested,” “handed over” [v. 14]; ἐν σοὶ εὐδόκησα, “with thee I am well pleased” [v. 11]). That Jesus is baptizee rather than baptizer is also an indication of his identification with humanity, his human weakness. Without explanation or apology, Jesus appears among those needy and repentant humans who are baptized by John. The baptism of Jesus is also an index of his weakness in that it signals his death. The baptism of Jesus in 1:9–11 is indexed to the other occasions where Jesus is called “Son of God,” which include not only the transfiguration (9:7) but the crucifixion (15:39). On both occasions there is tearing (the heavens σχιζομένους, “opened,” 1:10; the temple veil ἐσχίσθη, “was torn,” 15:38). The baptism of Jesus is indexed to that of his disciples in 10:39, cf. 14:36. In 10:38–40, the disciples are called to share Jesus’ baptism, i.e. to suffer and die as he will die/has died. This shows the cross/weakness motif and the discipleship motifs are woven into the introduction, though the reader doesn’t realize it yet.

(d). The secrecy of the Christ is Mark’s literary-theological means of holding divine power and human weakness together in one narrative and the result of Mark’s conviction that the Messiah cannot be truly known as Messiah until he is crucified and risen, i.e. raised by God. The secrecy motif, so prominent a literary feature of the Gospel, is already anticipated in the introduction by the motif of the voice heard only by the reader in 1:2–3 and 1:11, and by the hidden victory in the wilderness, 1:12–13 (see Keck 368).

(e). The disciples of the Christ are the Messianic People of God. “The Christ” is not an individualistic concept. It functions only within a heilsgeschichtlich framework and in relation to the people of God. “Christ” always implies the messianic community, the “people of God”; “Christology” always implies “ecclesiology.” That the Messiah would have a community was part of the traditional expectation of the Christ. But Mark transforms it. The people of God is not a community constituted on the basis of already belonging to a national or religious class. They must be called, must repent and believe, must decide and respond. In short, they must become disciples to become the messianic people, disciples of Jesus who is the Christ. This dimension of Mark’s Christology is an important element in the body of the Gospel. Is it also introduced in the introduction?

The introduction is bracketed with references to τὸ εὐαγγέλιον, “the Gospel.” The vocabulary data indicating this term is characteristic of Mark are well known: εὐαγγέλιον occurs seven times in Mark, only four times in Matthew (never absolutely, though always so in Mark except for the title), never in Q, M, L, or John. That this term is integral to Mark’s theology is also well-documented and can hardly be questioned. The dual point here is that (1) εὐαγγέλιον connotes church activity, disciple-activity, and (2) that Mark telegraphs the importance of this major theme in his Gospel as a whole by including it as a key element in the introduction.

‘Ὁδός appears sixteen times in Mark, variously translated in the RSV as “way,” “path,” “journey,” “road,” and “roadside.” It is unfortunate that this thematic word that serves as a thread through the Markan narrative is obscured in practically all English translations. In fourteen of the sixteen instances, the term is used in a theologically significant manner (2:23 and 8:3 being the only exceptions). That Jesus has a “way” is the first thing we learn about him (1:2). Jesus’ way ultimately leads to the cross—each of the passion predictions takes place ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ, “on the way,” (8:27–31; 9:31–33; 10:32–34). Thus when people decide to follow him, they move from being “beside” to “in” the way (Bartimaeus, 10:46, 52). In Mark’s understanding, the seed that bears no fruit because eaten by the birds is the seed that falls “beside” (παρά) the path, though in the pre-Markan tradition the phrase was properly understood as “along” the path.

When the way of Jesus is announced in the introduction, it is a way that includes the path of discipleship. And yet the meaning is not disclosed until later. Disciples do not learn what discipleship means in advance, but only along the way. The theme of discipleship is anticipated already in the introduction, but in an appropriately hidden way.

The introduction announces the themes of repentance and faith. Both John and Jesus call for repentance, and Jesus calls for faith in the good news of God that he announces. Repentance means a radical reorientation of thought and action, so that one no longer thinks “the things of men” but “the things of God” (Rhoads and Michie: 44 and passim). Those who repent and believe do not become simply changed individuals, but constitute a new messianic community. Although the community of disciples is not mentioned in the introduction, its way is already being prepared.

5.3.    The Introduction Focalizes the Following Narrative

“A narrative makes a reader a spectator, an onlooker, of what is transpiring on the narrative stage” (Funk, 1988: 101). Out of the un focused chaos of experience and/or tradition, the narrator brings some things into focus on the stage of the reader’s imagination, and thereby creates not only a narrative but a world. In order to compose a narrative at all, an author must therefore locate a finite number of characters in space and time. In every narrative, an infinite potential is actualized in a finite account of a finite reality. From an infinite number of possibilities, a few must be brought into focus in order to begin any particular narrative. This is what I mean by “focalization,” adopting the usage of Robert Funk. Funk’s illustration is apropos: “Once upon a time, a troll lived under a bridge.…”

“In accord with the prophecy of Isaiah, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” With these words, and the scenes that follow, Mark has brought the narrative into focus. The characters are John, the people, and Jesus, and then Satan, angels, and the off-stage voice reminding the reader that God is the Hidden Actor. The place is the wilderness. But where is the narrative focalized in time? Here we have neither the never-never land of the fairy tale’s “Once upon a time …” nor Luke’s definite “In the days of Herod the king …” (Luke 1:5), not to speak of the precision of his six-fold identification of the fifteenth year of Tiberius (Luke 3:1). The Markan narrative is located in time, but temporal references to ordinary historical chronology are at an absolute minimum.

In this respect the introduction corresponds to the body of the narrative. In the introduction, the only specific temporal datum is the forty days of testing by Satan in 1:13. Otherwise, everything happens in the vague “in those days” of 1:9—not the same as “once upon a time.” Events are connected with εὐθύς, a neutral linking connection better translated “then” or “next” than “immediately.” One cannot determine how long John’s ministry lasted, or how long he had been preaching when Jesus appeared on the scene, or how long he continued to preach after Jesus’ baptism. (I am referring, of course, to the story world mediated by Mark’s narrative, not to historical issues of the chronology of John’s and Jesus’ ministries.) The reader cannot determine the calendar year in which the story takes place. The narrative is located in terms of the story time of God’s saving acts, rather than in terms of secular history. The first character to appear on the stage of Mark’s narrative is located with reference to Isaiah’s
prophecy rather than Caesar’s reign. The other characters and events of the introduction likewise locate the story in sacred time, the promised eschatological time when the Spirit would return, the voice of God would again be heard from heaven, Satan would make his last effort at thwarting God’s saving act, and the Messiah would appear.

5.4.    The Introduction Relates the Time of the Gospel to that of the Readers

Not only is the Markan narrative an intercalated segment into the history of God’s mighty acts from creation to eschaton, “we ourselves are intercalated into the story” (Kermode: 127). Normally, an introduction will not only focalize the narrative in relation to some point of time thought of absolutely, but will allow the reader to relate the time of the narrative to his or her own temporal world. “Once upon a time …” immediately divorces the narrative from my time, and I know that, whatever significance the narrative may have for my life, it is not the case that something happened in the world of the story-time that directly impinges on my own life. On the other hand, “In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar” locates the story in the same secular world in which I live, and I may look back on these events to see what lines of connection there may be between the world of the story and the world in which I live my life. Mark does neither of these. But his introduction does relate narrated time to the time of the reader, whenever that may be.

We may now bring this essay to a conclusion by jumping to the conclusion of Mark’s narrative. The counterpart to the focalizing function of the introduction is the defocalizing function of the conclusion. Speaking generally, as the introduction focuses a narrative and initiates its action, the conclusion brings the movement of the narrative to a satisfactory rest by diffusing the particularities of the narrative back into the infinite world of story time and place. Corresponding to “once upon a time” is “and they live happily ever after”; corresponding to the focalizing picture of the lone cowboy riding into town is the defocalizing picture of the same figure riding off into the sunset.

Mark has a conclusion of sorts. The main character is killed, his promise of resurrection is confirmed—for the reader, not for the other characters in the story—by the discovery of the empty tomb. The note of fear and awe, typical of conclusions, is sounded. And yet, as everyone knows, Mark ends his narrative with such impossible abruptness—in mid-sentence, no less—that a variety of more “satisfactory” conclusions was generated. Ἐφοβοῦντο γὰρ is no proper conclusion. This is not because Mark does not know how to end a narrative. In 1:38–39, for example, he shows considerable literary skill in ending the first extensive narrative sequence in the Gospel by including several strong defocalizers. Mark intentionally ends with ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ, “for they were afraid,” in order to bring the story into the reader’s present. The reader must decide how the story will continue, and whether it will continue in his or her own life. Mark’s style of conclusion is contemporizing, relating the time of the story to the readers’ own time.

The same is true of the introduction, but it becomes apparent only in retrospect. Mark’s introduction is a contemporizing introduction. The prophecy of Isaiah, beginning to be fulfilled at the beginning of Mark’s narrative, provides the heilsgeschichtlich framework which embraces not only the characters in Mark’s narrative, but the lives of Mark’s readers as well. The ὁδός κυρίου, “way of the Lord,” announced there turns out to be a path the reader is also called to follow. The baptism to which Jesus is subject turns out to be a baptism that includes the readers as well. Not only Jesus, Satan, angels, and wild animals are with Jesus during the time of testing in the wilderness—Mark’s narrative style allows the reader to be there too. And when Mark’s introduction climaxes with Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God and his call for repentance and faith, not only the Galileans in the story are addressed, but the reader in his or her own time is addressed as well.

For Mark, the saving event happened not in a narrative, but in history. Yet in Mark’s skillfully constructed narrative, the walls between Jesus’ time, Mark’s time, and the reader’s time grow thin, and the readers are challenged to find themselves included in the same world as Jesus and his message, the narrative world created by Mark’s Gospel.

Works Consulted

Alsup, John

1979    “Mark 1:14–15.” Interpretation 33:394–98.

Arnold, G.

1977    “Mk 1,1 und Eröffnungswendungen in griechischen und lateinischen Schriften.” ZNW 68:123–27.

Baarlink, Heinrich

1977    Anfängliches Evangelium: Ein Beitrag zur näheren Bestimmung der theologischen Motive im Markusevangelium. Kampen: Kok.

Barr, David L.

1987    New Testament Story: An Introduction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Bauer, Walter

1979    A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bilezikian, Gilbert G.

1977    The Liberated Gospel: A Comparison of the Gospel of Mark and Greek Tragedy. Grand Rapids: Baker House Books.

Boring, M. Eugene.

1982    Sayings of the Risen Jesus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

1984    “The Christology of Mark: Hermeneutical Issues for Systematic Theology.” Semeia 30:125–44.

1987    “The Kingdom of God in Mark.” Pp. 131–46 in The Kingdom of God in Twentieth-Century Interpretation. Ed. Wendell Willis. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Bratcher, Robert G. and Eugene A. Nida

1961    A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Mark. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1961.

Bultmann, Rudolf

1951    Theology of the New Testament 1. New York: Scribners.

Collins, Adela Yarbro

1984    Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Craddock, Fred B.

1988    “The Gospels as Literature.” Encounter 49:19–35.

Davies, W. D. and Dale C. Allison, Jr.

1988    A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Vol. 1. ICC. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Deissmann, Gustav

1901    Bible Studies. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Donahue, John

1988    “Mark.” Pp. 983–1009 in Harper’s Bible Commentary. Ed. James L. Mays. New York: Harper & Row.

Dormeyer, Detlev

1987    “Die Kompositionsmetapher ‘Evangelium Jesu Christi, des Sohnes Gottes’ Mk 1.1 Ihre Theologische und Literarische Aufgabe in der Jesus-Biographie des Markus.” NTS 33:452–68.

Dormeyer, Detlev and Hubert Frankemölle

1984    “Evangelium als literarische Gattung und als theologischer Begriff. Tendenzen und Aufgaben der Evangelienforschung im 20. Jahrhundert, mit einer Untersuchung des Markusevangeliusm in seinem Verhältnis zur antiken Biographie.” ANRW II.25.2: 1543–1704.

Drury, John

1973    “Mark 1:1–15: An Interpretation.” Pp. 25–36 in Alternative Approaches to New Testament Study. Ed. A. E. Harvey. London: SPCK.

1987    “Mark.” Pp. 402–17 in The Literary Guide to the Bible. Ed. Robert Alter and Frank Kermode. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press.

Enslin, Morton Scott

1938    Christian Beginnings. New York: Harper & Row.

Feneberg, Wolfgang

1974    Der Markusprolog: Studien zur Formbestimmung des Evangeliums. SANT 36. Munich: Kösel Verlag.

Feuillet, A.

1978    “Le ‘Commencement’ de L’Économie Chrétienne d’après He II.3–4; Mc I.1, et Ac I.1–2.” NTS 24:163–72.

Funk, Robert W.

1985    New Gospel Parallels, Volume One: The Synoptic Gospels. Philadelphia: Fortress.

1988    The Poetics of Biblical Narrative. Sonoma: Polebridge.

Genette, Gérard

1980    Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Gibbs, J. M.

1973    “Mark 1,1–15, Matthew 1,1–4,16, Luke 1,1–4,30, John 1,1–51: The Gospel Prologues and their Function.” Pp. 154–88 in Studia Evangelica VI. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Gnilka, Joachim

1978    Das Evangelium nach Markus. EKK 2/1. Neukirchen-Vluyn; Neukirchener Verlag.

Gould, Ezra P.

1896    The Gospel according to Saint Mark. ICC. Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark.

Grant, F. C.

1951    “Introduction and Exegesis of Mark.” Pp. 629–917 in The Interpreter’s Bible 7. Ed. George A. Buttrick. Nashville: Abingdon.

Grundmann, Walter

1977    Das Evangelium nach Markus. THNT 2. Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt.

Guelich, Robert

1982    “The Beginning of the Gospel: Mark 1:1–15,” Papers of the Chicago Society of Biblical Research 27:5–15.

1989    Mark 1:1–8:26. WBC 34A. Waco: Word Books.

Huck, Albert and Heinrich Greeven

1981    Synopsis of the First Three Gospels. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck).

Kähler, Martin

1896    Der sogenannte historische Jesus und der geschichtliche biblische Christus. Leipzig. English edition, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ. Trans. Carl E. Braaten. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964.

Käsemann, Ernst

1969    The Beginnings of Christian Theology.” Pp. 82–107 in New Testament Questions of Today. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Keck, Leander

1966    “The Introduction to Mark’s Gospel.” NTS 12:352–70.

Keifert, Patrick R

1980–81    “Mind Reader and Maestro: Models for Understanding Biblical Interpreters.” Word and World 1:153–68.

Kermode, Frank

1979    The Genesis of Secrecy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kingsbury, Jack D.

1983    The Christology of Mark’s Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Lagrange, M. -J.

1942    Évangile selon Saint Marc. Paris: Gabalda.

Liddell, Henry George and Robert Scott

1953    A Greek-English Lexicon. A New Edition revised by Henry Stuart Jones and Roderick McKenzie. Oxford: Clarendon.

Lightfoot, R. H.

1950    The Gospel Message of St. Mark. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lohmeyer, Ernst

1936    Galiläa und Jerusalem. FRLANT 34.

1963    Das Evangelium nach Markus. KEK 216. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.

Lührmann, Dieter

1987    Das Markusevangelium. HNT. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr.

Luz, Ulrich

1985    Das Evangelium nach Matthäus. EKK 1/1. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag.

Mack, Burton L.

1988    A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins. Philadelphia: Fortress.

McKnight, Edgar V.

1988    Post-Modern Use of the Bible: The Emergence of Reader-Oriented Criticism. Nashville: Abingdon.

Mally, Edward J.

1968    “The Gospel according to Mark.” Pp. 21–61 in vol. 2 of The Jerome Biblical Commentary. Ed. R. Brown, J. Fitzmyer, and R. Murphy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Mann, C. S.

1986    Mark. AB 27. New York: Doubleday.

Mansfield, M. Robert

1987    Spirit and Gospel in Mark. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Marcus, Joel

Forthcoming    The Way of the Lord.

Marxsen, Willi

1959    Der Evangelist Markus. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Matera, Frank J.

1988    “The Prologue as the Interpretative Key to Mark’s Gospel.” JSNT 34: 3–20.

Mauser, Ulrich W.

1963    Christ in the Wilderness. SBT 39. Naperville: Allenson.

Moessner, David

1988    “And Once Again, What Sort of ‘Essence’? A Response to Charles Talbert.” Semeia 43:75–84.

Ogden, Shubert

1982    The Point of Christology. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Perrin, Norman

1971    “Towards an Interpretation of the Gospel of Mark.” Pp. 1–78 in Christology and a Modern Pilgrimage: A Discussion with
Norman Perrin. Ed. Hans Dieter Betz. Claremont: New Testament Colloquium.

1974    A Modern Pilgrimage in New Testament Christology. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Pesch, Rudolf

1970    “Anfang des Evangeliums Jesu Christi: Eine Studie zum Prolog des Markusevangeliums (Mk 1,1–15).” Pp. 108–144 in Die Zeit Jesu: Festschrift für Heinrich Schlier. Ed. G. Bornkamm and K. Rahner. Frieburg: Herder.

1984    Das Markusevangelium, I. Teil. Kommentar zu Kap. 1:1–8:26. HTK 2.3. Freiburg: Herder.

Petersen, Norman R.

1978    Literary Criticism for New Testament Critics. Philadelphia: Fortress.

1985    Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul’s Narrative World. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Pherigo, Lindsey P.

1971    “The Gospel according to Mark.” Pp. 644–71 in The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible. Ed. Charles M. Laymon. Nashville: Abingdon.

Pokorny, Petr

1977    “Anfang des Evangeliums: Zum Problem des Anfangs und des Schlusses des Markusevangeliums.” Pp. 115–131 in Die Kirche des Anfangs. Ed. R. Schnackenburg and T. Wanke. Leipzig: St. Benno-Verlag.

Rau, Gottfried

1985    “Das Markusevangelium. Komposition und Intention der eresten Darstellung christlicher Mission.” ANRW II.25.3: 2037–2240.

Rawlinson, A. E. J.

1949    The Gospel according to St. Mark. Westminster Commentaries. London: Methuen.

Reiser, Marius

1984    Syntax und Stil des Markusevangeliums. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck).

Rhoads, David, and Michie, Donald

1982    Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Ricoeur, Paul

1980    Essays on Biblical Interpretation. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith

1983    Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. New Accents. London and New York: Methuen.

Robbins, Vernon K.

1969    The Christology of Mark. Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago.

1982    “Mark 1:14–20: An Interpretation at the Intersection of Jewish and Graeco-Roman Traditions.” NTS 28:220–36.

Robinson, James M.

1982    The Problem of History in Mark and Other Markan Studies. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Schmidt, Josef

1958    Das Evangelium nach Markus. Regensberg: F. Pustet.

Schmidt, Karl Ludwig

1919    Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu: Literarkritische Untersuchungen zur ältesten Jesusüberlieferung. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Schmithals, Walter

1979    Das Evangelium nach Markus, Kapitel 1–9,1. OTK 2/1. Gerd Mohn: Gütersloher Verlagshaus.

Schweitzer, Albert

1906    The Quest of the Historical Jesus. New York: Macmillan.

Seitz, Oscar J. F.

1964    “Gospel Prologues: A Common Pattern?” JBL 83:262–68.

Strecker, Georg

1979    “Literarkritische Überlegungen zum εὐαγγέλιον-Begriff im Markusevangelium.” Pp. 76–89 in Eschaton und Historie. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Talbert, Charles

1988    “Once Again: Gospel Genre.” Semeia 43:53–73.

Tannehill, Robert C.

1980    “The Gospel of Mark as Narrative Christology.” Semeia 16: 57–96.

Taylor, Vincent

1959    The Gospel according to St. Mark. New York: Macmillan.

Tolbert, Mary Ann

1989    Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Turner, C. H.

1926    “Text of Mark 1.” JTS 28:145–58.

Weder, Hans

1986    Neutestamentliche Hermeneutik. Zürcher Grundrisse zurBibel. Zürich: Theologischer Verlag.

Wellhausen, Julius

1903    Das Evangelium Marci. Berlin: Georg Reimer.

Wilson, Robert McL.

1962    “Mark.” Pp. 799–819 in Peake’s Commentary on the Bible. Ed. Matthew Black. London: Nelson.

Winer, G. B.

1882    A Treatise on the Grammar of New Testament Greek. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Wolff, H. W.

1974    Hosea. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Zwick, Reinhold

1989    Montage im Markusevangelium: Studien zur narrativen Organisation der ältesten Jesuserzählung. SBB 18. Stuttgart: Verlag Katholisches Bibelwerk GmbH.

The Birth of the Reader

Bernard Brandon Scott

Phillips Graduate Seminary

At the University of Tulsa

This essay is reprinted with the permission of the publisher from Faith and History: Essays in Honor of Paul W. Meyer, edited by John T. Carroll, Charles H. Cosgrove, and E. Elizabeth Johnson (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990) 35–54.


The narratives of the first section of Matthew’s Gospel provide the reader with an ideological orientation to the rest of the Gospel. These expose the fundamental values of the text, the way in which it organizes its narrative world. This ideological structure is analyzed by means of a close analysis of the surface structure, a reader-response criticism, and a testing of the ideological structure as a way of explaining other elements of Matthew’s Gospel.

0. Introduction

Raymond Brown once remarked that “If the first two chapters had been lost and the Matthean Gospel came down to us beginning with 3:1, no one would have ever suspected the existence of the missing chapters” (49). This may be so, but I contend that the loss of the first two chapters should effect the way we read the text and, even more, that the non-use of these two chapters in determining how to read has led to a misreading. Redaction criticism, the recent apex of Matthean studies, has abetted the ignoring of the first two chapters and has left a problematic residue because it determined the parameters for the study of Matthew by comparison with Mark. This comparative reading subtly has defined the point of view from which we have read Matthew. I would suggest that we set these parameters aside, since they establish the significance of Matthew by its relation to and difference from Mark.

Of the five Gospels from the first century, all begin in very different ways. There is no obvious ἀρχή, despite Mark’s attempt to create one. Even the two Gospels that have narratives of Jesus’s birth begin in distinctive fashions. Matthew begins with a genealogy while Luke, following a formal introduction, begins with the foretelling of John the Baptist’s birth

The five different beginnings suggest that the way in which a Gospel begins provides clues as to how the story is to be viewed. The initial narrative unit provides the story’s first instance of point of view. Genette uses the term focalization for this process by which the narrative shapes the perspective from which it will be viewed (189–194). The value of this term over the more common “point of view” or “perspective” is that it is more abstract and less visually dominated (Rimmon-Kenan: 71–2). The focalizing agent is the narrator, who in Matthew’s Gospel is an external and omniscient focalizer. The focalizer is an agent whose perception orientates the presentation, and the object of the focalization is what the narrator focuses for the narratee. A primary aspect of focalization is the ideological plane. These are the “norms of the text” supported by the narrator. It is “a general system of viewing the world conceptually” (Uspensky: 81). The ideological level represents the values or norms by which the narrator judges and orientates the narration. Insofar as that ideology is transmitted to the narratee-implied reader, it should be observable in the introduction to the narrative. To test this I propose a reading of the narrative at the ideological level and to confirm that reading an inquiry as to whether such a reading opens up other aspects of the Matthean narrative.

1. Extent of Beginning

Unit 1 of Matthew extends through 4:16 (Kingsbury: 7–17). This initial unit has three sections, each with its own principles of internal organization. Further each section has two sub-sections. Section 1 (chapter 1) consists of a genealogy and the birth of Jesus from the point of view of the character Joseph. Section 2 (chapter 2) consists of events after Jesus’s birth. The primary story is that of Herod, with Joseph’s narrative interwoven into the narrative. The final section (Chapter 3:1–4:16) is the story of John and Jesus. The theme of Unit 1 is ΓΈΝΕΣΙς, origins. ΓΈΝΕΣΙς is used in the broad sense that the name of a person determines meaning. A genealogy is a list of names by which the ascribed honor of the lineage is bestowed upon the descendent whose genealogy it is, and the name given at birth portends a future fate. Every section of Unit 1 is concerned with proper names, those of the genealogy, the birth names of Jesus, the designation of him as Son of God and Nazarene.

2. Γένεσις I

Section 1 has two sub-sections, the first of which is a genealogy (γένεσις). The sub-section has a title which, although not technically a title for the whole book, does create a sense of beginning for the whole Gospel. The phrase βίβλιος γενέσεως is the same phrase that begins the genealogy in Genesis 5:1, a genealogy from Adam to Noah. The use of γένεσις ties the genealogy to the story of Jesus’ birth 1:18 (γένεσις) and the occurrence of the same word in 1:1 and 1:18 indicates that these two narratives are closely related and explicate the same theme of origin (Stendahl: 60–1).

The title in 1:1 also evinces the genealogy’s initial organization. “Son of David, Son of Abraham” structures in a chiasma the first two movements of the genealogy. With these two figures the narrator orientates the implied reader to a very focused reading of Hebrew history. In comparison with the genealogy in Genesis 5, this genealogy begins with Abraham and not Adam. “Son of David, son of Abraham” not only marks the first two movements of the genealogy but also defines the focalization. David is given prominence by being placed first in the title and even greater prominence will emerge later in the narrative. Similarly by singling out Abraham, the narrator also gives him a prominence that subtly announces a theme that climaxes at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Abraham is the father not only of Israel but also of the gentiles in the figure of his first son (Gen 17:5). The final command of the Gospel orders the community to turn its attention to the gentiles, the nations (Matt 28:19, see LXX Gen 22:18.). For a largely Jewish community that has been expelled from the synagogue this use of Abraham offers a bridge between the church as true Israel and the nations (Trilling).

The genealogy is extremely stylized and maintains a repetitive rhythm in comparison with other genealogies. The constant repetition makes the phrases sound the same. This stylized, repetitive character means that a reader/hearer tends to slide or skip through it. Put another way, variances in the stylized rhythm will grab a reader/hearer’s attention.

Two features break the stylized rhythm. First are the four women. Three are mentioned in the genealogy’s first movement, while the fourth occurs at the beginning of the second movement.10

Tamar is the mother of the twins Perez and Zerah. Two elements in this reference break the stylized form. Not only is the mention of the mother unusual, but so also is that of the twins. The twins are an important note, since the genealogy only picks up on Perez and the mention of twins is superfluous. By mentioning the twins, the narrator focuses upon a particular part of the Tamar story. Tamar was the wife of Judah’s first born son, Er, but he was evil and the Lord killed him (Gen 38:7). Judah then sent his second son Onan to Tamar to fulfill the Levirate law which obligates the brother-in-law to father a male heir for the deceased brother (cf. Deut 25:5–10). Onan did not wish to do this so he spilled his seed on the ground. As a result, the Lord likewise killed him. Judah then refused to send his youngest son Shelah to Tamar and instead sent her back to her father’s house until the boy should grow up. When Tamar realized that Judah had no intention to ever send Shelah to her, she dressed up as a temple prostitute. When Judah approached her, she bargained for a kid in payment for services rendered. Tamar took as a pledge for payment Judah’s signet and staff. When he subsequently discovered that Tamar was pregnant, he demanded that she be burnt as punishment but she sent him his own signet and staff to prove who had shamed her. Judah concluded: “She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah” (Gen 38:26). The Genesis narrative does not judge Tamar as guilty but as righteous even though what she had done was unrighteous. Although the impregnation was a transgression according to the Law, Perez the firstborn of the twins became an ancestor of David.

The second woman in the genealogy is Rahab, a prostitute in Jericho. When Israel was preparing to invade Jericho, two spies were sent into the city and Rahab hid them. In return they promised that when Israel attacked the city, she and her family would be protected (Josh 2:14). When Joshua prepared to attack the city he told the two spies to go into the city and bring Rahab and her family out. The story concludes, “But Rahab the harlot, and her father’s household, and all who belonged to her, Joshua saved alive; and she dwelt in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho” (Jos 6:25). There is no mention in the Hebrew Bible of Rahab’s marriage nor in the Rabbinic Tradition is there any evidence of her standing in David’s lineage (Johnson: 162). To put her in the lineage creates problems. Although she is both a prostitute, i.e. unclean, and a gentile, because she hid the spies, she has a permanent place in Israel.

Ruth the Moabite, the third woman in the genealogy, is not someone whose virtue can in any way be doubted for she is described as a woman of worth (Ruth 3:11.). Following the death of her husband, an Israelite, Ruth returned with her mother-in-law Naomi to Bethlehem rather than to her own father’s home. Since Naomi is both a widow and childless she was unable to provide Ruth with a husband to produce offspring. At Bethlehem Boaz claims Ruth from her next of kin and marries her. In his final blessing upon Ruth, Boaz compares her to Rachel and Leah and prays that “your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah” (Ruth 4:12). The mention of Rachel is significant in light of the role she will play in Unit 1’s second section where upon Herod’s slaughter of the innocents she weeps for her children. The reference to Tamar clearly binds her fate and that of Ruth. Both were gentiles and had to have a husband provided for them, although the joining of Ruth and Boaz is irreproachable, unlike that of Tamar and Judah. But Ruth the Moabite the ancestress of David flies in the face of the post-exilic demands for pure marriages. Finally the Book of Ruth closes with a short genealogy which the author of Matthew has obviously employed (Ruth 4:18–22).

The final woman is not introduced directly but rather is referred to as ἐκ τῆς τοῦ Οὐρίου (“The wife of Uriah”). By invoking the name of her husband, the narrator clearly focuses on a particular aspect of Bathsheba’s story. Uriah was a Hittite who fought in David’s army. While a campaign was underway, David seduced his wife and she became pregnant. He tried unsuccessfully to entice Uriah to have relations with his wife so that Uriah would claim the child as his own. But failing this, David instructed the commander of his army to place Uriah in the forefront of the fighting where he would be killed. After his death, David took Bathsheba as his wife and she bore a son. “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord” (2 Sam 11:27). Following Nathan’s rebuke, the child died (2 Sam 12:15) and she bore another son, Solomon. “And The Lord loved him” (2 Sam 12:24). Through a word of the prophet Nathan he was called Jedidiah, beloved of the Lord. In Bathsheba’s story, the activity of David is clearly judged as unrighteous, but in the end the union between David and Bathsheba is blessed by the Lord with the birth of Solomon.

What do these women have in common? The narrator simply mentions each woman without comment, but surely this is not merely random or fortuitous. Other women without the problems associated with these four could have been picked—for example the four ancestral mothers mentioned several times in Rabbinic literature, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah.19 Two of the four women are clearly gentiles, and the other two (Tamar and Bathsheba) are probably gentiles. Secondly, the women are all tied to David. Ruth is his grandmother and dwells in his hometown of Bethlehem. Tamar is compared to Ruth in the Book of Ruth and mentioned in the genealogy that concludes the book. Although Rahab is not in David’s lineage in the Hebrew Bible, the narrator of Matthew makes her the mother of Boaz, his grandfather. Finally Bathsheba is directly tied to David as his wife and the mother of Solomon. Both of these elements, gentile and David, are part of the reason the narrator focuses on these women. The title of the genealogy makes this clear. “Son of Abraham” corresponds to the gentile aspect and “Son of David,” of course, corresponds to the Davidic connection.

There is an even more important aspect that the women have in common. In a patriarchal society lineage is traced through the male, as with this genealogy, and the function of a genealogy is to illustrate the honor to be ascribed to the final descendent (Malina: 29). Insofar as Jesus stands in the lineage of David and Abraham, he has a great deal of ascribed honor. But all four women from the point of view of a shame-honor system are tainted sexually—Tamar through prostitution with Judah, Rahab because she was a prostitute, Ruth because she was foreigner, Bathsheba because David seduced her and killed her husband. Yet despite this shame, these women all have the honor ascribed to them by the Lord. Even though on the surface they have shame, they have honor.

The final woman mentioned in the genealogy is Mary. Her insertion into the genealogy claims attention. Joseph is the next to last male in the lineage but he is the only male in the genealogy who does not father (ἐγέννησεν) offspring. He is “the husband of Mary out of whom Jesus who is called the Anointed was born” (Matt 1:16). The stylized formula’s breakdown when applied to Joseph and Mary forewarns the implied reader that something is amiss with them. Further Mary’s inclusion in the list of women sets up a pattern of anticipation that there is something shameful but ultimately honorable about the birth. This is reinforced by the fact that she is not a gentile. So the aspect common to the women on which the narrator must be focusing is that of sexual taint.

Two other aspects about the genealogy’s narration need comment. Unlike the first two movements of the genealogy, the third does not begin with a person’s name, but an event, the return from the Babylonian exile. This use of an event and geographical reference to introduce the third movement breaks the genealogy’s formalistic and stylized character. As such it calls attention to itself, but the genealogy offers no clues as to its significance and so it is a gap that the implied reader will fill in later. It breaks the consistency of the genealogy and demands explanation.

The other aspect of the genealogy that requires comment also occurs in the third section. In the summary of the genealogy (1:17), the narrator reports that there are fourteen generations in each of the three movements, but there are only thirteen in the final one. Various ingenious explanations have been offered to explain why the author apparently cannot count.23 But at the level of narration, the missing number is only significant because it calls attention to a section whose beginning and end are odd—it begins with the return from the Babylonian exile and ends with Mary, again calling attention to Mary and her child’s place in her husband’s genealogy.

The narrator focuses the story by what is selected for narration, but how to form that into a gestalt that makes sense is the role of the implied reader. The narrator requires the implied reader to recall specific elements of the women’s story to complete the focalization by the elements selected for narration.

3. Γένεσις II: The Birth

The second sub-section of Section 1 has a title that resonates with the title of the first sub-section. Both are γένεσις. Even more the titles of the two sub-sections form a chiasm.

βίβλιος γενέσεως / / Ἰησοῦ Ξριστοῦ

Ἰησοῦ Ξριστοῦ / / ἡ γένεσις

the book of origin / / of Jesus the Anointed

of Jesus the Anointed / / the origin

In both cases γένεσις means origin, but in the elaborated sense of genealogy in the first case and birth in the latter. This chiasmic relating of the title for both sub-sections indicates that they are closely tied together.

The title of the second sub-section inaugurates as the goal of this narrative the origin/birth of Jesus the Anointed. Thus Jesus’ story is the main story line. But immediately the narrator introduces an intersecting story line, that of his mother Mary. This is the narrative line the genealogy leads one to expect since it ends with Mary. When Mary had been engaged to Joseph but before they had come together, “she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit” (1:18). This complicated sentence shifts narrative time from the main story of Jesus’ birth to the events prior to his birth and changes the subject of the narrative from Jesus to Mary. Thus narration and focalization shift from the main story, Jesus’s story, to a sub-narrative, Mary’s story.

The narrator also furnishes the implied reader with two elements that disturb the narration. First, the child is by the Holy Spirit, i.e. of divine origin. The narration is uninterested in the mechanics of the divine origin, only in the statement of it. Secondly, “she was found to be pregnant.” The use of the passive voice indicates the public character of her situation; there are other unnamed actors witnessing this drama. Thus the implied reader knows that Mary is both potentially publicly shamed and yet divinely honored. These two disturbing details are a technique for focalizing the textual ideology. This disturbance is often overlooked by contemporary real readers who approach the text with the pre-determined dogmatic ideology of the virgin birth so that these two items are no longer disturbing.

As soon as this second narrative is launched the narrator once again shifts narrative perspective and introduces Joseph’s story as a third narrative, a sub-sub-narrative. The potentially shameful aspect of Jesus’s birth is the threat to this narrative completion. The narrative’s tension is driven initially by the distance between Joseph’s knowledge and that of the reader since he does not know that the child is of the Holy Spirit.

The narrator states Joseph’s dilemma—he is righteous and does not wish to shame Mary. The mentioning of shame in this context indicates that the story draws upon the shame/honor repertoire.26 Mary has already shamed herself since “she was found” to be pregnant. Joseph does not wish to add to her shame by a public denunciation. The narrator also notes that Joseph is righteous. One need not be precise at this point about the meaning of righteous, but simply indicate that δίκαιος represents the Hebrew צָדִיק. In the narrator’s symbolic world it is the highest virtue. Joseph’s righteousness and his not wishing to shame Mary create for him a dilemma. Because he is righteous he cannot ignore what has happened, but also because he is righteous he does not want to shame her any more than has already happened. His solution to this dilemma is to put her away quietly,28 rather than to publicly proclaim her as shameful.

The narrator has already revealed that God is involved in Mary’s story of Jesus’ birth. Now an angel in a dream provides Joseph with the same information that the narrator has previously provided. This cements the narrator and the text’s ultimate ideological authority, God. The angel goes even further. Joseph is to claim Mary as his wife and to name the child. The angel’s command fills in one of many gaps created by the genealogy. Why was it Joseph’s genealogy when the genealogy explicitly omits any notice of his fathering the child? The answer is now clear; he is to adopt the child as his own and so Jesus is an adopted Son of David. This creates an irony between narrated knowledge and public knowledge. Only the narrator, the implied reader and Joseph30 know that Jesus is adopted. From the public perspective, Joseph is the real father. This disjunction between narrated reality and the public perception has gone unnoticed in the understanding of this text, yet it forms an important aspect of the narrator’s ideological focalization. From the narrated perspective, Joseph remains righteous, but from the public perspective he must forfeit his righteousness because by claiming Mary as his wife and naming the child he is implicitly admitting that they “came together” before they were married. Thus in order to maintain his narrated ascribed righteousness he will be publicly shamed. Mary’s case is like that of the women mentioned in the genealogy. The birth may be divinely sanctioned, but there is about it, like those other women, an element of shame. Brown (49) notices that the christology of the birth narrative does not function in the rest of the gospel. But now we can see why this is the case. The honor of Jesus (and Mary and Joseph) is privately ascribed, not publicly ascribed. It is not something known by others.

Joseph too is drawn into this pattern of narrated honor and public shame. In the five examples the narrator provides, the public shame involves a violation of the Law. The focalization employs an ideology in which true righteousness opposes the expected Law. For Joseph to maintain his true righteousness he must suffer public shame (forfeit his public righteousness) because he must admit he violated the Law. This perspectival model is built upon the paradox that true righteousness is contrary to the expectations of the Law. For the narrator-focalizer public shame implies narrated honor and contrariwise public honor implies true shame. But there is implied a counter-focalization. For the counter-focalizer the narrator’s righteousness is shame because it is a violation of the Law. This same pattern is true of the women in the genealogy.

It might be objected that this model of ideological focalization cannot make any sense of other aspects of Matthew’s Gospel. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount in a statement the narrator obviously agrees with, Jesus says that he has not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them (5:17). If this is true, how can righteousness be the contrary of Law? Yet the pericope’s final line warns: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). The Pharisees, as those who sit on Moses’ seat (Matt 23:2), obviously know the Law and possess public honor. Yet it does not in their case lead to righteousness because they do not produce fruits of righteousness. The narrator and Jesus’s favorite epithet for them, hypocrite, phony, represents in miniature the ideological phalanx drawn against them. They know the Law, they are publicly clean, but inside they are unclean (23:24–28). True righteousness, must go beyond the Law into what is apparent lawlessness in order to be righteous.

The mixed community motif so prominent in Matthew belongs to the same ideology. In the parable of the Wheat and Tares, the master forbids the uprooting of the weeds because in so doing “you root up the wheat along with them” (13:29). Because the ideology is dynamic, perspectival, and built upon a paradox, the wheat and tares are indistinguishable without the judge’s insight. Therefore the community should not risk judgment (13:41). Since from the perspective of counter-focalizer (i.e. normally) righteousness and Law imply each other, by paradoxically correlating them as contraries the narrator makes judgment impossible.

Similarly in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaims “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (7:21). The same paradoxical perspective is at work, only its effects are even more radical. Those who make the Christian confession, prophesy, and cast out demons are denied, even though they are obviously righteous. There is more to doing the will of the Father. Unfortunately, Jesus does not state why these “believers” are rejected. But the vivid scene of the Last Judgment goes to the heart of the matter. The king tells those included in the kingdom that “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink.…” (25:35). They ask when did they do these things, and he replies, “Whatever you did for one of these most insignificant ones, my brothers, you did it for me” (25:40). Those who were hungry, thirsty, a foreigner, naked, sick, and prisoners are those who have shame and are unclean. The identification of Jesus as king-judge with the insignificant, the least, as his brothers completes the paradigm of the shameful.

Joseph is the first fully sketched model of doing the will of the Father: narrated righteousness, true or hidden righteousness involves public shame or uncleanliness. By the end of the first section, the basic ideological focalization is in place, yet it will be greatly elaborated and complicated as the narrative progresses. Several elements of that complexity are yet to emerge in the Gospel’s first unit.

The conclusion of the Joseph story deals with the naming of the child. The angel announces that the child is to be named Jesus and then gives an explanation of the name: “he will save his people from their sins” (1:21). The implied reader already knows the name of the story’s hero from the genealogy, as well as his title of the Anointed. Here there is no mention of the Anointed and instead the angel provides an interpretation of the name Jesus. This interpretation is based upon a Hebrew word play. The Greek name Ἰησούς is derived from the Hebrew יֵשׁוּעַ which in turn is derived from ישׁע which means to help or save (Foerster:289). Given the importance of names in the ancient world and even more the importance of names in this first unit of the Gospel, the fate and mission of the hero Jesus now become clearer.

Following the angel’s pronouncement, the narrator quotes God as spoken through the prophet Isaiah. This activity of the narrator is important to observe because of his authority. The narrator of Matthew is an omniscient (panoramic) narrator whose focalization is external to the narrative. Now the narrator calls as a witness to the narrator’s ideology the ultimate external authority, God. So there is to be a divine focalization of the story as well as the narrator’s focalization. This allows the narrator to re-evaluate the Law. Previously Law has been opposed to righteousness; now Law is the repository of the divine focalizer. Law is reclaimed because it is refocused by the narrator’s ideology. The Law will paradoxically turn upon itself.

The quote has two parts. First, a virgin shall conceive. This, of course, is paradoxical. Normally, for a virgin to conceive would be unrighteous and shameful. But in the ideology of the narrator it is righteous, honorable, and in prophecy divinely foretold. Here the Law deconstructs itself: it is shown to approve of an apparently unrighteous activity, a virgin conceiving.

The narrator elaborates the second segment of the quote and thereby underlines it. The child “shall be called Emmanuel.” Like the angel who explained the meaning of the name Jesus, so the narrator translates Emmanuel for the Greek implied reader as “God with us.” Significantly this new name for the child disagrees with that of the angel. Is the implied reader to decide that the narrator is unreliable? Not only can the narrator not count but now the narrator seems mistaken about the name. Kingsbury (27) has suggested that the the name Emmanuel forms an inclusio with the Gospel’s conclusion where Jesus says “behold I am with you all the days until the completion of the age” (28:20). The phrase μεθʼ ἡμῶν ὁ θεός is parallel to ἐγὼ μεθ’ ὑμῶν εἰμι. This argument is very suggestive and may be correct, but it is a long way for a reader/hearer to remember the phrase without significant reinforcement. Many have also pointed to 18:19–20 where there is a firm identification between “my Father in heaven” who ratifies whatever two members of the community have agreed upon and the reason given for that ratification: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst” (18:20). But the immediately unfulfilled status of the name in 1:23 and the compounded conflict with the angel’s command creates for the implied reader a gap that cannot be dealt with by recourse to an unreliable narrator. Rather the quote from Scripture is actually God’s voice just as the angel is God’s voice. Thus both names are true. The first, Jesus, is immediately fulfilled by the action of Joseph and is the public name. The reader then must find some way to fill in the gap created by Emmanuel. I would suggest that Emmanuel is the presiding image or metaphor (Wheelwright: 95) of the narrative and the function of the Gospel narrative is to form a consistency or gestalt in which Jesus is the presence of God with us. To fill in this gap is the way in which the implied reader will make sense (form a consistency) of the narrative.

4. Section II: After the Birth

Section 1 of Unit 1 of Matthew’s Gospel was made up of two subsections, a genealogy and a story of naming and adoption. Section 2 reports events after the birth and again narration is by indirection, by means of a series of sub-narratives.

The primary actor in this section is Herod and his story; his response to the news of the birth of a king of the Jews organizes the other subnarratives. The three main parts of the section are all introduced by (1) a genitive absolute, (2) ἰδοὺ (“behold”) introducing the main clause, (3) a participle of λέγω (“saying”), and (4) direct speech.

2:1 After Jesus was born …

behold Magi from the east came


“Where is he who is born king of the Jews?”

2:13 When they had departed

behold an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph


“Rise, take the child and his mother …”

2:19 When Herod died

behold an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph …


“Rise, take the child and his mother …”

In the first section there was only one geographical reference, the exile to Babylon, and this is as much an event as a place. In Joseph’s story there was no mention of place. By contrast this second section has a surfeit of geographical references. In fact geography plays an important symbolic function in the section.

The section begins with a density of geographical references. The narrator reports after the fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea. In Matthew Jesus is a Judaean and not a Galilean, as in Luke. This is clearly implied in the genealogy with the multiple references to David and Bethlehem and no trip to Bethlehem is narrated. The Magi visit the child at his house (2:11). At the section’s end, when the angel instructs Joseph to return to the Land of Israel, Joseph chooses Galilee after initially considering Judaea.

There are also other geographical references. The Magi from the East come to Jerusalem. Herod is in Jerusalem since the Magi speak to him there. Following their question the chief priests and scribes (not the narrator) quote the prophet that Bethlehem is not the least among the leaders of Judah. There is a double irony in the quotation. The chief priests and scribes who report the divine forecast are identified with Herod as among those in Jerusalem who are troubled at the Magi’s report. Likewise, the quote itself is ironical because Bethlehem is an insignificant village in comparison with Jerusalem, but in the divine scheme it is significant. This ironical twist on the significance of Bethlehem is clearly intended because the quote in Matthew, “not at all are you least among the leaders of Judah” is the exact opposite of what the Masoretic and LXX texts state (Prabhu: 262). Thus the true king’s birthplace is on the surface insignificant, while in the divine view it is significant. This pattern replicates the ideology from the first section.

The narrator warns that the Magi’s question has thrown Herod and all Jerusalem into consternation (2:3). Further when the Magi find the child they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod (2:12). Even though this dream is only narrated and no angelic voice is recorded, the implied reader clearly is to understand the dream as a divine command.

These various geographical references endow Judaea with a symbolic, ideological interpretation. Judaea is divided into two parts, one represented by Jerusalem, the Holy City, the Holy Mountain, the center of the universe; and the other represented by Bethlehem, one of the insignificant villages of Judaea. All of this is at the surface level, while at the ideological level, everything is reversed. The prophecy indicates that Bethlehem is a place of blessing from which will come a leader who will shepherd the people of Israel. On the other hand Jerusalem is a place of Herod and threat. This threat escalates throughout the narrative. At first Herod is shaken (2:3); then in secret he seeks the time of the star’s first appearance; then the Magi are warned not to return to Herod (2:12); then the angel says Herod is going to destroy the child (2:13) and finally Herod strikes out in rage (2:16). Even Jerusalem is implicated with Herod in the threat (2:3). The narrative sets up a conflict within Judaea. Jerusalem the magnificent Holy City is a place of threat and intrigue, the home of a murdering king. Bethlehem the insignificant is a place of blessing and leadership, the home of the true king.

The symbolic reorganization even extends outside of Judaea. The East is also a place of revelation, the place of the star. The Magi, of course, are gentiles, and in the narration they are the first to do obeisance (προσκυνήσαι) to Jesus (2:2, 11). This exaltation of the East is a reversal of its expected symbolic value and causes retrospection on the part of the reader. The third movement of the genealogy stood out for a variety of reasons, but one of the first markers of its difference was that it began with an event, the exile in Babylon, and not an appellation. The last birth of the section which begins after the exile to Babylon is the Messiah. Thus the narration reverses the symbolism of the place of the exile and by implication the place of the gentiles. It is a place of true obeisance. This symbolic reversal receives its fulfillment in the Gospel’s final speech when the resurrected Jesus commands, “Go and make disciples of all nations (ἔθνη)” (28:19). The reorganization of the expected symbolic structure creates an ideology of paradoxical reversal.

A second outside place is symbolically and ideologically re-evaluated. After the angel commands Joseph to take the child to Egypt, the narrator quotes the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (2:15). Egypt, which had been the place of exile and enslavement, will protect the child Jesus in much the same way as it protected Moses. This symbolic reversal of both the East and Egypt is part of the ideological focalization. From the perspective of the Law, these places are unclean and shameful. But in narrative organization and divine focalization they are warranted as places of true righteousness paradoxically by quotes from the Law. Furthermore, the Messiah to whom gentiles first do obeisance, will appear to come out of gentile territory.

Now abandoned by the Messiah because it lacks Emmanuel, Judaea becomes a place of murder. Herod seeks to destroy the child whom he knows is divinely attested as the king of Israel. This negative death symbol for Judaea is confirmed by the story of the slaughter of the infants. Once again the narrator refers to the prophet, the divine focalizer of these events, “A voice in Ramah was heard, weeping and much lamenting, Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not wish to be comforted because they were not” (2:18). Rachel is associated with Bethlehem and traditionally it was the site of her burial. This powerfully disturbing quote seals the fate of Judaea. In narrative it is now the place death. Even after Herod’s death it retains its negative value since Joseph is afraid to return there. In the end it will be the place of Jesus’ betrayal, Judas’ suicide, and Jesus’ death.

The ideology of the narrative affects even the narration of Jesus’ return from Egypt. Even though Jesus was born in Judaea, it was in the least of the Judaean towns (Bethlehem) and he becomes a foreigner from Egypt. Upon his return he does not go home to Judaea, but to a city in Galilee called Nazareth. Once again the narrator quotes the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene” (2:23). Regardless of what one does with the derivation of this quote (Prabhu: 215), its intention is clear. The surface narrative assumes that the Messiah, the son of David, will come from Bethlehem. But Jesus is a Nazarean. The narrator has clearly instructed the reader in a complex allegorical reading in which all of these things are true, but at different levels. Jesus is from Galilee (which the divine focalizer will soon refer to as Galilee of the gentiles [4:15]) and gentiles first recognize him. Thus as a son of Abraham he will finally instruct his disciples to go to all the nations. He is also from Bethlehem, but a Bethlehem of tragedy, a place of the slaughter of the innocents.

These same themes are picked up in the final section (3:1–4:1) of the first unit which concerns the story of John the Baptist and the initial scenes of Jesus before his preaching of the gospel of the kingdom (4:23). I will not here undertake a comparable analysis of this section but would like to indicate briefly how the ideology undergirding sections one and two is carried forward.

John the Baptist’s introduction describes him as preaching “in the desert of Judaea” (3:1). This description of Judaea confirms the ideological structure—Judaea is a desert, a place of death. Those who come to hear John’s preaching are from Jerusalem, all of Judaea, and the region about the Jordan (v. 5). The Pharisees and Sadducees are rejected by John and described as sterile, “the axe is laid to the root,” reinforcing the image of desert.

Jesus comes from Galilee (3:13), which sets him apart from the others who are from Judaea. When John hesitates to baptize him, Jesus replies, “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15). First Joseph and now Jesus are presented as righteous and the sense is the same. For Jesus to be truly righteous, he must publicly appear to be in need of repentance, i.e. to be shameful. Yet John and Jesus know that he has no such need. That paradox will fulfill righteousness. In the testing story, Jesus is tested in the desert by the devil. The second test takes place in “the Holy City,” a deliberate irony for it is not holy at all.

The transition quote in 4:15–16 forms the conclusion to Part 1 of the Gospel and the opening of Part 2. This quote is introduced by the narrator with the comment that after John had been handed over, Jesus departed for Galilee. Ἀναχωρέω (depart) recalls the activity of the Magi following their obeisance to the child. The verb had concluded 2:12 and introduced 2:13. The narrator concludes by calling on the divine focalizer by means of a reworking of Isa 9:1–2 (LXX) (Prabhu: 86–104). The reference to “across the Jordan,” missing from the Isaiah text, excludes Judaea and climaxes with “Galilee of the gentiles.” This brings to a head the gentile theme of the birth narratives and introduces the next Unit in which Jesus will go only to the house of Israel. Thus it prepares the reader for the long wait in which the promise of the Magi is fulfilled in the Risen Lord’s final command (Matt 28:19).

In the quote’s conclusion, the people of Galilee are those who sat in darkness and have seen a great light, a reference to the Star and metaphorically to Jesus as light. For those in the shadow of death a light has dawned. Thus the divine focalizer has warranted the narrator’s ideological paradox. Judaea and the Holy City are now a place of murder, death, and darkness; while Galilee of the gentiles, a former place of darkness, is now a place of light and life.

Matthew’s birth narrative never describes the birth of Jesus; rather it reports the events before and after the birth. The birth in this first unit of the Gospel is the reader’s, for the narrator constructs an ideological map by which the reader is to make sense of the story that follows.

Works Consulted

Bauer, Walter et al.

1979    A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Beare, Francis W.

1981    The Gospel According to Matthew. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Brown, Raymond E.

1977    The Birth of the Messiah, A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. Garden City: Doubleday.

Chatman, Seymour.

1978    Story and Discourse. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Davies, W.D.

1966    The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fallon, Francis T. and Ron Cameron.

1988    “The Gospel of Thomas: A Forschungsbericht and Analysis.” ANRW 25.6:4196–4251

Foerster, Werner.1965 “Ἰησοῦς” TDNT 3: 284–93.

Genette, Gérard.

1980    Narrative Discourse. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Iser, Wolfgang.

1978    The Act of Reading. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Johnson, Marshall.

1969    The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies with Special Reference to the Setting of the Genealogies of Jesus. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kingsbury, Jack Dean.

1975    Matthew: Structure, Christology, Kingdom. Philadelphia: Fortress.

1977    Matthew. Proclamation Commentaries. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Koester, Helmut.

1982    Introduction to the New Testament; Volume 1: History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age; Volume 2: History and Literature of Early Christianity. Foundations and Facets. Philadelphia: Fortress.

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1987    The Gnostic Scriptures. New York: Doubleday.

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1958    Das Evangelium des Matthäus. Meyers Kommentar. 2nd ed. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck.

Malina, Bruce J.

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Prabhu, George M. Soares.

1976    The Formula Quotations in the Infancy Narrative of Matthew. Analecta Biblica 63. Rome: Biblical Institute Press.

Przybylski, Benno.

1980    Righteousness in Matthew and His World of Thought. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 41. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith.

1983    Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. New Accents. London and New York: Methuen.

Schaberg, Jane.

1987    The Illegitimacy of Jesus. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Stendahl, Krister.

1983    “Quis et Unde? An Analysis of Matthew 1–2.” Pp. 56–66 in The Interpretation of Matthew. Ed. Graham Stanton. Issues in Religion And Theology 3. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Trilling, Wolfgang.

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The Birth Narratives and the Beginning of Luke’s Gospel

Joseph B. Tyson

Southern Methodist University


Although the birth narratives in Luke 1:5–2:52 seem appropriate at the beginning of this gospel, their place and literary function have been questioned. On the one hand, significant studies of the historical development of Luke have shown that 3:1 is probably the beginning of the first edition of this gospel. On the other hand, literary-critical studies that focus attention on canonical Luke require a consideration of the birth narratives as forming part of the beginning of the gospel. The present essay addresses both of these questions. It first analyzes the case for regarding Luke 3:1 as the original beginning of Luke. Then, drawing primarily on the work of Boris Uspensky, it examines the literary function of these narratives in canonical Luke. It concludes that the birth narratives function as an effective framing device and may be compared with the way in which the prologue functions in certain Greek dramas.

The opening narratives in canonical Luke are those about the birth and infancy of John the Baptist and Jesus (Luke 1:5–2:52). These narratives have become devoutly treasured and deeply embedded within the Christian tradition. Furthermore, from the perspective of comparative literature they seem entirely appropriate in their present location. As parallels one may cite biographies of Plato, Alexander the Great, and Apollonius of Tyana, and other narratives that begin with miraculous births and contain stories of precocious childhood.

As beginnings, however, the birth narratives constitute two problems. One problem comes out of the study of the literary history of Luke, which questions the place of these narratives in the original edition of the gospel. The second problem lies in the area of literary criticism, which questions the literary function of the birth narratives as part of Luke’s beginning. The present essay intends to address these two questions.

0. Introduction

The beginning of Luke has been variously defined and described. A number of terms, such as, introduction, overture, and prologue, have been used to describe the opening of Luke’s gospel, whether that opening is understood as the first four verses, the first two chapters, or the first four chapters. Joseph Fitzmyer (303) refers to Luke 1:5–2:52 as “The Lucan Overture to the Account of Jesus”. I. H. Marshall (46) calls this section “a prologue to the ministry of Jesus.” Robert Tannehill (15) describes 1:5–2:40 as “Previews of Salvation”. Paul Minear (119) says, “Some scholars limit the term prologue to 1:1–4, but I apply it to the first two chapters.”

Although terms such as introduction, overture, and prologue are frequently used interchangeably, it is useful to draw certain distinctions among them. Perhaps the simplest type of a beginning is none of the above but one in which only the spatial and temporal dimensions are set and the reader is quickly brought into the narrative. This type of beginning is frequently used in biographical and historical narration, where it is simply necessary to let the reader know when and where the action takes place. Luke 3:1–2 is an example of this type of beginning. In order simply to suggest that these types of beginnings are designed to set the scene of action to be described or presented, we shall call them scenic beginnings.

The introduction is most appropriate as the beginning of a discourse or essay (such as the present one) but is frequently found at the beginning of a narrative. Often written in the first person, it will tell the hearer or reader what the topic is; it may include an attempt to limit the topic, to describe its significance, and to define any important terms to be used subsequently. It may include something of an outline of the discourse, and even suggest what the author or speaker wishes to accomplish (see Cadbury).

The term overture is most properly used of a musical performance. In an opera the overture accomplishes several purposes. It captures the audience’s attention and thus serves as a transition into the musical event that follows. In addition, an operatic overture, like an overture to a popular musical, introduces fragments of themes that will be played out fully in what follows. For one who is familiar with the score of an opera there is great pleasure in hearing the overture, in which the well-known themes are heard and the main action is anticipated. The overture is not the opera in miniature, but selected themes capture the attention of the audience, and even the attentive first-time auditor will draw connections back to the overture from the arias in the main body of the opera. The final function of the overture is to set the proper mood for the first scene of the opera itself. If a crowd scene opens the first act, the overture will likely end in strong tones. If the first scene opens with a single pensive character on stage, the overture may anticipate this with more quiet, perhaps even melancholy, music. Indeed, in some operas there is no clear separation between the overture and the music of the first scene. One melds imperceptibly into the other.

I would use the term prologue as the opening of a dramatic presentation. The prologues to Greek dramas took several forms and may be best illustrated by reference to the plays of Euripides, some of which were probably still being performed in Luke’s day. In some of the plays a character appears in the prologue and informs the audience about the setting of the drama to follow, perhaps comments on some of the characters, and generally leads the audience into the drama. In The Medea, for example, Medea’s nurse describes the situation so that the audience can understand the subsequent action. In Electra, the farmer who has been keeping Electra addresses the audience and brings the action up to date. But a dramatic prologue may also take the form of a scene within the drama itself. Some of the most effective prologues are in fact short episodes in which the main characters of the drama are shown at a time before the actual drama begins. Such a prologue may reveal to the audience something that is not made known to certain of the characters in the play. A conspiracy is agreed to that works itself out in the main part of the drama. A curse is given that then functions in later scenes. The prologue to Hippolytus is actually a monologue of Aphrodite, who does not appear in the main part of the play. In the prologue she tells “the truth of this story” and lets the audience know how she will arrange for the punishment of Hippolytus. She then departs, the main action of the drama begins, and the audience sees the unfolding of Aphrodite’s purpose. Here and in other plays there is a degree of discontinuity between the prologue and the first scene in the sense that the speaker in the prologue is a god, who withdraws when humans come on the scene. The first scene in Euripides’ Alcestis functions in this same way. Here the god Apollo describes the situation in a monologue, and there is a discussion between him and Death, after which both withdraw and the main action begins. In Hebrew writing, something similar happens in Job 1–2, which focuses attention on a dialogue between God and Satan. Then in Job 3, the action suddenly shifts, and the discussions between Job and his friends begin.

These definitions may suggest that we would know better what to call the opening of Luke’s gospel if we knew what genre to use for describing the gospel proper. But in fact, whatever it is, Luke is neither a discourse, an opera, nor a play. Thus, if any of our terms are suitable in the case of the Third Gospel, they are so only analogically. That is, Luke’s beginning may serve his book as a scenic beginning serves a biography, or as an introduction serves a discourse, or as an overture serves an opera, or as a prologue serves a drama. Moreover, although each of the kinds of beginnings is most frequently associated with a particular artistic form, none of them is locked inextricably to a single form. The study of beginnings, therefore, may be carried on in tandem with the study of genre, but it is not altogether dependent on it.

1. The Place of the Birth Narratives

Any study of the beginning of the gospel of Luke must face a number of problems. The problems are due to the fact that there are several points in canonical Luke that have characteristics of beginnings. The problem of dealing with the various beginnings of Luke is a particularly thorny one.

Canonical Luke now begins with a statement in the first person (Luke 1:1–4), in which the implied author addresses the implied reader to explain his qualifications for writing and purpose in doing so. The implied reader is in fact addressed by name, Theophilus, a name that serves either to designate an actual intended reader or to characterize the qualities of the implied reader. This section of four verses constitutes a beginning that may be called an introduction. Enough has been written about Luke 1:1–4 to convince almost all of us that these verses should be taken as a conventional introduction, in which the author speaks directly to the readers to explain his reasons for writing, to defend his qualifications, and to announce his purposes (see, e.g., Cadbury, Alexander, Callan, Robbins). The reader is told what to expect (“a narrative”), in what ways the author is qualified to write (“having followed all things closely for some time past”), and the purpose in writing (“that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed”). In addition there is a kind of dedication (“most excellent Theophilus”), and a reference to previous similar works (“inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us”). Never again in the gospel does the implied author speak directly to the implied reader, either by using the first person or by using the name. Not until Acts 1:1 does this author speak again in his own voice.

Following the introduction there is a brief scenic beginning in Luke 1:5, “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest …” In 3:1–2 there is another scenic beginning, this one an elaborate and precise device that serves to locate the ministry of John the Baptist within the context of world history. Here we learn that John began his ministry during the reigns of Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, and Lysanias, and during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. Chapter 3 follows with a description of the activity of John, ending with his imprisonment, a note about the baptism of Jesus, and the record of his genealogy. The genealogy itself is introduced with words that suggest yet another beginning of a gospel: “Jesus, when he began [archomenos] his ministry, was about thirty years of age” (Luke 3:23).

Although it has long since become clear to the reader that Jesus is to be the hero of the book, he does not actually come on the scene, as an adult, until chapter 4. The adult Jesus has no speaking part before Luke 4:4, where we have a dialogue between him and the devil. But this dialogue appears to be part of the preparation for Jesus’ grand entry in 4:14, when he comes into Galilee, specifically to the town of Nazareth, to deliver his opening speech, a sermon that is almost universally regarded as programmatic for Luke-Acts.

The search for the beginning of Luke proper is reminiscent of the quandary of Goethe’s Faust in the search for the correct translation of the opening of the Gospel of John. A case can be made for taking the beginning of Luke’s gospel as 1:1; 1:5; 3:1; 3:23; 4:1; or 4:14.

The case for taking 3:1 as the original beginning of Luke’s gospel was perhaps most persuasively argued by proponents of the Proto-Luke hypothesis, a theory originally associated with the names of B. H. Streeter (1921; 1924:201–22) and Vincent Taylor. This theory, which depends directly on an assumption that the two-document hypothesis is the correct fundamental solution to the synoptic problem, states that in its earliest form, the Gospel of Luke consisted of the non-Markan sections of canonical Luke, that is, those sections that, according to the two-document hypothesis, were drawn from Q and Luke’s Sondergut, the source of material found only in Luke. Only at a later point did the author of the Third Gospel discover Mark, and when he did he supplemented his own gospel with those sections of Mark that appeared to him to be useful. Thus, the Gospel of Luke grew in at least two stages, a Proto-Luke and a canonical Luke. Actually, however, there were two more steps, according to Taylor. Luke 1:5–2:52 is classified by him as a non-Markan section which appears to stand apart from everything else in the gospel (Taylor:164–66). Thus, Taylor designates Luke 3:1 as the original beginning of Proto-Luke. The carefully composed setting of time in 3:1–2 is an appropriate scenic beginning of a historical or biographical narrative, but there are other things that also argue for its being the original beginning. In Luke 3, John the son of Zechariah is introduced as if he had not been mentioned earlier, and in Luke 7:19 he asks a question the answer to which was known to his mother. He there sends messengers to Jesus and directs them to ask, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Taylor (165), actually quoting P. W. Schmiedel at this point, has in mind Luke 1:41–45, in which verses Elizabeth refers to Mary as “the Mother of my Lord.” Further, Taylor observes that the birth narratives have unity and homogeneity. Thus he concludes,

These facts point to the presumption that the Birth and Infancy narratives constitute a source distinct from anything else in Lk. If there is a continuous non-Markan source, which has been used in compiling the Third Gospel, its beginning is to be found in Lk. 3:1–2, and we must think of this authority as a source which was reduced to writing separately from, and probably earlier than, the source utilized in Lk. 1:5–2:52 (165f).

Finally, according to Taylor (166), there is the addition of Luke 1:1–4, “an editorial preface belonging to the Third Gospel as such. It may have been the last part of the Gospel to be committed to writing.” Thus, in Taylor’s view, Luke grew in four stages: (1) Proto-Luke, i. e., Q + L; (2) Proto-Luke + Mark; (3) Proto-Luke + Mark + Luke 1:5–2:52; and finally (4) Proto-Luke + Mark + Luke 1:5–2:52 + Luke 1:1–4. Thus at various stages, Luke had different beginnings: 3:1; 1:5; and finally 1:1.

Although Hans Conzelmann did not discuss the Proto-Luke hypothesis and although he stated his intention to examine the theology of “the whole of Luke’s writings as they stand” (9), he nevertheless successfully avoided devoting any significant attention to Luke 1–2. In The Theology of St. Luke, the first part, which is entitled, “Geographical Elements in the Composition of Luke’s Gospel”, begins with a section entitled, “Prologue: John the Baptist”, i.e., Luke 3:1–20 (Conzelmann: 18–27). But Conzelmann subsequently uses the word, prologue, to refer to all of Luke 1–2, the authenticity of which he questions (see, e.g., 118). But his reasons for questioning this authenticity are not fully explicated. The one paragraph in which he discusses these chapters is brief enough to be quoted in full:

The introductory chapters of the Gospel present a special problem. It is strange that the characteristic features they contain do not occur again either in the Gospel or in Acts. In certain passages there is a direct contradiction, as for example in the analogy between the Baptist and Jesus, which is emphasized in the early chapters, but deliberately avoided in the rest of the Gospel. Special motifs in these chapters, apart from the typology of John, are the part played by Mary and the virgin conception, the Davidic descent and Bethlehem. On the other hand there is agreement in the fact that the idea of pre-existence is missing (Conzelmann: 172).

Evidently, Marcion’s Gospel began at Luke 3:1 (see Harnack: 165*ff), and John Knox has provided good reasons to consider the possibility that Marcion’s Gospel antedated canonical Luke. If this is the case, we have an additional and independent corroboration of the contention that Luke originally began at 3:1. Knox does not adopt the proto-Luke hypothesis, but he thinks that the birth narratives and other sections were added to an earlier Marcionite version of Luke, among other reasons, to counteract the use Marcion had made of this gospel. About Luke 1–2, Knox writes:

Marcion would surely not have tolerated this highly “Jewish” section; but how wonderfully adapted it is to show the nature of Christianity as the true Judaism and thus to answer one of the major contentions of the Marcionites! And one cannot overlook the difficulty involved in the common supposition that Marcion deliberately selected a Gospel which began in so false and obnoxious a way (Knox: 87).

The joint impact of the work of Taylor, Streeter, Knox, Conzelmann and others is to focus attention on 3:1 as the probable original beginning of Luke. Clearly the elaborate scene-setting device in Luke 3:1–2 constitutes some disjunction in the narrative. If it is not the original beginning of the gospel, it is a new beginning. And there are suggestions that, even in the mind of the author, the real beginning is at 3:1. Acts 1:1, which contains a brief description of the gospel (“all that Jesus began to do and teach”), seems to suggest that the infancy narratives are not included. The requirement for apostleship (“one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us,” Acts 1:21–22) serves more plausibly to describe a gospel that begins at Luke 3:1 than one that begins at 1:1 or 1:5.

2. The Literary Function of the Birth Narratives

Literary criticism of Luke today is more interested in the text as it now stands than in its previous history. This study would not question the place of the birth narratives in Luke but would examine their literary function in their present location. While it may well be the case that Luke originally began at 3:1, we now have a book with prefatory material, specifically an introduction (1:1–4) and birth narratives (1:5–2:52). Although there is little problem in understanding 1:1–4 as a conventional introduction, the function of the birth narratives as a beginning of this gospel is far from clear. As an interpretive strategy for canonical Luke, the exclusion of the birth narratives is indefensible. The interpreter is under obligation to understand a book in its finally edited form as well as to speculate about its previous literary history. Whatever that pre-history may have been, some conscious mind has put this book together in its canonical form, and the task of interpretation surely includes a consideration of this finally achieved form.

In order to set the stage for a discussion of the problem of beginning in Luke, it will be helpful to review some aspects of literary-critical studies of beginnings, drawing especially on the work of Boris Uspensky. In his assessment of authorial point of view in the literary work of art, Uspensky paid special attention to the general literary functions of both beginnings and endings. Mikeal Parsons made use of Uspensky’s analysis in his own study of Luke 24 and Acts 1. Uspensky drew heavily on the visual arts, film in particular, in his approach to literature and introduced into literary-critical discussions terms and concepts drawn from these areas. In his study, the assessment of authorial point of view is analogous to discussions in the criticism of film about camera location and angle. Uspensky writes about such narrative strategies as “the bird’s-eye view,” and “the silent scene.” The bird’s-eye view is “an encompassing view of the scene from some single, very general, point of view. Because such a spatial position usually presupposes very broad horizons, we may call it the bird’s eye point of view” (Uspensky: 63f). In the silent scene, the actions of the characters are described but the speech is not: “In the silent scene, the observer, who is located at some distance from the action, can see the characters, but because of the distance, he seems to be unable to hear them. The remote position makes it possible for the author to present a general view of the whole scene” (Uspensky: 65).

Uspensky’s chief aim is to analyze the various ways in which the authorial point of view may express itself, and he investigates ideological, phraseological, spatial, temporal, and psychological strategies. Beginnings and endings present particular problems, and, still drawing from the visual arts, he refers to the beginning and the ending as the frame of an artistic text. The function of the frame is to separate the narrative from the world outside it and to move the reader into the story and back out of it.

In a work of art, whether it be a work of literature, a painting, or a work of some other art form, there is presented to us a special world, with its own space and time, its own ideological system, and its own standards of behavior. In relation to that world, we assume (at least in our first perceptions of it) the position of an alien spectator, which is necessarily external. Gradually, we enter into it, becoming more familiar with its standards, accustoming ourselves to it, until we begin to perceive this world as if from within, rather than from without. We, as readers or observers, now assume a point of view internal to the particular work. Then we are faced with the necessity of leaving that world and returning to our own point of view, the point of view from which we had to a large extent disengaged ourselves while we were experiencing (reading, seeing, and so forth) the artistic work (Uspensky: 137).

Uspensky examines the same categories—ideological, phraseological, temporal, spatial, and psychological—in his discussion of the frame of a literary work. For the study of the beginning of Luke, the most interesting of these categories is the temporal. Indeed, Uspensky illustrates the temporal dimension as a framing device by specific reference to the Gospel of Luke:

Temporal framing may be realized by the use at the beginning of a narrative of the retrospective point of view and subsequently, as the narrative proceeds, of the synchronic point of view. In fact, the narrative often begins with hints about the denouement of the plot which has not yet begun; this indicates the use of a point of view external to the story, a point of view located in the future in respect to the time which unfolds within the narrative. Subsequently, the narrator may shift to an internal position, adopting, for example, the point of view of a particular character and assuming his limited knowledge about what is to come—so that the reader forgets about the predetermined course of events in the story, despite allusions to it made previously. Beginnings of this kind are common in narratives of different periods; as an example we may cite the Gospel of Luke, which begins from a retrospective position with a direct address to Theophilus (Uspensky: 149).

Mikeal Parsons, drawing on recent literary-critical theory, has called attention to the importance of circularity and parallelism as framing devices. Circularity is the use of similar elements—syntax, characters, settings—in both the beginning and the ending of a text. Parallelism is the appearance of similar elements in the frame and in the document as a whole. Parsons (73–77) has also addressed the question of circularity in the frame of Luke. Although he did not deal directly with the beginning of the gospel, he nevertheless called attention to certain patterns that connect the birth narratives with the ending of Luke. One significant matter is that of the setting. A frame for the gospel is provided by the fact that it both begins (1:9) and ends (24:53) in the Jerusalem Temple. In the opening narrative a faithful priest is shown in the course of fulfilling his duties. At the end of the gospel the apostles of Jesus are in the Temple joyously praising God. Parsons also calls attention to references to priestly blessings in both the beginning and the ending:

In the first episode of the Gospel, Zechariah is incapable of discharging his duties as priest; he is unable to bless the people who patiently await his service. He returns home, unable to speak, task unfinished (1:23). At the end of the Gospel Jesus raises his hands in levitical fashion and blesses his disciples who also are waiting [24:51]. (Parsons: 74).

In addition, the theme of returning to Jerusalem appears in both parts of the gospel (2:45; 24:52). With the exception of the setting of the Temple, these features are confined to the beginning and the ending and serve as effective framing devices.

Although some scholars have emphasized the disjunctions between the birth accounts and the rest of Luke, parallelism is to be found. In his critique of Conzelmann, Paul Minear points to a number of elements that connect the birth accounts with the rest of the gospel. He includes an impressive list of words and phrases “which appear both in the birth narratives and in the rest of Luke-Acts, and which are found more often in these two books than in the rest of the New Testament” (Minear: 113). He also points to a number of syntactical elements that tend to tie the birth narratives to the rest of Luke-Acts (Minear: 114–18)12 There are pervasive interests and themes as well, such as the use of the historiographical style, the use of speeches, citations and hymns, common ecclesiological conceptions, allusions to liturgical usage, reliance on epiphany and angels, the theme of promise and fulfillment, and other themes found both in the birth narratives and in the gospel and Acts as a whole.

Elsewhere I have called attention to the theme of conflict in Luke-Acts (Tyson, 1983; 1986:48–83). There is a great deal of material in both volumes that is devoted to the description of situations of conflict between Jesus and Pharisees, Jesus and priests, the apostles and Jewish leaders, and between Paul and his various opponents. Although the birth narratives do not contain explicit descriptions of conflict situations, and although their dominant tone is pacific, the narratives are not without anticipations of conflict. The Magnificat speaks of a reversal of social conditions, a reversal that implies social conflict. In Luke 1:52–54 the powerful and the rich are pitted against the lowly and the hungry. The expectation of aid for Israel has nuances of anticipated conflict, in which social positions are to be changed. One could almost speak of expected revolution in these verses:

He has put down powerful people from thrones

And lifted up lowly ones.

The hungry he has filled with good things,

And the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the aid of Israel his child,

To remember mercy (Luke 1:52–54).

In the Benedictus, Zechariah speaks of deliverance “from our enemies, and from all who hate us” (1:71). And in Luke 2:34–35, Simeon describes Jesus as a controversial sign, “set for the fall and rising of many in Israel,” and to the mother he says, “A sword will pierce through your own soul also.” Not only do these verses contain notes of social reversal and conflict, but they also connect closely with themes that work themselves out in the later parts of the gospel and Acts. Simeon’s words, for example, anticipate the crucifixion of Jesus as well as the division among those who accept and those who reject him.

J. K. Elliott has called attention to another parallel between the birth narratives and later sections of Luke. The narrative of Jesus in discussion with the leaders in the Temple (Luke 2:41–52) appears to be a kind of foreshadowing of the longer section in Luke in which Jesus teaches for several days in the Temple (Luke 20:1–21:38). That long section calls attention to the location of Jesus. At night he is at the Mount of Olives, and during the day he is in the Temple (Luke 21:37–38). In the Temple he is constantly engaged in teaching the people under the suspicious eyes of the priests, who watch for a chance to arrest him in the absence of the supporting populace (22:2). Although Luke 2:41–52 does not have a dominant menacing overtone, it nevertheless serves more than one function. To be sure, it serves as a typical story of the precocious child and foreshadows his future career as a teacher. But the location of the discussions in the Temple and the presence of the Jewish leaders is significant as well.

This is not the place to analyze the role of the Temple in Luke-Acts as a whole, but it may suffice simply to observe that it has an ambivalent character, which may be appreciated fully only by taking into account the setting of the birth narratives. Not only do these narratives present the reader with a picture of pious Jews in the joyful performance of their ritualistic duties, they also point to the centrality of the Jerusalem Temple. Zechariah serves God in the Temple; Jesus is taken to the Temple for presentation and for the purification ritual, which is accompanied by prophetic proclamations; at the age of twelve, in pursuit of his father’s business, Jesus teaches in the Temple. Then the Temple plays little role in the narrative until we get to Luke 19:45, where Jesus drives out the merchants. Conzelmann (75–78) is probably right in claiming that the cleansing is Jesus’ attempt to take over the Temple and make it the scene of his teaching, for the following chapters include an extensive account of his teaching in the Temple. But his attempt is finally a failure, as his own teaching anticipates in the parable of the vineyard (Luke 20:9–19). After the crucifixion, the apostles return to the Temple, and, indeed, the risen Jesus commands them to remain in Jerusalem until they have been empowered to go into other parts of the world. But when they too attempt to teach in the Temple, they are met with opposition from the Jewish leaders (Acts 5:12–42). Near the end of Acts, Paul goes into the Temple in what turns out to be the final time for him and for all those who believe in Jesus (Acts 21:26). Thereafter he is arrested, tried, and sent to Rome. When riot breaks out over Paul, the authorities close the gates of the Temple (21:30). Ironically, in Acts they never reopen. In Acts no Christian thereafter ever enters the Jerusalem Temple.

All this shows that the Temple is a point of contention in Luke-Acts, as Stephen claims in Acts 7:47–50. This contention is anticipated in the birth narratives in general and in the story of the twelve-year old Jesus in particular.

The presence of circularity and parallelism in Luke 1:5–2:52 means that we may regard these narratives as forming part of the frame for Luke’s gospel. Not only are there grammatical and syntactical connections between these chapters and the rest of the gospel, there are significant themes that tie the two parts together. The theme of conflict, including social upheaval and reversal, even political and economic revolution, is powerfully suggested in the birth accounts. The theme of the Temple as the setting not only of religious devotion, but also of prophecy, revelation, and controversy, is also expressed in Luke 1:5–2:52.

Despite these connections with the body of Luke, there is still a disjunction between Luke 2:52 and 3:1. Although the birth narratives certainly contain themes that guide the reader’s expectations, there is a profound sense that something new has begun in Luke 3:1. The reader who has worked through the first two chapters knows that the preliminaries are over and that now the main line of action is beginning. The precise and detailed setting of time in 3:1–2 reminds the reader of the far less precise temporal statement in 1:5, “in the days of Herod, king of Judea.” Now we know that the days of King Herod are over and that the foregoing is background. The present action is in the time of Tiberius, Pilate, and the sons of Herod. The abrupt change of time and the silent interval, encompassing some eighteen years (from Jesus at age twelve, 2:42, to Jesus at age thirty, 3:23), encourage the reader to reflect on the contrast between the tones in the birth narratives and in what follows. These include the contrasts between infancy and adulthood, between miraculous births and wilderness preaching, between prophetic blessings and demonic temptations, between good will among men and imprisonment. There is at this point a sense of a rudely abrupt change from a comfortable, idyllic, semi-mythical world to the cold cruel world of political and social realities.

These considerations are sufficient to show that the birth narratives in Luke form a legitimate part of the beginning of the gospel. But is it possible to say, with more exactitude, what kind of beginning they constitute? We may exclude as inappropriate the scenic beginning and the introduction and confine our consideration to the overture and the prologue.

In certain respects the birth narratives function in ways similar to the overture to an opera or popular musical. For here, as we have seen, the author takes the occasion to draw the audience into a certain mode of expectation and to introduce, in fragmentary ways, themes that reappear in later sections of the book. But the analogy is less than satisfactory. The overture is not part of the action of the opera. It is a beginning in which no characters are introduced, no singer makes an appearance, and generally the audience is not permitted to view the scenery. The overture is really prelude, a playing beforehand, and the form of the overture is fundamentally different from that of the succeeding scenes in the opera. Luke 1:5–2:52, however, introduces some characters that will play roles in the succeeding drama; there is action; there are speaking parts; there is scenery. Finally, Luke 1:5–2:52 does not set the tone for the opening scene of the gospel proper. Indeed, as we have seen, Luke 3:1 forms a disjunction with the preceding material.

The disjunction may, however, provide a clue to an understanding of the way in which these birth narratives function as framing devices. Disjunctions of this sort are frequently found between the prologues and the first scenes in Greek dramas, as we have seen. In Euripides’ Hippolytus and Alcestis, for example, the scene shifts from a mythical setting in the prologue to a human setting in the first scene. The disjunction in these plays is similar to that in Luke, where the dramatic effect is no less successful. In the Hippolytus the goddess Aphrodite enters to deliver a soliloquy in which she reveals the situation that will lead to the action in the play proper. Hippolytus, son of Theseus, worships only Artemis, calls Aphrodite the “vilest of the Gods,” and disavows marriage. Aphrodite vows to avenge the dishonor that Hippolytus has brought on her by his defiance. She lets the audience know that Phaedra, whose “heart in fierce love was enthralled by my device,” will be her instrument of revenge.

Theseus shall know this thing; all bared shall be:

And him that is my foe his sire shall slay

By curses, whose fulfilment the Sea-king

Poseidon gave to Theseus in this boon—

To ask three things of him, nor pray in vain.

And she shall die—O yea, her name unstained,

Yet Phaedra dies: I will not so regard

Her pain, as not to visit on my foes

Such penalty as is mine honour’s due.

Aphrodite’s soliloquy and the preface conclude with the threat,

He [Hippolytus] knows not Hades’ gates wide flung for him,

And this day’s light the last his eyes shall see.

Immediately the goddess exits, and Hippolytus and his attendants come on stage. The action begins, and the plot laid out by Aphrodite comes to realization.

Luke’s artistry is more subtle but no less effective. Rather than presenting his prologue in the form of a soliloquy, he chooses the narrative form. But it is a narrative with features of angelic visitations, miraculous births, and prophetic utterances, all of which serve to provide a semi-mythical setting for the narrative. No god speaks in Luke to lay out the plot in advance. But, as we have seen, the birth narratives contain clues about the conflict that will work itself out in later chapters, and they focus on the Jerusalem Temple which will become a point of contention later in the narrative. Although we have no divine soliloquy in Luke’s birth narrative, we do have a number of prophetic utterances that let the reader know what to expect from John the Baptist and Jesus. Among them there is the grim word about Jesus’ future that comes from Simeon: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34–35). With these words the reader is given information that is not shared by other characters in the narrative, except the mother of Jesus.

Thus, of the choices for describing the literary function of Luke 1:5–2:52—scenic beginning, introduction, overture, prologue—that of the prologue to the drama is the most satisfactory. When 1:1–4 is included, we have a text which brings together the two major ways in which Greek dramatists composed prologues: that in which a narrator speaks directly to the audience, and that in which a scene or a series of scenes anticipates the main action. Prologues are, of course, similar to overtures in the sense that they both introduce themes that play themselves out in subsequent material, and so we can understand the phenomenon of parallelism as well under the rubric of prologue as that of overture. In addition, Luke’s birth stories serve to introduce some of the main characters, to indicate some of the expectations that surround them, and to exhibit the Jerusalem Temple as one of the chief settings for the dramatic presentations to follow.

3. Conclusion

The beginning of the Gospel of Luke is ambiguous in a number of respects, and certain source theories that are based on a study of its pre-history are plausible. It is likely that the gospel was written in stages, by one or more authors, and that at different times it began at different points. These points are still visible in the text of canonical Luke, and they present problems to the modern reader. While acknowledging the likelihood that the Gospel of Luke had a complex literary history, it is nevertheless necessary to read the text as it stands.

As it stands there are at least three beginnings in Luke. Luke 1:1–4, as is commonly acknowledged, is a conventional introduction in which the implied author speaks directly to the implied reader about the work. Luke 3:1–2 is a scenic introduction. In between, we have Luke 1:5–2:52, a series of birth and infancy accounts that functions in a way similar to that of the dramatic prologue. These accounts provide a particularly effective frame for the gospel, containing phenomena of circularity and parallelism. In particular the disjunction between 2:52 and 3:1 is an effective dramatic device that may be compared with certain dramatic prologues of Euripides.

Although the birth narratives may not belong to the original edition of Luke, they nevertheless function as part of an effective beginning to the gospel.

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The Birth of a Beginning: John 1:1–18

Werner H. Kelber

Rice University


Both in life and in literature beginnings are consequential, but risky undertakings. This essay explores the johannine prologue as a paradigm of the difficulties entailed in the construction of a literary beginning. Broadly viewed, the prologue signals a double gesture. In keeping with the ethos of beginnings, it affirms authoritative primordiality. Its Logos signifies the quintessential logocentric gesture. Once in place, the transcendental authority is compelled to dislodge itself from its origin so as to engender textual and incarnational consecutiveness. In a second gesture, therefore, the prologue enacts a decentering, a deconstruction of the Logos’ ontotheological foundation. Transcendental and earthly beginnings, this double gesture of centering and decentering, constitute the prologue’s program which creates the central predicament for the subsequent narrative. Whether this problem is perceived in terms of flesh versus glory, the earthly versus the heavenly, the literal versus the metaphorical, or the signifier versus the signified, it resists any demonstrable narrative resolution.

The beginning is the most important

Henceforth, it was necessary to begin

part of the work.

thinking that there was no center, that


the center could not be thought in the


form of present-being, that the center


had no natural site, that it was not a

Look with favor upon a bold beginning.

fixed locus but a function, a sort of non-


locus in which an infinite number of


sign-substitutions came into play. This


was the moment when language invaded t

The beginnings and endings of all

he universal problematic, the moment

human undertakings are untidy …

when, in the absence of a center or

John Galsworthy

origin, everything became discourse.


Jacques Derrida

0. Introduction

In John’s gospel narrative as in any other literary work there is a need for commencement, for “without at least a sense of a beginning, nothing can really be done, much less ended” (Said: 49–50). Each author must make a commitment to a point of departure from which the work is to take its initiative. In John’s case, the beginning is consciously constructed in the so-called prologue to the gospel (John 1:1–18). It signals a prefatory gesture which prepares the way for what is to come. The beginning of the Logos (ΛΌΓΟς, “Word”) in and with God, his coming as life and light into the darkness of the world, the baptizer’s witness to him, the rejection by his own, the calling forth of the children of God, the Logos’ incarnational mission and the radiance of his glory, his superiority over Moses, and his implied seeing of God—these are the dramatic and thematic directives which guide the reading of what follows.

What distinguishes the johannine prologue is that its ambitions go far beyond the need to introduce the gospel narrative. It accomplishes more than any conventional function of beginning. For in writing a beginning to his narrative the author harks back to the transcendental beginning of the world. This designation of the primordial, divine archē (ἀρχή; “beginning”) involves the writer in one of the intrinsic paradoxes of beginnings. For the Logos en archē (ὁ λόγος ἐν ἀρχῇ; “the Word in the beginning”), while insinuating foundational stability, can in his logocentric self-centeredness engender neither world nor text. A disestablishment of the archē is required to get the narrative under way. Indeed, the decentering of the Logos provides the very rationale for the narrative. And thus the prologue in preparing for what is to come already seeks to overcome the Logos en archē even as it inscribes him en archē. From this perspective, the crucial issue raised by the prologue is the issue of beginning itself.

1. Wisdom’s Myth

Among the countless models invoked as ideological prototype for John’s pre-existent Logos, Jewish Wisdom can at present be regarded as the favorite candidate. Coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, Wisdom existed at the beginning before the world was created (Wis 9:1–2; Prov 8:22–23). Subsequent to her participation in the work of divine creation (Prov 8:27–31), she was sent down from the heavenly abode to make a dwelling place on earth (Wis 9:1–2; Sir 24:8ff). Whoever finds her, will find life (Prov 8:35), for she is like a tree spreading forth its branches of glory and grace (Sir 24:16). But she cannot herself find a resting place on earth, because all foolish men reject her (En 42:2). This Wisdom presentation in the canonical and apocryphal books of the Hebrew Bible offers “good parallels for almost every detail of the Prologue’s description of the Word” (Brown: 523). It clearly provides us with a key to the principal operations of the Logos.

Undoubtedly, history of religion parallels and the comparative method can serve as heuristic aids in interpretation. But all too often paradigms such as Wisdom, or the earlier gnostic redeemer myth (Colpe; Johnson: 91–126) were developed into synthetic reconstructions taking on a life of their own which they never enjoyed in actual religious history. Even if it is granted that there existed an identifiable Wisdom myth, the prologue still does not live up to it in all its aspects. The baptizer’s witness, the contradictory juxtaposition of flesh and glory, the contrast between Christ and Moses, and the issue of the visibility versus the invisibility of God are not recognizable as distinctive Wisdom features. What seems to be required, therefore, is a determination not simply of the paradigm embraced by John, but of the use made of it, a process which inevitably entails transformations (Kee: 99–125).

Comparative recourse to history of religion models can also prevent us from asking more probing questions. If John’s beginning is as deeply informed by Wisdom as many interpreters are inclined to suggest, why is it that neither sophia (“wisdom”) nor sophos (“wise man”) are featured in prologue or gospel narrative? If one assumes that Jesus could not be identified with the female sophia, it must be pointed out that both Q (Matt 11:19b/Luke 7:35) and Paul (1 Cor 1:24) were doing just that. The very existence of Wisdom features in the prologue forces the question why John’s Jesus is introduced as Logos, and not as Sophia. Reference to the interchangeability of sophia with Logos in hellenistic Judaism, and to Philo’s transference of sophia attributes upon the logos (Mack: 96–107, 141–54) is but another recourse to the history of religious ideas which leaves the basic question unanswered. Why does the johannine prologue perceive Jesus as entering the darkness of the world not as Wisdom, but in fact as Logos?

To rely on Wisdom as the explanatory model is to content ourselves with surface answers, and to sustain our belief in the beginning of the Logos as a theological commonplace. Recourse to an analogous intellectual model hardly does justice to the historical and philosophical questions raised by the genesis of the logocentric archē Here as elsewhere we have prematurely grown satisfied with results obtained by the comparative method, results so eminently plausible as to distract us from a genuinely critical interrogation. For in the history of ideas little is genuinely understood by appeal to external influences on a text. “In order for an ‘influence’ of alien concepts to be absorbed, a situation must have previously emerged within which these concepts could be greeted as an aid for the expression of a problem already present” (Pannenberg: 153). Indeed, the appropriation of a Logos christology in completely detached fashion seems all the more unlikely in view of Martyn’s recent demonstration of John’s narrative engagement in and response to his contemporary situation. What was it in the tradition from which the gospel emerged that inspired the evangelist to postulate the beginning of Jesus as Logos en archē?

In philosophical, postmodern terms, the apotheosis of the Logos signifies the quintessential logocentric gesture (Derrida, 1976, 1978, 1981). Installed in privileged position, the Logos presents himself as foundational stability, a force outside of time and prior to world. He constitutes transparency and transcendence in full regalia. In thus elevating Jesus to the position of transcendental signified, the prologue has accomplished what postmodernism fears most about logocentrism: a fundamental immobility which seeks to stall the flux of life and to conceal the permutations and transformations that give birth to all elements, including that of the Logos himself. World and language are reduced to the primordial reference point which delimits play and consummates desire. Viewed from this angle, the Logos proves himself to be a child of the archeology of the human spirit which always places an archē (as well as a telos) above the flux of discourse.

The postmodern polemic toward logocentrism has the minimal advantage of teaching us that Wisdom’s myth hardly exhausts the way we can think about the Logos. This transcendental Logos who acts as preexistent referent, who does not submit to any external tribunal, and who touches base with none other but himself in Divinity and with Divinity in himself … this Logos claims absolute authoritative privileges. Precisely because scholarship has safely tucked him away in Wisdom’s myth and has made him look so natural, so innocent, he merits closer scrutiny. Precisely because John’s prologue raised the issue of beginning to its transcendental outer limits, it deserves critical examination.

All writings strive to constitute authority for themselves and for their readers, and one of the principal functions of a written beginnings is to install authority “by allowing it to be set forth as clearly and in as much detail as possible” (Said:16). Concealed in the Logos’ posture of underived origin and transcendental presence is a strong will to power, and we must ask him who claims these categorical privileges: Whence did you acquire this privileged position? Is there no prior otherness that you are dependent on and which is concealed by your imperial gesture?

2. The Logoi And the Logos

To obtain a fresh perspective on the johannine Logos we turn to Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians which records the following outburst:

Everyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is an antichrist: and whoever shall not confess the testimony of the cross, is of the devil; and whoever perverts the words of the Lord … and says there is neither resurrection nor a judgment, that man is the firstborn of Satan. Therefore let us abandon the foolishness of the great majority and the false teachings, and let us return to the Word which was transmitted to us from the beginning (7:1–2).

Writing at the beginning of the second century, Polycarp addressed “the great majority” of heretics among the Philippian Christians with a polemical shrillness which appears excessive even when measured against the customary agonistic tone of ancient rhetoric. Highly offensive as the statement is for us, it does give us insight into the heart of the bishop’s anxiety. Apparently a majority of the Christians at Philippi availed itself of “the words of the Lord” in ways which prompted a denial of incarnation, the cross, individual resurrection and future judgment. How is it that the dominical logoi (“words”) could become the center of so grave a controversy?

Without immediately invoking the ill-definable concept of gnosis or gnosticism, it can be plausibly argued that what Polycarp condemned as a “perversion of the words of the Lord” constituted a language world which was marked by distinctly oral attributes. For what he denounced as a heretical distortion of the sayings describes rather well their efficaciousness in an oral, life-giving sense. Words when spoken are bound to present time and in a sense advertise presentness (Ong: 101, 167–69, passim). The oral performance of the logoi of the Lord likewise manifests presence. If, moreover, in the early Christian milieu the words were spoken prophetically, e.g., in the name and on the authority of the living Lord, they could be understood as effecting both the presence of Christ and communion with him. But whenever the dominical logoi were experienced as a presently realized authority grounded in the living Jesus, then the past of Jesus’ earthly existence and his death, and also a future resurrection of the believers and eschatology in general had lost their meaning. If the words of the Lord conveyed present life, why bother about his past life or an alleged future life? We have no way of knowing whether Polycarp had a sayings or discourse gospel in mind, a genre which despite writing’s countervailing force retained the speaking fiction of the “living Jesus” or the “risen Christ.” But the problem he addressed and the “heresy” he repudiated was that of a metaphysics of presence which thrived on an oral apperception of the dominical sayings.

In view of the Philippians’ heresy it is instructive to observe the strategy Polycarp used to cut the ground from under the “perversion” of the dominical sayings. The bishop who in the spirit of emergent orthodoxy insisted on redemption grounded in Jesus’ past and consummated only as eschatological experience, appears to have questioned at least by implication a full soteriological efficaciousness of the oral proclamation of the “words of the Lord.” The same concern must have motivated his counsel to return to the Word as it was in the beginning. His invocation of the Logos en archē comes in the face of the logoi whose administration has proven problematic. In this sense the Logos (“Word”) is constituted as authority over the heretical application of the logoi (“words”). The Logos asserts control over the logoi.

In view of John’s own preponderance of sayings and discourses, is it believable that his elevation of Jesus to Logos was as disinterested in the problematics of these logoi as it appears from studies on the prologue? Could one not in analogy to Polycarp’s regressive move from the logoi to the Logos postulate a similar motivation for the johannine installation of the transcendental Logos? In different words, we are inclined to assume an intra-johannine dynamic between the logoi and the Logos which illuminates John’s predilection for the authoritative singular. This is not to dismiss the influence of Wisdom altogether. But it is to postulate both external and internal dynamics in the formation of the johannine Logos.

In distinction to the other three canonical gospels, the fourth gospel has availed itself of a sayings tradition of massive proportions. The Farewell Discourse alone (John 13:31–17:26), a vast repertoire of speech materials, comprises approximately one-fifth of the gospel. If we discount chapter 21 as a later redactional addition, three-fourths of chapters 1–20 consist of sayings, dialogues, and monologues. And if one disregards the narratologically more densely composed passion-resurrection story, approximately four-fifths of the preceding chapters 1–17 appear to consist of sayings (Sneller). So impressive is the sheer quantity of sayings in John that the question has been raised whether the gospel, or at least its sayings tradition, could have arisen out of anthological, clustering processes (Dewey).

As a result of the inscription of so large a mass of logoi, John’s Jesus is by far “the most communicative” of the four protagonists dramatized in the canonical gospels (Kermode: 453). In his capacity as the incarnate Logos he delivers a preponderance of logoi. These are shaped into discourses which either stand by themselves or emanate from narrative segments. Most discourses aspire to the scenario of dialogues between Jesus and various interlocutors, but many in effect end up as monologues. In the most general sense the gospel is thus characterized by a sequence of narrative scenes and speech complexes with the focus frequently falling on the latter.

The tradition-historical provenance of the gospel’s sayings tradition has long been an issue in johannine scholarship. Perhaps the most prominent thesis developed in this regard was that of the history-of-religion school which flourished in the first four decades of this century. In genre, style, and conceptualization the bulk of the gospel’s sayings was said to have been drawn from a “book of revelation discourses” (Bultmann, 1971: 17, n. 5, passim) which was gnostic in general outlook. It was assumed to have its closest parallels in Mandaean texts, and to have been related to Manichaean literature and to the Odes of Solomon as well. The Mandaean texts were traced back to the first century and assumed to have originated among the followers of John the Baptist. In sum, therefore, the history-of-religion school postulated a revelation discourse of gnostic, baptismal origin which John demythologized in the interest of his own christological project. The redeemer who enters the flesh belies the cosmic dualism of gnostic persuasion. As Bultmann understood the matter, however, John’s revisionist project did not go so far as to erase the gnostic disposition of the source altogether: “Jesus [in John] is the perfect Gnostic, who knows his origin and his goal” (1971: 487).

Kloppenborg’s recent work on Q has reminded us once again of the international character of sayings traditions, which range from Egyptian and Near Eastern Wisdom collections and Hellenistic gnomologia all the way to Cynic and rabbinic chriae arrangements. On the matter of sayings collections, early Christianity was thus a participant in widely practiced cultural activities. Given the Christians’ proven ability to make environmental genres and myths their own, the assumption of direct dependencies on a non-Christian source may oversimplify and unnecessarily rigidify more complex interactive processes. The proposition of an intrinsic johannine sayings tradition worked out in creative adaptation to surrounding models has been strengthened by the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices (Robinson, 1977). At least nine of the fifty-two Nag Hammadi tractates are either in part or in toto structured around the model of the sayings or discourse genre. A growing body of largely North American scholarship influenced by the work of Robinson and Koester has increasingly alerted us to the manifold analogies that exist between the johannine sayings arrangements and the genre of sayings or discourse gospel at Nag Hammadi. Specifically Koester’s studies of notable parallels between johannine sayings and those in the Nag Hammadi sayings genre (1980a, 1980b, 1982: 178–85), and Robinson’s demonstration of a johannine (and Markan) revision of Jesus’ speech ἐν παραβολαῖς (“in parables”), or ἐν παροιμίαις (“in figures”) versus his speaking ἐν παρρησίᾳ (“in plain speech; openly”)—distinct genre designations of the sayings or discourse gospel—have made it ever more likely that John drew on and recontextualized an intrinsically Christian sayings genre.

At times the genre consists of discrete and identifiable sayings or parables of the Lord, as for example in Thomas, but more frequently sayings and parables are developed into running dialogues and discourses, as with the Apocryphon of James. What characterizes all forms of the genre is a communication of the “living Jesus” or “risen Lord” to a privileged group of recipients, usually some trusted male and oftentimes female disciples. Both the exclusivity of audience and the “living” authority of the speaker suggest the theological category of “revelation discourses,” the very category which had long been suspected of having formed the center of generic identity for the johannine sayings tradition. John’s Farewell Speech in particular has many of the hallmarks of just such a revelation discourse. Its heavy concentration of speech materials consisting of sayings, clusters of sayings and dialogues, the exclusivity of audience which is limited to certain of the disciples, the ambiguity of Jesus’ authority which far from being fully earthbound appears at times to be that of the “living” Lord (John 16:4; 17:11–12), use of the technical designations of speaking ἐν παροιμίαις (“in figures”) versus ἐν παρρησίᾳ (“in plain speech; openly”) (John 16:25, 29), as well as proven parallels between johannine sayings and those in the discourse gospels—these are all indications of certain affinities between the johannine Farewell Discourse and the genre of the revelation discourse.

Jesus’ identity as the “living” or “risen” Lord suggests an authority that is operative in the present. His communication to an exclusive group of recipients, moreover, seeks to prevent dissemination among the many, and to assure self-disclosure among the privileged few. The virtual absence of a narrative framework further contributes to the open and direct address character of the discourses. Despite the fact that the revelation discourse is already a written product, it is motivated by the desire to overcome a sense of pastness that comes with all writing. In different words, the genre still seeks to cling to a metaphysics of presence.

That there could exist a connection between the logoi and the Logos in John has recently been suggested in what is the most exhaustive treatment of the prologue in modern exegetical history:

The fact that it [the body of the gospel] recognizes that Jesus’ significance lies in his faultless articulation as reliable messenger of the words of God by virtue of his own personal engagement, is sufficient ground to call him the Word himself, the exegesis of God. In this way, the central significance of the theology of the Word in the body of the gospel corresponds to the citation of the Logos in the prologue (Theobald: 301–02).

In accounting for a link between the logoi and the Logos, Theobald appealed in general terms to a johannine theology of the Word, while barely touching on the issue of the revelation discourse. And yet, the johannine Jesus appears to have been promoted to the status of transcendental Word not merely because he was known as speaker of words, but more specifically because the genre of his many words had become an issue for the writer of the narrative gospel. John who espoused incarnation, death and futurity, could not allow the revelation discourse to remain on its own generic cognizance, for that genre’s sympathies with a metaphysics of presence conflicted with the genius of narrativity to retrieve the past of Jesus’ life and death. For John the dominical words were not those of the “living Jesus,” a strangely disembodied figure, but almost always those of a historicized person. And even in those instances where the risen Lord speaks in John, his authority is grounded in an antecedent incarnational life and tested by a victorious death. Not unlike Polycarp, John grappled with the operation of the dominical logoi, but unlike the bishop he proceeded to incarnate the discourses in a narration of Jesus’ life and death.

Recognition that John grappled with a revelation discourse model still does not explain the intra-johannine logic that inspired the transcendentality of the preexistent Logos. What characterizes the relation of the logoi with the Logos is plurality versus singularity, an issue in evidence elsewhere in the johannine narrative. F.-M. Braun (40–67) has observed a johannine tendency to refocus attention from the plural to the singular. The plural “commandments” (αἱ ἐντολαί) culminate in the “new commandment” (John 13:34: ἐντολῆ καινῆ); Jesus’ “many works” (τὰ ἔργα) are accomplished in his “work” of glorification (John 17:4: τὸ ἔργον); the sign of the “loaves” of bread (οἱ ἄρτοι) gives rise to Jesus’ self-identification as “the Bread” (John 6:48: ὁς ἄρτος); the “disciples” (οἱ μαθηταί) find ideal representation in the “Beloved Disciple” (John 19:26: ὁ μαθητὴς ὃν ἠγάπα ὀ Ἰησοῦς); the “sheep” (τὰ πρόβατα) shall become “one flock” and even “one shepherd” (John 10:16: μία ποίμνη, εἷς ποιμήν). A movement from the plural to the singular is thus an intrinsic feature of the johannine narrative.

On this showing it is tempting to suspect a similar motivation for John’s predisposition toward the metaphysical elevation of the Logos. A passage from the logoi to the Logos seems all the more plausible since the ownership of and authority over the logoi is indeed an issue for John. To be sure, the assumed movement from the logoi to the Logos grew out of composition-theological deliberations, whereas the above-mentioned examples are intrinsic to the narrative. We are dealing with two different, though not unrelated, spheres of hermeneutical activity. We shall in the concluding section probe a further motive for the constitution of Jesus Christ as transcendental authority vis-à-vis a competing authority. The point to be made here is that John’s penchant for singularity in the face of plurality always entails the creation of authority. Just as authority is created by the new commandment, the work of glorification, the bread of life, the Beloved Disciple, the one flock or the one shepherd, so does in like manner the apotheosis of the single Logos constitute authority, and authority first and foremost over the plural logoi. In thus reaching beyond logoi and discourses of logoi toward the Logos en archē, an authority is created which encompasses all the logoi, clusters of logoi, and the genre of revelation discourse itself. But whereas the “living Jesus” of the revelation discourse had been operative in the present, the johannine Logos is lodged at the furthermost end of time, in the ultimate temporal anteriority of origin. In John, therefore, the beginning of writing initiates origin, and the textual creation of origin constitutes absolute authority.

Undoubtedly John’s preexistent Word epitomizes primary, oral utterance and not textualized verbalization. The Logos constitutes personalized speech, or in more traditional theological, but thoroughly oral terms, “a Person, God like the Father, but a different Person from the Father” (Ong: 185). And yet, the Logos cannot be verified as a child of oral interests and dynamics. For orality traffics in a plurality of logoi each of which presents itself as the Urwort. At best, therefore, there exists a plurality of original logoi, hence not the johannine concept of the single Logos (Lord). This leads us to conclude that the privileging of the Logos, this logocentric reduction of the logoi to the Logos, was inspired by écriture. Once we concede a johannine move from the logoi to the Logos, the latter stands exposed as a textually reinvented, monumentalized authority. Once we recognize an intra-johannine dynamic between the logoi and the Logos, the latter shows itself as individualized, phantasized orality which has grown out of a process of metaphorical displacements and deferrals. In this sense the Logos en archē reveals itself as being dependent on a prior otherness which was always already there.

3. Decentering and Incarnation

The beginning of John’s prologue signals authority in view of what is to follow. It points forward to a continuity for which it has itself paved the way. In this sense, the johannine constitution of a beginning and the inauguration of narrative seem rationally and unproblematically related to each other. “And yet we cannot forget that the authority limits as much as it enables” (Said: 34), and the more distant and transcendental it gives itself out to be, the greater the complications in what is to follow. Philosophically, how is the absolute Logos who has given himself to God and God to him, become the life and light of men? How does absolute Being transform itself into Becoming? Pragmatically, how is the metaphysical Logos ever going to engender linguistic or historical consecutiveness unless he somehow sets himself apart from his own totalizing origin? In thus postulating a metaphysical fixed point behind the scenes, the prologue has created a problem for what is to follow, and the subsequent narrative is not simply the authorized product of the central authority, but also a way of coming to terms with the problems created by transcendental originality.

The fourth gospel, no less than Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger or Derrida, affirms a decentering, and it does so in dramatic and ostentatious fashion. Apart from installing the Logos, the most important function of the prologue is to engineer his decentering from archē. What it announces as the “coming into the world” (John 1:9c: ἐρχόμενον εἰς τὸν κόσμον) amounts to a surrender of his privileged position in the interest of the human condition. The Logos was installed en archē only to be dislodged from it. In applying the incision at the most decisive point, namely at the origin, the prologue administers decentering, a deconstruction of its own ontotheological foundation. Centering as much as decentering, and logocentrism no less than antilogocentrism are enacted in the prologue’s program.

The centering and decentering operations of the prologue have a direct bearing on the materiality of the gospel text and on the nature of its narrative project. An unremitting fixation on the metaphysical self-realization of the Logos would not emanate into textuality. If a text was to assert itself and to survive its own logocentric origin, it had to strive to differ. This was the more desirable as ruptures with centers of self-reference have a way of engendering new modes of representation. Having predicated the absolute authority of the Logos as well as his decentering, John’s gospel made the consequences of the Logos’ displacement its prime objective. Indeed, it owes its existence not to the Logos’ transcendental posture per se, but rather to his dislodgment from central place. The gospel justifies itself by narrating the self-effacement of the Logos, and it creates the raison d’Être of its own written existence by tracing the Logos across the flux of human life.

Linguistically one is tempted to concur with Derrida that as a result of the rupture with primordiality “everything became [narrative] discourse,” and that the decentering from the transcendental signified “extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely” (1978: 280). And theologically one is inclined to think that incarnation obliges readers to understand themselves not in relation to transcendentality, but to the worldly existence and crucifixion of the Logos. But it remains to be seen whether primordial authority is absorbed into narrative discourse, or if it strives to loom above narrative life.

In all, the centering and decentering operations of the prologue narrate three beginnings: the beginning of the Logos who is grounded in the preexistent archē (John 1:1), the beginning of John (the baptizer) whose witness introduces Jesus’ ministry (John 1:6–8, 15), and Jesus’ own earthly beginning which sets the stage for his incarnational mission (John 1:14). John’s threefold beginnings signify three stages of Jesus’ archē the transcendental origin, his historical inauguration, and his own incarnational commencement (Theobald, 210). The making of a beginning has a way of begetting more beginnings, and the more distanced the primary beginning, e.g. the origin, the greater the need for decentering and successive beginnings.

The Logos “coming into the world” raises the problem of his own earthly beginning. Where is his point of earthly inception to be located, and what is his mode of commencement? His primordial, logocentric beginnings, far from answering these questions, merely intensify the problems surrounding his incarnational appearance. The prologue addresses the issue by introducing John (the baptizer) in place of the expected Logos ensarkos (λόγος ἔνσαρκος; “Word incarnate”). Authorized by God (John 1:6: ἄνθρωπος ἀπεσταλμένος παρὰ θεοῦ [“a man sent from God”]), the baptizer bears witness to Jesus, the light, so as to engender the faith of all in him. What clearly matters is John’s witness, and not his apocalyptic proclamation or his baptismal activity. By witnessing to Jesus, the baptizer both inaugurates and legitimates him as the light come into the world. In that sense he addresses the problem of the Logos’ earthly beginning.

There are, however, deeper complications lodged in the beginnings of John and Jesus. Although the baptizer proclaims the arrival of Jesus, the former is not strictly cast into the role of precursor, and although John is primarily witnessing to Jesus, it is his emphatic subordination to Jesus which typifies his narrative role and personal witness. When, for example, the narrator stipulates that John’s witness precludes the latter’s identification with light and life (John 1:8: οὐκ ἦν ἐκεῖνος τὸ φῶς, ἀλλ’ ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός [“he was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light”]), he is thereby advising readers not to confuse John with Jesus himself. And when at a later point John himself insists on his inferior status vis-à-vis Jesus’ transcendent priority (John 1:15: Ὁ ὀπίσω μου ἐρχόμενος ἔμπροσθέν μου γέγονεν, ὅτι πρῶτός μου ἦν [“He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me”]), his witness to Jesus amounts to a confession of subordination. It is entirely in accord with this subordinationist witness when outside the prologue the baptizer proclaims himself not to be the Christ (John 1:20, 3:28: Ἐγὼ οὐκ εἰμὶ ὀ Ξριστός [“I am not the Christ”]). Clearly, the beginnings of Jesus and John are fraught with complications.

It has long been recognized that John (the baptizer’s) defensive posture betokens a tradition which viewed him as a messianic personality of singular prominence (Baldensperger; Cullmann: 33–34; Smith: 26–27). This need not cause us to register full agreement with Bultmann’s well known thesis according to which the prologue was based on “a hymn of the Baptist community” (1971: 18; cf. 108, 174) which regarded John as the Revealer sent by God (84–97), and which provided the source for what came to be the Mandaean texts (1925). But it is undeniable that the prologue addresses the issue of competing allegiances to John and Jesus. The presence of a beginning has a way not only of begetting additional beginnings, but also of provoking rival beginnings. John’s beginning has entered into conflict with Jesus’ earthly beginning. Who is the authentic messianic inaugurator? This is the issue taken up in John’s witness and resolved in the language of belatedness versus temporal priority (Foster: 113–14). Despite his belated appearance Jesus remains prior in time and hence superior in authority. The logical implications of anteriority and posteriority are thereby reversed. And if we inquire into the rationale for this reversal, we are led back to logocentric originality. Jesus’ metaphysical protology enabled him to overcome his earthly belatedness.

Following the constitution of the Logos’ transcendental archē and John’s inaugural witness, Jesus’ own incarnational mission marks the third beginning. The prologue enacts it with the memorable words: “… the Word became flesh … and we beheld His glory” (John 1:14: ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο … καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ). This third beginning which sets the logical and theological premise for the subsequent narrative creates a dilemma of perplexing proportions. The assertions that “the Word became flesh” and that “we beheld his glory” generate a tension between what has conventionally been called an incarnational versus an epiphanic christology, two virtually unnegotiable concepts. In less traditional terms, the sarx/doxa (“flesh/glory”) dichotomy articulates the problematics of contingency and transparency, and of the signifier versus the signified. In the words of the prologue, “the light shines in the darkness” (John 1:5: τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει), which suggests that the Incarnate somehow embodies transcendence in worldly contingency. The very narrative which grew out of the displacement of the metaphysical Logos seeks to retain his metaphysical profile.

Bultmann has explicated this dilemma as a theologically inescapable predicament intrinsically lodged in the johannine concept of revelation. In his view, the gospel’s main theme is incarnation. “It is in his sheer humanity that [the Logos] is the Revealer”. But unless the doxa were intelligible and indeed visible, “there would be no grounds for speaking of revelation”. On the issue of the relation between sarx and doxa Bultmann claims that “the doxa is not to be seen alongside the sarx, nor through the sarx as through a window,” but “in the sarx and nowhere else”. This does suggest to him that “revelation is present in a peculiar hiddenness” (Bultmann 1971: 63). Understood in this sense, “revelation is a question, is an offence,” and “the paradox which runs through the whole gospel” (1971: 62–63). Precisely speaking, therefore, Bultmann has “aufgehoben” (both suspended and preserved) the conflict between the incarnational and the epiphanic christology in the paradox of revelation.

Käsemann’s provocative response to the Bultmannian position is well known. Already in his early study on the johannine prologue (1969 [1957]) he stated emphatically: “This theme [of doxa] is at the same time that of the whole Gospel which is concerned exclusively throughout with the presence of God in Christ” (159). His account with Bultmann is finally settled in his monograph on the high-priestly prayer the principal purpose of which is to develop the presence of doxa vis-à-vis the sarx as the leading theme of the gospel (1968 [1966]). Is not, Käsemann asked rhetorically, the statement ὀ λόγος σὰρχ ἐγένετο (“the Word became flesh”) “totally overshadowed by the confession ‘We beheld his glory,’ so that it [the former] receives meaning from it [the latter]” (1968: 9–10). Jesus “belongs totally on the side of God even while he is on earth” (11). If, however, incarnation “does not mean complete, total entry into the earth, into human existence, but rather the encounter between the heavenly and the earthly” (65), and if johannine christology is one of “naive” or “unreflected docetism” (26, 66), giving us a picture of “Jesus as God walking on the face of the earth” (73), and if in “the absence of a theology of the cross” (51) it is to be concluded that “the praesentia Christi is the centre of his [John’s] proclamation” (15), then Bultmann’s paradoxical concept of revelation and indeed “the use of the catchword ‘paradox’ becomes questionable …” (17).

Käsemann’s thesis was in turn subjected to critical analysis by Bornkamm. From the latter’s perspective, John has developed a genuine theologia crucis. To regard the passion narrative as an afterthought is hardly in accord with johannine theology, for it is with growing intensity that the gospel story anticipates and prepares for the “hour” of Jesus’ death (Bornkamm: 114). Käsemann’s picture of “Jesus as God walking on the face of the earth” strongly resembles that of the pre-johannine miracles, a tradition the gospel has subjected to criticism (115–16). Likewise, John 1:14, the formula of Jesus’ incarnational commencement, already presupposes the existence of a gnostic worldview which the narrator of the prologue seeks to counteract (118). If, therefore, one interprets the gospel undialectically and in linear fashion as a story marked by docetism and voided of the cross, “one has at best arrived at the pre-johannine tradition, but not at John” (117).

All three studies view the prologue’s announcement of Jesus’ incarnational commencement as a programmatic, theological thesis which the subsequent narrative undertakes to explicate or to resolve. Bultmann alone enlarges upon the inherently problematic nature of John 1:14, but he quickly converts the problem into a theological virtue. What further characterizes these studies is the absence of a close narratological reading so as to demonstrate how John in fact did undertake to work out the problem of Jesus’ earthly, but glorified mission. That the prologue could have posed a dilemma for the gospel which does not lend itself to a theological or narratological solution, however paradoxical a solution that might be, and that it lands the narrative into perplexing and inextricable dilemmas, is a thought not entertained with any degree of seriousness in johannine studies.

A new generation of interpreters (Culpepper, Duke, O’Day) who are attuned to literary criticism has pursued more closely the narratological implications of the predicament announced in the prologue’s third beginning. To reconcile the irreconcilable the narrative embarked upon the difficult and risky path of irony and metaphor, of double entendre and linguistic duplicity. A whole semiology of language is put to work blazing a trail from flesh to glory. It is this linguistic struggle over the relation of corporeality to transparency which accounts for a good deal of dramatic tension and conflict. “Those who were his own did not receive him” (John 1:11). With these words the prologue announces the tragic consequences of its own program. The ones the gospel designates as “the Jews” will as a rule not be able to follow the signifying directionality of signs and words toward the transcendent signified. For them Jesus’ autistic reference to his own zone of immaculate ideation is blasphemy provoking the charge that he is “making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). Caught in the dilemma of juxtaposing flesh and glory, they end up victims of the gospel’s extravagantly ambitious project.

Others who receive the Logos are privileged to be called “children of God” (John 1:12). They are the ones “who believe in his name” … and are “born … of God” (John 1:12–13). And yet, many characters in the narrative, including the disciples, have difficulty in understanding, or believe in the protagonist for the wrong reasons. That the readers are in the better position is, of course, a hermeneutical commonplace. As a rule literary interpreters have suggested that for the readers John’s figurative language serves the aim of revelation. O’Day’s programmatic statement typifies the current literary, theological viewpoint: John’s “irony is a mode of revelatory language” (31). On this view, the gospel’s semiology of language is constructed primarily for the purpose of serving as a detour toward transparency, inviting readers “in an open search for solid ground” (Duke: 37). But if this is the aim of John’s linguistic operations, how successful is his narrative in accomplishing its theological agenda? John’s Bread of Life discourse (6:26–66) may serve as an example of the complications engendered by the explication of one of the gospel’s central metaphors.

“Bread of life” (ὁ ἄρτος τῆς ζωῆς) in John 6 undergoes a series of ironic translations. Emanating from the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:1–13), a sign misunderstood by those who saw it (John 6:14–15), the metaphor is repeatedly transformed and its center of meaning deferred in Jesus’ famed bread of life discourse. At the outset he introduces a differentiation between perishable and imperishable food (John 6:27: τὴν βρῶσιν τὴν ἀπολλυμένην … τὴν βρῶσιν τὴν μένουσαν εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον [“the food which perishes … the food which endures to eternal life”]). He himself, the Son of Man, is the dispenser of the latter form of bread which conveys life in an abiding sense. The meaning of what constitutes genuine bread is thereby transferred from the material to the nonmaterial level. In response, the audience introduces the metaphor of the heavenly manna. Moses “gave them bread from heaven” (John 6:31: Ἄρτον ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς φαγεῖν). Jesus adopts the metaphor, but contests Moses as the originator of the heavenly bread. His father, not Moses, is the true giver of the heavenly bread (John 6:32: τὸν ἄρτον ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ τὸν ἀληθινόν [“the true bread from heaven”]) which gives life to the world. When the people request this kind of bread, Jesus identifies himself as the bread of life (John 6:35: Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ἄρτος τῆς ζωῆς [“I am the bread of life”]). The metaphor of the bread which had been translated from the material to the nonmaterial and on to the heavenly, is now attached to the person of Jesus himself. At this point the Jews raise objections (John 6:41: Ἐγόγγυζον οὖν οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι [“the Jews then murmured”]). They know his father and mother: he is the son of Joseph, and not bread come down from heaven. The Jews, in other words, are scandalized by the ironic transference of the meaning of bread. They can go a long way with Jesus in the substitution of centers from the material to the nonmaterial, and on to the heavenly, but they cannot follow him in his move toward self-identification.

Far from accommodating the Jews, Jesus proceeds to radicalize the language of his self-identification with the bread. The bread he offers is his own flesh (John 6:51: ὁ ἄρτος δὲ ὃν ἐγὼ δώσω ἡ σάρξ μού ἐστιν [“the bread which I shall give … is my flesh”]). This triggers a heated dispute among the Jews (John 6:52: Ἐμάχοντο οὖν πρὸς ἀλλήλους οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι [“the Jews then disputed among themselves”]). If the transference of the meaning of bread upon Jesus was already objectionable to them, the identification of Jesus, the heavenly bread, with his own flesh is blasphemous. More than ever the Jews are marginalized.

As if to rub more salt into their wounds, Jesus elaborates the metaphor of flesh in starkly realistic, cannibalistic terms. “To eat” (φαγεῖν), indeed “to munch or chew” (τρώγειν), his flesh and to drink his blood will engender eternal life (John 6:53). With these words the course of ironic transformations has arrived at what it appears to have intended to attain all along: life in fullness and in the unity of the eucharistic flesh and blood. Upon hearing this message many of the disciples are puzzled and disoriented. They view this as a “difficult saying” (John 6:60: Σκληρός ἐστιν ὁ λόγος οὗτος, and they “grumble” (John 6:61: γογγύζουσιν). By the time, therefore, the ironic translations of bread (and wine) has attained the goal of sacramental presence, both Jews and many of the disciples are scandalized. The more irony is enforced, the more people are marginalized. In this process, marginalization is a growing co-presence in the works of irony.

Marginalization aside, the work of irony delivers benefits for the readers or hearers of the gospel. Or so we are confidently assured by literary critics of the gospel. Irony’s repeated transpositions serve to usher us, the recipients of the narrative, from one deferral to the next with a view toward presence and transparency. But does John’s irony reward us as readily as theories on irony and metaphor would have us believe?

Interspersed in the bread of life discourse are strong intimations of futurity. Four times Jesus assures his audience that he will raise up on the last day all those who eat the flesh and drink the blood (John 6:39, 40, 44, 54). Yet if “eternal life” pledged in the sacramental meal looks forward to the raising up on the last day, then presence is sapped of full strength, and what is accomplished by the ironic course of substitutions and deferrals is presence inhabited by absence or, strictly speaking, neither presence nor absence.

Still more problematic is one of Jesus’ last words in the discourse: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life” (John 6:63). As a result, many of the disciples refused to stay with Jesus (John 6:66). This is a saying, which does, however, raise questions for the readers as well. The readers were subjected to metaphorical transformations which ushered them from the material to the nonmaterial, and on to the heavenly realm, and finally to Jesus himself and his sacramental flesh and blood. But no sooner were they united with the life-giving flesh and blood than they were strongly dissuaded from the flesh and redirected toward the Spirit. At this point Spirit is identified with Jesus’s words, the very words which had sent them along the route of ironic transformations

In view of this, can it be said that the johannine “bread of life” discourse has managed to reveal the ideal conditions, e.g., those of presence and life? Do the readers have clarity on matters relating to the correlation and soteriological function of flesh and Spirit? Is the conflict of corporeality versus transcendentality resolved for them? How much advantage do they truly have over the characters in the narrative?

This one example suggests that metaphor and irony are not simply reducible to revelatory language operating on behalf of the recipients of the text. That view of irony’s benevolence has failed to pursue more rigorously the implications of its narrative involvements. Indeed, does not this example exhibit irony more like “a figure dancing everywhere and grasped nowhere” (Duke: 41)? For inasmuch as the johannine narration of irony delivers relief, it also confronts us with new conflicts. And insofar as one commonly refers to johannine irony, one might just as well speak of “the failure of johannine irony” (Moore: 159–63). In principle, “irony is unsettling” (Marcus and Fischer: 13), and not always the most expedient tool for arriving at transparency. To focus exclusively on its revelatory aspects forecloses prematurely its narrative operations. In short, readers do not entirely escape irony’s victimization.

In view of these all too brief deliberations on the work of johannine irony, can one view the programmatic statement of the prologue’s third beginning concerning Jesus’ incarnational and epiphanic mission simply as a program to be delivered, or shall one not see it also, and perhaps more appropriately, as the positing of a problem, e.g., of the central dilemma, which will resist any clear narrative resolution? To deliver the truth the Logos has to enter the realm of the flesh, but if he truly “becomes flesh” σάρξ ἐγένετο, his revelation is concealed at best and invalidated at worst. So he can either “become flesh” and forgo glory, or reflect glory and forgo the flesh. The mediation of flesh and glory, earthly and heavenly, literal and figural, a task entrusted to the signifying character of John’s narrative, is less successful than often claimed in johannine scholarship. For in the first place, signs, irony, and metaphor operate less as a “mode of revelatory language,” but more as a way of suspending meaning. And secondly, once meaning is deferred, it can become entangled in narratological and grammatological complications without ever seeing the pure light of transparency. John’s language, in all its signifying striving after diaphanous purity, reserves a wide margin of uncertainty for the characters in the story, and for the readers as well.

4. The Visio Dei

At the point of culmination the prologue returns to the beginning of beginnings, the primordial archē of the Logos. In reaffirming transcendental origin, the prologue once again upholds it vis-à-vis a different authority which legitimated another beginning. But this time it is not the authority of singularity which is affirmed versus the plurality of the logoi, but rather the authority of Jesus Christ which is played out against that of Moses. The prologue’s culminating words, “For the Law was given through Moses, grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17), identifies the Logos and places him side by side with Moses. This juxtaposition articulates the authority of the Logos in relation to that of Moses who invokes yet another beginning, e.g., that of the Law at Sinai.

The prologue’s final affirmation—”God no one has ever seen” and “this one has brought revelation” (John 1:18)—suggests that the Logos delivers what he had obtained by full sight. In the end, therefore, his authority is claimed to reside in the singular prestige of the visio dei. Following in the wake of the preceding Moses-Christ dichotomy, the polemical edge, “no one has ever seen God,” is in part at least directed at Moses. But it is not Moses the lawgiver who is contrasted with the Logos, but Moses the visionary who on Sinai was in the presence of God (Exod 24:9–11; 33:18–23). Implied in these last verses is the understanding that Moses ascended and brought back the Law, without ever having seen, while the Logos who had “seen,” descended and revealed what he had “seen.”

It deserves more than our parenthetical attention that the prologue culminates in the Christ-Moses antithesis. For Christ’s visio dei, this unprecedented ontotheological beginning, once again sets thematic directives for the gospel’s narrative agenda, but it sets them vis-à-vis a Mosaic ascent mysticism. In the narrative Jesus articulates the most direct polemic against an ascent tradition in the discourse with Nicodemus (John 3:1–21). Here he introduces himself as the visionary who has seen heavenly things (John 3:11a: ὃ ἑωράκαμεν μαρτυροῦμεν [“we bear witness to what we have seen”]; 3:12b: πῶς ἐὰν εἴπω ὑμῖν τὰ ἐπουράνια πιστεύσετε; [“how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”]; cf. 6:46) which he communicates to those on earth. Thus speaking as heavenly visionary who descended he asserts his authority vis-à-vis an opposite model: “And no one has ascended into heaven, but he who has descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13). This statement has a polemical ring to it. There cannot be ascent unless there was antecedent descent. The authority which takes his beginning from above is set over against another one which arises from below.

Having subjected an ascent tradition to criticism by invoking the anteriority of descent, the subsequent verse (John 3:14) proceeds to redefine ascent: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so also must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). In “lifting up” the bronze snake in the wilderness, Moses saved those Israelites who while afflicted with snake bites looked at the raised sign (Num 21:8–9). At this point Moses serves as an analogical model for Christ’s ascent. But he can serve as typological model only after his ascent has undergone a drastic revision by way of John’s christological motif of the “lifting up.” In this sense the Nicodemus narration undertakes both a repudiation (John 3:13) and a revision (John 3:14) of the traditional Mosaic ascent mysticism.

If it is objected that one polemic against ascent and vision hardly proves a major concern for Moses and the traditions around him, it must be pointed out that a critical engagement in Mosaic themes and expectations is a central concern of the johannine narrative (Glasson, Odeberg, Meeks, Dunn). The prologue’s profoundly ontotheological culmination in the antithesis of the two visionaries, Christ and Moses, is thus hardly accidental. It enunciates a purpose which typifies the johannine gospel in its entirety. Christ’s visio dei and his subsequent descent negate current beliefs in heavenly ascents, Mosaic and otherwise.

Creation of authority which legitimates the Logos at various stages of beginning—transcendentally versus the logoi, anteriorly vis-à-vis John the Baptizer, incarnationally against “his own” but on behalf of the “children of God,” and ontotheologically in opposition to Mosaic ascent mysticism—is thus a central feature of the johannine prologue.

The Preface as Postface

Theobald theorized that the prologue to the fourth gospel belonged to the latest compositional stage in the production of the gospel (295, 398–99, 490). With this he confirmed a result of the 1982 symposium on Das Evangelium und die Evangelien at the University of Tübingen (Stuhlmacher: 426).

From the perspective of the psychodynamics of writing there is much to be said in support of this historical-critical observation. The writing of a preface to the gospel by creating a structure of three beginnings each of which legitimates the protagonist in a different archē is likely to be the product of what Theobald has termed a Metareflexion (490). The prologue which carries readers back to transcendental originality and dislodges an emanation of beginnings displays a deeply retrospective gesture. But if the intense preoccupation with beginnings which marks this beginning of the gospel hinges on the consciousness of posteriority, then there is fictionality, pretense even, to the prologue as a project of writing. Then the preface can be viewed as encapsulating the consciousness of a postface.

Works Consulted

Baldensperger, Wilhelm

1898    Der Prolog des 4. Evangeliums. Sein polemischer und apologetischer Zweck. Freiburg i. Br.

Bornkamm, Günther

1968    “Zur Interpretation des Johannes-Evangeliums: Eine Auseinandersetzung mit Käsemann’s Schrift ‘Jesu letzter Wille nach Johannes 17’,” EvTh 28: 8–25. Reprinted on pp. 104–21 in Geschichte und Glaube. Gesammelte Aufsätze 3, 1968.

Braun, F.-M.

1978    “La Réduction du pluriel au singulier dans l’Evangile et la Première Lettre de Jean.” NTS 24: 40–67.

Brown, Raymond E.

1966    The Gospel according to John I–XII. AB 29. Garden City: Doubleday.

Bultmann, Rudolf

1925    “Die Bedeutung der neuerschlossenen mandäischen und manichäischen Quellen für das Verständis des Johannesevangeliums.” ZNW 24: 100–24. Reprinted on pp. 55–104 in Exegetica. Ed. E. Dinkler. Tübingen: Siebeck, 1967.

Bultmann, Rudolf

1971    The Gospel of John. A Commentary. Trans. G.R. Beasley-Murray et al. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Colpe, Carsten

1961    Die religionsgeschichtliche Schule: Darstellung und Kritik ihres Bildes vom gnostischen Erlösermythus. FRLANT NF 60. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Cullmann, Oscar

1976    The Johannine Circle. Trans. J. Bowden. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Culpepper, R. Alan

1983    Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel. A Study in Literary Design. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Derrida, Jacques

1976    Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

1978    “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Pp. 278–93 in Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

1981    Positions. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, Kim

1980    “Paroimiai in the Gospel of John.” Semeia 17: 81–100.

Duke, Paul

1985    Irony in the Fourth Gospel. Atlanta: John Knox.

Dunn, James D. G.

1983    “Let John be John—A Gospel for its Time.” Pp. 309–39 in Das Evangelium und die Evangelien. Ed. Peter Stuhlmacher. WUNT 28. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck).

Foster, Donald

1986    “John Come Lately: The Belated Evangelist.” Pp. 113–31 in The Bible and the Narrative Tradition. Ed. Frank McConnell. New York: Oxford University Press

Glasson, T. Francis

1963    Moses in the Fourth Gospel. SBT 40. London: SCM.

Johnson, Roger A.

1974    The Origins of Demythologizing. Philosophy and Historiography in the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann. Studies in the History of Religions 28. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Käsemann, Ernst

1969    “The Structure and Purpose of the Prologue to John’s Gospel.” Pp. 138–67 in New Testament Questions of Today. Trans. W. J. Montague. Philadelphia: Fortress.

1968    The Testament of Jesus. A Study of John in the Light of Chapter 17. Trans. Gerhard Krodel. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Kee, Howard Clark

1980    Christian Origins in Sociological Perspective: Methods and Resources. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Kermode, Frank

1987    “John.” Pp. 440–66 in The Literary Guide to the Bible. Eds. Robert Alter and Frank Kermode. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kloppenborg, John S.

1987    The Formation of Q: Trajectories in Ancient Wisdom Collections. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Koester, Helmut

1980a    “Gnostic Writings as Witnesses for the Development of the Sayings Tradition.” Pp. 238–61 in The Rediscovery of Gnosticism. Ed. B. Layton. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

1980b    “Apocryphal and Canonical Gospels.” HTR 73: 105–30.

1982    Introduction to the New Testament. Vol. II. Philadelphia: Fortress /Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Lord, Albert B.

1960    The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mack, Burton Lee

1973    Logos und Sophia. Untersuchungen zur Weisheitstheologie im hellenistischen Judentum. SUNT 10. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Marcus, George E. and Michael M. J. Fischer

1986    Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Martyn, J. Louis

1979    History & Theology in the Fourth Gospel. 2nd. ed., rev. Nashville: Abingdon.

Meeks, Wayne A.

1967    The Prophet-King. Moses Traditions and the Johannine Christology. NovTSup XIV. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Moore, Stephen D.

1989    Literary Criticism and the Gospels: The Theoretical Challenge. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

O’ Day, Gail R.

1986    Revelation in the Fourth Gospel: Narrative Mode and Theological Claim. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Odeberg, Hugo

1929    The Fourth Gospel Interpreted in Its Relation to Contemporaneous Religious Currents in Palestine and the Hellenistic-Oriental World. Uppsala. Reprint, Chicago: Argonaut, 1968.

Ong, Walter J.

1967    The Presence of the Word. Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. Reprint, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart

1968    Jesus—God and Man. Trans. Lewis L. Wilkin and Duane A. Priebe. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Robinson, James M.

1970    “On the Gattung of Mark (and John).” Pp. 99–129 in vol. 1 of Jesus and Man’s Hope. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Reprinted on pp. 11–39 in The Problem of History in Mark and other Marcan Studies. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982.

1988    The Nag Hammadi Library. Rev. ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Said, Edward W.

1975    Beginnings. Intention and Method. New York: Basic Books.

Smith, D. Moody

1984    Johannine Christianity. Essays on Its Setting, Sources, and Theology. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Sneller, Gary

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Stuhlmacher, Peter, ed.

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Theobald, Michael

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City and Wasteland: Narrative World and the Beginning of the Sayings Gospel (Q)

John S. Kloppenborg

University of St. Michael’s College

Toronto School of Theology


The beginning of Q contains several important allusions to the Lot story of Genesis 18–19, which is echoed again at Q 10:12 and 17:28–30. This has several important effects in defining the “story world” of Q. First, it embeds both John and Jesus within a sacred story, aligning them with Abraham and Lot. Second, in its uses of the Lot story Q echoes prophetic criticism of the hierocracy in Jerusalem. Finally, the deliberate mention of the “region of the Jordan” in Q 3:2 helps to establish a sacred map in which cities, especially Jerusalem, are negatively valued and the periphery—John’s wilderness and Gentile regions—is represented as threatening and overthrowing the center.

0. Introduction

Writing sometime after 314 CE, Eusebius put the question, “Why did John preach in the wilderness and not in the cities or in Jerusalem itself?” He gave two answers. It might be fulfillment of prophecy. But the “critical questioner” would not be satisfied with this bare assertion. A second explanation is demanded:

[John’s locale] is a symbol of the destruction of Jerusalem and the altar there, and of the sacrifices prescribed by the Law of Moses, because forgiveness of sins was no longer extended to them by sacrifices prescribed by the Law but by the cleansing and washing delivered to the one who was thirsty and deserted: I mean the church of the gentiles (Demonstratio evangelica 9.5.429; Heikel:414–15).

Although Eusebius’ answer does not qualify as a good exegesis of the probable intent of any of the Synoptic evangelists, his question turns out to be a good one for the Sayings Gospel Q. Why begin with a fiery speech of John? And why insist that one must “go out” to the wilderness to see John (Q 7:24–26). Why mention the wilderness at all? Eusebius regarded an explanation which appealed to the fulfillment motif to be secondary for the Synoptics; in the case of Q it must be dismissed entirely, since the idiom of fulfillment is not a significant part of Q’s vocabulary. I will argue in this paper that the beginning of Q helps to define a “narrative world” both by establishing a sacred geography and by situating the sayings of Jesus and John with reference to sacred time. Both features are important to the intelligibility of Q’s rhetorical stance.

The term “narrative world” does not, of course, imply that Q employed a narrative framework, or that there is a plot which defines the interactions of the principal characters within space and time. Rather, I use this term to signify the spatial and temporal world within which the sayings are framed and heard (see Petersen:47). The narrative world is to be distinguished on one side from the “real” world, from whose events the narrative world makes a selection (and sometimes, a transformation). On the other side, the narrative world provides the space within which the plot occurs and in whose context plot elements are evaluated and interpreted. The narrative world includes both temporal aspects and spatial ones (see, e.g., Malbon; Chatman:138–45). It is true that the barest beginnings of a plotted time are provided by the opening sequence of Q, with John’s announcement of the Coming One followed by the temptation story, and by John’s later inquiry into the identity of the Coming One (Q 7:18–23). But the narrative world of Q is much broader, defined temporally by the references to Abel and the prophets sent by Sophia since the beginning (Q 11:49–51) and by the judgment and the day of the Son of Man (Q 10:12, 13–15; 11:31–32; 17:23–24, 26–30, 34–35). The times of Noah and Lot (Q 17:26–30) are singled out as paradigmatic, and the period from “John until now” (Q 16:16) is of special significance. Spatially, Q moves within boundaries defined by the wilderness, in which John is found and into which Jesus is led by the Spirit, and the sea (17:2, 6?); by the Galilean “cities”—although Bethsaida, Chorazin and Capharnaum were hardly cities in the true sense—and Jerusalem; and by the non-Israelite cities of Nineveh, Tyre and Sidon and the residence of the Queen of the South. At a higher level of magnification, the world of Q includes agoras (7:31), palaces (7:25) and plazas (13:26); houses and synagogues (11:43); and fields (12:28; 14:18), farms (cf. ἀποθήκη: 3:17; 12:18, 24), gardens (13:19) and waterless regions (11:24). This space is peopled by John, Jesus, their followers and immediate opponents, but also by the heroes of Israel: Abel and the prophets (Q 6:23; 10:24; 11:49–51; 13:34), Abraham and the patriarchs (3:8; 13:28), Solomon, Jonah, Noah, and Lot. The gentile world, however, encroaches upon this largely Israelite narrative space in the form of a centurion of extraordinary faith, the Ninevites, the Queen of the South and the people of Tyre and Sidon. Gentiles, surprisingly, are, with the exception of Q 12:30, employed as positive counterparts to unfaithful Israel.

The point of this essay is to examine Q’s elaboration of narrative space and to determine what role the beginning of Q has in this construction. While much attention has been devoted in recent years to the archeology and stratigraphy of the Sayings Gospel (Q), less effort has been expended on its synchronic and architectural aspects. Almost two decades ago Ernst Bammel devoted an essay to the ending of Q in which he argued that Q 22:28–30 had the best claim to be its concluding pericope (Bammel, 1970). Since this saying seemed to represent the departing Jesus as conferring certain rights upon his followers, its presence and position suggested that Q had been cast as a testament. Bammel even suggested that the beginning of Q must have been influenced by the testament form.

Bammel’s hypothesis has not attracted much of a following, perhaps because of the difficulty of building a generic characterization of Q upon a single pericope. It is not even clear that Q 22:28–30 intends to depict a situation comparable to that of a dying patriarch: this impression derives mainly from the Lukan placement of the saying within the last supper sequence and hence is redactional. Nor is there any evidence that the beginning of Q resembled the opening typical of a testament.

1. Reconstructing the Beginning of Q

In discussing the beginning of the Sayings Gospel one operates, of course, in the realm of reconstructions. Fortunately, some of these reconstructions are quite secure. The first two pieces of speech material, John’s preaching to the crowds (Q 3:7b–9) and the announcement of the Coming One (Q 3:16b–17), are remarkably well attested, with Matthew and Luke agreeing in 62 of the 63 Matthean and 64 Lukan words in 3:7b–9 and in 48 of 57 Matthean and 53 Lukan words in 3:16b–17. The opening oracle can be reconstructed with relative ease:

7 … γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν,

τίς ὑπέδειξεν ὑμῖν φυγεῖν ἀπὸ τῆς μελλούσης ὀργῆς;

8 ποιήσατε οὖν καρπὸν ἄξιον τῆς μετανοίας,

καὶ μὴ δόξητε λέγειν ἐν ἑαυτοῖς· πατέρα ἔχομεν τὸν Ἀβραάμ·

λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν ὅτι δύναται ὁ θεὸς ἐκ τῶν λίθων τούτων ἐγεῖραι τέκνα τῷ Ἀβραάμ.

9 ἤδη δὲ ἡ ἀξίνη πρὸς τὴν ῥίζαν τῶν δένδρων κεῖται·

πᾶν οὖν δένδρον μὴ ποιοῦν καρπὸν καλὸν ἐκκόπτεται καὶ εἰς πῦρ βάλλεται.

7 … Brood of vipers!

Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?

8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance,

and do not presume to say to youselves, “We have Abraham for our father,”

for I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones.

9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the tree;

every tree which does not bear healthy fruit is cut down and thown into the fire.

Luke’s plural form καρποὺς ἀξίους (“fruit [pl.] worthy of”) is normally held to be redactional, anticipating the examples cited in 3:10–14. Moreover, he uses a similar plural expression in Acts 26:20, ἄξια τῆς μετανοίας ἔργα (“deeds worthy of repentance”). The choice between Matthew’s δόξητε (“presume”) and Luke’s ἄρξησθε (“begin”) before “to say” is a bit more difficult, since both ἄρχομαι and δοκέω are attested in Q (at 7:24; 12:45 and 12:40) and since Matthew and Luke use both verbs redactionally. However, Matthew’s redactional use of δοκέω is confined to the insertion of the formula τί ὑμῖν (σοί) δοκεῖ (“what do you think?” 22:17, 42; 26:66; cf. 17:27; 18:12; 21:28) or related formulae (22:53) and he never elsewhere uses the verb with an infinitive. On the other hand, Matthew uses ἄρχομαι with an infinitive, taking the construction from Mark six times and twice from Q. This suggests that Matthew’s δόξητε λέγειν is not his creation, and that had he seen ἄρξησθε λέγειν in Q, he probably would have retained it. The final variation, Luke’s use of καί following δέ in 3:9a, is easily decided in Matthew’s favor, since δὲ καί is a Lukan characteristic (Cadbury:146).

16 ἐγὼ μὲν ὑμᾶς βαπτίζω ἐν ὕδατι,

ὁ δὲ ὀπίσω μου ἐρχόμενος—

οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανὸς λῦσαι τὸν ἱμάντα τῶν ὑποδημάτων αὐτοῦ—

αὐτὸς ὑμᾶς βαπτίσει ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί.

17 οὗ τὸ πτύον ἐν τῇ χειρὶ αὐτοῦ

καὶ διακαθαριεῖ τὴν ἄλωνα αὐτοῦ

τὸ δὲ ἄχυρον κατακαύσει πυρὶ ἀσβέστῳ.

16 Now I am baptizing you with water,

but the One coming after me—

the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie—

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and Fire.

17 His winnowing fork is in his hand

and he will clear his threshing floor

and gather the wheat into his granary,

but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Apart from minor disagreements in the relative placement of ὑμᾶς (“you”) and (ἐν) ὕδατι (“with water”), the most significant discrepancies between Matthew and Luke are found in the naming of the one who is to come, and in John’s statement of unworthiness. Since Luke’s ἔρχεται δὲ ὁ ἰσχυρότερός μου (“one who is stonger than I is coming”) appears to depend upon Mark 1:7, and since Matthew’s ὁ δὲ ὀπίσω μου ἐρχόμενος (“the One who is coming after me”) coincides with the presumably independent Johannine version (1:27), Matthew’s formulation is probably original. Matthew’s ἰσχυρότερός μού ἐστιν (“is stronger than I”) may betray the influence of a phrase that is probably Markan redaction; in that case Q, like John 1:27, used a syntactically incomplete nominal phrase with a relative clause to describe the relation of John to the Coming One. The αὐτός (“he”) in v. 16d then functions as a resumptive pronoun. Thus while Mark and Luke singlemindedly stress the strength of the one who is to come and John 1:26–27 emphasizes the fact of his (unrecognized) coming, Matthew somewhat awkwardly juxtaposes the ideas of sequence (coming after) with strength, taking the former from Q and the latter from Mark. Harry Fleddermann has persuasively argued that Matthew has simplified the image in the οὗ clause (3:16c) from loosing the thongs of sandals to simply carrying them (Fleddermann, 1984:379). Hence Q’s version closely approximated both Mark 1:7 and John 1:27: οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανὸς λῦσαι τὸν ἱμάντα τῶν ὑποδημάτων αὐτοῦ, “the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

In Q 3:17 the only differences between Matthew and Luke are in Luke’s use of infinitives (διακαθᾶραι, “cleanse,” συναγαγεῖν, “gather”) in place of Matthew’s paratactic finite verbs and in the substantive to which αὐτοῦ (“his”) is attached. The former is no doubt a Lukan improvement, comparable to his introduction of three infinitives into the Markan baptismal account (Luke 3:21–22). On the other hand, Matthew’s attachment of the pronoun to “wheat” betrays a slight allegorizing of wheat as the elect, analogous to his interpretation of the parable of the weed and wheat (Matt 13:36–43) (thus Fleddermann, 1984:380; Hoffmann:19).

The Sayings Gospel cannot have commenced simply with 3:7b, however. Since Matthew and Luke agree in placing 3:7b–9, 16b–17 on John’s lips, at least John’s name must have been mentioned in 3:7a. In a careful examination of the pericope, Fleddermann (1985:153–59) reconstructs the introduction with the bare εἶπεν ‹Ἰωάννησ› (“John said”). However, Matthew and Luke also agree by framing John’s words as a circumstantial chreia rather than as an apophantic one: the pronouncement is occasioned by crowds (Luke) or Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew) coming for baptism. Fleddermann is undoubtedly correct in concluding that “Pharisees and Sadducees” is Matthean and that ὄχλοι (“crowds”) is Lukan, and that Luke’s wording of 3:7a has been influenced by Mark 1:5 (Fleddermann, 1985:154). Nevertheless, John’s question “Who warned you to flee?” presupposes precisely what Luke 3:7a envisages: a group of persons coming out to John (cf. Q 7:24). Moreover, John’s own clarification of the nature of his baptism in contradistinction to that of the Coming One is intelligible if the audience has come either to participate in or perhaps simply to be spectators at John’s baptism.

A final agreement between Matthew and Luke may assist in determining the shape of the beginning of Q. While most of the Matthew-Luke agreements in Matt 3:1–6 // Luke 3:1–6 (i.e., “in the wilderness,” “preaching” and the LXX quotation of Isa 40:3) are due to the use of Mark 1:2–6, the coincidence in the use of πᾶσα (ν) ἡ (τὴν) περίχωρος (ν) τοῦ Ἰορδάνου (“all the region of the Jordan”) is striking, especially because both Matthew and Luke use the phrase quite awkwardly. The term kikkar hayyardēn, translated by the LXX as ἡ περίχωρος τοῦ Ἰορδάνου (Gen 13:10, 11, 12; 19:17, 28; 2 Chr 4:17) or ἡ περίοικος τοῦ Ἰορδάνου (“the neighborhood of the Jordan,” Gen 19:25, 29; 1 Kgs 7:46 [3 Kgs 7:33]), was used synonymously with τὰ περίχωρα Ἰερειχω (“the country around Jericho,” Deut 34:3). Although the exact extent of the region is unclear, it certainly included the region north of the Dead Sea, the area around Jericho, and perhaps as far north as Zarethan. The southern limits are unclear, mainly because the locations of Sodom, Gomorrah and Zoar, which this region is said to include, are unknown.

Matthew exhibits some geographical confusion, assigning John’s activity to the wilderness of Judaea (3:1), which technically did not include the Jordan valley (Judg 1:16 LXX B; Ps 63:1) even though it is obvious that Matthew supposes that it did. Indeed, Matthew may be using “the wilderness of Judaea” very imprecisely to refer to wilderness areas in the Roman province of Judaea. He conflates the term “the region of the Jordan” with two phrases drawn from Mark, Judaea and Jerusalem (Mark 1:5), to enhance the idea of John’s popularity. His intent is probably to anticipate the description of the locales from which Jesus’ followers come in Matt 4:25. There, however, he expressly names the Decapolis and the Transjordan (πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου) rather than using the technical term for the southern Jordan basin. In 3:5 it would seem that Matthew wishes to suggest that people who “came out” to John were those who would later follow Jesus. This means, however, that he is using “the region of the Jordan” in a much broader sense than normal.

On the other hand, Luke also shows confusion about geography. He distinguishes between the ἔρημος (“wilderness”) where John’s call occurs and the circuit of the Jordan where he preaches, despite the fact that he later takes over unchanged from Q 7:24 Jesus’ saying which clearly links John’s activity with the ἔρημος. In view of the mention of reeds in Q 7:24 this can only mean the lonely or uncultivated regions of the Jordan, not the arid wilderness of Judaea as Matt 3:1 has it (see McCown:114–17). He introduces a further complication by suggesting that John is an itinerant in the “region of the Jordan,” a notion which is otherwise unattested, but which parallels the itinerancy of Jesus which Luke elsewhere stresses (4:14–15, 44; 9:57–59; 10:1; 13:22; 17:11).

It seems appropriate to conclude with C. C. McCown that neither Matthew nor Luke had a very clear idea of the technical connotations of the term “region about the Jordan,” and neither seems to have connected the phrase with its principal OT context, the Lot story (McCown:117). This makes it all the more striking that they coincide in using the phrase, and suggests that each has been influenced by its presence in source material. Matthew, as usual, conflated phrases drawn from Mark with this phrase, while Luke just as typically chose between Mark and Q.

2. The Beginning of Q and the Story of Lot

I suggest, then, that the opening lines of the Sayings Gospel framed John’s speech as an address to persons—either the curious or those coming for baptism—seeking out John in the circuit of the Jordan. But what indication is there that Q understood the phrase ΠΑ͂ΣΑ Ἡ ΠΕΡΊΧΩΡΟς ΤΟΥ͂ ἸΟΡΔΆΝΟΥ any more precisely than did Matthew or Luke? The phrase itself is firmly anchored in the Lot narrative: the full phrase occurs twice at Gen 13:10–11, the abbreviations ΠΑ͂ΣΑ Ἡ ΠΕΡΊΧΩΡΟς (“the entire region”) and ΠΑ͂ΣΑ Ἡ ΠΕΡΊΟΙΚΟς (“the entire neighborhood”) are found at 19:17, 25, 28, 29 and the phrase recurs in the retelling of the destruction of Sodom in Jubilees 16.5 and 1 Clem 11.1. In addition to the geographical allusions, John’s speech itself contains several images which evoke the story of Lot: the images of flight (3:7b: ΦΕΥΓΕΙ͂Ν, “flee”) and fiery destruction (Q 3:9, 16d, 17) are for obvious reasons associated with Lot (Gen 19:20, 24; Wis 10:6; 3 Macc 2:5; 1 Clem 11.1). Perhaps even more significantly, the hypothetical objection that John imputes to the crowd, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for a father’ ” (3:8b), recalls the fact that Lot was Abraham’s kinsman (Gen 18:17–19; 19:29). Indeed, from the narrative in Genesis one might get the impression that Lot was spared merely because he was kin to Abraham. It is perhaps for this reason that later treatments of the Lot story corrected this impression by referring to Lot as “righteous Lot” (Wis 10:6; 2 Peter 2:6–7) or by expressly stating that he was rescued because of his piety and hospitality (1 Clem 11.1). John’s oracle follows this corrective tradition: only the “fruit of repentance” will serve as exculpatory evidence in the judgment. Hence Q 3: (3a), 7–9 raises the specter of Sodom’s destruction and seals off the most convenient avenue of escape, offering moral reform as the only route.

The impression that the story of Sodom looms large in the architecture of Q is confirmed by the fact that there are two further allusions to Gen 18–19. The redactional phrase at Q 10:12 which serves to attach the commissioning sayings (10:2–11) to the woes against the Galilean towns (10:13–15) declares that the judgment will go lighter upon Sodom than upon cities inhospitable to the Q people. Since the inhabitants of Sodom are regularly remembered as being the worst of sinners, even occupying the lowest reaches of the abyss (T. Isaac 5.27), this is strong criticism indeed. Yet it is not new. Q 10:12 echoes Ezekiel’s reproach of Jerusalem:

Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy … you [Jerusalem] have committed more abominations than they [Sodom and Samarial] and have made your sisters appear righteous by all the abominations which you have committed. Bear your disgrace, you also, for you have made judgment favorable to your sisters; because of your sins in which you acted more abominably than they, they are more in the right than you (Ezek 16:49, 51b–52).

The story of Lot is invoked a final time at Q 17:28–30, which develops the motif of Lot’s unheeded warning to his sons-in-law (Gen 19:12–14). The following Q saying raises the specter of co-workers (in Matthew) or co-workers and friends (in Luke) being torn apart. Although the language of “taking” (παραλημφθήσεται) and “leaving” (ἀφεθήσεται) might in another context connote the taking up of the faithful to which Paul refers, here the allusion is to the Lot story, and the imagery is reversed: some are “swept away” (συμπαραλαμβάνω) as in Gen 19:17 while Lot and his kin are spared (ἀφίημι, Gen 18:26; see Kloppenborg, 1987b:302–303).

3. The Social Map of Q

Let us return to the initial question and ask how Q’s opening evocation of the specter of Sodom and its subsequent reiterations help to define its narrative space, and how that narrative space shapes the reading of Q. Its most obvious effect is to embed John’s preaching solidly within a sacred time, namely, the epic history of Israel. John stands on the side of Abraham and Lot while his interlocutors are as it were consigned to stay in Sodom. The portrait of John in Q differs markedly from the impression left by Josephus’ treatment of John. And in contrast to Mark’s treatment in 1:2–6 and 11:31–33, both of which note John’s popularity, Q implies that John, like Jesus, was for the most part rejected (Q 7:33–34) even though it preserves the memory that many people “went out” to see him (3:7a; 7:24). When Q views John through the lens of the story of Lot, it clearly lends to him a dignity and substance, and assigns him a key place on the temporal map of Q, appearing as he does to herald the judgment, understood here as a reiteration and intensification of the destruction of Sodom. Urzeit ist Endzeit. But this alignment also promotes Q’s imagination of the respective activities of John (and Jesus) as failing largely to win support in “this generation.”

When the Sayings Gospel sets the activity of John and the response of “this generation” within the framework of a sacred time defined by Gen 18–19, it is invoking a powerful image indeed. In the literature of the second temple period the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah regularly served as a paradigm of persons who bore the full force of Yahweh’s wrath, being cut off without remembrance (Jub 16.9; 22.22; 3 Macc 2:3–5). This made the image of Sodom especially useful for defining social boundaries. For example, Sodom afforded an apt image with which to imagine the destruction of Israel’s enemies: Moab (Zeph 2:9), Babylon (Isa 13:19; Jer 27 [50]:40) and Edom (Jer 30:12 [49:18]). But it was also used in prophetic criticism of Israel herself, that is, as a means to realign internal boundaries. Isaiah of Jerusalem addressed the hierocracy in Jerusalem as “rulers of Sodom” when he denounced their sacrifices as inefficacious (1:9–10; cf. 3:9). Jeremiah castigates the “prophets of Jerusalem” for abetting evil, declaring that “they have become like Sodom” (Jer 23:14) while Ezekiel 16 raises an even more dramatic specter: Sodom will be restored in order to shame Jerusalem, since Jerusalem’s sins make Sodom look righteous by contrast (16:49–58).

The beginning of Q has already set about defining a social world in which there are only two states: embracing the Q preaching of repentance or consignment to a fiery judgment. This, of course, is carried further in the two later references to the Sodom story. In much the same vein as Ezekiel 16, Q 10:12 suggests that Sodom, which according to Ezekiel displayed a lack of hospitality to the poor while basking in its own prosperity (16:49), will be better off in the judgment than the towns that do not welcome the Q people. Q 17:28–30 on the one hand compares the situation of Sodom at the time of Lot’s departure with the present hour and by implication suggests that the majority will fare no better than Sodom. On the other hand, the scenario Q depicts is even more ominous. Rather than dwelling in rather typical fashion upon the sinfulness of Sodom—whether a matter of inhospitality, sexual perversion or other unspecified sins—Q depicts the normalcy of the activities of the Sodomites: eating, drinking, buying, selling, planting and building. To be sure, the sinfulness of Sodom and of “this generation” is taken for granted. But the point is that none but the Q people will be aware of and prepared for the coming catastrophe, which will not only “destroy all” (17:29: ἀπώλεσεν πάντας) but will even sunder the bonds of kinship and clan (17:34–35). Thus the image of destruction of Sodom is used by Q to define a social world: by refusing hospitality to the Q people, the representatives of “this generation” show themselves to be even worse than the Sodomites and will suffer a similar fate. Moreover, any easy attempt to identify with the survivors of Sodom by invoking the security of the name of Abraham is foreclosed. To escape the fate of Sodom, one must embrace the ethos of repentance endorsed by the Q people.

4. Spatiality and the Narrative Map of Q

The world of Q is not only defined by invoking the ideas associated with Abraham, Lot and Sodom; it has a spatial dimension too. When Q deliberately situates John in the “circuit of the Jordan” it is not placing him conveniently near a lot of water, as John 3:23 somewhat prosaically notes. Quite the contrary. Q is not especially interested in John’s baptizing efforts. Instead, the mention of this locale brings the reader (along with John’s audience) out into the region of judgment and destruction, or as Wis 10:7 puts it, into the “smoking wasteland” which is an enduring “witness to evil.” The reader is brought along on a pilgrimage, but it is a pilgrimage of unholy, not holy sites. And the message delivered by John is, of course, completely consonant with the physical surroundings.

The spatial dimension of Q’s world is evoked again at Q 7:24–26, with the thrice repeated question, τί ἐξήλθατε (εἰς τὸν ἔρημον) ἰδεῖν; “what did you go out to see?” In the parallel passage in Gos. Thom (78), the contrast is not as sharply drawn: “Why have you come out to the countryside (sōše)?” Thomas contrasts (presumably) cities or towns with the agricultural regions (sōše = ἀγρός, χώρα), while for Q the contrast is between the populated cities and towns and the “smoking wasteland.” But both Thomas and Q imply a critique of the cities where one might find people “clothed in luxurious clothing” (Gos Thom. 78; Q 7:25). Indeed, it is worth noting that all of the Israelite cities named by Q—Bethsaida, Chorazin, Capharnaum, Jerusalem—are characterized as centers of unbelief, opposition and rejection of Jesus and the Q people. Moreover, it is in the agoras (7:31–34) and the plazas (13:26) and at the dinner parties of the affluent (14:16–20) that Q discovers obstinacy, ridicule, false allegiances and rude refusals. At the same time it finds divine self-disclosures in fields (12:27–28) and gardens (13:18–19) and in the simplest artifacts and processes of culture: family life (11:9–13), housebuilding (6:47–49) and the simplest of agrarian transactions (12:6). It is not that the countryside has become an object of nostalgic affection; on the contrary, it is the city that is under attack. One must “go out” to see John and to hear his warnings; and the cities are not where Q expects to find a favorable hearing for the messages of John or Jesus.

Although it is mentioned only once (apart from Q 4:9), Jerusalem is the focus of unbelief and non-acceptance. If the Sayings Gospel, as Arland Jacobson has rightly shown (Jacobson, 1982:365–89), views John, Jesus and their followers in a line of continuity with the prophets calling Israel to repentance and announcing God’s judgment, then Jerusalem, which kills the prophets (13:34), stands at the opposite pole in the symbolic world of Q.

It is not likely that the antipathy expressed toward Jerusalem was exclusively “theological.” Cities are typically viewed with suspicion and hostility in agrarian societies, in large measure because of the parasitic relation of urban centers to the outlying villages (Sjoberg:68–69). MacMullen has documented many ancient examples, which make this point admirably (MacMullen:34–35). Such hostility is aggravated all the more in the situation of aristocratic empires where, typically, the culture of the urban ruling elites is very distinct from that of the non-elite (see Kautsky:72–75). This was obviously the case under Herod the Great whose Idumean nationality and pro-Hellenic, pro-Roman sentiments were obvious and just as obviously resented. But as Martin Goodman has shown, even under Roman rule in Judaea, the Romans were unable to use an indigenous landed elite as an instrument of governance, but had to turn to families whose relationship to their subjects was precarious at best (Goodman:29–50). This could only exacerbate the normal hostilities between city and country, and perhaps even explains the few surviving reports of villagers rejoicing at the destruction of Jerusalem (see Apple-baum:663). In any event, Q’s view of cities, especially Jerusalem, is quite compatible with the perspective of villagers in agrarian societies, resentful of exploitation by the ruling elites of the city.

But theological factors were doubtless at work too. E. A. Wrigley observes, apropos of the question of whether cities were parasitic on the countryside, that the apprehension of urban parasitism among the villagers might be lessened if the city provided a return flow of services, especially religious services (Wrigley:307). Ostensibly, Jerusalem served in precisely this way. But it is extremely important to note that the redemptive media for Q do not include the Torah, sacrifices, Temple, kashrut or purity considerations. In other words, for the Sayings Gospel the holy city and the temple do not provide any service, and to make matters worse, the city kills those who do. The typical peasant view of the city is that it is both morally and physically a death trap; in Q it is also theologically a death trap: for the prophets and for Yahweh’s message.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Q 13:34–35 laments the role that Jerusalem has played in the divine economy and pronounces her temple to be abandoned. This saying is especially significant because of what it implies about the stance of the Q people to other “maps” of Israel. It is very likely that for the ruling hierocracy the temple provided a focal point of a hierarchy of status based on the idiom of purity. This hierarchy was replicated in various systems: socially, by placing the priests and Levites at the pinnacle, and spatially, by locating the Holy Place, the temple and Jerusalem (in descending order) at the at centre of the “world” and Judaea, Galilee, Samaria and the nations nearer to it or at the periphery (see Smith:29–31). For those who embraced this hierarchy, the preeminence of Jerusalem in economic, social, religious, and political matters was self-evident. This makes it all the more significant that Q declares that the focal point of these homologous maps, the temple, is abandoned. The system and everything that derives from it is in ruins.

It is at this point that John’s Coming One makes his final appearance. Even though direct allusions to the Sodom story are not obviously present, the specter of judgment and destruction is. If the Lukan order of sayings reflects Q at this point, the Jerusalem lament is sandwiched between the announcement of the coming of the Gentiles to sit at table with the patriarchs and the corresponding exclusion of Jews (13:28–29), on the one hand, and on the other, the parable of the banquet (14:16–24), which for Q already served as an allegory of salvation history (Kloppenborg, 1987a:229–30). The mention of the killing of the prophets in 13:34 immediately recalls Q 11:49–51 where Sophia announces judgment upon “this generation” for their killing of the prophets. It is noteworthy that the chronicle of vaticide culminates in the murder of Zechariah, which is expressly connected with the Holy Place (Q 11:51a). Q’s pronouncement that the Temple (“house”) is abandoned implies that divine judgment is already taking its course; and both the immediate context and the intertextual connections which 13:34–35 has with other parts of Q reinforce the image of a harsh judgment. Now the reader sees that the Coming One of Q 3:16–17 will act against Jerusalem itself.

We return to Eusebius. His suggestion that the wilderness locale of John’s preaching has both theological and geo-political significance can be adapted to an exegesis of Q. The opening of the Sayings Gospel deliberately evokes the specter of Sodom’s destruction by casting John’s speech in such a way as to recall the Lot story and by placing him and his audience, as it were, within eyeshot of the “smoking wasteland” and its monument to evil. This has two consequences. First, it establishes Sodom and the story of Lot firmly in the narrative and social world of Q, and allows Q and the group it represents to define its relationships to others with that story in view. The preaching of John, of Jesus, and of the Q people becomes continuous with the world of Lot and Abraham, while the conduct of Q’s neighbors is viewed in the dark colors of Sodom. The imagined opponents (i.e., persons who do not embrace Q’s view of the kingdom) are prevented from calling upon Abraham, for later Abraham appears as a banqueter with the Gentiles who have responded to Q’s preaching of repentance. Hence the Lot story serves broader social and theological goals, namely the establishing of social identity and the reaffirmation of certain theological values related to Israelite identity.

The beginning of the Sayings Gospel and its allusions to the wilderness on the one hand, and to the cities on the other, also establishes a narrative map. The wasteland of Sodom now threatens the inhabitants of the cities, and in particular the (un)holy city of Jerusalem. Neither the temple and its redemptive apparatus nor the system of cultic purity and the various hierarchies that derive from it can be invoked in the face of the Coming One, for Jerusalem and the temple are already judged and abandoned. The city that was a death trap to the prophets is now to face its own destruction. The Sayings Gospel, then, poses an ambitious challenge to the hierocratic definition of sacred space. The periphery—both the wilderness and the Gentile regions and their inhabitants—is now depicted as threatening and indeed overthrowing the center, both socially and spatially. The beginning of Q, then, should be seen as a reappropriation of sacred time and a redefinition of sacred space which sets the stage for Q’s preaching of repentance and its inversionary vision of a reign of God.

Works Consulted

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Cadbury, Henry J.

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1908    The Sayings of Jesus. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons; London: Williams & Norgate.

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Hock, Ronald F. and Edward N. O’Neil.

1985    The Chreia in Ancient Rhetoric, Volume 1: Progymnasmata. SBLTT 27. Graeco-Roman Religion 9. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

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1982    “The Literary Unity of Q.” JBL 101:365–89.

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1982    The Politics of Aristocratic Empires. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

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1987a    The Formation of Q: Trajectories in Ancient Wisdom Collections. Studies in Antiquity and Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress.

1987b    “Symbolic Eschatology and the Apocalypticism of Q.” HTR 80: 287–306.

1988    Q Parallels: Synopsis, Critical Notes and Concordance. Foundations and Facets. Sonoma: Polebridge.

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The Beginning of the Gospel of Thomas

Marvin W. Meyer

Chapman College

λόγοις σοφῶν παράβαλλε σὸν οὖς

καὶ ἄκουε ἐμὸν λόγον,

τὴν δὲ σὴν καρδίαν ἐπίστησον,

ἵνα γνῷς ὅτι καλοί εἰσιν

To the sayings (or, words) of the wise incline your ear,

and hearken to my word (or, saying);

Apply your heart,

that you may know that they are excellent.

Prov 22:17 (LXX)


Sometimes described as a sayings gospel, the Gospel of Thomas identifies itself more precisely in its incipit as a collection of sayings of Jesus and further specifies that the sayings are “secret sayings” and Jesus is “the living Jesus.” The first two sayings of the Gospel of Thomas exhort the reader to obtain the hermeneutical key and thus penetrate the hidden wisdom of the sayings. This internal evidence from the beginning of the Gospel of Thomas corresponds to the external evidence of wisdom collections from ancient Near Eastern, Jewish, and Greco-Roman antiquity. Features of such wisdom collections raise questions about the possible narrative and dialogical elements already present in “the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke.”

1. Introduction: Q and Thomas as Sayings Gospels

In contrast to the four canonical gospels, Q and the Gospel of Thomas are often considered to be sayings gospels. While the canonical gospels are narrative texts, scholars have noted that Q and Thomas preserve sayings of Jesus with little or no concern for narrative framework. The fate of these two sayings gospels was that they were hidden from the gaze of readers until recent times. In the case of Q, Q was employed as a source by Matthew and Luke and thus assumed its place within those narrative gospels. In the case of the Gospel of Thomas, Thomas was embraced by Christians with esoteric and probably gnostic interests and eventually found itself buried with other such documents near the foot of the Jabal al-Tarif near Nag Hammadi—or, as was the case with the three Greek fragments of Thomas, they were lost, even more ignominiously, in a rubbish heap at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt.

Several of these quick and fairly typical statements about Q and Thomas deserve more precise elaboration, and chief among these may be the statements concerning the gattung of Q and Thomas. For while even J. M. Robinson considers it appropriate to designate Q and Thomas as sayings gospels (1990: viii), he recognizes that the designation “gospel” cannot be made without careful qualification. After all, no apparent title for Q has survived, and any incipit that may have prefaced the sayings collection has been lost or obscured in the process of editing Q. J. S. Kloppenborg (1988:2) highlights three possibilities for an incipit: (1) οὗτοι οἱ λόγοι οὕς ἐλάλησεν Ἰησοῦς (καὶ Ἰωάννης), “These are the sayings that Jesus (and John) spoke” (cf. the incipit of the Gospel of Thomas); (2) κυριακὰ λόγια, “Oracles of the Lord” (cf. Papias, in Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.1); (3) λόγοι (τοῦ κυρίου) Ἰησοῦ, “Sayings of (the Lord) Jesus” (cf. Acts 20:35). Robinson gives clear indication of his similar conviction that Q and Thomas should be classified among collections of “sayings of the wise” in his essay “LOGOI SOPHON: On the Gattung of Q,” where he observes that “one may seek in the term logoi the original designation for the gattung” (79); in his recent “Foreword” he also refers to the use of the word λόγοι in such a passage as Q 6:47. Yet in the same “Foreword” Robinson proposes, “The opening line in the original form of Q was probably the first beatitude, which initiates Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Q” (viii). This blessing upon the poor, Robinson continues, is echoed in Q 7:22, which employs the verb εὐαγγελίζονται “are given good news (or, the gospel)” (cf. Isa 61:1 LXX), in order to indicate that the poor are given the “gospel” in the teachings of Jesus. (We might also note the use of a form of the same verb in the Lukan version of Q 16:16.) Robinson observes that Matthew evidently “recognized ‘gospel’ as an appropriate designation for Q” (vii), since Matthew used the noun εὐαγγέλιον (“gospel”) in 4:23 and 9:35 to characterize the preaching of Jesus.

The Gospel of Thomas, conversely, never employs the term “gospel,” within the text, but the titular subscript appended to the Coptic text describes the document as πευαγγελιον πκατα θωμας, “The Gospel According to Thomas.” The evidence of such Nag Hammadi texts as the Gospel of Philip (NHC II, 3) and the Gospel of the Egyptians (NHC III, 2; IV, 2) would suggest that the popular title “gospel” could easily be appended to Christian texts in order to indicate their general character as “good news,” regardless of the actual gattung of the text. The Gospel of Truth (NHC I, 3) likewise makes general use of the word “gospel” in its incipit. Robinson’s conclusion probably expresses a point of considerable scholarly consensus on this matter: “In general, one may sense that the titles appended as subscriptions at the end of tractates may be logically secondary to the titles implicit in an incipit, even in cases when both were already present when the Nag Hammadi codices were written” (1971:78). Robinson must add the final disclaimer because of the presence of both an incipit and a titular, subscript in the Gospel of Thomas, and because the titular subscript itself, though transmitted in Coptic letters, preserves the Greek grammar of the Greek text prior to its translation into Coptic. In this regard we might also note the nearly identical reference to the (Greek) title of Thomas in Hippolytus, Ref. 5.7.20, where the author refers to what is found ἐν τῷ κατὰ Θωμᾶν ἐπιγραφομένῳ εὐαγγελίῳ, “in the Gospel entitled According to Thomas.”

Hence, in the balance of the present study we shall examine the internal and the external evidence pertaining to the beginning of the Gospel of Thomas. We shall commence our examination by turning to the incipit and the opening two sayings of Thomas, and we shall give particular attention to the issue of the gattung of the text. For the incipit specifies, rather precisely, “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke,” and thus designates the document as a collection of sayings of Jesus—or, more exactly, of “secret sayings.”

2. The Internal Evidence: The Opening of the Gospel of Thomas

The beginning of the Gospel of Thomas is preserved in two versions: the Greek version of P. Oxy. 654 and the Coptic version (almost certainly translated from a Greek original) found within Codex II of the Nag Hammadi library. The incipit and first two sayings preserved within these two versions are remarkably similar in the Greek and the Coptic, yet the few significant differences indicate that the texts represent two distinct recensions.


ⲛⲁⲉⲓ ⲛⲉ ⲛ̄ϣⲁϫⲉ ⲉⲑⲏⲡ ⲉⲛⲧⲁⲓ̅ⲥ̅ ⲉⲧⲟⲛϩ ϫⲟⲟⲩ ⲁⲩⲱ ⲁϥⲥϩⲁⲓ̈ⲥⲟⲩ ⲛ̄ϭⲓ ⲇⲓⲇⲩⲙⲟⲥ ⲓ̈ⲟⲩⲇⲁⲥ ⲑⲱⲙⲁⲥ

These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.

The incipit of Thomas defines the text as a collection of ⲛ̄ϣⲁϫⲉ or λόγοι (“sayings”) of Jesus. This designation of gattung is confirmed by the several occurrences of the word ⲛ̄ϣⲁϫⲉ (“sayings” or “words”) in the body of the text (cf. sayings 1; 13:6; 13:8; 19:2; 38:1). The Gospel of Thomas thus finds its generic place among the early Christian traditions, oral or written, frequently described as logoi (e.g., in the synoptic gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Didache, 1 Clement—see Robinson, 1971:85–95) or logia (so Papias, who also employs the term logoi) of Jesus. To cite one example, Acts 20:35 mentions μνημονεύειν τε τῶν λόγων τοῦ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ, “remembering the sayings of the Lord Jesus.”

In the Gospel of Thomas the incipit employs a series of descriptive terms to bring further specification to the sayings of Jesus. To begin with, the sayings of the Gospel of Thomas are identified as “secret” or “hidden” sayings. This identification of the esoteric quality of the sayings corresponds to statements emphasizing the revelation of what is hidden throughout the text. In saying 6:3–4 Jesus says, “For there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and there is nothing covered that will remain without being disclosed” (cf. also sayings 5, 17, 108). Such an identification of secrecy or hiddenness can also be made in other texts that claim that sayings of Jesus have a secret or hidden dimension. Thus Luke 9:44 has Jesus exhort his disciples to listen to τοὺς λόγους τούτους (“these sayings”), though according to 9:45τὸ ῥῆμα τοῦτο (“this saying”) was παρακεκαλυμμένον ἀπʼ αὐτῶν (“hidden from them”). Further, Luke 24:44 has the risen Christ declare, “These are my sayings (λόγοι) that I spoke to you while I was still with you.” The risen Christ then “opened their minds” (24:45) to understand the scriptures. As is well known in scholarly discussions, Robinson sees a similar concern for riddles or obscure sayings in the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus speaks to outsiders enigmatically, ἐν παραβολαῖς (“in parables,” Mark 4:11) that are resolved for the disciples by means of deeper and often allegorical interpretations. When Jesus is alone (κατὰ μόνας, Mark 4:10) with them, τὸ μυστήριον τῆς βασιλείας τοῦ θεοῦ (“the mystery of the kingdom of God,” Mark 4:11) is disclosed to the disciples. This process of disclosure may compare well, hermeneutically, with the interpretation of the riddle-like “secret” or “hidden” sayings of the Gospel of Thomas.

The incipit of Thomas continues its specification by indicating that the secret sayings are those not simply of Jesus, but rather of “the living Jesus” (ⲓ̅ⲥ̅ ⲉⲧⲟⲛϩ, Ἰη (σοῦ)ς ὁ ζῶν). The use of this phrase in early Christian literature suggests that “the living Jesus” typically refers to the spiritual, divine Christ, who is to be associated with life and truth and whose sayings thus take on the character of revealed wisdom. It seems highly unlikely that the phrase means to refer to anything like the resurrected Christ (in, say, the Lukan sense). Hence, in the Apocalypse of Peter (NHC VII, 3) the savior says to Peter, “That one whom you see upon the cross, glad and laughing, is the living Jesus (ⲡⲉⲧⲟⲛϩ̅ ⲓ̅ⲥ̅). But that one into whose hands and feet they hammer the nails is the fleshly part, which is the substitute that is being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness. But look at him and me” (81, 15–24). In the Gospel of the Egyptians (NHC III, 2) the career of the great Seth and the saints is said to be established “through the incorruptible one, begotten by the word, even the living Jesus (ⲓ̅ⲏ̅ⲥ̅ ⲡⲉⲧⲟⲛϩ), even the one whom the great Seth has put on” (63, 25–64, 3). In the First Book of Ieou there are additional references to ⲓⲥ ⲡⲉⲧⲟⲛϩ, “the living Jesus,” as in the prologue, which reads, “I have loved you. I have wished life for you—the living Jesus, who knows the truth.” And even in the Gospel of Thomas itself mention is also made elsewhere of such related terms as ⲡⲉⲧⲟⲛϩ, “the living one” (Thomas 59; 111:2), and ⲡⲉⲓⲱⲧ ⲉⲧⲟⲛϩ, “the living Father” (Thomas 3:4; 50:2).

The apostolic guarantor or recorder of these “secret sayings” of “the living Jesus,” according to the incipit of Thomas, is Didymos Judas Thomas, i.e., Judas called (twice) the Twin (in Greek and Aramaic [cf. also the Syriac]). Among the several individuals named Judas in the New Testament is Judas the brother of Jesus (cf. Matt 13:55; Mark 6:3; Jude 1). An apostle named Thomas (or Thomas Didymos, “Thomas the Twin,” in John) is also mentioned in the New Testament (cf. Matt 10:2–4; Mark 3:16–19; Luke 6:14–16; Acts 1:13 [lists of the twelve]; John 11:16; 14:5, 22[?]; 20:24–29; 21:1–2). Thomas is acclaimed as the compiler not only of the Gospel of Thomas but also of the Book of Thomas (NHC II, 7), the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and apparently the Apocalypse of Thomas (cf. M. R. James: 555–62), and he is the protagonist in the Acts of Thomas. Among Syrian Christians he is called Judas Thomas and is presented as the twin brother of Jesus. In the Book of Thomas Jesus calls Thomas ⲡⲁⲥⲟⲉⲓϣ ⲁⲩⲱ ⲡⲁϣⲃⲣ̅ⲙ̅ⲙⲏⲉ, “my twin and my true friend” (138, 7–8), and in the Acts of Thomas the apostle is addressed by the donkey as “Twin of Christ (ὁ δίδυμος τοῦ Χριστοῦ), apostle of the Most High and fellow initiate into the secret word of Christ (συμμύστης τοῦ λόγου τοῦ Χριστοῦ τοῦ ἀποκρύφου), who receives his secret sayings (ὁ δεχόμενος αὐτοῦ τὰ ἀπόκρυφα λογία)” (39; cf. also the Syriac translation of John 14:22, as well as the legend of Abgar of Edessa in Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 1.13.1–22; 2.1.6–7). This evidence all indicates a particular devotion to the figure of Judas Thomas in Syria, particularly eastern Syria (Osrhoëne, and its capital city Edessa), and suggests that the Gospel of Thomas may well have originated in this region.

But is there any other way to understand this peculiar figure Thomas in the Gospel of Thomas? In the Gospel of Thomas the only other mention of the person of Thomas (apart from the presumably secondary titular subscript) is to be found in saying 13, a saying that communicates, by means of a brief dialogue, this gospel’s version of the story familiar from the New Testament as the story of Peter’s confession on the road near Caesarea Philippi (Matt 16:13–23; Mark 8:27–33; Luke 9:18–22). According to the Gospel of Thomas it is Thomas who becomes spiritually intoxicated (13:5) and who hears from Jesus “three sayings” (or, “three words,” 13:6) that elucidate a oneness with Jesus. (Compare also saying 108, which incorporates similar motifs to those of saying 13, and clearly articulates the salvific possibility of a mystical union between the divine Christ—i.e., “the living Jesus”—and the believer: “I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to that one.”) That it is the Twin, the recorder of the sayings of Jesus, who is spiritually one with the divine according to saying 13, may provide another way of understanding the role of Judas the Twin in the Gospel of Thomas. This way would be especially pleasing to gnostic readers, who commonly emphasized the need for one to identify with one’s spiritual, enlightened double, one’s “better half,” i.e., one’s twin. As the Gospel of Thomas says repeatedly, salvation is achieved when the two become one (sayings 22:4; 106:1), when people become a single one (ⲟⲩⲁ ⲟⲩⲱⲧ, sayings 4:3; 22:5; 23:2; cf. also 48) and are alone (or, “solitary,” ⲙⲟⲛⲁⲭⲟⲥ, sayings 16:4; 49; 75).

The Greek version of the incipit (P. Oxy. 654.1–3) closely parallels the Coptic (we may ignore the one clear instance of dittography) except for the name assigned to the apostolic recorder of the sayings. In the Greek he is merely named [Ἰούδα ὁ] καὶ Θωμᾶ, “[Judas, who is] also (called) Thomas.”

Saying 1

ⲁⲩⲱ ⲡⲉϫⲁϥ ϫⲉ ⲡⲉⲧⲁϩⲉ ⲉⲑⲉⲣⲙⲏⲛⲉⲓⲁ ⲛ̅ⲛⲉⲉⲓϣⲁϫⲉ ϥⲛⲁϫⲓ ϯⲡⲉ ⲁⲛ ⲙ̅ⲡⲙⲟⲩ

And he said, “Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.”

Saying 1 explicates the means by which one can appropriate the “secret sayings” of Jesus. One must discover the ϩⲉⲣⲙⲏⲛⲉⲓⲁ, the interpretation of the hidden sayings. As Kloppenborg puts it very aptly, “the reader is to penetrate the opacity of the written word by means of a hermeneutical key which would unlock the secret of life” (1987:305). The goal of this quest is salvation itself, for when one attains interpretive insight one “will not taste death.” This figure of speech (“will not taste death,” ϥⲛⲁϫⲓ ϯⲡⲉ ⲁⲛ ⲙ̅ⲡⲙⲟⲩ, [θανάτου] οὐ μὴ γεύσηται) is attested several times in the Gospel of Thomas (cf. 18:3; 19:4; 85:2; also 111:2 [“will not see death”]) and in the literature of the period (cf. Matt 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27; 2 Esdr 6:26). Indeed, saying 1 in general is so reminiscent of John 8:52 (“… and you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word [τὸν λόγον μου], that person will never taste death [οὐ μὴ γεύσηται θανάτου εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα]’ “) that Robinson observes, probably somewhat too strongly, “It is this original concept which is apparently presupposeed in Saying 1” (1971:80), and S. J. Patterson concludes, more modestly, “For both Thomas and John, hearing and understanding (“keeping”) the words of Jesus is the key to salvation” (107). For in spite of these close parallels, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that Thomas saying 1 is literarily dependent upon the Gospel of John.

Who the speaker actually is in saying 1 of the Gospel of Thomas remains textually ambiguous. The antecedent of ⲡⲉϫⲁϥ, “he said,” could be either Jesus or Thomas, and since Thomas is the closer antecedent, one might conclude that Thomas is to be understood as the speaker with an editorial comment on the sayings of Jesus (cf. Meyer:97). Furthermore, the aorist verbal form εἶπεν (“he said”) used in the quotation formula for saying 1 in P. Oxy. 654 is also idiosyncratic, since ordinarily the P. Oxy. fragments use the historical present form λέγει (“he says”) in the quotation formulae. The fact remains, however, that the incipit proposes Jesus to be the speaker of sayings and Thomas the recorder of sayings, so that saying 1, in spite of its ambiguities and peculiarities, may be attributed most safely to Jesus.

The Greek version of saying 1 (P. Oxy. 654.3–5) parallels the Coptic to a considerable extent (including the uncertain character of the quotation formula), but note should be taken of the word [εὕρῃ], “[finds]”, restored in line 4. Admittedly the verbal form is in a lacuna, and evidence derived from a restoration is seldom the most convincing. Yet H. W. Attridge’s restoration follows H.- Ch. Puech and employs a form of the same verb favored by J. A. Fitzmyer, O. Hofius, and M. Marcovich. The matter of the Greek verb becomes significant on account of the possibility of a Stichwort connection between sayings 1 and 2.

Saying 2

ⲡⲉϫⲉ ⲓ̅ⲥ̅ ⲙⲛ̅ⲧⲣⲉϥⲗⲟ ⲛ̅ϭⲓ ⲡⲉⲧϣⲓⲛⲉ ⲉϥϣⲓⲛⲉ ϣⲁⲛⲧⲉϥϭⲓⲛⲉ ⲁⲩⲱ ϩⲟⲧⲁⲛ ⲉϥϣⲁⲛϭⲓⲛⲉ ϥⲛⲁϣⲧⲣ̅ⲧⲣ̅ ⲁⲩⲱ ⲉϥϣⲁⲛϣⲧⲟⲣⲧⲣ̅ ϥⲛⲁⲣ̅ ϣⲡⲏⲣⲉ ⲁⲩⲱ ϥⲛⲁⲣ̅ ⲣ̅ⲣⲟ ⲉϫⲙ̅ ⲡⲧⲏⲣⲩ

Jesus said, “Let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds. When one finds, one will be disturbed. When one is disturbed, one will marvel, and will reign over all.”

Gospel of Thomas saying 2 follows naturally after saying 1, and explains the process of the interpretation of the secret sayings of Jesus. Here again Kloppenborg’s observations are sagacious: “The second saying further elucidates the soteriological and hermeneutical program of Thomas … Given the context, which calls for the interpretation of Jesus’ words, what seems to be described here is a process of ‘sapiential research’ wherein the student passes through the perplexity of gnomic formulation to a state of ‘rest’ and ‘rule’ ” (1987:305). The numerous parallels in the Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian literature of the period indicate the extent to which the sapiential quest was a matter of concern to religious folk of Mediterranean antiquity. Thus Epicurus, in his Epistle to Menoeceus (cf. Diogenes Laertius 10.135), observes that the study of wise teachings leads ultimately to immortality; Sir 6:27–31 and especially Wis 6:12, 17–20 urge the reader to seek wisdom so that one may progress through a series of developmental stages and eventually find rest (so Sirach) or a kingdom (so Wisdom); according to Matt 7:7–8 and Luke 11:9–10 (= Q 11:9–10) Jesus enjoins his followers to seek and find; and such Christian documents as the Gospel of the Hebrews (fragments 4a and 4b), the Dialogue of the Savior (NHC III, 5:9–12; 20), the Book of Thomas (140, 40–141, 2; 145, 8–16), and the Acts of Thomas (136) cite sayings similar to Thomas 2. The Greek version of the saying in P. Oxy. 654.5–9 differs from the Coptic version in that it adds rest (as do several of the parallel texts listed above) to the progressive stages of enlightenment: κα[ὶ βασιλεύσας ἐπαναπα]ήσεται, “and [having reigned], one will [rest].”

The connection between sayings 1 and 2 of the Gospel of Thomas may possibly be established, formally, by means of the Stichwort εὕρῃ, “finds,” that is most likely to be restored in the Greek version of saying 1 (P. Oxy. 654.4) and that is found twice in the Greek version of saying 2 (P. Oxy. 654.7). (The Coptic text, however, employs a form of the verb ϩⲉ, “discovers,” in saying 1 and forms of the verb ϭⲓⲛⲉ, “finds,” in saying 2.) For years scholars have attempted to identify a guiding principle of organization to account for the sequence of the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas. To date none of the suggestions (cf. Schippers, Janssens, Tripp, Davies, Dart—brief review in Fallon and Cameron) concerning the overall structure of Thomas has proved convincing. Instead, the sequence of the sayings may be due, occasionally, to similarities of form (cf. the parables of sayings 8–9, 63–65, 96–98) or, fairly often, to catchword connections of the sort that we may be able to notice in the Greek version of sayings 1–2.

More significant differences among Coptic Thomas sayings and the three Greek P. Oxy. fragments may also be documented, and these differences may have an impact upon our evaluation of the structure of the Gospel of Thomas. For instance, P. Oxy. 654.27–31 adds a statement, not found in Coptic Thomas saying 5, about what is buried being raised; P. Oxy.1.23–30 combines sayings that in Coptic Thomas are designated as 30 (different version) and 77:2–3 (different order for the clauses); and P. Oxy. 655.1. 1–17 incorporates several statements that are not found in Coptic Thomas saying 36 but are reminiscent of portions of Q 12:22–31. These observations illustrate how readily modifications could be made in an ancient collection of sayings, and encourage us to be modest in our conclusions regarding sequence and order in a text, like the Gospel of Thomas, that is representative of what we might dub a loose-leaf gattung.

In sum: The internal evidence of the beginning of the Gospel of Thomas places the text in the gattung of collections of sayings, here of Jesus. By means of a series of specifications in the incipit (“… secret sayings … the living Jesus spoke … Didymos Judas Thomas recorded”) the text calls attention to the enigmatic character of the sayings and the authoritative character of the speaker, whose insights are established by the “Twin.” The first two sayings then explicate the way in which the reader will penetrate and assimilate the hidden wisdom of the sayings and thus attain life.

3. The External Evidence: The Gospel of Thomas and Ancient Sayings Collections

Two studies on Q have shed a goodly amount of light on the gattung of Q and the Gospel of Thomas by examining a wide variety of sayings collections. Such external evidence for the sayings collection as a literary genre helps us test our observations based upon the internal evidence of the beginning of Thomas, and allows us to place Thomas in the broader world of sayings sources in the ancient world.

Robinson’s painstaking study, ‘LOGOI SOPHON: On the Gattung of Q,” discusses Q and Thomas as collections of λόγοι to be understood as wisdom sayings within the context of ancient Near Eastern and particularly Jewish wisdom. Robinson terms this gattung λόγοι σοφῶν, “sayings of the wise” (cf. Prov 22:17, given at the opening of this paper), and suggests that the literary genre exhibits a trajectory “from Jewish wisdom literature through Gnosticism, where the esoteric nature of such collections can lead to the supplementary designation of them as ‘secret sayings’ ” (71). While still an example of the gattung of “sayings of the wise,” the Gospel of Thomas provides hints, Robinson proposes, of the more speculative interests of Gnosticism, whose divine revealer functioned as the more radical heir of personified Wisdom. Hence within Christian Gnonticism the “sayings of the wise” eventually gave way to the gattung of the dialogue of the risen Christ with his disciples.

Robinson’s brief comment on the need to explore Greek literature (74) and passing references to Egyptian and Mesopotamian wisdom literature (110) have been heeded by Kloppenborg, whose revised dissertation, The Formation of Q, provides a marvelous survey of the international world of ancient wisdom and the place of Q and Thomas within that world. Kloppenborg identifies several “modalities” of ancient wisdom collections—the Near Eastern instruction, the Hellenistic gnomologium, the chriae collection—all of which are of interest for the study of the Gospel of Thomas. According to Greek rhetoricians, wisdom sayings could take the form of gnomai or chreiai/chriae, and for a rhetorician like Theon, the determining characteristic of a chreia was that it was attributed to a particular speaker. According to this definition the Gospel of Thomas, with its λόγοι attributed (by means of quotation formulae) to Jesus, is a collection of chreiai. (Kloppenborg employs the categories of Theon to term Thomas “a collection of ‘declaratory’ (ἀποφαντικαί) chriae” [291]; cf. Hock and O’Neil.) While the opening of the Gospel of Thomas makes use of both a title (cf. the incipit) and an exordium (cf. saying 1), after the manner of the Egyptian instructions of Ptahhotep and Amenemhat I (Kloppenborg: 296, also 329, 333), the emphasis at the beginning of Thomas upon interpreting obscure and hidden sayings is more reminiscent of Pythagorean sayings. Thus Iamblichus, De vita pythagorica 161, observes concerning Pythagoras, “He was also accustomed to reveal a boundless and complex meaning to his pupils in a symbolic manner (συμβολικῷ τρόπῳ) through very short utterances, just as Pythian (Apollo) and nature itself indicate an infinite and abstruse mass of ideas and results through handy sayings or seeds small in size.” Kloppenborg concludes that the Gospel of Thomas developed, within the gattung of ancient sayings collections, an esoteric hermeneutic by placing more emphasis upon the authoritative and divine character of the speaker (“the living Jesus”) and “by employing a hermeneutic of ‘penetration’ when describing the intended response to the wise sayings” (327; i.e., the interpreter “will not taste death,” “will marvel,” “will reign over all,” “will [rest]”). Q, on the other hand, developed the historicizing possibilities implicit in chreiai (sayings attributed to historical characters) and added a narrative preface, and thus began to move toward biography, as Kloppenborg also demonstrates in his discussion (in the present volume) of the “narrative space” defined at the beginning of Q.

The studies of Robinson and Kloppenborg confirm and enrich several of the observations made in our study of the opening of the Gospel of Thomas. Two questions remain, and while they cannot be considered in detail here, they deserve to be posed. (1) If Q incorporates biographical or proto-biographical characteristics, as Kloppenborg notes, does not Thomas do the same, only to a less developed extent? After all, Thomas, like Q, makes use of chreiai, and these attributed sayings often are provided the context of a statement or query to which Jesus responds (cf. sayings 6, 12, 18, 20, 21, 22, 24, 37, 43, 51, 52, 53, 72, 79, 91, 99, 100, 104, 113, 114), a dialogue in which Jesus is a participant (cf. sayings 13, 60, 61, 72 [?], 73–75 [?]), or even a limited amount of narrative description (cf. sayings 13, 22, 60, 100). That the traditions within those chreiai could be expanded further into narrative accounts is clear from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas 7:1–4, which describes old Zacchaeus reflecting upon being overcome by the child Jesus in a manner that recalls Gospel of Thomas saying 4, and from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas 12:1–2, which tells the story of a miracle of eight-year-old Jesus with elements from the parable of the sower (Gospel of Thomas saying 9). (2) If the tendency within Christian Gnosticism is to make increasing use of the gattung of the dialogue of the risen Christ with his disciples, as Robinson proposes, do we not see more than a few hints of this tendency internally within the Gospel of Thomas? To be sure, the incorporation of leading motifs and perhaps even sayings from the Gospel of Thomas in such documents as the Book of Thomas (with an incipit that is very similar to that of the Gospel of Thomas; cf. Turner) and the Dialogue of the Savior (cf. Koester and Pagels) documents the tendency Robinson is suggesting. But even within the Gospel of Thomas are there not indications of movement toward the form of the dialogue or the discourse? (Robinson himself, more recently, seems to acknowledge as much when he speaks of the presence of “a kind of fused cluster or compressed discourse” in the Gospel of Thomas [1990:ix].) There are numerous examples either of short dialogues or of questions and answers in the Gospel of Thomas, as we have seen. Almost certainly sayings 73–75 should be understood as a short dialogue, with the ambiguous ⲡⲉϫⲁϥ (“He said”) of saying 74 translated as “Someone said” (cf. the vocative ⲡϫⲟⲉⲓⲥ “Lord,” in saying 74, apparently addressed to Jesus). Furthermore, the juxtaposition of sayings with statements or queries from disciples of Jesus (e.g., sayings 20–22) may anticipate the literary form of the dialogue or the question and answer (erōtapokrisis; cf. Rudolph). Lastly, although there may often be a nearly mechanical use of the quotation formula in the Gospel of Thomas (so Robinson), at times multiple λόγοι of varying form and content may be lumped together into a cluster and introduced by means of a single ⲡⲉϫⲁϥ (e.g., saying 21). At other times (cf. saying 27) the Greek fragment (P. Oxy. 1) employs a quotation formula but the Coptic version does not.

All of this suggests that the subtler issues regarding the gattung of the Gospel of Thomas may well be more perplexing and slippery than the beginning of the text would allow us to imagine.

Works Consulted

Dart, John.

1988    The Jesus of Heresy and History: The Discovery and Meaning of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Library. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Davies, Stevan L.

1983    The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Wisdom. New York: Seabury.

Fallon, Francis T., and Ron Cameron.

1988    “The Gospel of Thomas: A Forschungsbericht and Analysis.” ANRW 2.25.6:4195–4251.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A.

1971    “The Oxyrhynchus Logoi of Jesus and the Coptic Gospel According to Thomas.” Pp. 355–433 in Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament. London: Chapman.

Hock, Ronald F., and Edward N. O’Neil.

1985    The Chreia in Ancient Rhetoric, Volume 1: Progymnasmata. SBLTT 27, Graeco-Roman Religion 9. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

Hofius, Otfried.

1960    “Das koptische Thomasevangelium und die Oxyrhynchus-Papyri Nr. 1, 654 und 655.” EuT 20:21–42, 182–92.

James, Montague Rhodes.

1953    The Apocryphal New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon.

Janssens, Yvonne.

1962    “L’Évangile selon Thomas et son caractère gnostique.” Muséon 75:301–25.

Kloppenborg, John S.

1987    The Formation of Q: Trajectories in Ancient Wisdom Collections. Studies in Antiquity and Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress.

1988    Q Parallels: Synopsis, Critical Notes and Concordance. Foundations and Facets. Sonoma: Polebridge.

Koester, Helmut, and Elaine Pagels

1984    “Introduction.” Pp. 1–17 in Nag Hammadi Codex III, 5: The Dialogue of the Savior. Ed. Stephen Emmel. NHS 26. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Layton, Bentley, ed.

1989    Nag Hammadi Codex II, 2–7, Together with XIII, 2*, Brit. Lib. Or. 4926 (1), and P. Oxy. 1, 654, 655. Volume 1. NHS 20. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Marcovich, M.

1969    “Textual Criticism on the Gospel of Thomas.” JTS, New Series, 20:53–74.

Meyer, Marvin W.

1984    The Secret Teachings of Jesus: Four Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House.

Patterson, Stephen J.

1990    “The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction.” Pp. 77–123 in Q-Thomas Reader. Ed. John S. Kloppenborg, Marvin W. Meyer, Stephen J. Patterson, and Michael G. Steinhauser. Sonoma: Polebridge.

Robinson, James M.

1971    “LOGOI SOPHON: On the Gattung of Q.” Pp. 71–113 in Trajectories Through Early Christianity. Ed. James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester. Philadelphia: Fortress.

1990    “Foreword.” Pp. vii–x in Q-Thomas Reader. Ed. John S. Kloppenborg, Marvin W. Meyer, Stephen J. Patterson, and Michael G. Steinhauser. Sonoma: Polebridge.

Rudolph, Kurt.

1968    “Der gnostische ‘Dialog’ als literarisches Genus.” Pp. 85–107 in Probleme der koptischen Literatur. Ed. Peter Nagel. Wissenschaftliche Beiträge, K2. Halle-Wittenberg: Martin-Luther-Universität.

Schippers, R.

1961    “Het evangelie van Thomas een onafhankelijke traditie? Antwoord aan professor Quispel.” Gereformeerd theologisch tijdschrift 61:46–54.

Tripp, David H.

1980/81    “The Aim of the ‘Gospel of Thomas.’ ” Exp Tim 92:41–44.

Turner, John D.

1975    The Book of Thomas the Contender from Codex II of the Cairo Gnostic Library from Nag Hammadi (CG II, 7). SBLDS 23. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press.

Ending at the Beginning: A Response

Elizabeth Struthers Malbon

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

0. Introduction

How do gospels begin? The four canonical and two noncanonical gospels examined in this issue clearly begin in different ways, and yet certain commonalities emerge from these six different approaches to their different beginnings. It seems appropriate here at the end of this discussion of beginnings to draw together some of those common elements or emphases under the twofold categorization of form and function. My focal questions are, thus, What are the forms of gospel beginnings? and What are the functions of gospel beginnings? A subsidiary question is How do we know this? or What approaches are fruitful in the study of gospel beginnings? The fact that the six scholars of the six gospels have presented different forms and functions of beginnings reflects both the gospels’ differences and the scholars’ approaches. In addition, at the level of abstraction at which I am discussing forms and functions of beginnings, they are not necessarily unique to gospels but might apply to narrative beginnings generally.

1. Forms

Dennis Smith’s opening essay serves to establish the historical literary context of the forms of beginnings by setting forth the ancient models available to gospel writers: (1) the preface (often discussed in reference to Luke 1:1–4, but perhaps also relevant to the incipit and saying 1 of Thomas), (2) the dramatic prologue (very creatively discussed by Tyson in terms of Luke’s birth stories, perhaps implicit in Scott’s account of Matthew’s birth story, and suggestively applied by Smith to Kelber’s discussion of John), (3) the incipit (relevant to the opening lines of Mark, Matthew, Q, and Thomas), and (4) the “virtual preface” (an intriguing category referred to by Lucian, and one that might profitably be applied to Mark and Q). These formal norms give us some ideas of what the gospels’ first hearers/readers would have expected at the beginnings of works.

Beginnings formally begin at the beginning, of course. But where do beginnings end? Aristotle sets forth the obvious: “A beginning is that which does not necessarily come after something else, although something else exists and comes after it.” But how is the boundary between the beginning and that which comes after it, the middle, determined? The break between John 1:18 and 19 is so obvious that the question is never raised by Kelber, but Boring discusses in some detail whether Mark’s introduction ends at 1:8, 1:11, 1:13, or 1:15. Tyson points out that Luke has at least three beginnings—a conventional introduction (or preface) at 1:1–4 and scenic beginnings at 1:5 and 3:1–2. Scott regards the “initial unit” of Matthew as 1:1–4:16, although this unit has three sections, each of which has two sub-sections (each with its own beginning), and 4:15–16 actually forms the introduction to part 2 as well as the conclusion to part 1, or 4:12–25 is a transition from part 1 to part 2! Thus the ending of a beginning is sometimes another beginning rather than a middle. A beginning must manifest both conjunction with and disjunction from the middle, with the marks of the former sometimes masking the marks of the latter. Parsons notes in his overview of literary theory that “in a literary text, unlike a [framed] portrait, it is difficult to tell where a ‘beginning’ ends and an ‘ending’ begins.”

In fact, some gospels have multiple formal beginnings. With the multiple sections and sub-sections of its “initial unit,” as set out by Scott, Matthew begins again and again: 1:1 (genesis), 1:18 (genesis), 2:1 (idou,), 2:13 (idou), 2:19 (idou,), etc. Not only does Luke exhibit the three beginnings mentioned above, but, as Tyson argues persuasively, Luke 1–2 (the double birth stories of John and Jesus) has the form and function of a dramatic prologue. As Meyer points out, the Gospel of Thomas opens with a title or incipit followed by an exordium or introduction (saying 1). Kelber notes, more philosophically than formally, that “The presence of a beginning has a way not only of begetting additional beginnings, but also of provoking rival beginnings”; John’s Gospel narrates three such beginnings: the beginning of the Logos in the archē (John 1:1), the beginning of John the baptizer whose witness introduces Jesus’ ministry (John 1:6–8, 15), and Jesus’ incarnational, earthly beginning (John 1:14). Boring considers that Mark has both a title (Mark 1:1) and an introduction (Mark 1:2–15), and, with a different scholarly orientation, he could have discussed Mark’s multiple beginnings (1:2–8, 9–11, 12–13, 14–15) rather than argue why 1:2–15 is the beginning. (I admit that if a beginning must be found, Mark 1:2–15 has a good claim; but, especially in light of the essays of Tyson and Kelber, I am not convinced that the search for a beginning is the most helpful one here. Mark seems to have an open-ended beginning as well as ending.)

2. Functions

What are the functions of gospel beginnings? What do beginnings do? Study of the above essays, along with my own reflection, suggests three classes of functions: (1) interactional, (2) intertextual, and (3) intratextual. A gospel, like any text, is involved in a communication process: a sender gives a message to a receiver; an author (implied and real) presents a gospel to a hearer or reader (implied and real). By interactional functions I intend especially the operations between a text and a hearer/reader. A beginning connects a hearer/reader to a text. Parsons, following Funk and especially Uspensky, writes of the “transition from the real world to the represented one, or from a point of view external to the narrative representation to one internal to it” that must occur at the work’s beginning. Boring, following Funk, discusses how the introduction of Mark focalizes the following narrative for the reader, and he mentions that the introduction and the conclusion relate the time of the Markan Gospel to that of the readers. Tyson, following Uspensky and commenting on Luke, notes that “The function of the frame [beginning and ending] is to separate the narrative from the world outside it and to move the reader into the story and back out of it.” Scott, following Gennette’s use of the term focalization to refer to the “process by which the narrative shapes the perspective from which it will be viewed,” discusses how the narrator, “the focalizing agent,” sets out the ideological “norms of the text” for the narratee. “The narrator focuses the story by what is selected for narration, but how to form that into a gestalt that makes sense is the role of the implied reader.”

Q and Thomas, being sayings gospels rather than narrative gospels, require beginnings that function somewhat differently. Concerning Thomas, Meyer observes that “Saying 1 explicates the means by which one can appropriate the ‘secret sayings’ of Jesus.” Concerning Q, Kloppenborg argues that the opening deliberately evokes the narrative world of the Lot story in order to serve “broader social and theological goals, namely the establishing of social identity and the reaffirmation of certain theological values related to Israelite identity.” The hearer/reader is connected to the Q text and to the Q community.

A second class of functions of gospel beginnings might be labeled intertextual. Beginnings establish intertextual contexts. Beginnings let hearers/readers know in light of what other texts the gospels are to be interpreted. Among the above essays, this function is most carefully explicated by Kloppenborg in relation to Q’s allusions to the story of Abraham and Lot in Genesis 18–19. The “most obvious effect” of this, he notes, “is to embed John’s preaching solidly within a sacred time, namely, the epic history of Israel.” When this intertextual function is combined with the interactional function of Q’s beginning we find that “To escape the fate of Sodom, one must embrace the ethos of repentance endorsed by the Q people.” A similar phenomenon is observed by Boring in relation to Mark’s opening quotation from “Isaiah”: Mark “is concerned to fit the Jesus-story he is about to tell into the larger plan of redemptive history”; “The relation of the story here told to the Old Testament story is thus absolutely fundamental.” Scott interprets the traditionally labeled “formula quotations” from the Hebrew Scriptures in Matthew 1–4 as manifestations of “a divine focalization” of the story in support of the narrator’s focalization: “the narrator calls as a witness to the narrator’s ideology the ultimate external authority, God.” Tyson does not mention the often mentioned Septuagintal-sounding hymns of Luke 1–2, nor does Kelber comment on the commonly observed reference to the opening of Genesis in the opening of John. Kelber, in keeping with the deconstructionist point of view of his essay, does observe John’s tensions with the genre of the revelation discourse with which it also has affinities. Meyer notes the similarities between the title and saying 1 of Thomas and the Egyptian instructions of Ptahhotep and Amenemhat I and between the initial emphasis on interpreting hidden sayings in Thomas and Pythagorean sayings. Intertextual allusions or quotations help the hearers have ears to hear.

The third class of functions of gospel beginnings in my categorization is intratextual. Beginnings establish, within their own textual boundaries, narrative worlds—including settings, characters, plots, themes, rhetorical modes, and frames. Funk and Uspensky serve again as models for Boring and Tyson in observing the significance of spatial and temporal markers to establish the narrative setting. Of Mark, Boring notes: “The narrative is located in terms of the story time of God’s saving acts, rather than in terms of secular history.” Concerning Luke, Tyson observes, first, that the birth stories “provide a semi-mythical setting for the narrative” (the same could be said of the Johannine prologue) and, second, that Luke’s birth stories serve to “exhibit the Jerusalem Temple as one of the chief settings for the dramatic presentations to follow.” Scott observes that “geography plays an important symbolic function” in Matthew 2, creating “an ideology of paradoxical reversal” in which Gentile places manifest obeisance and Jewish ones death. Kloppenborg argues that the “beginning of Q helps to define a ‘narrative world’ both by establishing a sacred geography and by situating the sayings of Jesus and John with reference to sacred time. Both features are important to the intelligibility of Q’s rhetorical stance.”

In addition to establishing settings, narrative beginnings serve to introduce characters. Both Tyson and Kelber mention this intratextual function, although neither discusses it fully. Boring offers a fuller discussion of this function as it is carried out in Mark’s introduction. “In sum: Mark’s introduction presents John and Jesus as ‘parallel,’ yet subordinates John to Jesus in the mode of narration. This same mode of narration subordinates both John and Jesus to God, the hidden actor behind the whole story.” Scott points out how the Matthean narrator shifts narrative perspective from one character to another and another; the narratee moves from Jesus’ story to Mary’s story to Joseph’s story. The intratextual function of introducing characters is, naturally, of less importance in sayings gospels like Q and Thomas.

Related to the introduction of characters is the setting up of the plot at the narrative’s beginning. This function is very little discussed in a direct way in the above essays, although a number of elements presented as themes introduced in the gospels’ beginnings might also be discussed as elements of their unfolding plots. For example, Tyson (following Elliott), in a discussion of “parallels” between the Lukan birth narratives and the later sections of Luke, comments that “The narrative of Jesus in discussion with the leaders in the Temple (Luke 2:41–52) appears to be a kind of foreshadowing of the longer section in Luke in which Jesus teaches for several days in the Temple (Luke 20:1–21:38).” Scott notes that the conflict set up in the Matthean birth narrative (paradoxically, positive Gentile places vs. negative Jewish places) is expanded throughout the gospel and comes to a climax in Jesus’s final speech: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (28:19). Boring’s understanding of Mark as “narrative Christology” (Tannehill’s term) is also plot related, although he discusses it under the category of themes. When attending to plotted action in Mark’s introduction and Mark’s Gospel, one might also note that the action of the (Holy) Spirit in casting Jesus out into the wilderness (1:12, exballei) is reversed soon thereafter as Jesus proceeds to cast out unclean spirits (e.g., 1:23–26; 1:39, exballōn). Jesus, being overpowered by the Holy Spirit (in the introduction), has power over unclean spirits (throughout the first half of Mark). Similarly, God’s action in recognizing Jesus as “Son” (in the introductory baptismal scene) has ramifications for the plot, as, first, unclean spirits (3:11; 5:7) and, later, the centurion (15:39) come to recognize Jesus as “Son of God.” The gospel beginning sets up the plot.

A fourth intratextual function of beginnings, the introduction of themes, is extensively discussed in the above essays. Boring writes that “the introduction [of Mark] is carefully structured to introduce the themes that appear in the body of the narrative. It was probably written last, after the body was complete.” Boring focuses on five main Markan themes—all christological: the power, story, weakness, secrecy, and disciples of the Christ. Scott shows how Matthew’s birth story introduces the Matthean “paradox that true righteousness is contrary to the expectations of the Law” and initiates the gospel’s “ideology of paradoxical reversal.” Concerning Luke, Tyson mentions the theme of promise and fulfillment and discusses the themes of conflict (in general) and contention about the Temple, all of which are introduced in the Lukan birth stories. Kelber calls attention to the issue of singularity vs. plurality and the theme of Christ’s visio dei vis-a-vis a Mosaic ascent mysticism in the Johannine prologue and gospel. Meyer notes the connection between the identification of the sayings as “secret” or “hidden” sayings in the incipit of the Gospel of Thomas and “statements emphasizing the revelation of what is hidden throughout the text”; the figure of speech, “will not taste death,” occurs several times in Thomas, but it is introduced in saying 1.

This thematic example from the Gospel of Thomas leads us to a fifth intratextual function of gospel beginnings: beginnings introduce the rhetoric of texts. The rhetoric of Thomas is esoteric. As Meyer notes: “Saying 1 explicates the means by which one can appropriate the ‘secret sayings’ of Jesus”—discovery. Saying 2 “explains the process” of their interpretation as a process of “sapiential research” (Kloppenborg’s term). The rhetoric of John is metaphoric and ironic. Kelber recognizes that “the difficult and risky path of irony and metaphor, of double entendre and linguistic duplicity” embarked on in the Johannine Gospel is among “the narratological implications of the predicament announced in the prologue’s third beginning”: the incarnation, the paradoxical en-flesh-ment of God. Neither Meyer nor Kelber speak of “rhetoric” specifically in these examples; nor do the other scholars discuss how gospel beginnings introduce the dominant rhetorical modes of the suceeding narratives, but examples are not difficult to find. It would seem that the allusion to the story of Abraham, Lot, and Sodom in the opening of Q prepares the hearer/reader for a rhetoric of judgment, of unmediated polarities. The introduction of Mark, with its paratactic narration of “Isaiah’s” prophecy, then John’s ministry, then Jesus’ baptism, then Jesus’ testing, then Jesus’ preaching prepares the hearer/reader for a rhetoric of juxtaposition, of significant placements of episodes requiring the hearer/reader to make explicit the implicit comparisons and contrasts. Unexpected elements in Matthew’s beginning—for example, reference to four Gentile women in the genealogy—introduce a rhetoric of paradoxical reversal.

A sixth and final intratextual function of gospel beginnings is the formation of frames. Beginnings along with endings frame the middles of texts. Parsons observes in his theoretical overview that many commentators “assume that foundationalistic beginnings and endings are engendered by the same Western, ontological impulse.” Tyson, incorporating some suggestions from Parsons’ work on Luke, calls attention to a series of features of the Lukan beginning and ending that serve as effective framing devices: the setting in the Jerusalem temple, references to priestly blessings (unfinished by Zechariah at 1:23; by Jesus at 24:51), the theme of returning to Jerusalem (2:45; 24:52). Scott mentions several elements of Matthew’s initial unit (reference to Abraham, the father of Gentiles as well as Jews; Gentile Egypt vs. Jewish Judea; et al.) that culminate in Jesus’s final command to “Go and make disciples of all nations (ethnē).” Boring suggests—somewhat sketchily—that the Markan introduction and conclusion relate the time of the gospel to the time of the readers. “Mark’s introduction is a contemporizing introduction. The prophecy of Isaiah, beginning to be fulfilled at the beginning of Mark’s narrative, provides the heilsgeschichtlich framework which embraces not only the characters in Mark’s narrative, but the lives of Mark’s readers as well.” “Mark intentionally ends with ephobounto gar, ‘for they were afraid’, in order to bring the story into the reader’s present. The reader must decide how the story will continue, and whether it will continue in his or her own life.” This emphasis functions as a frame. (The Markan Gospel’s first word, archē, seems much more a part of this out-reaching open-endedness than Boring allows; Mark’s narrative is the beginning and only the beginning of the gospel, rather than “the rule, the normative statement, for preaching the good news of Jesus Christ.” To employ the terms of Kelber’s essay, Boring’s interpretation tends to “totalize” Mark’s Gospel, which resists and deconstructs such “totalizing.”)

It is clear that the intratextual function of framing is related to the interactional function of connecting the hearer/reader to the text—which brings us full circle in our discussion of functions of gospel beginnings. What do beginnings do? Beginnings connect us to texts (interactional functions); beginnings connect texts to other texts (intertextual functions); beginnings construct the foundations of narrative worlds (intratextual functions)—establishing settings, introducing characters, setting up plots, introducing themes and rhetorical modes, and framing the narratives for the hearers/readers. Form and function have been my focal concerns in responding to these six approaches to the beginnings of six gospels. But a subsidiary concern is the differing approaches themselves.

3. Approaches

As Dennis Smith appropriately notes in the Preface: “That there are multiple approaches found here is reflective of the fact that there are multiple methods being utilized in New Testament research today.” But more important, and equally reflective of current research, is the fact that methodological multiplicity is found not only among the six essays but within each one. I regard this as a strength. In his introductory essay Parsons makes a distinction between literary studies that focus on the text, those that focus on the reader, and those with a deconstructionist point of view. In the present collection, only Scott’s essay represents reader response criticism, although the reader is referred to periodically in other essays. As Parson notes, “the fact that the beginning of a narrative work stands at the critical junction between the ‘real’ world of the reader and the represented world of the text makes taking the ‘reader’ into account unavoidable …” According to Scott, the birth actually narrated in Matthew’s birth narrative is not the birth of Jesus but the birth of the reader “for the narrator constructs an ideological map by which the reader is to make sense of the story that follows.” The narrator creates gaps for the reader to fill. Only Kelber’s essay represents the approach of deconstruction, although Scott’s discussion of how “the Law deconstructs itself” in Matthew shows its influence as well. To be true to John’s Gospel, Kelber insists, we must admit to our experience of its tension as well as its mediation, its suspension of meaning as well as its revelatory language, its uncertainty as well as (or more than) its transparency. The other four essays focus on the text in one way or another.

In general, the six scholars seem willing—from a basically literary point of view—to use whatever scholarly resources seem necessary or appropriate to the task at hand: text criticism, redaction criticism, anthropological and sociological criticism. Boring and Meyer find text criticism essential at certain points. Boring catalogues and evaluates the various textual options of Mark 1:4 and the possible syntactical construals of 1:1–4—with the resultant history of the literature—as preliminaries to a discussion of the meaning of Mark 1:1 as a title to the whole narrative. Many literary critics would not start quite so far back. Meyer examines and compares the Greek and Coptic texts of the Gospel of Thomas, especially its beginning, and comes to a most interesting conclusion: “These observations illustrate how readily modifications could be made in an ancient collection of sayings, and encourage us to be modest in our conclusions regarding sequence and order in a text, like the Gospel of Thomas, that is representative of what we might dub a loose-leaf gattung.”

Redaction criticism comes up more often in these essays, not too surprisingly, given its tremendous influence in gospel studies. And yet New Testament literary criticism began, in part, in reaction against the increasingly minute and tenuous separation of tradition from redaction and the historical rather than literary orientation of redaction criticism. Boring incorporates redaction critical results at various points in his essay, expressing no particular tension between redaction critical and literary critical approaches. Kelber mentions only at the end of his essay the redaction critical conclusion that the prologue of John “belonged to the latest compositional stage in the production of the gospel,” and he immediately puts a deconstructive twist on this observation: the prologue is a “retrospective gesture”; the preface is a postface. Tyson posits that redaction criticism has something to say in gospel interpretation—but not the last word: “While acknowledging the likelihood that the Gospel of Luke had a complex literary history, it is nevertheless necessary to read the text as it stands.” Scott complains that “Redaction criticism, the recent apex of Matthean studies, has abetted the ignoring of the first two chapters [of Matthew] and has left a problematic residue because it determined the parameters for the study of Matthew by comparison with Mark.” The case with Q is unique—and problematic. Like all interpreters of Q, Kloppenborg must begin by reconstructing Q from Luke and Matthew, largely on the basis of redaction critical insights. One wonders what effect critiques of the “assured results” of redaction criticism of the canonical gospels should have on our security in reconstructing Q. Meyer’s comment about “modesty in conclusions regarding sequence and order” in sayings gospels would also be relevant here. (My questions, of course, concern all reconstructions of Q in general, not Kloppenborg’s work in particular.)

Concepts important in anthropological research and modeling—honor and shame—are central in Scott’s understanding of Matthew’s paradoxical presentation of the four women in the genealogy, of Joseph, and of Jesus: these characters are publicly shamed and yet divinely (and narratively) honored. Kloppenborg’s essay employs terms and concepts of sociological criticism. In his discussion of the “social map” of Q especially we see the influence of sociological and anthropological modeling. Kloppenborg is concerned with the social world of Q in its historical actuality. He notes, for example, that “Q’s view of cities, especially Jerusalem, is quite compatible with the perspective of villagers in agrarian societies, resentful of exploitation by the ruling elites of the city.” Yet he is equally aware of literary and theological dimensions. In the anti-Jerusalem motif, for example, “theological factors were doubtless at work too”: Jerusalem is portrayed as killer of the prophets.

Thus the six scholars represent a range of ways of combining a basically literary approach with other approaches. Perhaps Boring and Kelber together set the limits of the range for this collection. Boring writes: “I myself affirm that the historical and literary considerations are not mutually exclusive, so that a combination of literary and historical approaches is most often helpful in determining the meaning of a text.” And Kelber writes: “Here [in seeing John’s prologue as shaped by Wisdom thinking] as elsewhere we have prematurely grown satisfied with results obtained by the comparative [history of religions] method, results so eminently plausible as to distract us from a genuinely critical interrogation. For in the history of ideas little is genuinely understood by appeal to external influences on a text.” Indeed, much contemporary New Testament criticism moves between these two poles.

But Boring and Kelber agree entirely on one point of special interest in this study of gospel beginnings: gospel beginnings are in some sense also endings; they were probably written last. Because Boring finds the introduction of Mark so “carefully structured to introduce the themes that appear in the body of the narrative,” he argues that it “was probably written last, after the body was complete.” Kelber concurs with the historical-critical conclusion that the prologue of John “belonged to the latest compositional stage in the production of the gospel” and finds this congruent with the “psychodynamics of writing”—and, I might add, of reading and re-reading. The prologue represents a Metareflexion (Theobald’s term), “a deeply retrospective gesture,” a “postface.” Only from the perspective of the ending are the implications of the beginning fully understood—if they are ever fully understood.

A beginning is a process, not a point. By definition (Aristotle), a beginning is an open-ended process—it leads to the middle. A beginning is a drawing together of what is needed for the text to communicate: the interaction of a hearer/reader and the text, (frequently) the establishing of an intertextual context to guide the hearer/reader in interpreting the text, and (in narrative texts) the presentation of an intratextual narrative world by the introduction of settings, characters, plot, themes, rhetorical modes, and frames. A beginning must leave gaps, tensions, mysteries in order for the hearer/reader to desire to continue. But beginnings also have affinities with endings; together they often frame the text for the hearer/reader. Beginnings are, finally, retrospective for authors and for reflective readers and re-readers (and most readers of the gospels are re-readers). Thus, with Mikeal Parsons, we could let T. S. Eliot have the last (first) word:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Or we could let Mark have the last (first) word, for gospel beginnings suggest that gospels themselves offer only and always “the beginning of the gospel …”

Beginning to Study “How Gospels Begin”

Robert C. Tannehill

Methodist Theological School in Ohio

There are no absolute beginnings, I suppose. The beginnings of Gospels presuppose much that is only gradually unveiled or remains implicit. Attempted new beginnings in scholarship inevitably demonstrate how much we are tied to what we have done in the past, which keeps repeating itself in our work. My remarks on the essays in this volume will doubtless reveal that as much as the essays do. Nevertheless, over a stretch of time perspectives in scholarship do change. It is significant that the beginnings of the Gospels should be recognized as an important topic for discussion and that this discussion is being conducted with some awareness of discussions about literary beginnings outside biblical studies. As the essays in this volume demonstrate, we can only discuss beginnings by relating them to the work that follows, i.e., by discussing what they are the beginning of. No one can yet be sure what the essays in this volume are a beginning of. However, in my comments about these contributions I will attempt to outline a few further paragraphs in what remains to be written about Gospel beginnings.

As the preface to this volume notes, the authors of the essays on the Gospels did not have access to the introductory essays when they wrote their contributions. Therefore, I am not distributing blame but simply suggesting further areas for exploration when I call attention to an aspect of Parsons’ introductory essay that might lead beyond what Boring and Tyson have done in the study of Mark and Luke. I find it helpful that Parsons not only comments about the relation between beginnings and endings, a subject that he developed in his book on the ascension narratives (see Parsons, 1987), but also highlights Menakhem Perry’s concepts of primacy effect (the tendency of what comes first to control our understanding of what we read later) and recency effect (the tendency of the most recently read to dominate our understanding, perhaps counterbalancing the primacy effect). I will refer to these concepts later.

Section 2 of Boring’s essay on Mark presents a careful argument for the view that Mark 1:1 is the title for the whole work and discusses the implications of this view for understanding the difficult terms ἀρχή (“beginning,” or as Boring suggests, “rule” or “norm”) and εὐαγγέλιον (“gospel”). Boring’s argument is valuable and should be noted by commentators on Mark. I am less convinced by his argument that the introduction to Mark includes 1:14–15. On the one hand, there are strong arguments (reviewed, in part, by Boring) for regarding these verses as the beginning of a new major segment; on the other hand, it may be wisest to declare this a useless controversy, for the ending and beginning of major segments of a work call for attention to the transition between them. The reader or listener must be helped across the gap. (Jacques Dupont calls attention to Lucian’s insistence that a writer should preserve the continuity of a work through “interlacing” the major segments.) While many parts of a narrative may have connections both backward and forward, these dual connections are especially likely in transitional sections such as Mark 1:14–15. The scholar’s desire for a clear outline may arise from our need to simplify and control the complexities of narrative.

Issues that reach beyond the interpretation of Mark 1:1–15 appear in section 5 of Boring’s essay, where he discusses “The Functions of Mark’s Introduction.” Boring views Mark 1:1–15 as a well-written introduction that introduces readers both to the main characters and to the main themes of the writing as a whole. I feel, however, that Boring’s assumption that this is what an introduction should do has led him to stretch the Markan evidence. In reality, the introduction introduces three main characters, John, Jesus, and “the behind-the-scenes main character,” God (whose importance to the story Boring rightly stresses). Even though the concept of Messiah may imply a messianic people, the introduction does not introduce us to the particular persons who will be Jesus’ disciples, nor to the scribes and Pharisees who will be his opponents, nor to the supplicants who will come to Jesus, nor to the demons. The following story (especially 1:16–2:12) continues to introduce characters who are important as individuals or as representatives of groups. There is nothing strange about this. It would be unusual for all important characters to appear in a work’s introduction. We should ask, then, concerning the significance of the fact that the narrator begins with the particular characters that appear in the Markan introduction. This could be related to the importance of the “primacy effect.”

Does the introduction to Mark introduce its main themes, as Boring believes? Leaving aside the question of what the main themes of Mark are, Boring’s assertion that the themes of weakness and secrecy appear in the introduction seems somewhat shaky. Boring presents a stronger argument for the former than for the latter, but there is room for doubt even with the weakness motif. Does παραδοθῆναι (applied to John, not Jesus, in 1:14) necessarily refer to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 and does ἐν σοὶ εὐδόκησα (1:11) refer to a suffering servant? Does Jesus’ baptism imply his identification with weak humanity in Mark? The title Son of God may be paradoxically linked with crucifixion in 15:39, but by itself it is a proclamation of authority. The reference to Jesus’ coming death as his baptism in 10:38–39 carries some weight, but are these two verses weighty enough to control the meaning of baptism at the beginning of Mark, where it is strongly linked with John’s mission? The main points of emphasis in Mark 1:1–15—the proclamation of good news, the call to repentance, the authority of Jesus as Messiah, the stronger one, and Son of God—do not seem to me to include the themes of weakness and secrecy.

This conclusion does not imply that Mark 1:1–15 is an inappropriate introduction. Everything that follows in the narrative need not be anticipated to have an effective beginning (i.e., a beginning that can create significant effects). A narrative must withhold some things. Selective choices are necessary, since not everything can be said at once, and a narrator may strategically withhold some things as later surprises. An introduction may present a one-sided view of characters and events and even awaken mistaken anticipations of how the story will go. This is not simple perversity, for we will experience later events more vividly if we are first led to form a contrary anticipation. I am cautioning against the tendency to view the beginning of a narrative as a cryptic summary of it. We may find hidden clues in the introduction after we have completed the reading of the whole work. But it may be just as interesting to try to strip our minds of acquaintance with the later story and imagine how a story that begins like Mark 1:1–15 might proceed. Would we really expect it to turn out as it does? Aren’t there some surprises for which the introduction does not prepare us?

Joseph Tyson, in his discussion of the birth narrative in Luke, seeks the most appropriate term for this material and settles on prologue, finding the prologue in ancient drama to be a helpful analogy. This is an interesting suggestion that might be explored further by someone. I, too, have found an analogy with ancient drama to be helpful in discussing Luke-Acts (see Tannehill 1985:78–80; 1990:35–36). In part Tyson prefers to compare Luke 1–2 to a dramatic prologue because he stresses the disjunction between these chapters and Luke 3:1ff. Rather than introduction of themes, as in an overture, followed by a smooth transition, there is a new beginning at this point. We should note, however, the preparation for 3:1–6 in the preceding chapters. The mission of John was described in advance by the angel Gabriel (1:14–17) and by the inspired Zechariah (1:76–79). The description there of John as a prophet and the related themes of turning many to the Lord, going before the Lord, preparing a people or the Lord’s ways, salvation, and forgiveness of sins are anticipations of John’s later mission, with thematic connections to 3:1–6. There is also a connection between Simeon’s oracle of salvation in 2:30–32 and 3:6. (On thematic connections between 3:2–6 and the angelic announcements and prophetic hymns of the birth narrative, see Tannehill 1986:42–43, 47–48.)

Tyson discusses “circularity” between the beginning and ending of Luke and “parallelism” between the beginning and other sections of Luke. He understands Luke 1–2 to introduce characters and themes that will appear in the later narrative but is more modest in his claims than Boring. I would like to urge that with Luke as well as Mark we apply the perspective opened up by Parsons in his discussion of the “primacy effect” (see also Perry). A narrative beginning may not only introduce characters and themes for later development but also, through the primacy effect, establish a hermeneutical frame that will influence the interpretation of what follows. The perspectives established at the beginning, when we are seeking to orient ourselves in this new narrative world, will continue to operate until they are decisively challenged. If we consider carefully what Luke 1–2 leads us to anticipate from the future missions of John and Jesus, an interesting observation emerges: very strong statements of salvation for the Jewish people are made by authoritative speakers (the angel Gabriel and inspired persons speaking scriptural language), but at decisive points these anticipations of salvation will not be realized. The primacy effect sets us up for later disappointment.

The wording of the Benedictus is especially striking. There the birth of Jesus is linked to salvation for the Jewish people in fulfillment of promises made both to Abraham and about David’s heir (Luke 1:68–75), and both the Davidic and the Abrahamic promises concern the rescue of Israel from its “enemies” (1:71, 74). The political note here introduced might seem to be a remnant of a pre-Lukan perspective were it not for the fact that key words from the birth narrative, and especially the Benedictus, return in the Lukan version of the entry into Jerusalem and Luke’s special scene of Jesus weeping over the city (19:37–44). There, however, Jesus discloses that Jerusalem will be conquered by its enemies, not rescued from them, because it will reject its Messiah. (On the connection between the Benedictus and Luke 19:41–44, see Tannehill 1986:34–36.) Here I find strategic use of primacy effect, which establishes a very positive expectation of salvation for Israel, juxtaposed later with recency effect when Jesus and the narrator disclose that this expectation will not be realized, even though it is based on divine promises. Although there is a hint of coming conflict in 2:34–35, the dominant tone of the Lukan birth narrative is joyful. This joy, expressed by characters who know the divine promises and are sympathetically presented, contributes to a sense of tragic reversal when expectations of national salvation for Israel are disappointed (see Tannehill 1985). Thus a prologue may be effective not because it tells us in advance what will happen later but because it gives powerful expression to hopes that are not fulfilled, preparing us to powerfully experience the disappointment of those hopes at a later point in the story.

Werner Kelber’s essay on John illustrates Parsons’ point about the diversity of approaches in recent literary criticism. It asks different questions than the essays of Boring and Tyson and shows the influence of deconstructive reading of texts, discussed by Parsons in Part 3 of his introduction. The Logos of the Johannine prologue, according to Kelber, “presents himself as foundational stability, a force outside of time and prior to world. He constitutes transparency and transcendence in full regalia.” Such claims are immediately suspect from the viewpoint of deconstruction. Furthermore, Kelber detects here a claim to authority that conceals “a strong will to power,” a comment that should catch the attention of those concerned with the social and political effects of biblical writings.

Kelber, however, is not simply attacking a false claim to authority. He invites us to consider the Logos in a complex context. First, the Logos is understood in contrast to the logoi, the many sayings of the risen Lord which convey his immediate presence. Here Kelber’s view appears to depend on a historical hypothesis, namely that the Fourth Gospel arose as a corrective to a movement that treasured the logoi of the risen Lord. Kelber can present a learned argument for his historical hypothesis, but it is likely to remain somewhat hypothetical. Apart from this historical context the contrast between the Logos and the logoi easily evaporates, as in much religious reading of John today, in which the Logos guarantees the authority of the logoi and the logoi repeat the claims of the Logos. We can continue to ask whether the Fourth Gospel preserves the disruptive power of the earlier logoi of Jesus or forfeits this power by transforming them into absolutist claims for the transcendent Logos.

Second, the Fourth Gospel not only presents a transcendent foundation in the Logos but also decenters this center by inserting it into the human world and presenting it through narrative. Here the incarnation as theological paradox reappears in Kelber’s thought, with weighty consequences, for Kelber believes that the attempt to portray the Logos in the world introduces dilemmas that permeate the Johannine narrative and must remain unresolved. Kelber wants us to entertain a thought that has not been seriously considered previously, namely that the paradox of an incarnate Logos “posed a dilemma for the gospel which does not lend itself to a theological or narratological solution, however paradoxical a solution that might be, and that it lands the narrative into perplexing and inextricable dilemmas.” Apparently Kelber also believes that this can be demonstrated by a “close narratological reading” of John, and he inserts a brief discussion of John 6 as an illustration, accompanying this with a critique of recent discussions of Johannine irony and metaphor. According to Kelber, irony and metaphor in John are less means of revelation for the reader than signs that meaning is continually deferred.

This essay is part of a larger project with an array of presuppositions, philosophical and historical, that I cannot now evaluate. I must acknowledge, however, that Kelber’s developing interpretation of John is challenging. Am I wrong in sensing something of Bultmann’s melody replayed in a deconstructionist key? (See Moore: 171–78.) At least Kelber’s project has the scope and daring of Bultmann’s. Therefore, it will be interesting to follow the emergence of his interpretation of John.

John Kloppenborg’s essay seeks to define the symbolic meaning of certain spaces—especially city and wasteland—in the Q document and to show the contribution of the beginning of Q to this spatial code. Although Kloppenborg’s description of city and wasteland in Q may be valid, his interpretation of the beginning of Q depends on his assertion that it reflects the Lot and Sodom story in Gen 19. I doubt that there is sufficient evidence to support this connection. Kloppenborg argues from the observation that the phrase πᾶσα ἡ περίχωρος τοῦ Ἰορδάνου (“all the region of the Jordan”) occurs in both Matt 3:5 and Luke 3:3 and also twice in Gen 13:10–11 in the story of Lot’s choice of the Jordan region. The shorter phrase πᾶσα ἡ περίχωρος occurs in the Sodom story in Gen 19:17. But is this phrase sufficiently distinctive to remind one of the Lot story? “The region of the Jordan” also occurs in 2 Chr 4:17 in a context that has nothing to do with Lot, and περίχωρος is frequently followed by the name of a geographical area or of the people occupying that area in the LXX and NT (Deut 3:4, 13, 14; 34:3; 1 Chr 5:16; 2 Chr 16:4; 2 Esdras 13:9, 12, 14, 16, 17, 18; Mark 1:28; Luke 8:37). If John’s ministry was associated with the Jordan and one wanted to refer to this region, this phrase would be a natural way to do it, quite apart from any reference to Lot. Kloppenborg also appeals to the references to flight in Q 3:7b (= Luke 3:7b), to fiery destruction in Q 3:9, 16d, 17, and to Abraham as father in Q 3:8b. However, this evidence, when examined, is not sufficient to convince me. In the two places where the fire imagery is given some metaphorical concreteness (3:9, 17) it does not recall the destruction of Sodom but agricultural operations, clearing land of worthless trees and burning the residue of the harvest. The reference to Abraham as father is a commonplace in Judaism and can hardly be taken as a reference to the Lot story. (If, on the other hand, we found the phrase “Abraham as uncle,” it would be sufficiently strange to require an explanation, perhaps in the Lot story.) Even though there are later references to Sodom and Lot in Q, the evidence for such an allusion at the beginning of Q is weak, in my judgment.

Marvin Meyer’s essay on the Gospel of Thomas calls attention to the way in which the beginning of this work presents the sayings as secret sayings from an authoritative speaker. Meyer notes the first two sayings’ challenge to the reader to assimilate the hidden wisdom that the sayings contain. He also discusses the Gattung or genre of this Gospel. The beginning designates the text as “sayings,” and it may be helpfully compared with other collections of “sayings of the wise” in the ancient world. Because the sayings are attributed to a particular speaker, Thomas is also a collection of chreiai, according to the categories of Theon. Meyer rightly notes a certain degree of narrative even in Thomas, because some sayings are introduced with a statement or question, to which Jesus responds, and there is a limited amount of narrative description in some of the units. Thus the introductory designation of the text as “sayings” can be somewhat misleading. The question of whether the Thomas tradition is moving toward additional narrative features or in the opposite direction could, I suppose, be debated. As a footnote to Meyer’s study I call attention to the essay in Semeia 20 by Pheme Perkins, who studies those units in Thomas that have some dialogue or provide some narrative setting for the saying of Jesus, comparing them to the form of pronouncement stories elsewhere.

It is not surprising that the authors in this volume approach their task differently. The variety of approaches can contribute to a second phase of research, leading us beyond this beginning of a systematic study of beginnings. Questions raised by one scholar in connection with one Gospel may later be applied by another scholar to another Gospel, with good results. When reading the beginning of a new work, we must form hypotheses concerning what this is the beginning of. We should expect these hypotheses to be corrected and clarified as reading proceeds. This will surely happen also in the study of Gospel beginnings, if this work is not stillborn. Even when we have completed the reading of a work and are able to look back at the beginning in light of the whole, our interpretations vary, for there is often a surplus of possible connections between the beginning and the rest. The text seldom unequivocally determines what readers will find to be thematic within it; instead, it leaves openings for our various readings. Debate is helpful, for it forces each of us to broaden our views and clarify our statements, but a single reading, unanimously endorsed, is not a likely or desirable goal. The study of a Gospel’s beginnings is closely tied to the interpretation of the whole and will vary as much as these interpretations.

Works Consulted

Dupont, Jacques

1979    “La question du plan des Actes des Apôtres à la lumière d’un texte de Lucien de Samosate.” NovT 21: 220–31.

Moore, Stephen D.

1989    Literary Criticism and the Gospels: The Theoretical Challenge. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Parsons, Mikeal C.

1987    The Departure of Jesus in Luke-Acts: The Ascension Narratives in Context. JSNTSS 21. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Perkins, Pheme

1981    “Pronouncement Stories in the Gospel of Thomas.” Semeia 20:121–32.

Perry, Menakhem

1979    “Literary Dynamics: How the Order of a Text Creates Its Meaning.” Poetics Today 1:35–64, 311–61.

Tannehill, Robert C.

1985    “Israel in Luke-Acts: A Tragic Story.” JBL 104: 69–85.

1986    The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation. Volume One: The Gospel According to Luke. Philadelphia: Fortress.

1990    The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation. Volume Two: The Acts of the Apostles. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Published: January 21, 2015, 13:20 | Comments Off on HOW GOSPELS BEGAN
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