From Jesus to the Gospels: Interpreting the New Testament in its Context. By Helmut Koester


Pp. xiii, 311 . Fortress Press , Minneapolis , 2007 , $39.00 .

Koester is well-known as an iconoclast and more specifically as an anti-canonist. His views have already been widely published in longer works but now a selection of his published articles have been collected here on the themes of ‘Gospels Apocryphal and Canonical’, ‘The Gospel of John’ and ‘Jesus, His Sayings and His Story’. The main icon he wants to smash is the commonly held view that the Synoptic Gospels preserve the oldest extant traditions about Jesus, which were then supplemented by the theological development of the Fourth Gospel that may also have preserved some authentic historical traditions; from this were derived a variety of later apocryphal writings which have little historical value. Certainly the latter often seem fantastical compared to the comparative sobriety of Paul and the Synoptics. Koester's view is that we have no document that presents us directly with the sayings of Jesus or reliable accounts of events in his life. But we have what he calls the Sayings Gospel Q as our earliest source, which was originally a Greek collection of largely wisdom sayings from not later than AD 50, from which came a second edition shortly after AD 70 – the version used by Matthew and Luke – which added eschatological sayings, including apocalyptic Son of Man sayings that may have been created at about the time of the fall of Jerusalem. He says the Gospel of Thomas originated at about that time (the middle of the first-century) but that document took the sayings tradition of Jesus off in a gnosticising direction.

We are told that it was these sayings that were seen as the source of salvation in earliest Christianity. In Q Jesus is a teacher of wisdom and there is no reference to his death and resurrection. The earliest version of the passion narrative was constructed as a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies and the more detailed, historicising account in Mark is significantly later and is not a report of what happened. Matthew comes later, then comes John where we can find sayings that have parallels with Thomas from mid-first-century, and finally Luke-Acts which has limited historical value. His opening article suggests an early date for and gives a positive evaluation to five apocryphal Gospels: Thomas, the Unknown Gospel of Papyrus Egerton 2, Dialogue of the Saviour, the Apocryphon of James and the Gospel of Peter, all of which are said to be of equal value as the Synoptic Gospels. This re-alignment of extant Jesus traditions allows Koester to bust open the canon of the New Testament. His aim is to restore the textual complexity of the first-century before a simplified and homogeneous Pan-Christianity, as he calls it, was imposed for political reasons in the second-century. When studying these textual traditions we should dispense with presuppositions about orthodoxy and heresy.

Now, if one thinks that New Testament study is a form of cultural history, then all these sources go into the melting-pot together and are to be valued equally, and Koester deplores those NT introductions that consider the canonical Gospels separately from apocryphal writings. But if one thinks that it is important for belief and theology that one has some sort of engagement with the historical Jesus, then it is likely that the canonical Gospels will be evaluated far more highly and will thus receive much more attention than apocryphal documents. Koester, then, who represents the former camp, exemplifies a very damaging division in the world of New Testament scholarship.

What then of the historical Jesus? The first chapter from 1980 tells us that ‘The question of the historical Jesus … should be laid to rest for the time being’ but the penultimate chapter of 1997, ‘The Historical Jesus and His Sayings’, attempts to take up a position. First Koester tells us that all recent attempts at a historical quest have focused on the sayings of Jesus. In fact this is a Bultmannean perspective (Bultmann was Koester's Doktorvater) and ignores Sanders statement of 1985 in Jesus and Judaism that he will set aside the sayings, the authenticity of which have no consensus among scholars, in order to determine the probability of events in Jesus' life. Nevertheless, extant documents, according to Koester, ‘are not dealing with the original words of Jesus of Nazareth, but with characteristic symbols of an early oral tradition that some of the earlier communities had fashioned (inscribed) to express their own … understanding of Jesus’. These various and varied Christian communities developed their own distinctive formulation of the sayings within particular cultural, linguistic and religious contexts, all of which were several steps removed from the situation of Jesus' life and ministry. Yet we can know something about Jesus. We know a lot about the Jewish people of that time and the beginnings of what became Christianity, and so ‘Jesus' ministry and preaching must be placed within the trajectory that leads from this Jewish milieu of his time to his memory in the communities of his followers’. There are many sayings about ‘bread’ in Q, sometimes in connection with ‘the kingdom of God’ and these sayings should be related to rituals in which Jesus' memory was sustained. Is this what the Jesus of history is to be reduced to? Sayings about bread and an eating ritual? Is this the stuff of salvation? Koester, then, is an extreme reductionist and is explicit that ‘A reconstruction of Jesus' life, ministry and proclamation is not possible’; we only have images of Jesus from later communities. For Koester Christianity is about wisdom sayings – whether they come from Jesus or not we shall never know – that allow us to understand and criticise and deal with our present existential situation.