How It All Began

During the past few years New Testament scholars have given the interested reader some worthwhile books on the origin and background of the canonical Gospels.1 In these books questions concerning the setting and circumstances in which the Gospels were formed, problems pertaining to the Gospel tradition, and inquiries relating to the modem investigation called Form criticism are given due consideration.

For nearly haH a century the method of form criticism steadily has gained recognition in the theological world. This method originated in Germany and was entitled Formgeschichte, that is, Form history. Scholars were interested in studying the history of the formation of the Gospels—in reality literary criticism was leveled at the form of the individual Gospel passage. The studies were directed to a criticism of the thoughts and descriptions of such passages and an investigation of their oral and literary tradition.2

The method of form criticism consists of a study of the various patterns or forms in Gospel tradition. This pursuit finds its basis in the assumption that the Gospels have been constructed out of short individual passages. These passages were expanded by the early church and arranged in somewhat of a unified form by a redactor. Form criticism has taken upon itself the task of finding the earliest possible form of the original Gospel passage.

Granted that the method of form criticism has achieved a measure of recognition, conservative scholars cannot condone the practices advocated by the form critics. Though the method may direct attention to some interesting details, the entire field of background studies must be investigated before an answer can be given to the question: How did it happen?



Precisely now, what did the apostles do with their knowledge of what Jesus wrought and taught during his sojourn on earth? If we may speak in approximate figures for the moment and assume that Jesus ascended to heaven in the year 30 and that the first written Gospel appeared in the year 60, the question is raised: What happened to the knowledge of the words and deeds of Christ in this time span of 30 years? And when the Gospels did appear in written form, how did it come about that only a certain number of sayings, discourses. parables and miracles were recorded, whereas we know “that there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25).


No longer are New Testament scholars satisfied to know that Matthew, alias Levi the publican, wrote the first Gospel, that Mark, whom Peter calls “my son” (I Peter 5:13), composed the second Gospel with the information provided by the former Galilean fisherman, and that Luke, Paul’s companion. received his information from “eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word.”

There has been a probing investigation into the how, where, and when of Gospel writing during the past 45 years.3 Whereas in former times some questions may have been in the back of men’s minds but were not sufficiently provocative to call for an answer, in this last half century attention has been focussed on the earliest forms of apostolic preaching as recorded in Acts and the Pauline Epistles. Careful study has revealed that a rather primitive outline of the Gospel has been recorded in these documents.4 The apostles recounted the incidents of Jesus’ ministry during their missionary outreach and taught the truths of salvation within a meaningful historical setting.

An investigation of the primitive proclamation of the Gospel tradition brings the scholar into the realm of oral tradition where he exchanges certainty for uncertainty. truth for speculation, fact for fiction. This does not mean that he may not travel along the avenue of conjecture in order to explore the realm of oral tradition; but a stern and clear warning is heralded to all who enter the field of uncertain evidence.


To gain an insight in the unknown area of oral tradition scholars, during the second decade of our century, turned to the results of a study in folklore.5 They harvested the fruits of a study in the structure of old-Norwegian oral traditions. And these results were applied to the source studies of the Gospels. If a given pattern of folklore and tradition should be found in one field, another body of literature perhaps would yield the same results.

An attempt was made to explain the fragmentary structure of the Gospels by setting forth the grand assumption that individual stories circulated orally within the early church in the form of separate, circumstantial reports.6 However, it was assumed that each report had been subjected to the rule of the early church, that only those stories were accepted which filled the need created by the worship services, catechetical instruction, and evidential proof in defense of the faith.7 In short, the Gospels were viewed as mere collections of such material compiled and edited by an evangelist or redactor.

As early as 1919 Karl Ludwig Schmidt went on record to say that the peripheral framework of the individual reports provided the connecting links between the separate units.8 The links, however, most likely did not form part of the stories thus joined together. And the topographical and chronological information which made up the links merely served the purpose of embellishing the individual units, though basically these details, however interesting, were void of any value.


In that same year Martin Dibelius followed Schmidt’s approach to Gospel study and elaborated the method by dividing the separate units into various categories, such as narratives, tales, legends, passion story, and myths.9 The narrative is exemplified in the healing of the blind man at Jericho (Mark 10:46–52). The true story is found in the faith of the man and the compassion of Jesus; the rest, that is, the name Bartimaeus, the location of Jericho, the passing crowd, the hush to be silent. belongs to the category of desCriptive detail made up by the evangelist) 0 An example of a legend is recorded in Luke 2:41-52; the twelve year old Jesus is being sought by his parents. According to Dibelius, the actual account is climaxed by the conclusive question of Jesus, “How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” (2:49). The return to Nazareth, the keeping of all these sayings in Mary’s heart, the lack of understanding on the part of his parents—all these things are not a necessary part of the legend.11 Truth must be separated from fiction and the kernel must be found amid a handful of chaff.

Dibelius contends that a description of the resurrection of Christ is lacking because the legend of the empty tomb has taken its place.12 The resurrection unit is found, however, in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter; there the mythological account, says Dibelius, is found of two angels descending from heaven, removing the stone, and leading the risen Lord out of the grave. But since this mythological unit did not fill the need of the early church, it was never incorporated in the Gospel tradition. Nevertheless, Dibelius finds mythological events in the baptism of Jesus, his temptation, and his transfiguration.

Rudolph Bultmann ventured one step beyond the position taken by Dibelius and skeptically questioned the veracity of certain words and deeds of Jesus. Says he, “Certainly there is no guarantee that all the sayings in the gospels in which Jesus cites words of Scripture were really spoken by him; many were surely put into his mouth by the church, in order to justify its own position.”13


It is obvious that the willful disregard for the afore· mentioned warning has led many a scholar to radical extremes. Due to the extreme position he has taken, tile background studies of oral tradition have been placed. in somewhat of an embarrassing situation.14 The negative aspects of this kind of investigation are proof sufficient that its adherents have overstepped territorial boundaries repeatedly have been guilty of overlooking many factors involved, and have been overnegligent in matters of obvious importance.

If it is the form critic’s desire to make mere collectors and editors out of the inspired Gospel writers, if certain passages in the Gospels are considered worthless because they cannot be fitted in a predetermined pattern, and if the individual Bible student is encouraged to find the core of truth by peeling away several layers of peripheral embellishments, the form critic has transgressed the boundaries of inspiration. If the assumption is made that the early church has added many details to the spoken words of Christ be it for the sake of catechetical instruction or missionary preaching—modern scholarship has overlooked the account of the “eyewitnesses. and the ministers of the word.” And if the form critic asserts that historical truth is unfounded. he is rather negligent of the witness of the early church as evidenced. in the writings of the apostolic Fathers.

Yet in spite of all these negative aspects of form criticism. the scholarly pursuits of the form critic have not been altogether fruitless. 15 These have put the believer to a fresh study of God’s Word; have induced orthodoxy to look into the historical setting in which the Gospels were formed, and have given the conservative Bible student a deeper insight into the unity and harmony of the canonical Gospels.


Tn recent years Harald Riesenfeld has made a worthy attempt to present some constructive criticism of the form critic’s approach to the origin of the Gospel.16 He takes the view that the origin and transmission of the Gospel is to be attributed to the apostles and to Jesus Christ himself. These beginnings are to be sought not in the creative preliterary activities of a community of early Christians, but rather in the dicactive measures of Christ, who instructed the apostles in the transmission of authoritative words.

Riesenfeld focusses attention on the deeds and words of Jesus. instead of leaning on the missionary preaching and catechetical instruction of the early church. The origins of tile Gospel, according to this New Testament scholar, find their source in Jesus Christ. He saw to it that his disciples were instructed in the tradition. So that they would consider his words holy and authoritative, and consequently that they would preserve them for the church.17

In answer to tile question how the Gospel tradition arose, Riesenfeld points to the methods which obtained in Jewish oral tradition. Although the suggestion is most valuable, it is not entirely original in as much as others have directed attention to the Jewish pattern of oral tradition.18


Since the Gospel tradition arose in a Jewish setting, it is well for us to consider the methodology employed by the ancient Rabbis. Such a study in methodology reveals that the exposition and elaboration of the Law was transmitted orally throughout the ages from generation to generation. Finally this body of information was incorporated literally and intact in book form about the year A.D. 200. The ancient Rabbis relied on oral tradition of their interpretation of the Law; and by continued repetition the teachings of their elders were preserved. All kinds of legal injunctions derived from a study of the law of Moses were transmitted orally and accurately from teacher to pupil and from one generation to the next. Jesus refers to this tradition when he says, “Ye have heard that it was said to them of old time” (Matthew 5:21, 27, 33, 38, and 43). Students of the ancient Rabbis had to memorize the oral sayings accurately; and memorization was greatly facilitated by the art of constantly repeating that which was learned and committed to memory. However, it was not until the latter part of the second century of our era that the road was paved for committing the oral tradition to writing.19

The same procedure undoubtedly was followed in the transmission of the oral tradition of the Gospel. It was customary for disciples to write the instruction of their teacher indelibly in their memories, so that the disciple not only retained his master’s teachings but also passed on the very words of his Rabbi to the next generation.20 Also in view of the questions asked by Jesus’ disciples concerning Christ’s warnings against the Pharisees, it is obvious that they had been influenced by this rabbinic methodology of transmitting knowledge.


When Jesus had ascended, it was the task of the apostles to guard the Gospel tradition and to disseminate the knowledge of the words and deeds of Christ. They were the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry, they had been instructed by him all the time he was with them, and they were commissioned “to make disciples of all the nations, by teaching them to observe all things which he had commanded them” (Matthew 28, 19,20).

Although it is conceivable that the apostles brought the Gospel to the nations in a more or less stereotype form in harmony with existing practices, we cannot merely presume that they proclaimed the Word in a rather mechanical fashion. Seeing that a multitude of books could have been written on the things Jesus did, the apostles had to adopt a pattern of presenting certain words and deeds of Jesus and they had to limit their message to those things which Jesus had commanded them. This the apostolic message assumed a distinctive form to which the twelve apostles and Paul subscribed, and which aided them in the proclamation of a unified Gospel. Still this procedure does not take away the fact that the apostles were permitted to exercise their individual freedom in preaching the Word.

After the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the apostles “were clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49); and one of the characteristics of this power was the working of the Holy Spirit in their hearts and minds. It was the Holy Spirit, who taught them all things, and who brought to their remembrance all the things Jesus had said unto them (John 14:26).


Of course these considerations concerning the origin and transmission of the Gospel tradition do not intend to answer every question. They do suggest the historical setting in which the oral tradition began, and they point to the work of the Holy Spirit in preserving the Gospel at the beginning of our Christian era.

We believe that the Holy Spirit guided the individual Gospel writer in recording the message of salvation, so that the evangelist wrote in manner distinctively his own, but which was, nevertheless, in harmony with the other Gospels.


1. See e.g. H. Riesenfeld, The Gospel Tradition and lts Beginnings, A Study in the Limits of ‘Formgeschichte’ (London: Mowbray, 1957); C. F. D. Moule, The Birth of the New Tenament (London: Adam &: Charles Black, 1962); H. E. W. Turner, Historicity and the Gospels. A Sketch of Historical Method and Its Application to the Gospels (London; Mowbray, 1963); N. B. Stonehouse, Origins of the Synoptic Gospels (Grand Rapids:W. B. Eerdmans, 1963).

2. For an exposition of the concept Form criticism see M. Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel (London: Ivor Nicholson &: Watson Ltd., 1934), p. xv and p. 4.

3. Cf. A. M. Hunter, Interpreting the New Testament (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1958), pp. 37ff.

4. An example of the Gospel in outline form is recorded among others in I Corinthians 15; cf. Also cf. C. F. D. Moule op. cit. pp. 133f. and C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development (London; Hodder, 1949).

5. W. C. Van Unnik “Vormhistorische Methode,” Christelijke Encyclopedie Vol. 6 (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1961), p. 530.

6. Cf. A. M. Hunter, op. cit. p. 37.

7. M. Dibelius, op. cit. pp. 7, 12, 13.

8. K. L. Schmidt, Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu (1919) as referred to by A. M. Hunter and W. C. Yan Unnik.

9. Cf. M. Dibelius, op. cit. parsim.

10. Ibid., p. 51f.

11. Ibid., p. 106.

12. Ibid., p. 270.

13. R. Bultmann, Jesus and the Word (London: Charles Scribner’s Sons 1958 [Fontana books]), p. 51. See also R. Bultmann, Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition2 (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck &: Ruprecht, 1958), p. 6. The disciples of Dibelius and Bullmann have taken the method of form criticism to the other books of the New Testament and have applied the same standards used for the four Gospels.

14. In fact, R. H. Lightfoot, The Gospel Message of St. Mark (London: Oxford University Press, 1958 reprint), is a chapter entitled “Form criticism and the study or the Gospels,” says, “I have no wish at all to come forward as a champion of claims put out for form criticism, especially as I find that I am often, though I hope wrongly, believed to be such,” p. 98.

15. Cf. N. B. Stonehouse, op. cit. p. 114; C. F. D. Moule, op. cit. p. 3.

16. H. Risenfeld, op. cit.

17. Ibid., p. 30. Stonehouse, op. cit. pp. 142ff. presents a well-founded, critical evaluation of Riesenfeld’s position, especially when Stonehouse considers the sui generis of the Gospel pattern.

18. H. Mulder, Het synoptische Vraagstuk (Delft: van Keulen, 1952), pp. 46f. already suggested a likely solution in this direction; and before him F. W. Grosheide “Enkcle Opmcrkingen over het synoptische Vraagstuk,” Geref. Theol. Tijdschrift (1915/16), p. 174 called attention to the Jewish tradition.

19. Cf. H. L. Strack, Einleitung in Talmud und Midras4 (Munchen: C. H. Beck 1921); J. L. Palachi, Inleiding in de Talmoed2 (Haarlem: F. Bohn 1954).

20. See F. W. Grosheide, Het Heilig Evangelie Volgens Mattheus2 in Commentaar op het Nieuwe Testament (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1954), pp. 9ff.; also see his article “The Synoptic Problem” in The Evangelical Quarterly III (1931), pp. 57–68.