Dictrionary of Jesus and the Gospels

By Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, eds.
Downers Grove : InterVarsity (1992). xxv + 934 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Robert Thomas
3.2 (Fall 1992) : 222-225

This impressive editorial staff has set out to make "available to the larger church the representative scholarship of students of Jesus and the Gospels which is both critically responsible and theologically evangelical" (ix). Placing itself in the category of James Hastings 1909 work Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (DJG) purposes to bridge the gap between the new interpretive methods developed by scholars in this century on the one hand and pastors, teachers, students, and lay people who want to keep abreast of the latest developments on the other (back page of dust jacket). In doing this, DJG has sought to avoid the excesses and extremes of nonevangelical scholarship dealing with the gospels.

As expected, the editors and contributors have displayed a high degree of proficiency in achieving this goal. Several scholarly conclusions from non-technically written articles illustrate their proficiency: (1) The work assumes some sort of literary relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke (785). (2) It accepts the Two- Document hypothesis as the probable solution to the Synoptic Problem, with Mark's gospel as the earliest and as a source used by Matthew and Luke (279, 512, 513, 648, 787-90). (3) It endorses the theory of a "Q" document as another literary source for Matthew and Luke (644-50, 790-91). (4) It recommends recognition of two more sources, "M" used by Matthew and "L" used by Luke (494-95, 791). (5) Close attention is given to the theological beliefs of the separate gospel writers as distinguished from the theology of Jesus (281, 532). (6) The recommendation is that preaching based on the gospels should give primary attention to the situations of the individual gospel writers rather than that of Jesus (629-30).

The skill with which the contributors and editors have woven into this work a vast amount of material related to twentieth-century scholarship on the gospels is commendable. A tribute is also in order for their efforts to maintain the guidelines of evangelical doctrine. Their target audience will obtain a well-rounded grasp of recent NT scholarship from this reference work.

But is that the complete picture? Has twentieth-century NT criticism been critical enough of itself? Is the phase of NT scholarship represented in the work a suitable basis for a monumental dictionary of this sort? In this reviewer's opinion, all three questions deserve a negative response. Comments on each of the six exemplary conclusions of DJG listed above to support this opinion are as follows:

(1) The assumption of some sort of literary relationship among the Synoptic Gospels is of relatively late vintage in church history. Aside from the church father Augustine (late 4th and early 5th centuries), the church has unanimously taught that each of the three gospel writers wrote independently of any access to the works of the other two (see, for example, Wayne A. Meeks, "Hypomnēmata from an Unnamed Skeptic: A Response to George Kennedy," The Relationships among the Gospels [William O. Walker, Jr., ed.; San Antonio: Trinity University, 1978] 171). It was not until the advent of European rationalism in modern times that this assumption was brushed aside in favor of some form of literary dependence among the writers. This reviewer has been unable to locate a single reference in DJG to this unanimity that prevailed for approximately 1700 years. The assumption of literary relationship rests on precarious grounds and without support from ancient times is hardly a basis on which to build a major dictionary, especially one with no mention of the solidity of ancient church tradition to the contrary.

(2) admits the lack of absolute proof to support the Two- Document hypothesis and expresses an openness to a better solution if one should become available (790), yet it proceeds to build itself around the hypothesis as though its correctness is assured. The status of NT studies of the gospels is currently changing, but DJG appears oblivious to this. A diminishing consensus favoring the Two- Document theory and a growing consensus favorable to other theories have created a confused picture. The most recent conferences of international NT scholars have disbanded without agreeing on a solution to the Synoptic Problem (see, for example, Bo Reicke, "The History of the Synoptic Discussion," The Interrelations of the Gospels [Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1990] 316). Is it advisable or even correct, then, to structure a dictionary of Jesus and the gospels around a theory that is receiving diminishing support from those whom it purports to represent.

(3) DJG attributes certainty to the existence of "Q" as a written source, but it does not attempt to define its contents beyond noting it had "230 or so sayings of Jesus" (650). No one in modern times has ever seen such a document, nor does any writer in ancient times appear to affirm its existence. It is no surprise, then, that a growing skepticism among NT scholars prevails regarding whether such a document ever existed (e.g., John Wenham, Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1992] 40-111). (4) Even more uncertainty surrounds the existence of "M" and "L" as sources for the canonical gospels. Is it not premature to compose a dictionary whose very foundation is so uncertain and unstable?

(5) Assumptions "1-4" above lead inevitably to making a distinction between the teachings of Jesus and that of the separate writers. Purportedly, the gospels represent the theologies of their individual writers more than they do that of Jesus. This strains the claim that DJG has adhered to guidelines of an evangelical doctrine of inspiration of Scripture. (6) Built upon this, the advice that preachers gear the application of their messages to the "horizon" of the individual writers rather than to the "horizon" of Jesus could influence evangelicals to look for a distinction in theologies that is not actually there. This in turn could result in building sermons from the gospels on a non-existent distinction.

Adherence to biblical inerrancy is also strained, if not broken, in the observation that Matthew mistakenly misplaced the word "immediately" in Matt 3:16 (789). The suggestion that the same writer in his wording of Matt 19:16-17 revises Mark "to eliminate the [theological] difficulty" of Mark 10:17-18 (789) also goes beyond, or at least comes to the very edge, of an evangelical perspective.

The statement that "history and theology both played important roles" (294) in the writing of the gospels is healthy, but the later assertions that "little if any material was recorded solely out of historical interest" and that theological motives must be seen as central (294) imply that theological motives may at times dominate historical interests of the writers. Yet a proper view of biblical inerrancy strongly insists on the historical accuracy of the gospels in their conveyance of theological emphases, without theology infringing on history.

Some articles not directly affected by the above critical assumptions are helpful. An example is the article on "Chronology" (71-122), though the article on the "Death of Jesus" questions its conclusion of an A.D. 33 date for Christ's crucifixion and seems to prefer an A.D. 30 date (149). Another helpful discussion is entitled "Liberation Hermeneutics" in which the contributor offers a needed precaution to liberation and feminist theologians: "a cogent hermeneutic . . . does not allow interpretation to dissipate into pure subjectivism" (468). Yet it could have been even stronger in warning against a widespread interpretive abuse disguised as "preunderstanding."

DJG is a major work that the evangelical community cannot ignore. It may be helpful if used with the cautions outlined above. Its more popular portrayal of the contemporary status of NT studies is valuable, but a critical eye must distinguish which "critical" conclusions are valid in the work's analyses of the gospels.