Book Reviews

Who Do People Say I Am? Rewriting Gospel in Emerging Christianity

Vernon K. Robbins Grand Rapids 2013-09-17

Jesus posed the most important question for any potential follower to answer: Who do you say that I am? Everyone from his disciples (Mark 8:29) to Herod (6:14–16) and even the high priest (14:61–62) tried to identify Jesus. Each response had personal involvement, which led to hope, fear, anger. Vernon Robbins’s work traces how various Christian groups have answered this question by looking at the Gospels that they used, both canonical and noncanonical. For Robbins, individual Gospel traditions emerge out of diverse responses to Jesus. Individual communities put forward their image of Jesus through the individual Gospels. The Gospel literature influences us, but it also becomes for each of us, he says, “what we decide it to be” (p. 3). And just like today, some early communities favored Luke’s Gospel because of its attention to social issues, while others appreciated the Gospel of John because of its grand description of Jesus.

 The heart of Robbins’s work investigates the various ways that the Gospel literature represents Jesus. He dedicates a chapter to each of the individual Gospels: Q, Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, the Gospel of Thomas, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Infancy Gospel of James, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Judas, and the Acts of John. By reading Robbins’s description in quick succession readers can grasp the diversity within the literature. He arranges the chapters chronologically, which helps show the theological progression. Each chapter ends with learning activities that guide students to key primary texts and other background literature. A bibliography points to further resources. Ultimately, this book will serve as a helpful starting point for anyone wading into this literature, particularly those documents outside the New Testament.

Robbins adopts a reader-response approach to the Gospels. He states that “as early Christians used Gospels, those Gospels used them” (p. 3). The subtitle—Rewriting Gospel in Emerging Christianity—highlights Robbins’s theory that the Gospel literature evolved along with early Christian communities as much as it was shaped by these communities. But ultimately, this strategy ignores the historical moorings of Jesus’s life and ministry necessary to establishing the early church, creating a number of problems. First, even though each Gospel would have had some intrinsic value for a community, some would have been more historically trustworthy. Robbins seems to be interested in the theological development within the early church—an important enterprise, but his approach suggests that each Gospel should be read as a theological expression or reflection on Jesus and his ministry. This ignores the fact that the early church based its theology on the historical reality of Jesus’s ministry. Paul makes this point in 1 Corinthians 15:1–19. All Gospel literature embodies theological reflections on the past, but the representations of historical events in the apocryphal Gospels seem less reliable than in the canonical Gospels.

Second, this approach assumes that the early Christian christology developed in a linear fashion. For example, Robbins argues that the earliest edition of Q presents Jesus as a Jewish prophet who was better than John the Baptist, which reflects a “low Christology.” In contrast, the later Gospels portray Jesus as a more divine figure. However, the New Testament suggests that Christians maintained a “high Christology” shortly after Jesus’s death. Paul’s Aramaic exclamation μαράνα θά, or “come Lord” (1 Cor. 16:22), implies that the earliest, Aramaic-speaking disciples identified Jesus as “Lord,” believed in the resurrection, and anticipated Jesus’s return at some point in the future. Doctrine does not develop as evenly as Robbins believes, particularly in such a short period of time and within many communities.

Third, Robbins ignores how the early church received these Gospels. The early church shows a clear preference for the canonical Gospels over the apocryphal Gospels. Even though the publication of the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas may suggest that some communities engaged it, the larger Christian communities rejected these documents for the fourfold Gospel narratives in the New Testament. Even Q, a sayings source used by Matthew and Luke, was not retained by the church. The canonical Gospels shaped the theology of the early church, and it was by that theology that the early church condemned certain Gospels but heralded the canonical Gospels because they were grounded in credible testimony of eyewitnesses.

Who Do People Say I Am? challenges the traditional approach to the Gospels. Unlike other approaches that question the historical value of the New Testament Gospels or else argue that the noncanonical Gospels are just as early as the canonical Gospels, Robbins argues that all Gospel tradition is theological reflection on the past, loosely associated with the past. This nullifies the need to consider the historical value of each document. The problem is that the early church judged Gospel compositions on their historical value. And the canonical Gospels have been found more historically reliable than the noncanonical ones.

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