The Forms of Remembering
Any recollections will assume a formal shape, even if the person remembering is not too conscious of any attempt at structuring. The simplest forms will be those most appropriate to the application of what is remembered. So the person who is, for example, good at telling jokes will gather material into the memory in forms, probably triggered by cue-words, for the most effective recollection and communication of the humorous anecdote. In New Testament studies the classic works of the form critics (after the First World War and in the 1920s) still provide us with good guidelines. Their classifications were based on an analysis of the numerous independent units (pericopes or paragraphs) found, for example, in Mark's gospel.
More recent work in narrative theology and comparative literary studies has enriched the understanding and importance of the process of telling stories. The basic formal category is that of the tale, referring to stories pure and simple. Their purpose may be just to attract attention, to interest or entertain. In the first place they did not necessarily possess a theological moral or edificatory motive. Such tales could be full of incidental, even trivial, details: these may be based on actual recollections, or may be included to enhance interest; in the long run many such details become lost in the later processes of tradition, as unusual features are smoothed out.
The miracle stories associated with Jesus provide striking examples of such tales. The form critics made comparisons with the style of miracle stories in the Hellenistic world:
Accounts of miraculous healing run as follows: first, the condition of the sick person is depicted in such a fashion as to enhance the magnitude of the miracle. In this connection it is frequently said that the sickness had lasted a long time. Occasionally it is stated that many physicians had attempted in vain to cure the sick person. Sometimes the terrible and dangerous character of the sickness is emphasised.…After the introductory description of the illness comes the account of the healing itself. The Hellenistic miracle-stories often tell of unusual manipulations by the miracle-worker; the Gospel accounts, however, seldom mention this trait (Mark 7: 33; 8: 23). The Gospels, however, do retain other typical items. They narrate that the Saviour came near to the sick person—perhaps close to his bed—that he laid his hands upon the patient and took him by the hand and then uttered a wonder-working word.…The Gospels occasionally reproduce this wonder-working word in a foreign tongue, as for example ‘Talitha cumi’ (Mark 5: 41) and ‘Ephphatha’ (Mark 7: 34)…The close of the miracle-story depicts the consequences of the miracle, frequently describing the astonishment or the terror or the approval of those who witnessed the miraculous event. In other cases the close of the narrative shows the one who is healed demonstrating by some appropriate action that he is entirely cured. (Bultmann 1926)
The very naturalness of the narrative pattern revealed by this comparative study itself limits the conclusions that can be drawn by historians: either this is how it happened, or this is how such stories were always told.
The form critics identified a mixed form which they called a paradigm or pronouncement story. Here the significance of the story was not in the event or episode described, but in the saying which comes as the climax to the narrative. Typical examples are the controversy about the Sabbath in Mark 2: 23–8 and the episode of the demon-possessed child in Mark 9: 14–29. Sometimes the setting and the action of the story may seem little more than a foil to the significant saying. The critics disputed among themselves how such a mixed form might have originated: was the paradigm created from the story by the addition of the saying? or was the story specially constructed as a context for the saying? or is the mixed form itself original? The narrative of the healing of the paralysed man (Mark 2: 1–12) could well have existed as a separate story, while Mark 10: 13–16 (where the children are brought to Jesus) looks more like a natural foil for the saying.
It is clear that the sayings of Jesus could have been collected, apart from the stories, for their own significance. The formal category of separate sayings is a broad one: it has been subdivided into distinct groupings, such as parables and similes, proverbial sayings and aphorisms, and conversations where the saying of Jesus fits in a context of controversy. Each of these groups may have been created and maintained for its own reasons. The parable, or specially constructed story, goes beyond the tale in its function as a teaching vehicle, with its focus in a single moral or statement of truth (the similitude), or perhaps a coded message making a controversial comment on a current situation (the allegory). The proverb serves as a widely remembered jewel of wisdom, available for use as a slogan or watchword. The comments of Jesus on an issue of controversy, such as the relation of his teaching to that of Judaism, could well be preserved within a context of debate, simply because that controversy was still relevant to Jesus' followers at a later stage.
The modern biography seems incomplete without a pen-portrait of what its subject looked like—and probably descriptions of parents and grandparents as well. By contrast, there is no evidence that those who preserved recollections of Jesus were concerned to record his physical appearance. Possibly a good analogy is with the enigmatic references to, and lack of any description or identity of, the Teacher of Righteousness in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The earliest Christian representations of Jesus worked with stereotypes—a fact which is scarcely surprising in an age when even high-born Romans could be content with conventional images rather than personal portraits. But there were forms of recollecting the person and personality of Jesus, if not his appearance. It was a matter of attaching to him an appropriate or approximate label: master/teacher, messiah, even worker of miracles or magician. To ascribe a role-label to him was to attempt a classification of what the experience of him had meant. It was still a long way from the later investment in titles for Jesus, in the earlier or later stages of a Christological formulation. But perhaps the first step in this direction was to recollect the use of a term of honour and respect, the Greek word kyrios, simply translated as ‘Sir’ but in its ambiguity opening up the possibilities of honouring a teacher, revering a superhuman personality, or building a connection to the term used for the unique deity of the Hebrew Bible. We should come back to this starting-point of Christological thinking at a later stage.
It is likely that the earliest form of recollection of Jesus was an attempt at explaining what went wrong with his ministry and why he died. For those who believed in him, this was a matter of the utmost urgency, to show why they still held to, or had recovered, their belief in him. There was need for an account of Jesus' last days from the Christian standpoint, to tell the story in such a way as to confront criticism, to demonstrate Jesus' innocence of the charges brought against him by Jews or Romans, and to explain the events as the fulfilment of prophecy. So aspects of the story of Jesus' trial and death began to be assembled into a narrative. The much later development of this story within Mark's gospel illustrates two of the major motives which drove this recollection; this account emphasizes Jesus' innocence (e.g. 14: 48–9, 56; 15: 14) and the way prophecy has been fulfilled (e.g. 14: 18; 15: 24, 26). Again it will be necessary to revisit this basic recollection, to see how it evolves in the later stages (3 and 4 below).
A final category of recollection, for which there is also some evidence preserved in the New Testament, is the attempt to describe the experiences of Jesus' resurrection and the post-resurrection experiences of him. The tradition seems to move in these two directions that are potentially divergent. The shortest (and probably most original) ending of Mark's gospel, breaking off at 16: 8, offers an enigmatic, restrained, but powerful statement of the circumstances of the empty tomb. Another way of looking at the experience is in terms of the sequence of revelatory visions listed in Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians at chapter 15. Here the cumulative witness of Christians, to their own individual or collective encounters with Jesus after his crucifixion, is brought together to attest the weight of Christian tradition, in the face of Corinthian difficulties with the concept of resurrection, with which Paul is wrestling at a later stage.
3. Putting Recollections to Use
Already there are hints of the various purposes of recollection, given the occasions and the format for doing so. It is possible to be more precise about some of these applications, at an early stage of religious self-awareness among the first Christians.
The earliest form critics (in the first decades of the twentieth century) emphasized particularly the need to preach the kerygma—the good news about Jesus—as a missionary activity to attract converts. So the kerygmatic principle almost became a slogan in this understanding of New Testament growth. It became highly controversial, as other scholars contested the underlying idea of the uniqueness of the earliest form of gospel preaching, questioning whether it was actually unparalleled in the Jewish or Graeco-Roman worlds. Some New Testament scholars rediscovered the idea of the gospels as biographies and drew analogies in the neighbouring cultures. Other scholars asserted the importance of other principles which shaped early Christian communication, and suggested that these were more important than the kerygmatic principle. But the idea of the kerygma deserves to be retained, even as one of several principles shaping the tradition. The New Testament gospel material is not biographical, at least not in the way in which the modern or the ancient world understood biographies. One form critic preferred the term ‘pseudo-biographical’ as doing justice to the skeletal framework of a life of Jesus—almost from birth to death—but also emphasizing the inadequacy of the classical ‘lives of Jesus’ as a way of understanding the gospel. To return to the kerygmatic principle as important for the growth of the gospels does not mean that all the early Christian groups were by definition equally evangelistic, or even evangelical. The New Testament texts can be used to demonstrate different theories of mission, including the internal mission to existing members.
The form critics, and many others since, have wanted to speak of the first Christians as a group gathered for worship. By reading between the lines of various New Testament texts, it is possible to reconstruct the situations and the particular forms and intentions of worship, without too much anachronistic reference to later church practice and liturgies. One of the best examples of this kind of reconstruction can be found in a slim book by Walter J. Hollenweger, entitled Conflict in Corinth (1982). The form critics employed the skills of detective work to identify the poetic forms of hymns within the writings of the New Testament, and argued that such materials were designed to meet the needs of the group for worship.
There is considerable scope for disagreement here in particular reconstructions. Would one expect the early Christians to worship in the Jewish tradition, or to break out into more classical forms of poetry, or even to operate with a bilingual form of liturgy such as has been detected in the early chapters of the book of Revelation (e.g. nai amēn, ‘so be it, amen’, 1: 7)? But even with such disagreements, scholarship has made considerable gains: one can identify an underlying structure of a hymn in Paul's Letter to the Philippians (2: 6–11) and make a good case for Paul's deliberate adaptation of a familiar and regularly used worship-text, in order to make significant corrections to Philippian belief and ethical practice. In modern terms it is only possible to imagine this working effectively where a pastor has a close relationship with his or her congregation and knows the importance to them of the words in their worship-book.
Another clue as to early Christian practice of worship may be found in Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, referring in chapter 11 to the commemoration of the Last Supper. It is possible to read verse 26 (‘as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes’) as evidence for the repetition of an account of Christ's passion at a celebration of the Eucharist (‘you tell the story of the Lord's death’). Evidence such as this is an important step towards the literary form of the Passion narrative as a fundamental part of the gospel, as will be seen in the next section (4).
In the previous section (2) the ambiguity inherent in the term of respect and role label kyrios (‘Sir’) was cited as possibly marking the starting-point in a movement towards defining the person of Christ. The suggestions conveyed by this term in both Greek and Hebrew thought worlds would be followed up, measured against the experience of the first disciples, and complemented by an experimental range of other terms and titles. The field of possibilities opens up to messianic terms developed from the Hebrew Bible. It is probable that the significant and mysterious term ‘Son of Man’ is first developed by early Christians operating within a Jewish tradition and seeking to match their exegesis of texts such as Daniel 7 with their experiences of Jesus' ministry as representative of humanity and at the same time an enigmatic revelation of an elusive presence. As the Church preached about the cross of Jesus (as in the Passion story just mentioned), so the cross seems to have become the symbol—not the stumbling-block (1 Cor. 1: 23–4)—in the argument for Jesus' messiahship. Understanding the death and understanding the person of Jesus become mutually interactive tasks.
As well as attempting a definition of Christ, the early Christian was beginning to define what it meant to be a follower of Christ. This was partly an extension of a process of apologetic (glimpsed in section 2 as the defence of Jesus' innocence in the fulfilment of prophecy) which entailed defending what one does in following him, against the accusations or derision of one's adversaries. It also involved the development of a pattern of ethical practice appropriate for a follower of Christ. In Hellenism and in Hellenistic Judaism there were formulated instructions as to what the individual should do in his or her particular station in life (as husband and wife, children and parents, masters and slaves). The Christian community in turn adopted such traditional instructions and formulae, while developing the exhortations and empowering them as directions which received their authority ‘in the Lord’. This process of Christian adoption and adaptation of traditional patterns of behaviour can be seen in what are known as the Household Codes (Haustafeln). The basic form is visible in Col. 3: 18–4: 1 and elaborated in Eph. 5: 22–6: 9, and elsewhere (cf. 1 Pet. 2: 13–3: 12).
4. The Transition from Oral to Written Materials
The fact is sometimes overlooked that the letters of Paul are among the first writings of the New Testament. In this way the simple order of the books can be misleading. Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians is probably the oldest written text in the whole collection. But equally it needs to be remembered that Paul's letters are not just literary deposits; they are real letters, written to particular churches, at a certain time, to meet a particular situation. They are occasional documents, written by someone with a passionate concern and a pastoral care. While one must always make allowances for the differences between oral and written communications, it can still be said that Paul wrote (or dictated to a secretary) what he would probably have uttered directly if he had been present. The practice among Christian communities of reading the latest letter of Paul in the context of their meeting for worship would have enhanced the sense of direct authority, as well as anticipating the later practice of liturgical reading.
A similar desire for a directly authoritative text would lie behind the wish to preserve the actual words of Jesus' teaching. Evidence bearing on the process of collecting Jesus' individual sayings seems to have become more substantial in recent years. There are two main reasons for this. One is the consolidation of academic reconstructions of the synoptic sayings source, usually referred to as Q, being the initial letter of the German word Quelle or ‘source’. Earlier reconstructions were highly subjective and impressionistic. Later versions, while still reconstructions, and often reflecting individual preferences, have achieved a measure of academic collaboration and agreement, resulting in the critical edition produced by Robinson, Hoffmann, and Kloppenborg (2000). The other reason is the recognition of possibly analogous collections of sayings in extant manuscripts, which can demonstrate what an alternative collection to the synoptic source actually looked like. The Gospel of Thomas, significant in other ways as a Gnostic text, has grown in importance as such an organized collection of sayings. The early Christian work, the Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, also demonstrates the development of the process of a collection of sayings in the further stages of interpretation and application to the needs of a religious group.
There is a Jewish process whereby the sayings of individual celebrated rabbis are remembered and preserved; but their system here is thematic, relating such sayings by different rabbis to a particular scriptural text or doctrinal theme. In the Christian process the sayings are remembered, because they are sayings of Jesus himself, and in addition because they have a direct relevance to the needs of his followers. Recent studies of analogous texts such as the Didache and the Gospel of Thomas have tended to focus on how they serve the needs of the believing community. In the same way, for example, Burton Mack (1993), in his reconstruction of Q, took special account of its community orientation. Similarly Richard Valantasis (1997) in his reading of the Gospel of Thomas, and in a proposed commentary on Q, seeks to show how such texts have an ‘ascetical use, as a means of forging an alternative subjectivity, defining alternative social relationships, and constructing an alternative symbolic universe’. These are texts which function, not so much as a window on the teaching of the historical Jesus, but as a constructive and catechetical influence on the religious individual and group.
On two previous occasions there have been references to the significant function of the story of Jesus' death. The importance for both kerygma and worship in the early Christian community can be symbolized by the strategic position and scale of the Passion Narrative in the gospel of Mark, as well as its theological development in the later tradition. Chapters 14 and 15 of Mark stand apart because of their extended and firm narrative thread, contrasted with the separate units of narrative elsewhere in the gospel. The cohesion of these chapters is largely due to its longer period of existence as a set narrative, because of the definitive significance of its contents and the frequency of its use.
Paul refers to the credal importance of this summary of faith in the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 15. These summary statements set the pattern for a literary development of the kerygma of the death and resurrection ‘of the Son of God and Lord, proclaimed in the word and present in the cult of the Church—the Lord who is at the same time the Rabbi and Prophet Jesus of Nazareth’ (Bornkamm 1957: 750). Paul Winter (1961: 5) described the process of literary development:
The Gospel grew backward; the end was there before the beginning had been thought of.…Only later, when the Gospel had grown, was the story of Jesus' Passion prefaced, as it were, by reminiscences of events in his life. The point at which the Gospel begins was traced back from the time of his death to the time of his baptism; later to his birth; and finally—to begin with the very beginning—to the Word that was with God.
Other reactions could be far more radical and urgent, among some more fanatical religious adherents, in a process which was committed to developing a text for the kairos (the opportune time or critical moment) interpreted as now. ‘Not only the Jews but the whole world had to begin all over again. This existing world had gone wrong. It was a world of injustice and oppression, exploitation and anxiety. It would perish because of its own transgressions in a great divine judgment. But then a new world would begin’ (Theissen 1987: 23).
As an example, following Theissen who uses an edited version of this text, one can take Sibylline Oracles 3: 767–95, from a Jewish section in this book of oracles, probably written in the second century BCE, which was circulated widely in antiquity. The themes of this particular text are built up from the prophecy of Isa. 11: 1–9.
And then, indeed, he will raise up a kingdom for allages among men, he who once gave the holy Lawto the pious, to all of whom he promised to open the earthand the world and the gates of the blessed and all joysand immortal intellect and eternal cheer.…(for mortals will invoke the son of the great God)[This line is an explicitly Christian interpolation].Wolves and lambs will eat grass together in the mountains.Leopards will feed together with kids.Roving bears will spend the night with calves.The flesh-eating lion will eat husks at the mangerlike an ox, and mere infant children will lead themwith ropes. For he will make the beasts on earth harmless.Serpents and asps will sleep with babiesand will not harm them, for the hand of God will be upon them.
A similar kind of development of prophecies, in a continuing exposition of an underlying text, can be found in the use of Daniel 7 in 4 Ezra 11. The clearest example within the gospels of this kind of writing is the so-called ‘Little Apocalypse’ in Mark 13. Often associated with the threat of the Roman emperor Gaius (Caligula) to interfere with the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple, and if so to be dated to the years after 40 CE, this text itself provides a scheme of apocalyptic expectation which was developed in subsequent writing (see Court 1982).
A different kind of reason for seeking to develop a written text would be to lay down rules for social living (in what time might remain). It might seem very obvious that followers of Jesus should follow his example in behaviour, and accordingly should formulate guidelines of Christian practice. But the academic evidence offered surprises by its paucity, perhaps for two reasons: ethical questions often receive lightweight treatment in New Testament introductions; and some issues are further complicated because of textual difficulties. To give one example of the latter, the episode of the woman taken in adultery may be found at the beginning of John 8, but is not thought to belong to this gospel. Given its textual problems, what weight should be attached to the story when considering the prototypes for Christian ethics?
An earlier section (3) has already referred to the Household Codes as formulae from the ancient world which could be applied in this new Christian context. To these codes could be added the stereotypical lists of virtues and vices, to be found in the same context in Colossians (3: 5–17) and Ephesians (4: 2–3, 17–24). The new setting is the authority given ‘in the Lord’ to such examples of practice. But there are more distinctive aspects of New Testament ethics which must be acknowledged. These include the example of Jesus Christ himself in grace and humility (e.g. 2 Cor. 8: 9; Phil. 2); the teaching of Jesus (in the sermons of Matthew and Luke, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and in the love command of John's gospel and its demonstration in the foot washing of John 13); the distinctive contribution made by Paul (e.g. in the working out of the relationship of faith and obedience in Galatians); and finally, but still pervading the rest, for reasons that we have seen, the context of eschatological urgency and challenge (e.g. 1 Cor. 7: 28–31).
5. The Invention of the Gospel
On reflection, it is no accident that the first words of Mark's Gospel speak of the ‘beginning of the gospel’. In the first place the word ‘gospel’ denotes something more dynamic (kerygmatic) and less literary than our immediate understanding; it is also the case that the syntax of Mark's opening verses is debated—is this ‘beginning’ the appearance of John the Baptist or the substance of the Old Testament proof-text? But whatever the immediate interpretation, it seems reasonable to hold the view that Mark (or at least an early form of Mark) is—to the best of our knowledge—the prototype of the gospel form. But even if Mark is credited rightly with the first shaping of this preaching and teaching about Jesus, arising from the twin facts of Jesus' death and resurrection, it is still appropriate to ask about the special characteristics and theological emphases of Mark's own composition. The provocative proposals of Wrede's classic work of 1901, concerned with the messianic secret (that Jesus was indeed the Messiah but wanted it kept secret) as a leading characteristic of Mark's gospel, and suggesting that it was more a theological device than a historical fact, still deserve to be taken seriously.
The new invention identified in the structure of Mark's Gospel is the combination of the Passion narrative with a range of other materials, many of them reflecting the controversies faced by the early Christians. This includes the challenge regarding Jesus' identity and power represented by the miracle stories, and the other kinds of challenges in the teaching of Jesus, particularly in the shock tactics of the parables. Given such challenges, the rationale of any gospel is to suggest a response from Christian experience to the awkward questions and theological implications about Jesus. It is almost inevitable that a small group of Christians in a particular place are the ones grappling with these problems and working out their solutions in the ways that suit their group context and worship practice.
Missionary teachers, such as Paul and Peter, are seen to travel between centres. Inevitably comparisons are made, and insights adopted from other Christian groups. But the starting- point will be with local questions and answers. An important book, edited by Richard Bauckham in 1998, sought to challenge widely held assumptions about gospel origins: that gospels were produced for particular communities and express the characteristic theology developed in those groups; and that inevitably they reveal at least as much about the social context of those communities as they do about Jesus. Scholars need to be challenged to face up to the pervasive nature of their theories and the dangers of the circular argument. But Bauckham's challenge, though timely, was inconclusive. The scholarly basis is far from flimsy, given the reality of the differing but synoptic strands of the gospel tradition, which invite the comparative analysis and identification of local pressures and concerns that biblical theologians have recognized.
In the broadest way one needs to acknowledge the fact of a gospel defined for a community: for example, to distinguish in early Christianity between the Jewish communities connected with the historical Jesus and the Gentile communities confessing the risen Christ. To quote from the Stegemanns' distinction, based on sociological principles:
Under the concept followers of Jesus we include the actual Jesus movement, the so-called early Jerusalem church, and the messianic groups in the land of Israel that in our view are represented by the Gospels of Matthew and John.…By contrast, the Christ-confessing communities outside Israel—even with all their affinities with Jewish religious tradition—are no longer a phenomenon of Judaism, above all for sociological reasons. (Stegemann and Stegemann 1999: 4)
In the absence of precise geographical references, to assign any of the canonical gospels to a particular place in the tradition is almost bound to be controversial. Whereas in the first half of the twentieth century John's gospel was regarded primarily as reflecting Hellenistic culture, thereafter a new look at this gospel revealed a fairly introvert, Jerusalem-orientated community, firmly built on Jewish principles, on analogy with the evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls about the Qumran sect. The battleground was frequently the relationship with Judaism, given the proliferation of variants on the Jewish tradition in the first century CE, revealing a situation as complex as modern Jewry in its secular and varied religious aspects. While Paul crossed and re-crossed the boundaries of Judaism and Gentile life, Matthew's account of the teaching of Jesus is firmly related to the Jewish law. This evangelist's interpretation is modelled on the work of the scribe ‘trained for the kingdom of heaven’ (13: 52). The fierce criticism of ‘scribes and Pharisees’ in chapter 23 is no contradiction of this view, but a natural consequence, given the Jewish traditions of active debate. The greatest contrast is provided by the evangelist who is believed to have followed Paul on at least some of his journeys into the Gentile world. Luke's is the gospel for a wider audience, and the sequel to this gospel, the Acts of the Apostles, supplies the reader with such a wider context, in its missionary activity to the heart of the Roman Empire.
6. The Partings of the Ways
Since this larger question has already been considered at the outset, its impact can be described in summary at this point in the reconstructed story. The variety of relationships between Judaism and the early Christian groups can be illustrated by examples from inside and on the boundaries of the New Testament. In a situation which is almost impossible to define with any precision—either early in the story, or much later in some backwater—is the work known as the Didache (or Teaching of the Twelve). This provides an important continuity with traditional Judaism in several aspects: the delineation of the two ways (life and death) as a scheme of ethical teaching, the presentation in an eschatologically charged apocalyptic context, and the depiction of the Christian mission in terms of wandering charismatics in the traditions of Old Testament prophecy and priesthood.
It has just been noted that the Gospel of John stands in the Jewish messianic tradition, analogous in some ways to the Dead Sea Scrolls. But this gospel also contains explicit references to the fractured relationship between Christian believers and the synagogue (John 9: 22; 12: 42; 16: 2). Was this break the actual catalyst which produced the gospel? Or are these additions to the original text which bear witness to the developing historical experience of the parting of the ways? According to one reconstruction, the harsh strictures against the Jews in chapter 8 referred originally to those Jewish disciples of the historical Jesus who defected because his teaching proved too demanding (8: 31; cf. 6: 60). Subsequently, after the Council of Jamnia excommunicated the ‘Heretics’, this became, in Christian experience, a condemnation of Jewish informers against the Christians (see Martyn 2003, although other scholars differ).
A further stage, when the newly erected boundaries are actually crossed, could be represented by the theological essay known as the Letter to the Hebrews. The censure on apostasy in Hebrews 6 bears comparison with what we have just seen in John 8. In the same way, the language of Old Testament ritual comes close to the treatment of such themes in the extra-canonical Epistle of Barnabas. To use the language of the Jewish tradition here does not mean that one's theology is defined by it. On the contrary, the ‘word of exhortation’ (Heb. 13: 22) is a drive to Christian earnestness in moral and spiritual terms which should go beyond and transcend the pattern of Jewish faith and practice out of which Christianity has emerged.
These movements could be called descriptions of a journey which at different points have led to a parting of the ways. As the texts witness to groups who act in certain ways, they are open, as has been indicated, to the possibilities of sociological analysis. It should also be remembered that there are great developments taking place here in theological and Christological terms. If the first impressions of Jesus evoked awe and respect, the later developments sought to use role-labels, many of them from Judaism, while at the same time wrestling at the sublime end of the spectrum with the problems posed by Jewish monotheism. At the stage represented in Hebrews, there is a preference for the mystical language of the heavenly Son of Man rather than for Jewish messiahship. And the priestly/sacramental/sacrificial dimension has its focus on the mysterious figure of Melchizedek and does more than merely suggest the inferiority of the Old Testament system of sacrifice.
7. Towards the Theological Definition of the Church
In sociological terms, the Christian groups come to a recognition of their separate existence. This experience entails an attempt to redefine their group identity. At this stage the theological agenda includes the important item of ecclesiology. The available terminology comes from Jewish and Graeco-Roman sources, and, as with the first steps in defining Jesus, these moves towards defining the religious grouping can take advantage of existing ambiguities. This group has a sense of vocation, but for what purpose exactly is it summoned?
There are three New Testament books—of rather different kinds—which contribute in the longer term to this task of group self-definition. They are the Acts of the Apostles, the Letter to the Ephesians, and the book of Revelation. Despite their obvious differences, their tasks can be seen as complementary to each other, within the ultimate structure of the New Testament canon.
The broadly historical narrative of Acts reveals an organization which moves from the smallest beginnings to a public witness at the heart of the Roman Empire. Although various figures move across the narrative, there is a concentration on two figures, Peter and Paul, who are presented as a definition of apostolic ministry. They share the church, as the pair of Roman consuls would share the classical ideals of the Republic. There is no sign here of the controversy surrounding Paul's apostleship, which he declares honestly in his letters; instead, Paul takes the major role, and his apostolic commissioning is reinforced by the threefold repetition of the Damascus experience. The authority of the church is clear, as is its direction in mission. What are much less clear from these pages are the answers to the subsidiary questions about church orders and ministries, or the relationship between water and spirit baptisms as the initiation into church membership. On the other hand, the ‘breaking of bread’ is a clear symbol of belonging, and of participation in the experience of revelation, ever since the two walked to Emmaus in Luke 24: 13 ff.
As with Hebrews, it might be better to describe the Letter to the Ephesians as a theological essay. It probably dates to the last quarter of the first century, and seeks to expound some of the ideas of Pauline theology particularly in relation to the church, its unity in the Holy Spirit, and its future development in salvation history. The structure of the exposition is systematic and complex, matched by its expression in long complex sentences. The theory of the church expounded here is universal, rather than localized, founded by the apostles in the past (2: 20). The historical perspective is balanced by a sense of development, in which the church is God's new creation in an eschatological programme that was inaugurated by Christ's resurrection (2: 1–10). The promise that the Gentiles will be incorporated into the church is here fulfilled (11–19). The process of evolution in the church is both practical and theoretical: it is made concrete in the structure of the household of God, identified as the body of Christ; it is also an evolution with a sense of mystery as it moves to its ultimate ‘omega point’.
Historical evolution and theological structure are complemented, in the third place, by the visionary dimension of the potential and responsibilities of the church in the book of Revelation. Various symbols assist in inspiring the reader with this vision. The Christian experience is authorized at the outset by the risen Lord, Christ himself; he communicates not only to the seer, but also to the seven angels or spirits of God who represent the church in its symbolic totality and equally in its local actualization (seven representative church communities). The church plays its part in the visions of heaven in the form of the worshippers, the twenty-four elders, the martyrs, the representatives sealed from the twelve tribes of Israel, the two prophetic witnesses of Revelation 11, perhaps even the woman clothed with the sun in Revelation 12. Pre-eminently there is the new Jerusalem figure, the bride adorned for the messianic marriage, who forms a bridge between earth and heaven. The visionary inspiration for the church members, confronted by all kinds of trial and suffering, is to be found in the promises made to the one who is victorious (chapters 2 and 3), promises fulfilled in membership of the New Jerusalem (chapters 21 and 22). With this vision of Revelation, then, we find the culmination and climax of the process of growth of the New Testament.