Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Richard Bauckham: “For Whom Were Gospels Written?”

Today I read Richard Bauckham’s influential article, “For Whom Were Gospels Written?” in Richard Bauckham ed., The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). This book is not recent, but I am just now getting around to it. I have seen this essay cited in a number of different works and thought that I should take an hour to read it. I briefly review it here. Although it is not directly related to textual criticism, Bauckham's conclusions have some serious ramifications for  how we are to understand the dissemination of literature in early Christianity.
In his first essay of this book, Bauckham argues that the consensus within Gospels scholarship that specific communities lie behind each Gospel is an inadequate way of looking at the historical situation. The idea that the Gospels had a socially pre-existing audience was championed by form critics such as Bultmann and Dibelius who attempted to find the Sitz im leben from which and for which Gospels were written. To Bauckham, phrases like “Matthean community,” “Markan Community,” etc. are false categories: there was no such thing as a Matthean, Markan, Lukan, or Johannine community. What Bauckham means by this is that the audiences for which Gospel authors wrote were not their own, and it is therefore a mistake for modern scholars to assume that such was the case. It is true that the majority of commentaries and works on any given Gospel often discuss that particular Gospel’s community (e.g., Markan community). Bauckham’s thesis is this: to understand Gospel literature as intended not for specific communities with a certain set of issues that a Gospel aims to address, but for “any or every church of the late first century to which his Gospel might circulate,” (p. 45). Mark, for example, had no particular audience in view. Instead, he was writing for an “open” audience. I found interesting Bauckham’s demonstration of how modern scholars treat the Gospels as if they are letters of Paul, which do have specific communities and issues in mind. There is a hermeneutical advantage to reconstructing the communities of the churches to which Paul wrote, but according to Bauckham this cannot be done with Gospel texts. 
Bauckham discusses three different sources of evidence that show how early Christian communities were involved in a wide network of communication: 1) Papias’ collection of oral tradition; 2) the messengers and church representatives in the letters of Ignatius; 3) the circulation of the Shepherd of Hermas. I think this section in his essay is certainly helpful in getting a sense of how quickly churches and their leaders began to communicate with each other — perhaps Bauckham’s greatest contribution. However, Bauckham’s appeal to Ignatius’ letters makes me wonder how close he comes to making the mistake of conflating Gospel audiences and the audiences (and transmitters) of Ignatius’ letters (reminiscent of Bauckham’s own critique of the scholarly tendency to treat Gospel texts like Paul’s letters). His three examples do illustrate that Christian communities were not as isolated as we might think, but it does not necessarily prove, in my opinion, that Gospel texts were meant for a universal audience. One issue I kept anticipating Bauckham to address was the way in which a community (or communities) might influence a Gospel text. He does mention this on p. 44: “Certainly it may be argued that the community in which a Gospel was written is likely to have influenced the writing of the Gospel even though it is not addressed by the Gospel. But it does not follow that we have any chance of reconstructing that community.” It is evident from a redactional analysis of the Gospels that authors took certain aspects of the Jesus tradition to be more important than others, and this becomes clear through the varying ways in which each Gospel writer composes his narrative. It would have been helpful if Bauckham had included a section on the Gospels’ degrees of dissimilarity and how these dissimilarities might be interpreted in light of his thesis. More still, it would have been helpful if Bauckham had at least addressed some texts of the Gospels: a discussion of internal evidence is left out altogether. In any case, this article is brilliant, and has got me thinking about Gospel audiences more seriously. Let’s just say I will not use the phrase “Markan Community” without thinking of Bauckham’s essay!


  1. Have you seen Margaret Mitchell's 2005 NTS article responding to this book? I remember saying "wow" out loud when I put it down.

  2. Sonja, I have only seen Adela Collins' summary of her article in her commentary. Adela devotes two pages to listing critical responses to Bauckham. Anyway, I should read Mitchell's article. While I do not agree with Bauckham's extreme position on the universal audience of the Gospels, his essay did make me see things in a new way. And for that I was thankful. Thanks for the note!