Christ and Community: The Gospel Witness to Jesus

Christ and Community: The Gospel Witness to Jesus

by Suzanne Watts Henderson

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You are the Christ; we are your church.

Christ and Community:The Gospel Witness to Jesus casts new light on how Jesus’s followers sought to faithfully live into the reign of God as recorded in the Gospels. Dr. Henderson traces the contours of Jesus’s messiahship found in the four Gospels, but rather than taking each Gospel in turn, she works thematically, treating different aspects of Jesus’s mission and identity found across the four accounts. Rather than assuming Jesus’s exclusive status, the author exposes Gospel evidence for the clear communal implications of his messiahship. It turns out that the Gospels do more than simply affirm that Jesus is the Christ; they cast a vision of messianic community for those who would call him Lord, in the first century and beyond. This accessible introduction offers a case for Christ and community that answers perplexing questions that have long plagued NT study. 


"Christ and Community: The Gospel Witness to Jesus, by Suzanne Watts Henderson. One approach to understanding the Gospels as scripture is to consider their functions—specifically, how these writings describe and reinforce essential connections between Jesus’ followers and their Lord. Written as an introductory textbook, Christ and Community can help even seasoned exegetes grasp the means by which the Gospels’ stories depict Jesus’ work and identity in ways that equip Christian communities to make sense of their own work and identity." The Christian Century - Oct 07, 2015

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781426793097
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 04/21/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Suzanne Watts Henderson is Professor of Philosophy and Religion and Dean of the Belk Chapel at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. She teaches courses in Bible and world religions and is the director for the Center of Ethics and Religion. She is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Henderson has published widely in the field of New Testament studies and is a frequent presenter both in academic settings and in the wider community. She received her MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary and her PhD from Duke University.

Read an Excerpt

Christ and Community

The Gospel Witness to Jesus

By Suzanne Watts Henderson

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2015 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-9309-7


Foundational Questions

Few books are as deeply admired as the Bible. Yet most readers have little sense of how, when, and for whom it was written. This is especially true for the Gospels. Together, these four accounts preserve stories and sayings that take us back to the time of Jesus, capturing his mission and identity in ways that continue to inspire billions of followers today. But most readers of the Gospels have little idea where the Gospels came from, what Jesus's world was like, or even what basic phrases like the "kingdom of God" meant to him. Few realize that the Gospels were written decades after Jesus's death and recast his story in settings that differ from both Jesus's world and our own. As a result, it is important to explain several basic concepts that will undergird this study of the Gospel witness to Jesus. In this chapter, those well-acquainted with NT scholarship will find themselves in familiar terrain. But our discussion of Gospel backgrounds and methods lays a foundation that will prove indispensable to the study of Christ and community that follows.

What Are the Gospels?

The word gospel (Greek: euangelion) means "good news" and was often used in ancient Greek to express a favorable outcome in battle: "we won!" This connotation lies behind the Gospels, since all four authors think that, in Jesus'slife, death, and resurrection, God's life-giving power has defeated the armies of evil, including death itself (see 1 Cor 15:55). Among Gospel writers, only Mark introduces the story by calling it a "gospel" ("good news"; Mark 1:1). But the term was soon used in a generic sense to designate stories about Jesus, and by late in the second century, scribes added titles identifying their traditional authors.

In their written accounts, the Gospel writers (evangelists) combine earlier oral and written traditions to narrate what Luke calls "the events that have been fulfilled among us" (Luke 1:1), events related to a man named Jesus of Nazareth. On one level, Jesus himself was historically insignificant in his own time: non-Christian writers barely mention him. On another level, his historical significance is immeasurable, since the movement he left behind now includes about one-third of the world's population. Together, the NT Gospels provide our earliest glimpse of both the man and his movement.

The four accounts of this "good news" about Jesus the Christ have much in common. To begin with, all four Gospels say that Jesus's story fulfills Jewish messianic hopes. Thus, he is, for all four writers, a decidedly Jewish Christ. As a result, the Gospels consistently appeal to Jewish scripture to confirm Jesus's role as messiah. It is this common portrait that will serve as starting point for our study.

As they tell the story of his messiahship, the Gospels share many specific details. For one thing, they all include Jesus's spirited interaction with figures such as John the Baptist, his twelve disciples, his mother, Mary, and other women, and even both Jewish and Roman opponents. They agree, too, that he spent most of his time in the northern region of Palestine called the Galilee, where he taught about the "kingdom of God" and performed miracles as a way of channeling divine power. In each Gospel, Jesus travels to Jerusalem, which stood at the center of religious and political power, where he suffers betrayal, hostile interrogation, and death on a Roman cross during the Jewish Passover celebration. Finally, all four evangelists maintain that devoted women who returned to his tomb "on the third day" found it empty.

Yet the Gospels also differ in both trivial and meaningful ways. The names of places and even Jesus's disciples change, as does his itinerary. More significant are the shifting relationships among characters in the stories. Jesus's relationship to God, for instance, varies across the Gospels, as does the tone and spirit of his interaction with his disciples.

To understand those differences among Gospel accounts, it is important to note several details about their composition. The first has to do with the time gap between Jesus's own career and the written accounts themselves. While Jesus died sometime around the year 30 CE, the first Gospel (Mark) was probably written around 70 CE, and the latest (John) took shape sometime after 90 CE. The significance of this span is hard to overestimate. For one thing, it means that the stories and sayings they report were preserved orally for decades before they were written down. As a result, many details related to Jesus's story changed over time; competing accounts of the same stories circulated alongside one another; and even different impressions of Jesus himself emerged. All of these differences show that the modern question of "factual accuracy" is out of place in the first-century world of oral tradition.

But if the stories changed over time before they were written down, that trend continues within the Gospels themselves. Notably, a second-century bishop named Papias shows little regard for historicity in the modern sense as he explains the Gospel-writing process. In something of a defense of Mark's reliability, Papias notes that the author "neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward ... he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord's discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them." As Papias notes, not only is Mark's task a selective one, but it is an interpretive one as well, since the evangelist recounts Peter's instruction, which in turn was tailored to the "needs of his hearers." In light of this, the temporal and conceptual distance between Jesus and the Gospel accounts of his earthy career is greater, and perhaps more significant, than many modern readers assume.

It is this gap that helps explain the many differences among the Gospels—differences that range from Jesus's origins to his post-resurrection appearances.

Sometimes, the variances are insignificant and easy to explain: for instance, an editorial change that better fits Palestinian geography (Mark 5:1; cf. Matt 8:28).In other places, the differences reflect the authors' distinctive "spin." Consider the story of Jesus's arrest, which takes place in all four Gospels in a garden (called Gethsemane in Matthew, Mark, and Luke). While Mark shows Jesus in anguish as he faces his destiny, Matthew and Luke tone down his agony, and John omits it altogether (compare Mark 14:32-44 with Matt 26:36-46; Luke 22:40-46; John 18:1-12). This is but one example of a tendency, found among the four Gospels, to highlight certain features of Jesus's messianic story and downplay others.

What then can we say about the Gospels? Dating to the last third of the first century CE, they tell the story of a man named Jesus of Nazareth. They are called "gospels" because they tell the "good news" that, in him, God's life-affirming power has secured a foothold on earth. As God's anointed one, Jesus heralds and initiates God's coming reign; as the Christ, he wields, in a decisive way, the authority over evil associated with that reign; as the messiah, he inaugurates a "new creation" marked by human dignity and wholeness.

But Jesus's story is not a solitary one. Others play a vital part in this unfolding drama of God's sovereign power at work in his messianic mission and identity. What is more, each writer forges deliberate ties between Jesus's own story as the Christ and the calling of the communities left in his wake. Each Gospel detects in Jesus's messianic role a pattern for messianic community. But this is no mere succession plan, as if Jesus's followers simply take up where he left off. Rather, each evangelist assures those who call Jesus "lord" that he remains with them; it is his empowering post-resurrection presence that equips and sustains their life together. The Gospel witness to Jesus, then, is both decidedly christological—in that the stories depict him as the Christ—and intrinsically communal—since his messianic mission and identity lives on among those who follow and trust in him.

How Will We Read the Gospels?

The answer to this question is both deceptively simple and suggestively complex. Simply put, we read the Gospels mainly on their own terms. This approach begins by establishing interpretive distance between today's reader and the Gospels' first-century setting. That means setting aside prior beliefs about Jesus and his saving significance and turning to the Gospels with fresh eyes to read their claims anew. To read the Gospels "on their own terms," then, means reading the text in context—that is, using interpretive tools associated with literary and historical criticism.

Reading the Text: Narrative, Source, and Redaction Criticism

In terms of method, our study of Gospel witness to Jesus begins with a strategy known as "narrative criticism." This approach explores the story's artistry—its language, plot, characterization, and other literary devices—as a "way in" to its meaning. To read the text closely and carefully exposes details long overlooked for theological reasons. This is especially the case with Gospel passages that attribute Christlike power and authority to his followers. For instance, many interpreters either overlook or downplay the Fourth Gospel's claim that believers will do "greater works than these" (John 14:12), since it seems incompatible with the Gospel's high Christology.

Already, though, our approach grows more complex. For to read each Gospel portrait "on its own terms" leads beyond the text itself to questions about its relationship to the other accounts included in the NT. Since the canon includes four Gospels, not one, careful attention to one invites comparison with the others. In modern times, that comparison has led to an interpretive strategy called "source criticism." This approach examines such questions as these: Which Gospel came first? What traditions does each writer incorporate? What can we say about the composition of the Gospels?

Since Matthew, Mark, and Luke share so many stories and narrative details, they are called the "Synoptic" (literally, "seeing together") Gospels. Most scholars today think the Four-Source Hypothesis offers the best explanation of their similarities and differences. In this view, Mark was the first written Gospel and served as a source for both Matthew and Luke. Because these two Gospels make vastly different use of Mark, experts think they worked independently. Yet Matthew and Luke both include about 220 verses—mostly sayings—that are not found in Mark. To explain this material, scholars widely assume the existence of a hypothetical "sayings source" called Q (short for the German noun Quelle, or "source"). Finally, stories and sayings unique to Matthew and Luke are designated M and L, respectively. While debate about this hypothesis persists, it remains the best account of the Synoptic Gospels' compositional history.

The question of John's sources is murkier, partly because the Fourth Gospel seems to have been written in stages. For instance, many take the post-resurrection stories found in John 21 as a later addition, since John 20:30-31 sounds like a Gospel ending. And while most scholars think the Fourth Gospel was compiled independently from the synoptic accounts, similarities in some places indicate that John may have shared some underlying sources with the synoptic writers. In any case, source criticism allows us to view both the Synoptic Gospels and John as collections of stories woven together to produce distinctive accounts of Jesus's messianic career.

Source criticism also supports our efforts to read the text on its own terms because it brings to light, through comparison, the distinctive features of each Gospel. This leads to another important reading strategy used here. "Redaction criticism" builds on source-critical findings to highlight the evangelists' editorial ("redactional") and thematic concerns. For example, since Matthew incorporates about 90 percent of Mark's Gospel, we can trace the ways in which Matthew changes, reorganizes, and occasionally omits material from the Markan source. These editorial choices, combined with the special "M" traditions found in the Gospel, shed important interpretive light on the evangelist's editorial concerns. The redactional handiwork of Mark and John is harder to detect, since we lack direct access to the literary sources they used. In the case of these two Gospels, then, we employ simple comparative strategies to note the themes and details that contribute to their distinctive accounts.

Reading in Historical Context: Jewish and Early Christian Settings

This study of the Gospels in relation to one another leads to another set of interpretive questions that guide our study. For as the evangelists both adopted and adapted earlier sources, their work was shaped by both Jesus's own Palestinian Jewish context and the experience of the post-resurrection communities for whom they wrote. We can think of the Gospels' Jewish roots and early Christian audiences as the "bookends" that help us understand the Gospel messages on their own terms.

On the one hand, since all four Gospels preserve traditions about Jesus's innately Jewish mission, it is important to anchor these stories within the sociohistorical landscape of first-century Jewish thought. In other words, when the evangelists call Jesus the "Christ," what do they think that term signifies? How does Jesus's interest in the "kingdom of God" fit within patterns of Jewish response to the Roman occupation of Palestine? And how would Jesus's companions have understood his miracles? Such details from Jesus's historical ministry, preserved within the Gospel accounts, anchor Jesus's career within the soil of Jewish thought. It turns out that each dimension of Jesus's messianic mission and identity grows out of Jewish hopes for God's reign taking root upon the earth. Rather than looking to Jewish traditions to confirm Christian beliefs about Jesus's messianic status, we will work in the other direction, noting ways in which Jewish messianic thought informs the Gospel witness to Jesus. To take the Gospels on their own terms thus requires that we grapple with questions of Jesus's historical setting in Judaism, especially its various strains of messianic thought.

Finally, though no direct, external evidence of the Gospel settings remains, scholars generally agree that they originally addressed small groups of Jews and Gentiles who thought that, in Jesus of Nazareth, the messianic age of God's reign had begun. To outsiders, their minority view—that Jesus was indeed the Christ—was problematic; after all, his humiliating death on a Roman cross seemed, as the Apostle Paul put it, "a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" (1 Cor 1:23). On some level, the Gospel stories provide a foundational narrative to support their first audiences' devotion to Jesus's messiahship. But they also make sense of each community's own experience that grows out of that devotion. For instance, most scholars think that Mark comforts and inspires a persecuted community by linking their own "way of the cross" to Jesus's suffering. And the fact that some Christians were probably excluded from late first-century synagogues explains, to many scholars, John's virulent indictment of "the Jews." Both the Gospels' background in Jewish thought and their foreground in the evangelists' settings shed important light on our study of the text itself. Taken together, they reflect the approach called "historical criticism," which examines the worlds that shaped the texts.

Reading in Postmodern Perspective?

Our discussion of reading strategy would be incomplete without naming the significance of our own sociohistorical setting. After all, postmodern critics would rightly call it naïve to suggest that one can take the Gospels on their "own terms." Even the act of reading is interpretive, since we understand the text through the lens of our preexisting worldview—a worldview shaped in turn by our social location. As a result, we note here two contemporary trends that contribute to our approach to the Gospels.

The first arises in the wake of the Holocaust, which has rightly prompted interpreters to revisit the long-standing tendency to read Jewish traditions through a christological lens—that is, as "prequel" to the story of Jesus the Christ. This approach relegated Jewish scripture to a supporting role for Christian doctrine, sowing seeds of dangerous anti-Semitic ideologies along the way. Increasingly, NT scholars take care to explore Jewish messianic thought as backdrop for, rather than confirmation of, Jesus's career and its depiction in the Gospels. To set aside assumptions about Jesus's unique or exclusive status opens the way for studies that expose the communal nature of both Jewish and early Christian texts.


Excerpted from Christ and Community by Suzanne Watts Henderson. Copyright © 2015 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents


"Part One Messianic Mission",
"Chapter One" Foundational Questions,
"Chapter Two" Messianic Message: "Announcing God's Good News" (Mark 1:14),
"Chapter Three" Messianic Power: "Authority over All the Power of the Enemy"(Luke 10:19),
"Chapter Four" Messianic Sacrifice: "To Give Up One's Life" (John 15:13),
"Chapter Five" Messianic Resurrection and Reign: "Inherit the Kingdom" (Matt 25:34),
"Part Two Messianic Identity",
"Chapter Six" Messianic Titles: Son of the Human, God's Son, Lord, and Christ,
"Chapter Seven" Messianic Traits: Servanthood, Righteousness, Prophetic Power, and Mystical Union,
"Conclusion"Christ and Community: The Gospel Witness to Jesus,

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