Critique of Stanton’s “The Gospels and Jesus”

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. David Nystrom at Fuller Theological Seminary during my second year for a class on the Gospels.


When it comes to studying the New Testament, examining the four gospels and the life of Jesus is of utmost importance. Graham Stanton’s book, The Gospels and Jesus, provides New Testament students and Christians alike with the ability to study this important topic. A short summary of Stanton’s book will help us to see the various areas involved in this kind of study, that is, in studying Jesus and the gospels. By briefly summarizing The Gospels and Jesus we will be able to see some of the book’s strengths, which include, but are not limited to, Stanton’s right understanding of a dual perspective of the authors of the gospels, his delightful treatment of determining what is a gospel and how we are to understand and study the four gospels of the New Testament, his intriguing though serious study of the Gospel of Thomas, and his perception on parables in the gospels. To a short summary of The Gospels and Jesus we now turn.

In the first of two parts in the book Stanton addresses the four gospels of the New Testament. In the first chapter he introduces this study by briefly examining how the understanding and knowledge of Jesus came to us through the gospels. In this chapter he shows the difficulties that are involved in this particular study by making an example of the Lord’s prayer (pp. 6-12). In the second chapter he examines what is a gospel, which is an essential study in order to understand what the gospels are trying to communicate or accomplish. Using the categories listed by Stanton, are the gospels biographies, history, proclamation, or stories? Stanton argues that the authors of the gospels were attempting to not only tell the story but also the significance of Jesus, so gospels are a blend of biography, history, proclamation and story (p. 36). He reviews source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism and literary criticism in this chapter, which are different scholarly approaches to reading, studying and interpreting or understanding the gospels. After examining introductory matters regarding the gospels, Stanton turns to each individual gospel.

Stanton’s next four chapters examine the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, respectively. He pays careful attention to the traditions, redaction and sources of all four gospels. He emphasizes that Matthew and Luke both formed their own versions of the gospel according to the tradition of Mark, which they reshaped for their own purposes (pp. 38-9). He pays special attention to the way of Jesus and discipleship in Mark, the way of righteousness in Matthew,  salvation history or how God’s way triumphs in Luke, and Jesus as the way in John. He seeks out the relationship between John’s gospel and the synoptic gospels. Stanton also looks at the purpose and provenance of each gospel as well, although he admits that we do not know such things for certain regarding the four gospels of the New Testament. Now that he has looked at the four gospels of the New Testament, Stanton evaluates why there are only four gospels.

In the seventh chapter other texts considered to be gospels are examined to determine why they were not included in the New Testament. Such texts considered are the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter. In regards to the Gospel of Peter, Stanton quickly concludes that the gospel is valueless due to its legendary fashion (pp. 131-2). Stanton also briefly examines the Egerton Gospel, partial or fragmentary gospels, and infancy gospels before giving his own conclusions to the four gospels of the New Testament. Now that he has looked at the distinctive theological and literary features of each of the gospels and has looked at the broader topics and issues concerning them, Stanton moves on to the second part of his book.

A study of Jesus in the gospel traditions comprises the second part of The Gospels and Jesus. In the eighth chapter Stanton looks at the knowledge that we have concerning Jesus. It is here that he answers the question, “Did Jesus exist?” He examines Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient texts and evidence to show that there is support for the existence of Jesus. In the ninth chapter, Stanton assesses this evidence. He argues that historians generally agree that Jesus existed but they disagree on who Jesus was. Stanton seeks to find and utilize criteria for examining the gospels of the New Testament to find authentic traditions concerning Jesus. He argues that anything in the gospel traditions that would have been an embarrassment to the followers of Jesus would have been authentic, and anything that links Jesus traditions to Jewish contexts would have been authentic too. In the tenth chapter Stanton looks at John the Baptist and compares him to Jesus. John the Baptist was “the witness” of the Gospel of John, noting that he is not called “John the Baptist” in that gospel, because his primary role is to bear witness and not to baptize in that tradition (pp. 178-9). Then he looks at John the Baptist in the synoptic gospels. After looking at John the Baptist in all of the gospels, he seeks to determine what we know of this character. He resorts particularly to Josephus to find historical information on John the Baptist just as he did for Jesus. All of this information is given in an effort by Stanton to provide the context for the life of Jesus. The next couple of things that Stanton does is to consider Jesus as a prophet-teacher and look at his teaching on the kingdom of God.

In the eleventh chapter Stanton examines the prophet-teacher role of Jesus. He posits that Jesus functioned in a dual role–both as a prophet and a teacher. These two roles are similar but they are not the same according to Stanton (p. 190). He notes that the evangelists refer to Jesus both as a prophet and a teacher; therefore, we must understand Jesus in light of these references, especially when looking at the prophetic sayings and actions of Jesus in the gospels and also when coming to an understanding of the way he taught his disciples and how they interacted with him. In the twelfth chapter Stanton looks at the frequent teaching of Jesus on the kingdom of God. He notes that Jesus gives no clear explanation of what he means by “the kingdom of God” (p. 204). He wants to know whether the kingdom is temporal or spatial, and he concludes that it is mostly temporal but it is used both ways by Jesus. He concludes that what Jesus means by the kingdom sayings is God’s kingly rule in the time and place where God’s power and will have control (p. 214). Next, Stanton looks at how Jesus taught using parables and aphorisms and he looks at the miracles of Jesus.

In the thirteenth chapter Stanton looks at parables and aphorisms. Leslie Houlden’s book, Jesus: the complete guide, also includes articles on the teachings and parables of Jesus, so it seems that Stanton is following good scholarship throughout his book by adhering to particular categories to study the life of Jesus. Stanton says parables are primarily comparisons typically done in a story form and aphorisms are short and pithy sayings. He notes that the evangelists give us many parables. Aphorisms are closely related to parables, although they are not the same (p. 229). In the fourteenth chapter Stanton examines the miracles and exorcisms of Jesus. He looks at how the evangelists portray Jesus and the miracle traditions, which he says are not unique to the gospels of the New Testament, and he also asks whether or not Jesus did in fact perform miracles. After concluding that historians generally agree that Jesus did perform miracles, he asks another question–why did Jesus perform them? Stanton determines that Jesus performed such things in his ministry because they were the kingdom of God in operation (p. 239). From here, Stanton looks at how Jesus understood himself–whether as Messiah, Son of God or Son of Man.

No book on the life of Jesus can escape the task of determining who Jesus thought of himself by examining the titles or names of Jesus, such as the Son of Man or the Son of God, and in a similar fashion with other books on Jesus, such as Jesus: the complete guide, by Leslie Houlden, Stanton spends the fifteenth chapter examining who Jesus thought of himself. Did Jesus think of himself as the Messiah? Did Jesus refer to himself as the Son of God? Or were these titles designed and attributed to Jesus by the post-resurrection church? Stanton concludes that it is difficult to determine which titles or claims were created by the church and which ones were used by Jesus himself (p. 252). Interestingly and intriguing enough, he thinks that Jesus probably did not refer to himself as Messiah (p. 252). Although it is likely that he did not call himself the Son of God, Jesus did refer to God as the Father, so it is easy to see that it could be that the church created and attributed this title to Jesus (p. 252). The title “Son of Man” became a messianic title over time as the church developed and attributed it to Jesus, although Jesus did use it indirectly of himself (p. 252). Now Stanton looks at the conflict involved in the ministry of Jesus.

In the sixteenth chapter Stanton looks at the conflict Jesus had with other leaders. He looks at how the gospels portray the conflicts and then he looks at the various competitors, namely the Essenes, Sadducees, “zealots,” scribes, and Pharisees over issues of Sabbath, purity and divorce. He notes in the last section of this chapter that Jesus did not intend to abolish the laws of the Old Testament, but he did mean to interpret them differently than what was commonly taught and understood during his time. Next, Stanton looks at the passion narratives.

In the seventeenth chapter Stanton looks at the last days of Jesus through the perspective of the four gospels of the New Testament. He examines the passion narratives, especially the last supper and compares it to the Jewish Passover seder (p. 277). Then he considers several reasons to determine why Jesus was put to death; he also examines the accusations against Jesus that lead to his demise. He also looks at Jesus as the crucified Messiah-King and the resurrection, questioning whether or not it actually happened. From here Stanton asks, “Who was Jesus of Nazareth?

In the last and final chapter of the book Stanton reviews the content of the book and considers who Jesus was. He proposes that the only way to know anything about Jesus is to start with the gospels and critically examine them and take into account the position of the evangelists and “the modifications they have introduced” (p. 293). He argues further that we must understand Jesus in the context of first-century Judaism (p. 293). He also argues that there are traditions in the gospels that can in fact be considered trustworthy and reliable information; he appeals to traditions that would have been an embarrassment to the followers of Jesus as being authentic, because no one would make it up unless it was true due to the effect it would have (p. 295). He concludes that although we cannot reconstruct the exact and entire life of Jesus, we do know a good deal about him (p. 295).

Now that we have briefly summarized The Gospels and Jesus, we can look at three of its strengths. We will look at the following points: first, Stanton’s right understanding of a dual perspective of the authors of the gospels; second, his intriguing though serious study of the Gospel of Thomas; and third, his perception on parables in the gospels.

Stanton takes a good position regarding the nature of the gospels. He does well by saying that we should understand the gospels in light of the evangelists’ dual perspective when writing them. He argues that the evangelists intertwined story and significance, which means that they were writing both about the life of Jesus and also what his life meant for their readers and themselves (p. 5). They were not specifically looking to write a biography, history, novel or theological treatise; they were looking to tell the story of Jesus and what it means for the world by using biographical, historical, narrative and theological features. This fact is rightly noted by Stanton, and it is certainly one of the strengths of this book.

Stanton takes the Gospel of Thomas seriously and does not pass over it as a waste of time, which is a strong point of the book. Many scholars have thought highly of this gospel, so it is necessary for Stanton to take it seriously if he is to gain good repute on a wide scale. He notes that the Gospel of Thomas comes from a considerably later date than that of the four gospels of the New Testament, and it sounds quite different from them as well. He determines that this document does not provide what its positive critics claim–a new royal path back to the historical Jesus–but he takes this document seriously and critically analyzes the text and submits that five of its sayings (or logia, to be precise) might actually be authentic, meaning that they might come from the mouth of the historical Jesus (p. 129). Stanton’s ability to critically examine the Gospel of Thomas and take it seriously is certainly one of the strengths of this book.

Stanton’s treatment of parables and aphorisms is a strength of the book. He rightly states that parables must interpret the student’s understanding and the student’s understanding must not interpret the parables. What Stanton means is that the parables have to be understood in the context of the First Century A.D. We should not import our own understanding into the parables, but allow the parables to speak to us and shape and mold our understanding (p. 227). This point is a particularly good one and is certainly a strength of the book as it stands as a good hermeneutic not only for studying parables but the Bible as a whole.

Stanton’s book, The Gospels and Jesus, is a great book as it enables New Testament students to gain a good grasp of Jesus in the gospels. Stanton’s book stands out for its good perception on parables, for its fair critique and serious treatment of the Gospel of Thomas, and its right understanding of the dual-perception of the evangelists through which we must understand the gospels. Any student of the New Testament must certainly read and come to terms with the content of this book as it is generally filled with helpful, delightful and invaluable information regarding Jesus and the gospels.