Building on part one, in which Hagner discusses issues relating to background and methods of interpretation (see my review of part one here), Hanger next turns his attention to Gospels—specifically the person and message of Jesus, its genre, their origin and reliability, various forms of Gospel criticisms, and an examination of each of the four documents. In this first review of Part Two of Hagner’s Intro, we will look at chapters 4-6: The Gospel as Historical and Theological Documents (ch. 4), The Message of Jesus (ch. 5), and the The Historical Jesus (ch. 6).
The Gospel as Historical and Theological Documents
Part Two begins with an evaluation of the Gospels themselves. According to Hagner, “The NT tells us that the that the Gospels record constitute the turning point and climax of salvation history.” Further, Hagner goes on to state that what the Gospels contain is “far from historical information. It is the story of God at work, fulfilling the promises to Israel and accomplishing the redemption of humanity” (59). But can we trust that the information recorded in the four Gospels are in fact an accurate account of the life of Jesus as told by trustworthy eyewitness accounts?
Part of the difficulty in answering the above question lie in the genre of the Gospel documents. Apart from what Christians wrote we wrote there are no direct parallels in antiquity to compare the Four Gospels with. As a result, the Gospels have been categorized as targum, midrash, lectionary, and other genres of literature. Nevertheless, “The Gospels represent a new and unique literary category, without any exact analogy” (61). While the genre Gospel may be new, nevertheless it does project certain features that are seen in other genres of its day. Hanger concludes that the closest relative of the Gospels in terms of genre may be the Graeco-Roman bios (biography), seen in such works as Plutarch’s Lives, Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, and other such works from antiquity.
Hanger ends chapter four with discussion on the history and theology of the Gospels. He notes that the Gospels contain a message of proclamation regarding Israel’s long awaited Messiah. Also, the Gospels are “documents of faith,” and as such contain a theological message that is to be heralded throughout the ages for all the believe. But this message of a living and reigning Christ is founded on historical events that took place in the land of Israel 2,000 years ago, and there is no reason to regard the Gospels as faulty history, tainted by the theological biases of their authors. “The Evangelists compare well with secular historians of their own day, and their narratives remain basically trustworthy” (65).
The Message of Jesus
Chapter five looks at the message of Jesus. With the coming of Christ, fulfillment of OT promises became a reality. The Messiah was inaugurating the kingdom of God, and this message was at the heart of his preaching. For Hagner the proclamation of the Kingdom is the heart of Jesus’ preaching and ministry. Hagner surveys OT and Second Temple literature to highlight key passages that speak of an expectation of a new kingdom. He likewise examines the passages in the Gospels that emphasize the present/future kingdom. Like his predecessor at Fuller George Ladd, Hagner expounds an already/not yet eschatological proclamation of the Gospels. This interpretation of the Gospel material—in this reviewer’s opinion—explains best the tension that exists between the inauguration of the kingdom at Christ’s first coming, and the still future consummation of the kingdom at his return.
Hagner concludes chapter five with a discussion on the kingdom and Christology. Hagner states, “Although Jesus proclaims the the kingdom, not himself, in the Gospels, the proclamation of the kingdom through his words and deeds is full of christological implications” (80). In all, this chapter is a great overview of the message of Jesus and its relationship to the inaugurated kingdom.
The Historical Jesus
In chapter six, Hagner navigates the minefields of Historical Jesus studies. Since the writings of such men like Albert Schweitzer, Rudolf Bultmann, and others, the so-called quest for the Historical Jesus has carried on without an end in sight. With the limited space Hagner has in this chapter he attempts to paint broadly the literature of each of the three quests, noting their strength and weaknesses in the attempt to know exactly who the Jesus of history really is.
Hagner spends the first half examining each of the quests and the Jesus seminar, highlighting the key players and works that best represent each of these groups. After which he provides a synthesis of the literature and concludes that there has been little progress in coming to an understanding of exactly who the Historical Jesus really is. Some of the historical pictures of Christ that have emerged from these quests would include: a Jewish cynic, religious zealot, an Essene, eschatological preacher, an exorcist, or a number of other options. What is clear, the evidence of the NT has been used to portray a number of different portraits Jesus.
All of these quests have only left us wondering if there is any value in Historical Jesus studies. If there is no consensus within the scholarly community on the question of Jesus, how can we be sure of what we know at all in regards to Jesus? While Hagner admits that we do not have enough evidence to write a “biography” of Jesus, we are not left without an adequate picture of the Historical Jesus. What we have is “sufficient continuity to hold together the Jesus of history and the Christ of Faith” (98). Hagner’s reference to C. D. F. Moule is important for us to remember when confronted with the question of the Historical Jesus studies:
The nearer you push the inquiry back to the original Jesus, the more you find that you cannot have him without a transcendental element. What you find is not a rationally intelligible person of a past history, but a figure who, although a figure of actual history—datable, placeable—emerges as the fulfillment and crown of a long process of divine education of Israel, and as the one who precipitates decision and brings the Kingship of God to bear on all his circumstances. Here is history which only coheres and makes sense when it is interpreted as “Salvation-history” (99; from Moule, The Phenomenon of the New Testament, 80).
In all, Hagner does a excellent job taking complex issues and turning them into small, digestable bites of important theological and historical information, all of which is vital for a fuller understanding of the Gospels and their messages. I am again encouraged that Hagner has written such a valuable tool for the Church, a tool that I hope will be widely read and used in personal and group settings.