Review of Petr Pokorny’s From the Gospel to the Gospels

Petr Pokorný, From the Gospel to the Gospels: History, Theology and Impact of the Biblical Term ‘EUANGELION’. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 195. Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2013. X + 237 pp. 79,95 €/$112.00.

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Petr Pokorný’s most recent monograph originates from his years of research in the Gospel of Mark and his own lectures at Charles University in Prague. The present form of this monograph was included in the “Narrative Gospels: Reasons for their Genesis, Function, Impact on the Shaping of Christian Culture” research project of the Grant Agency of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

 PokornyThe gospel, or “good news” (euangelion) is one of the central terms and concepts of the Christian faith. It is a core marker of Christian identity. Yet, adequately defining the gospel remains a difficult task. Pokorný states the issue well, “[u]nless Christians come to a better understanding of their common spiritual heritage, it will be difficult for them to preserve and develop their common identity” (p. 1). Pokorný’s purpose is “to understand the inner dynamics of the Chirstian thinking which could be demonstrated by the history of the term euangelion” (p. 4). He attempts to achieve this purpose by “reconstructing  the inner structure (texture) of texts” and by grasping their theological intention  (p. 2).

In part 1, Pokorný articulates the special problem for this investigation: euangelion has three different meanings (polysemy). First, it means the message that Jesus proclaimed (Mk. 1:14-15). Second, it means the post-Easter proclamation of the Christian faith. Third, it means the literary Gospel as the pivotal literary genre of the New Testament. Furthermore, Pokorný argues that the author of Mark utilized this polysemy of the term euangelion in order to “make his intended readers aware that the Jesus traditions are complementary to the Easter gospel” (p. 3). In fact, all three meanings of euangelion are found in Mark (p. 4).    

In part 2, he identifies three pre-Pauline Easter Gospel formulae: 1 Thess. 1:5, 9b-10; 1 Cor. 15:3b-5; and Rom. 1:3-4. These are the three cases “where there is a visible link between a short formulation of faith and its designation by the term euangelion” (p. 5). There are two significant conclusions from comparing these three formulae. First, the content of the gospel in all three formulae is substantially different. First Thessalonians 1:5, 9b-10 mentions the living God and salvation in judgment, whereas the other two do not; 1 Cor. 15:3b-5 is the only one that states that Jesus’ death is for others; and “[i]n Rom 1:3-4 the role of the Davidic Messiah is the first step in the raising up of Jesus” (p. 11). Pokorný notes that the differences in the formulae reflect the different functions in liturgy and teaching of the different Christian groups (p. 12).

The second significant conclusion is that all three formulae are used to confess Jesus’ resurrection. This commonality illustrates how these early Christians remedied the delay of the coming kingdom of God, namely, it supplied “the guarantee of the eschatological fulfillment of God’s promises” (p. 9). Furthermore, these three formulae demonstrate an appropriation of the Jewish worldview of “apocalyptic myth,”

a narrative expression of the last horizon of personal and social life in a general image . . . in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality of an Age to come. It is both temporal in that it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial in that it involves another, supernatural world (pp. 14, 16).

Some Christian groups appropriated this worldview under the term euangelion, which centered on the resurrection of Jesus. Pokorný argues that the historical point of reference for the “resurrection” is Jesus of Nazareth, which is understood as a prolepsis in its Jewish apocalyptic framework; his resurrection anticipates the collective resurrection at the end of this age and guarantees hope for all humankind (pp. 22, 23, 35). This prolepsis is captured in the Christian confession of Jesus as Risen Lord and present Christ. The Last Judgment is the apocalyptic mythical image that signifies the end and fulfillment of history and creates community with God through faith (pp. 23-32).             

In part 3, Pokorný presents the Gospel of Jesus. In Mark 1:14-15, Jesus is the one who proclaims the gospel, which is synonymous with his proclaiming the kingdom of God. Pokorný later states, “Jesus, inspired by Isa 61:1, most probably used the Hebrew verb b-ś-r (Gr. euangelizomai) for the main content of his proclamation of the kingdom of God” (p. 195). That is, Jesus understood his gospel to be identical with the prophetic proclamation of good news (p. 53). Furthermore, Pokorný argues that every time Jesus speaks the term euangelion in Mark’s gospel, Mark identifies the term as the Easter gospel adopted from the Pauline tradition (p. 54). However, the Easter gospel is antedated into the life of Jesus (p. 53).  

In part 4, Pokorný presents the Pauline Gospel. According to Pokorný, Paul took the term euangelion and its content from an older tradition and developed it into the proclamation about the resurrection (p. 57, 47). Paul developed this tradition by connecting it to history, namely, the incarnation, which he understood as a better basis for human hope and ethics than Jesus as a moral paradigm (p. 60). The principal way Paul developed the tradition was by combining the different formulae into one gospel about the resurrection of Jesus, which became the predominant view. The primary issue is to what extent Paul was aware of the Jesus tradition and why he did not use them. Pokorný argues that Paul did know the Jesus traditions but he deliberately avoided using them. Pokorný offers four theological reasons for Paul’s reluctance: 1) Jewish monotheism and Jesus as God’s only trustworthy representative; 2) Eschatological, Jesus went from the announcer to the announced once; 3) Ethical, Paul believed that Jesus’ love commandment was capable of overcoming all social problems; and 4) Paul alludes to some of Jesus’ sayings anonymously (pp. 64-65).

Furthermore, Pokorný argues that the most important reason why Paul did not use the Jesus tradition was because he was afraid he might misinterpret the sayings of Jesus and suffer the curse of being born of Satan (p. 67, quoting Polyc. 7.1). Rather, the logic of Paul’s gospel is that its power derives from Jesus’ death/sacrifice and his continued presence. Paul “overlooked” Jesus’ teachings and earthly activities, although they are also important for salvation, because, if they are to have any significance, they would have to be rooted in the post-Easter experience (p. 60). Pokorný argues that Mark takes up the task to link Jesus’ earthly teachings and activities to the post-Easter gospel (pp. 64, 122).   

In part 5, he discusses the survival of the Jesus Traditions before Mark. Pokorný argues that, “[t]he Jesus traditions were subordinated to the Easter gospel as prefigurations, predictions, or allegories of it, or even as its primary part (the Passion Story)” (p. 88). The import of Pokorný’s insight is that the euangelion (Easter Gospel) became the overarching structure of the gospel of Mark and was an attempt to preserve the memory of the Jesus tradition (pp. 82, 98).  

In part 6 Pokorný discusses the Gospel in the Gospel of Mark. Pokorný argues that Mark writes within the literary genre of the Greek bios (pp. 108-112). Mark chose the material from the Jesus tradition that was a part of the teachings and liturgy he thought were most characteristic of Jesus, and he links this to the overarching concept of gospel (euangelion). The predominant theological themes in Mark resonate with the Easter Gospel since they are focused on the identity of Jesus, reconciliation, sacrifice, and confession. Furthermore, Mark’s major theological aim is belief in the gospel. The two most notable examples are the Syro-phoenician woman’s confession of Jesus as Lord (Mk. 7:28-29//Rom.10:9) and the comparison of the ending of Mark, 16:6-7, with the almost identical pre-Pauline formula in 1 Cor. 15:3b-5. Pokorný argues that the titles of Jesus and the Messianic Secret are Mark’s way of demonstrating that those who are supposed to understand the mystery of Jesus’ actions and words did so only after Easter. The most important title ascribed to Jesus is Son of God. This title appears in two of the pre-Pauline formulae (1 Thess. 1:9b-10 and Rom. 1:3-4).

In part 7, Pokorný discusses the other canonical Gospels. The Gospels of Luke, Matthew, and John  diverge from the literary scheme of Mark by focusing on  “[i]nstructions for the Christian life, wisdom, and a far-reaching reflection on Jesus’ role in human salvation all made the formulae of the Easter faith less noticeable in the text as a whole” (p. 163). 

In part 8, Pokorný investigates the development of euangelion in other Christian literature and Canonization. Pokorný argues that the Gospels became the basic part of the Christian canon and shaped the Christian liturgy. Originally, euangelion was a living proclamation but became a fixed literary text that must be applied to the present through sermons, summaries, commentaries, etc. (p. 177). Pokorný shows through a survey of the late first century through the second century that “Christians used the term euangelion for Jesus traditions not because it was originally used for the proclamation of Jesus, but because Mark programmatically linked the sayings and narratives of the earthly Jesus with the Easter gospel as its presupposition and ‘beginning’” (p.179).

Pokorný’s monograph has several strengths. First, he is correct in stating that Jesus understood his proclamation of the kingdom of God in light of the Isaianic proclamation of the good news (Isa. 61:1). Second, his rooting the early Church’s understanding of the term in Jewish apocalyptic myth is a helpful framework for thinking about how the early Church constructed its identity. Third, I appreciate his focus on the theological intention of the New Testament authors and the insights he presents for Paul’s influence on Mark. Finally, his argument for euangelion as the overarching concept that structures Mark needs to be emphasized more in New Testament theology. 

However, I do have four criticisms of the monograph. First, the book reads like a series of lectures. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it presents a difficulty in that a certain amount of unqualified assumptions are made about the scriptures and the readers. For example, though I do lean in the direction of understanding the pre-Pauline formulae as such, not once does Pokorný address the fact that some scholars do not think that the three pre-Pauline formulae are in fact pre-Pauline formulae.  Second, I think his argument that the most important reason why Paul was reluctant to use the Jesus tradition was because he feared misinterpreting it to be a stretch (Polyc. 7:1). Third, Pokorný begins by stating the church’s need to understand the term euangelion, but he never brings his arguments back to this concern. I think a good starting place to address this concern is the link between Jesus’ resurrection and history as the basis of hope for the fulfillment of history (p. 35 n53). However, for the most part, Pokorný seems to assume a bifurcation between history and theological intention, which is illustrated when he leaves the bodily resurrection of Jesus as an open-ended question. He treats the resurrection as a “faith category” that the early Christians assumed and transformed from Judaism as they attempted to cope with the delay of the coming of the Kingdom and as a way to express their post-Easter experiences of Christ’s presence. I think Pokorný’s argument is helpful for constructing categories to better understand how early Christians understood the resurrection, but it would be strengthened if Jesus’ bodily resurrection was made central. Fourth, Pokorný understands the history of the term euangelion as a development within the post-Easter communities as opposed to those communities’ reception of the euangelion. The result is that Jesus’ gospel is quiet different than the gospel of the early Christian communities.    

 Criticisms aside, this monograph makes a strong scholarly contribution for studying the origin and development of the term euangelion, Paul’s influence on the church, and the literary structure of Mark.     

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About Jared Brown

I am a PhD student studying New Testament under the supervision of Doulas Moo. My research interests are Romans, Pauline Soteriology, and Classical Rhetoric.
This entry was posted in Book reviews, New Testament and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Review of Petr Pokorny’s From the Gospel to the Gospels

  1. So what is the big guy going to say about me?

  2. Pingback: Review of Petr Pokorny’s From the Gospel to the Gospels | ChristianBookBarn.com

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