Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Canonical Gospels: Jewish Context

When a thing is obvious, it risks being overlooked or undervalued. One of the most obvious things about the New Testament documents is that they are set against a Jewish background. Jesus is seen in a Jewish context. He uses the specifically Jewish law of Moses as a springboard for speaking of universal concerns such as the love of enemies. He also speaks of specifically Jewish concerns like the Passover. There is a backdrop of history behind his actions: each of the four canonical gospels speaks of Abraham, of Jacob, of Moses, of David, of the prophets. Each mentions Isaiah by name, and mentions the Feast of Passover. They all mention the Pharisees, the Temple, priests and the high priest. They all mention Israel and Judea and specifically Jerusalem. They all mention the Sabbath, the synagogue, and the law. Other concepts with a strong Jewish history often find their way into the conversation as well, such as commandments, sin, being unclean, sacrifice, blood, and offerings. The accompanying chart shows, for each of the canonical gospels of the life of Christ, how often such Jewish context words occur for each 10,000 words of text. Admittedly this is a crude measure; a more thorough measure would take into account not only items such as word frequency, but entire sections reflecting Jewish concerns -- such as the genealogies in Matthew and Luke. Still, the word frequency scores are useful as a quick snapshot of the Jewish background assumed by the texts.

It is probably no surprise that the Gospel of Matthew has the highest score for Jewish context and concepts, nor the Gospel of John the lowest. The Gospel of Matthew was written for a Jewish audience, and by early accounts was originally written not in Greek but in the Hebrew language (which in that era may have meant Aramaic). The gospels of Mark and Luke score so closely together for Jewish context that the difference between them is probably not statistically meaningful. The Gospel of John was written, by early accounts, slightly later in the early days of the church. The Jewish context scores for John, while still significant, are noticeably lower than the others, and it has long been noted that this last of the four canonical gospels sometimes stops to explain Jewish concepts to an audience that may not understand them. This reflects a shift in the history of the Christian movement from a primarily Jewish group in its early days to an increasingly Gentile group as time progressed. For this latest of the canonical gospels, there is still a strong Jewish context, but at a lower level of saturation than the earlier canonical gospels.


Tony-Allen said...

Initially I was a bit shocked by the fact Luke scored higher than either Mark or John, both of which seem to have more references to Jewish scripture than Luke, but I suppose, as you said, there's more to culture than what they read.

I had read that Matthew was originally written in Hebrew, and Matthew even went so far as to write Jesus' quotes in Aramaic. Do you know to what degree this is true?

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi there

I wasn't too surprised by Luke scoring higher than John, just considering their dating. By the time the Gospel of John was written, a much larger portion of readers for a gospel would have been Gentile. The part that makes the Jewish context stick so firmly to the pages in all four canonical gospels is simply that Jesus was born into a Jewish family and lived a Jewish life in a Jewish setting.

On Matthew -- the earliest comments we have on the book of Matthew mention that it was written in the language of the Hebrews (which I think most people take to mean Aramaic, back then) -- so while it's true that Jesus' quotes were written in that language, it didn't stop there: it was the whole book. In the early church fathers, you can hear references to the Hebrew version of the gospel being quoted and even used for reference and as if to check the translation into Greek for the first couple of centuries. There were people taking notes as if doing side-by-side comparisons from what they assumed was the original wording over to the Greek translations.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Paul said...

Great to see this sort of thoughtful commentary on a blog -