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No. 72: Covenant Recapitulation in New Testament History

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 72
April, 1995
Copyright 1995, Biblical Horizons

John Wenham’s Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992) is an impressively detailed treatment of the "synoptic problem." I lack both the patience and the knowledge to evaluate Wenham’s contribution to that vexing question. My purpose instead is to summarize his conclusions concerning the dating of the gospels, which I will then use as a springboard for more wide-ranging and radical proposals.

Wenham defends what he calls the "Augustinian" view that the gospels were composed in canonical order (i.e., Matthew was the first gospel, Mark the second, etc.). Further, he argues for much earlier dates for the gospels than modern scholars generally admit: "there is wide agreement among New Testament scholars that no gospel should be put earlier than the late 60s. Usually Mark is placed first at [around] 70 and Matthew and Luke somewhat later. This book will argue that all three are probably to be dated before 55" (p. xxii). As Wenham says, all this "constitutes a radical departure from the commonly held view" of both the dating of and the relationships among the "synoptics."

The fulcrum of Wenham’s argument is his conclusion that the book of Acts was completed around 62. He states that "the only satisfying explanation of the writer’s silence concerning the trial [of Paul] . . . is that when Luke wrote these closing lines it had still not taken place" (p. xxii, 225-29); the end of Acts provides us with its date: two years after Paul’s arrival at Rome in 59/60 (Acts 28:30-31). Moreover, Luke’s positive portrait of Roman authorities makes it likely that Acts was written prior to the Neronian persecution of 64.

Having established the date of Acts, Wenham proceeds to relate the synoptics to Acts. Acts 1:1 shows that it was written after Luke’s gospel. Wenham suggests that Luke’s gospel appeared in the mid-50s, using the following line of reasoning (pp. 229-38): Tradition has it that Paul was referring to Luke when he mentioned "the brother whose fame in the gospel is through all the churches" (2 Cor. 8:18). Wenham defends this tradition, and argues that Luke’s "fame in the gospel" came from the wide circulation of his gospel. Since 2 Corinthians was written around 56, Luke’s gospel must have been finished "by 55 at the latest" (p. 237). This fits with the evidence in Acts, where Luke and Paul part ways for several years in the early and mid-50s (the "we" passages end at Philippi in Acts 16 and resume in Acts 20).

Wenham accepts the common view that Luke knew and used Mark’s gospel; assuming the accuracy of the previous argument, Mark must have been written before 55. Wenham again appeals to traditions about Mark’s dependence on Peter, and argues that the two were together in Rome from 42-44 (pp. 146-72). When Peter left Rome in 44, Wenham hypothesizes, Mark set about to record Peter’s teaching in a permanent form. Thus, for Mark "any date between 44 and the writing of Luke in the early 50s is . . . possible" (p. 238).

The theory of Markan priority has dominated the study of the gospels through much of this century, but recently voices have been raised in protest. Wenham contends that the arguments used to defend the priority of Mark are either reversible or fallacious, and goes on to make a case for the priority of Matthew. Positively, he argues that Matthean priority makes better sense of differences of order between the gospels, and points to evidence that Mark deliberately abbreviated Matthew. Having established a date for Mark somewhere between 45 and the early 50s, he suggests that Matthew was completed around 40. (Eusebius said it was composed in 41).

Wenham’s case for the order and relationship of the gospels is consistent both with internal evidence and with the testimony of the church fathers. The question must be raised, however, whether there is any reason to date the gospels as late as Wenham does. The crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost took place in 30. Why would Matthew have waited a decade to compose a gospel? Everything in the history of Israel would have encouraged the early Jewish Christians to produce a written record of the crowning event of salvation history and it is difficult to imagine any compelling reason for delay.

Wenham himself provides evidence consistent with an earlier date with his suggestion that Matthew, trained as a "professional pen-pusher" was uniquely suited to compose the first gospel. Jesus "deliberately took steps for the preservation of his teaching among his disciples" and Wenham quotes D. A. Carson’s comment that "Recent research has argued for written records that go back to Jesus’ ministry" (pp. 112-13). If Matthew was taking notes throughout the years of Jesus’ ministry, any delay in the composition of the gospel becomes even more inexplicable. Is it not more plausible, rather, that the shape of a gospel-book was forming in Matthew’s mind already during Jesus’ ministry?

Perhaps we can be more definite about dating Matthew’s gospel. I have argued in a recent article that the epistle of James was written in the early 30s to Jewish Christians who had fled Jerusalem because of persecution (Biblical Horizons 71, March 1995). The common features of Matthew and James have been noted by many scholars (cf. Ralph Martin, James, Word Biblical Commentary #48 [Waco, TX: Word, 1988], pp. lxxiv-lxxvi). If James wrote his letter in the early 30s and used Matthew’s gospel, then Matthew must have written within a few years of Pentecost. Even if the direction of dependence is reversed, with Matthew drawing on James, both might have been written before 35. If both relied on their Spirit-inspired memories of sayings of Jesus, an early date is still plausible. One may therefore be able to shift other of Wenham’s dates several years earlier.

Let me spring off Wenham in a different direction, following up a suggestion made by James Jordan (Biblical Horizons 56, December 1993). If the canonical order of the gospels is also chronological, then the order of the gospels provides a skeletal New Testament history (30-70 A.D.) in four stages: Matthean, Markan, Lukan, and Johannine. The connection of Matthew with James, of Peter with Mark, and of Luke with Paul, suggests the possibility of arranging the epistles to correspond with the gospels. Thus, the four stages of New Testament history are: Matthean-Jacobin; Markan-Petrine; Lukan-Pauline; and Johannine. Perhaps we can even peg these stages to successive decades: Matthew and James (and their writings) were prominent during the 30s; Mark and Peter during the 40s; Paul and Luke during the 50s; and John during the 60s.

As James Jordan has pointed out, the four gospels correspond nicely to major stages of Old Testament history. The Matthean-Jacobin stage corresponds to the Mosaic covenant. James is the most "legal" epistle in the New Testament. Matthew too presents Jesus as a new Moses, who flees Egypt, is baptized in the river, resists temptation in the wilderness for 40 days, and then preaches about the law from a mountain (Mat. 1-7).

Mark corresponds to the Davidic covenant. Mark shows Jesus as a man of action, a man on the move, a conquering king (cf. "immediately" in Mark’s gospel). Davidic emphasis in Peter’s epistles is not immediately obvious. Perhaps, however, the following points are worthy of further study: Peter exhorts his readers to act the part of Christian soldiers by girding their minds for action (1 Pet. 1:13; 5:8-9); he calls Jesus the "cornerstone" laid in Zion, using a quotation from Isaiah 28 that may have reference to the house of David (1 Pet. 2:6); and he writes a great deal about suffering for righteousness, with which David was well acquainted (1 Pet. 2:12; 3:13-17).

Luke shows us Jesus in a more cosmopolitan setting. He dates Jesus’ birth by reference to the reign of Augustus Caesar (2:1), records statements and quotes Old Testament passages about the conversion of the nations (2:32; 3:4-6), traces Jesus’ genealogy back to Adam (3:38), and tells that Jesus sent out 70 disciples (cf. the nations of the earth, Gen. 10). Similarly, Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul was a Nehemiah, building the walls of a new city in the face of persecution by the "people of the land." The Lukan-Pauline stage of New Testament history corresponds to the restoration period. This was a period of Old Testament history during which the Jews were scattered among the Gentiles and called to bear witness, and during which many Gentiles were converted (cf. Esther; Daniel).

Irenaeus wrote that Jesus’ life was a recapitulation of the history of man and of Israel. Without committing ourselves to everything Irenaeus meant by that, we can agree his insight was sound. Jesus fulfilled all the Old Covenant types and shadows, renewing them and transforming them in the process. What I am suggesting here is that the first generation of the church, united to the Risen Christ as the Firstfruits of the New Creation, relived His reliving of the Old Covenant, passing through Mosaic, Davidic, and restoration stages. During the first generation, the Old Covenant was worked into the church and transformed into a New.

In this scheme, the Johannine stage of New Testament history was the climax of the New Testament and brought the church fully into the new covenant. John shows us Jesus as the Son of God. The four gospels and the four stages of New Testament history, as Jordan has pointed out, correspond to the four faces of the cherubim. James/Matthew is the priestly Mosaic ox; Peter/Mark is the kingly Davidic lion; Paul/Luke is the imperial restoration eagle; John is the apostle of the new covenant, the covenant with a human face, the covenant of the New Man.

This scheme highlights the decisive importance of the destruction of Jerusalem. The New Testament was finished by ad 70. The first generation had recapitulated the whole history of Israel. Throughout these decades, the old was fading and the new was coming into being. God offered the Jews a new Moses, a new David, a new Nehemiah, but the Jews did not receive Him. With the destruction of the temple and city, the old was finally destroyed and the new emerged in fullness. Writing shortly before the shaking of heaven and earth, John, in his gospel and Revelation, pointed ahead to the radical newness of the new covenant.

Permit me another suggestion. The four stages of covenant recapitulation can also be seen as a double sequence of covenant succession. Meredith Kline argued in Treaty of the Great King that Deuteronomy was a dynastic succession document. Renewal of the covenant was necessary because Moses was approaching death, and the covenant renewal provided for orderly succession to a new leader and covenant mediator, Joshua.

It is helpful to think through the stages of New Testament history from this perspective. The leaders of Stage 1 pass the torch to Stage 2; Stage 3 is like Stage 1 but in a larger context, and then the torch is passed to the leaders of stage 4. Stages 1 and 3 are Mosaic, and stages 2 and 4 are Joshuan. Matthew-James constituted the first Mosaic stage; these men and their writings provided the New Israel with leadership during its first years after the "exodus" of Jesus on Calvary. (It is possible to see James’s letter as a testament after the manner of Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33, passing on blessing and instructions to his successors [cf. Jas. 1:1].) When the Mosaic figures of Matthew and James passed from the scene, covenantal leadership passed to Mark-Peter; this was a Joshuan stage, and the writings are full of action and the imagery of contest and battle.

With Paul and Luke, we are in a second Mosaic stage, though the setting, as seen above, is more cosmopolitan than in Matthew-James. Paul was not only a Nehemiah, but also a new Moses. Paul and Luke disappeared from view in the early 60s, and leadership passed to John, who prepared the church for the birth-pangs of the final destruction of the old order.

Again, the destruction of Jerusalem is highlighted. In this scheme, the conquest of Jerusalem corresponds to the initial battle of the conquest of Canaan, the destruction of Jericho. This comparison is true not only in the generic sense that both cities came under God’s condemnation, but in the more specific sense that both marked the first battle of a war of conquest. By Jesus’ day, many Jews had become Egyptians and Canaanites (Rev. 11:8). During the first generation, the church was like Israel in the wilderness, awaiting permission to enter on their full inheritance and letting the sins of the Canaanites become full. Conquest there was in the first generation, as there was before Jericho; but it was the second generation, those who lived through and beyond the destruction of Jerusalem, who first entered fully into the land of the new creation. The wilderness imagery of Hebrews 4 is, on this reading, applicable specifically to the generation living between 30 and 70. When that generation had passed, Jericho was destroyed and the conquest of the whole Abrahamic inheritance began in earnest.