Pay Attention to Ancient Sources

5:45 AM When the great C. S. Lewis moved from Oxford to Cambridge, his inaugural lecture explored the theme of literary history. In it he questioned the age-old practice of referring to “periods” in English literature, such as the “Renaissance.” Such terms, he insisted, were myths. “The Renaissance never happened,” he said. He argued that “periods” in history are not necessarily facts but rather retrospective concepts shaped more or less by polemical factors. Thus the literature of the so-called “Middle Ages” is no less important than that produced during the Renaissance.

In my forthcoming book on the authorship of Hebrews, I argue that the reception history of the book of Hebrews, a book that always circulated in the early church among the Pauline letters, has shared a similar fate. The evidence for its Paulinity has not so much been refuted as overlooked or ignored. In my book Why Four Gospels? I have argued similarly for Matthean priority based upon the unanimous testimony of the earliest church that Matthew (and not Mark) was the first written record of the life and teachings of Jesus. Throughout my studies of the Gospels I’ve been struck by one thing: how Jesus’ ministry broke like a thunderclap on Galilee. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan were of the same degree, I would imagine. In Mark we often read that Jesus’ hearers were completely amazed at His teaching and shocked beyond words at His scandalous deeds.

I will be the first to confess that Jesus’ teachings did not always strike me in this manner. For many years I was much more attracted to the detailed logic and complex semotaxis of Paul’s writings. But if I am correct in arguing that Matthew is our earliest Gospel and that it may have been written within a decade of the resurrection, then it seems likely that the apostle Paul was well aware of its contents and, indeed, may well have a had a copy of Matthew’s scroll with him on his various missionary journeys. It is not hard to imagine the impact this Gospel of Matthew might have had on Paul’s life and ministry. For throughout the whole account of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew there is a singular and profound focus on the Great Commission to reach the unevangelized nations, ta ethne. The Great Commission requires, not discussion, but obedience. Jesus demands it — of Paul, and no less of us today. And Matthew has provided not only for his own community (in Palestine) but for all Christians of all times and places a marvelous tool for carrying out this commission to the ends of the earth.

This, then, is why I think it is so important for us to read and study the Gospels. And I do hope, in this light, that my students and I do not get so distracted by the many marvelous details in the Gospel accounts that we fail to live out the “Good News” that so captivated and transformed the first followers of Jesus.

(From Dave Black Online. Used by Permission)