Pheme PERKINS, Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels. Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8028-1770-9, hard cover, pp.312.
Reviewed by Kathleen McGovern GAFFNEY, Emerita, Xavier University, New Orleans, LA 70125

Eight introductory pages: Abbreviations, General Bibliography and an Introduction characterize the study as a broad scale consensus for ordinary readers rather than a presentation for scholars. There are three introductory chapters: What is a Gospel? Books and Believers in Early Christianity; and the Quest for Sources. The author devotes one chapter to each of the Synoptic Gospels, and one to gospels from the Second and Third Centuries. Three indices: Modern Authors, Subjects, Ancient Sources conclude the study.

The Greek word for gospel is a proclamation of an important event, a headline that introduces a story based on fact rather than fiction —in this case God’s deeds of salvation in Jesus Christ. This idealized portrait established the gospel pattern —an account of Jesus’ ministry followed by a report of his final days in Jerusalem. Matthew and Luke introduce the pattern with a genealogy and birth narratives, then insert examples of Jesus’ teaching some of which arouse political enemies who plot his death. The oral account repeated many times gradually established narrative patterns, developing a plot from bits and pieces.

Geography is an important construct. The Sea of Galilee sets the scene for the first half of the gospel although Jesus crosses boundaries to include gentiles in his ministry. He crosses the sea by boat to escape crowds, heals the Gerasene demoniac and the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter.

There were numerous traditions about Jesus “swirling about ’’ in the first three centuries. Christians were still a suspect minority whose many house churches and study groups were guided by oral accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. All written gospel material prior to the fourth century is fragmentary. Irenaeus, 2nd century Bishop of Lyons, encouraged a “rule of faith” to explain the relationship among the four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles which eventually gained special canonical status. There were still orthodox Christians who had different views about when to celebrate Easter —philosophically inclined groups like that represented by Justin Martyr, Gnostic teachers Valentius and Ptolemy, and Marcion’s radical form of paulinism. Valentius and Marcion both tried to be elected bishop. Only in the 4th century was the four gospel canon adopted. Second and third century reflections on the passion influence the canonical gospels where the passion narrative is the core of the Christian story of Jesus.

The Gospel according to Mark

Mark records early Christian preaching about Jesus in a narrative structure developing a plot that ends with the death of the main character. Recent commentaries according to Perkins focus on how episodes fit into the Gospel as a whole rather than analyzing source and form criticism. Ancient audiences would have heard a book repeated many times by different readers whose tone, emphases, pauses and gestures imparted meaning.

Jesus comes from Galilee to Judea to be baptized by John, then returns to Galilee where he begins preaching after John’s arrest. Highlights of the Galilean ministry are recorded in Mark’s first eight chapters. Interpreters disagree on where to situate the midpoint of the gospel that ends the Galilean ministry and introduces the Judean ministry, death and resurrection. Matthew and John conclude Jesus’ story with a return to Galilee where he reunites with disciples as he promised in Mark 14:28.

The second half of the gospel comprises three sections. Affirmations of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God (8:27-30; 9:2-9) known only to his followers, serve as a transition from Galilee to the outskirts of Jerusalem (Mark 8:27-10:52). The second section includes Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem and teaching in the temple area in the days before his death (11:1-13:37). The third section recounts Jesus’ final meal with his disciples, the passion and a brief resurrection account. (14:1-16:8a). Perkins notes that other commentators divide the text differently, and gives several examples. The most notable difference seems to be that of detaching 16:1-8a from the passion narrative to create an epilogue symmetrical with the opening section of the gospel, 1:1-15. Scholarly judgments interpret empty tomb traditions differently. Some argue that the tradition was part of the early passion story; others that it was created decades after Jesus’ death in early Christian liturgy that venerated the site as a demonstration of his divine status. The second century apocryphal Gospel of Peter includes a demonstration of the Lord’s divine status.

Geography is an important literary device for Mark even though some references are geographically inaccurate. The first half of the Gospel is set in the environs of the Sea of Galilee where local people attract most of Jesus’ attention. Yet he crosses a boundary when he ministers to the gentile Syro-Phoenician’s daughter and the Gerasene demoniac. In so doing he demonstrates that even the ethnic minority are God’s people. The geographic focus marks the end of the first major section of the Gospel and a transition to Jerusalem for the second major section which begins in Gentile territory, Caesarea Philippi, proceeds to a final visit to Capernaum, thence to Judea where the narrative focuses on activities in the Temple area with Jewish religious leaders questioning Jesus’ authority. Since they refuse to affirm or deny John’s authority he does not answer their inquiry. Crowds attend to Jesus with pleasure as he warns them of hypocritical scribes and tells the parable of the Wicked Tenants. Moving away from the Temple he draws attention to the offerings of the poor widow and the extravagant display of the wealthy.

The fate of the Temple will be revealed when Jesus dies. Jerusalem will lose its significance. The curtain of the Holy of Holies is torn, and the risen Jesus goes to Galilee ahead of his disciples. Yet, as Perkins remarks Jerusalem seems to have been the center of the Jesus movement in the early chapters of Acts and in Galatians 1-2 since Paul seeks to raise money from the Gentile churches for the poor Christians in Jerusalem. In the parable of the withered fig tree Jesus had condemned the Temple because it was not a place of prayer for all nations. He urged his followers rather to direct their attention to prayer, faith and forgiveness. Roman legions destroyed Jerusalem in the years 66-70 ce.

Perkins notes several literary devices in this gospel —the movement between public and private space, public and private teaching, secrecy as a literary device, silence commands, “sandwich techniques” where an episode requires a time lapse. For example, Jesus’ response to Jairus who asks Jesus to cure his daughter is interrupted as Jesus attends to the hemorrhaging woman. One story frames the other as does the Temple cleansing, the fig tree and the teaching on prayer, faith and forgiveness. Perkins concludes with a quotation from F. Maloney’s commentary that Mark’s Gospel is a “complex deliberately crafted composition.” A section on characters in the Gospel follows wherein Perkins opines that Mark had heard stories of Jesus’ disciples —professional fishermen willing to abandon family and occupation to follow Jesus, to learn from him, experience persecution, and who are empowered to spread Jesus’ message. Jesus advocates an inner moral reform rather than strict observance of pious Jewish customs. His ministry marks the beginning of God’s new saving intervention in human history to seek sinners, minister to them in Jesus who suffers, dies and rises. Contrary to expectations neither Michael the Archangel nor the apocalyptic Son of Man has come to defeat demonic armies and judge the nations.

Jesus changes the rules; his attitude toward religious practice is casual. He appears to be more a magician than a holy man when he confronts demons. Moreover he seeks out sinners, accepts personal suffering and death; he claims to forgive sin. Crowds have an extraordinary impact on his ministry in size, geographic diversity and enthusiasm. Religious teachers seem justified in their denial of his claim to be from God. Yet not all religious authorities oppose him. Jairus believes in him; scribes declare that he is not far from the Kingdom of God; minor characters such as the leper, the Gentile woman, the hemorrhaging woman are positive examples of faith that inspires miracles. Rulers fear violent reactions; the high priest and scribes try to arrest him secretly to forestall riots, yet a member of the Sanhedrin retrieves his body for burial, a woman anoints him, and Galilean women witness his death, burial and the empty tomb.

Jesus according to Mark hears God’s voice; demons know his identity when humans do not; Peter, James and John see him glorified, and hear God’s voice at the Transfiguration. Although Jesus’ life does not seem to fulfill messianic expectations he is acclaimed Lord, Messiah and Son of God at the moment of his death. Perkins comments that his trial before the Roman governor is historically implausible. Pilate neither removes himself from responsibility, nor does he declare the prisoner innocent as he does in the other gospels. Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane confirms the fact that the cross is God’s will. The Son of Man is the prominent image in all the Synoptic passion narratives. Jesus makes forgiveness possible by giving his life; his blood inaugurates a new covenant, and the new community will see the Son of Man coming in glory to save.

Perkins devotes several pages to attempts to identify Mark’s readers, and comments on extant versions of the gospel. She concludes that the subsequent synoptic gospels “give the best clues to what first-century Christians thought was important in the Markan account.”

The Gospel according to Matthew

The gospels according to Matthew and Luke introduce Jesus with infancy narratives and incorporate material from the Q source as well as edited pericopes from Mark’s account. Matthew presents Jesus’ teaching in five discourses the final one of which directs disciples to evangelize the Gentiles. In chapter ten Jesus excludes gentiles and Samaritans from the disciples’ ministry. Yet the risen Jesus commissions his disciples to teach all nations. Jesus teaches and heals crowds in synagogues over an extensive area. The Sermon on the Mount is a summary of his teaching which he exemplifies in his subsequent ministry. His teaching distinguishes little ones who perceive what the wise and learned refuse to believe. He is compassionate, perceiving crowds as sheep without a shepherd in need of workers for the harvest. He thanks God, calls the weary to himself to find rest. His teaching however will divide God’s people. He encourages followers to adopt his yoke, his way of life. Jesus is the perfect embodiment of God’s love. Only those who model their lives after his will be saved at the final judgment.

The section concludes with warnings against the Pharisees and Sadducees. Each of the five discourses closes with a reference to judgment. The final parable of separating the sheep from the goats directs Christians to teach all nations (Gentiles) to observe Jesus’ teaching. Emmanuel —God with us—as cited in chapter one promises those who follow in the final chapter that he will be with them all days to the end of the age. Perkins devotes a section of the chapter to Jesus, analyzing the Christological references of the Infancy Narratives to demonstrate that Jesus’ life fits the divine plan fulfilling the promise of Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus the suffering servant bears the weakness of his people in his healing ministry. Jesus identifies with the lowly and the suffering. He teaches with authority because his righteousness is greater than the official Scribes and Pharisees whose lifestyle does not conform to God’s will. The Son of Man at the end of time will hold all people responsible for their actions; even unbelievers will have to account for the way they have treated the lowly. Faith in Jesus required conversion to the God of the Hebrew scriptures and fidelity that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees. After the temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 ce the Jewish community relied on Pharisees for leadership and Christian communities included Jews as well as Gentiles. The disciples were expected to go to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. The command to teach all nations has a universal meaning.

This gospel dates from the 80’s. Internal divisions, false teachers, lawlessness and hypocrisy applied to some Christians as well as Scribes and Pharisees. Although Peter was designated leader no one could replace Jesus. Humble service was required of leaders with the reminder that the Son of Man served and gave his life for sinners. The earthquake at his death raises the dead to new life demonstrating that Jesus has triumphed over his enemies. The disciples will extend God’s reign to all nations (Gentiles). Jesus commissioned them to do so making disciples of all nations, baptizing them, teaching them to obey his commands. He promised to be with them always to the end of the age.

Greater righteousness, the Jewish heritage of Christianity available to Jewish and non-Jewish believers was widely adopted by early Christians. Matthew could never have foreseen Christian rulers or a Christian majority. When he invokes divine judgment on those who refuse to acknowledge God’s son he was not aware that the price had been paid when Romans destroyed Jerusalem.

The Gospel according to Luke

The first half of a two volume composition with significant literary appeal comprises famous stories “poetic celebrations of salvation.” The narrative begins in the Temple with Infancy Narratives, and ends in the Temple after the Ascension when the disciples remain in Jerusalem where they were instructed to wait for the Holy Spirit. Disciples and their ministry figure prominently in Acts. Disciples in Mark and Matthew return to Galilee where they are told Jesus will go ahead of them.

The gospel includes canticles: Benedictus, Magnificat, Nunc Dimitis, and the Ave Maria. Theological interest supersedes the historical as the gospel confirms eye witness accounts from oral traditions. Special Lukan material includes infancy narratives, resurrection stories and nine chapters that present parables: The Good Samaritan, Prodigal Son, Rich Man and Lazarus, Martha and Mary, etc. The Passion Narrative includes Herod who questions Jesus contemptuously. One of the criminals crucified at the same time expresses faith in Jesus and receives the promise that he will be with Jesus in paradise.

In Luke’s special section, 9:51-18:14, Jesus leaves Galilee and turns toward Jerusalem. He urges interested parties to give up everything and follow him charging that the wicked are responsible for the plight of the poor. Hospitality is a prominent feature; generous benefactors among the disciples provide for those who have renounced personal wealth. Jesus reclines with important guests at the house of a Pharisee. A sinful woman approaches Jesus and washes his feet; other guests are shocked but Jesus forgives her sins. He heals on the Sabbath to the dismay of onlookers who are put to shame while crowds rejoice. Jesus reminds them that the Torah permits the rescue of a child or an animal on the Sabbath, that the Son of Man has come to seek sinners and to save the lost who were dead and now live. He warns that concern for the appearance of righteousness displaces a genuine love for God.

Perkins presents a section on Luke’s rich cast of characters, noting that he seems to take a great interest in individuals. She devotes several pages to interpreting Infancy Narratives. Simeon and Anna, Elizabeth and Mary are archetypal examples of piety and recipients of God’s spirit; John and Jesus assimilate ancestral piety. Luke doesn’t mention Mary at the cross, but includes her among the disciples who await the Spirit in Jerusalem according to Acts. The Baptist, Israel’s final prophet, does not appear until Jesus joins the crowd who approach John for baptism. Luke does mention the Baptist’s death. His preaching advocated repentance, moral conversion, generosity; baptism was a physical sign of one’s ethical conversion. Perkins notes that Luke uses categories an educated Gentile audience would readily understand.

Preaching in a Nazareth synagogue inaugurated Jesus’ ministry. People were amazed and pleased until he cited prophets the people had rejected at which point they responded with violence. The central section of the gospel, the journey to Jerusalem, is devoted to teaching, teaching that Pharisees and Torah experts find offensive because Jesus offers forgiveness to sinners. His ministry is a spirit- filled time when the forces of evil are in check. Luke’s presentation of disciples, Mary and other women is positive; a group of prominent women accompany him and provide for the group, a large group of men and women from all levels of society remain loyal followers on the way of the cross.

Luke refers frequently to Jesus’ prayer and the Spirit’s activity in Jesus’ ministry. He assures readers that the Father will give the Spirit to those who ask. Jesus is accused of fomenting rebellion in Galilee and subsequently in Jerusalem. There is no evidence of his doing so but Pilate grants the accusers’ wishes and gives the death sentence. Jesus’ death is a source of salvation; he pardons one criminal who asks for forgiveness, and asks for forgiveness for those who put him to death. His death shows his dignified confidence in God: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Nor does Jesus die abandoned; he is mourned by followers from Galilee and women from Jerusalem. Galilean women disciples make burial preparations; a member of the Sanhedrin provided the burial place.

Perkins discusses chronological and dogmatic difficulties with the text. Trinitarian debates cite problems identifying Jesus’ relationship to the Spirit in the Infancy Narratives and how that relationship differs from ordinary humans who receive the Spirit. She discusses chronological discrepancies noting that modern scholars doubt the accuracy of dates suggested in Luke’s material. She devotes a paragraph to examples of Jesus at prayer in chapters five through twenty three. Authorities were offended by Jesus’ teaching and his policy of extending God’s forgiveness to sinners. The story of the last supper is a meal followed by discussion and teaching that extends to the crucifixion when he forgives the repentant sinner. The risen Jesus explains to disciples how the scriptures anticipated his death and resurrection. He would not have been executed for his teaching. He is accused of preaching rebellion in Galilee and importing it to Jerusalem. Neither Pilate nor Herod finds any evidence against him. Pilate accedes to the wishes of those who ask for a death sentence. Jesus accepts his fate; Simon carries the crosspiece because Jesus is an important person not a criminal. Jesus dies with confidence; the centurion declares him righteous, a noble martyr; Jesus acknowledges that his enemies act in ignorance. Perkins comments that no one who participated in the events ever thought there was a case against him. Jesus exemplifies his earlier teaching to love one's enemies; the cross is a source of salvation. Luke expresses a positive attitude toward Jewish authorities which fits the character of the Jesus Luke has depicted throughout the Gospel.

Perkins includes a section on the community implied in Luke’s narrative noting that Theophilus, someone of social prominence, is introduced to show that Christians merit the respect Romans accorded to Jews. Although Christians follow a crucified leader the story of God’s deeds of salvation continues past the resurrection. Luke addresses an educated audience of urban gentiles, stressing virtues of ancient moralists. Jesus condemns vices of the Pharisees, teaches peace not discord, hospitality at meals, charity toward those who have nothing to give in return. He urges followers to limit possessions, renounce struggles for positions of power. Luke includes women from all levels of society—poor widows, wealthy patrons, although the Jesus movement had not changed cultural perceptions of gender wherein all leadership roles belong to men. Luke refers to Paul’s teaching as a sect or school.

Stories of family traditions create what Perkins calls an explosion of legends; she reviews a number of them. Devotion to Mary introduced new emphasis on family relationships. The evangelists “saw no need to maintain Mary’s virginity after the birth of Jesus”; they consider brothers and sisters younger siblings. An Apocalypse of James refers to a step-brother. Legends presented in the Protoevangelium of James contributed to legends of Mary’s piety and a tradition of her virginity after the birth of Jesus. Christian imagination according to Perkins transformed the Temple piety of Luke’s infancy narrative to reflect the purity and holiness of the virgin. Jerome’s negative opinion of the Protoevanglium became the official teaching of the Latin west. After reviewing a number legends Perkins concludes that nothing is known about Jesus’ childhood or early adult life in Nazareth.

Modern readers according to Perkins are “captivated” by Luke’s stories; legends and apocrypha depend on clues from Luke. His storytelling is captivating, yet Matthew’s gospel was more popular during the second century probably because neither Mark nor Luke was among the Twelve. Perkins notes variants, revisions of Luke’s text and concludes with a very interesting chapter on gospels from the second and third centuries.

The text incorporates vast knowledge of the gospel texts with historical, cultural and literary references. The three introductory chapters —125 pages; a concluding chapter on gospels from the second and third centuries —50 pages; three indices, and highly informative footnotes are significant sources to find in a single volume. In my judgment this book is a masterpiece. Judging from my experience the text is appropriate for graduate students.

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