Our books today are the four hefty volumes that constitute the core of the old Pelican Gospel Commentaries, and we turn to them with a kind of cold-sweat urgency: as the endless snow continues to fall, as the very infrastructure of Boston begins to crumble, Stevereads continues its perhaps-futile bid to appease the peevish Deity by taking these treasured paperbacks off the shelf and admiring them afresh.
As a good friend of mine is fond of repeating, the task of Scriptural interpretation is a deliberately open-ended one, a process each generation must undertake for itself. If that’s true, older guidebooks like these are put in a precarious spot: the only way they can avoid being superseded is by being full-out classics in their own right. And if such a thing is true for these Pelican Gospel Commentaries, all of which were written in the 1960s, how much more dolorously true must it be for, say, the voluminous Gospel commentaries of Erasmus, centuries old and so long out of print? It’s a little depressing, actually: these scholars, inspired by their encounter with these writings that mean more to them than anything, pour out their hearts and the full extent of their learning, only to end up looking antiquated even in their own lifetime.
Fortunately, that good friend of mine is partially wrong, and he’s wrong for the most predictable reason: because he himself is in the business of Scriptural interpretation! An ordinary literate intelligent Christian (settle down now – that’s not the set-up to a joke), wanting to understand the Gospels both as literary and historical documents, still couldn’t do better than to make a study of these four old Pelican volumes.
Of course, such a study will be a bit uneven, not just because scholars are uneven in their training but also because the Gospels themselves are famously uneven. The synoptic Gospels inevitably produce various layers of nervous chatter about sources and derivations, for instance, something the great scholar J. C. Fenton addresses immediately in his 1963 Saint Matthew:
It is usually thought that Mark’s Gospel was written about A. D. 65; and that the author of it was neither one of the apostles nor an eyewitness of the majority of events recorded in his Gospel. Matthew was therefore dependent upon the writing of such a man for the production of his book. What Matthew has done, in fact, is to produce a second and enlarged edition of Mark. Moreover, the changes which he makes in Mark’s way of telling the story are not the corrections which an eyewitness might make in the account of one who was not an eyewitness. Thus, whereas in Mark’s Gospel we may be only one remove from eyewitnesses, in Matthew’s Gospel we are one remove further still.
And then there’s the varying nature within the synoptic Gospels themselves, which often causes their exegetes to get a bit defensive. This is true in the case of the vagaries of Matthew, as Fenton was hinting, and it’s even more true of the bare-bones flintiness of Mark, a thing clearly on D. E. Nineham’s mind when he was writing his 1963 book on that Gospel:
St. Mark, although, as we have seen, he has his distinctive preoccupations, as compared with the other Evangelists, remains completely anonymous; he makes no attempt to ‘push’ his interpretation explicitly and it has to be discovered by reading carefully between his lines. This was no doubt because his understanding of Christ was for the most part simply that of the Church to which he belonged, and he was not conscious of doing anything more than commit the ‘gospel’ of that Church to writing.
But sometimes, you find just the right scholar matched with just the right book, and that’s always a happy occasion. The stand-out example in this case is G. B. Caird, who, in his 1963 Saint Luke, uses passion and eloquence (and a touch of Sherlock Holmes!) in order to re-align wonderfully all my previous impressions of this Gospel:
The study of the Gospel enables us to describe in some detail the man who wrote it. He was a second-generation Christian who had had ample opportunities of associating with those who had first-hand knowledge of the gospel story. He was an educated man who could adapt his Greek diction to different occasions, writing sometimes formal, classical prose, sometimes a racy narrative style in the vernacular of his own day, and sometimes the semitic ‘Bible Greek’ in which the Septuagint was written. His command of Greek, his constant interest in Gentiles, and his avoidance of matters of purely Jewish interest may be taken as indications that he himself was a Gentile, but he was one of those Gentiles who were deeply versed in the Greek Old Testament and in the ways of the synagogue. He had something of the poet in his make-up and an artist’s ability to depict in vivid pen-portraits the men and women who inhabit his pages. He delighted in marvels and was a little inclined to emphasize the miraculous elements in his story. He was more interested in people than in ideas. He had a lively social conscience and an inexhaustible sympathy for other people’s troubles.
And then there’s the Everest in any Gospel mountain chain: the Gospel of St. John, with its length and flights of fancy and very distinctive (and guiltily enjoyable) excesses, the Gospel of John, the epic of the New Testament, written by a full-out loon and easily capable, even two millennia later, of bringing out the loon in otherwise-sober scholars who study it. John Marsh’s 1968 volume in this series, Saint John, is longer than the others, of course, and it’s absorbingly good throughout, but when it comes to the quasi-philosophical mumbo-jumbo at which John excels, well, Marsh is what we call these days an enabler:
What has John done? Has he really distorted the message of the synoptics for something really different? Not at all. The present writer believes that what he has done is enable the reader of the fourth gospel to move from it back to the synoptics and there to perceive what the synoptic message is. This is done by keeping his readers firmly with the historical Jesus, for it is in him that they can really meet the past, the present and the future. The past means him, that is the real theological justification for typology. If some even in the past, like the exodus from Egypt, throws light (as it does) through the Passover feast on the destiny and death of Christ, it is then seen that as the fulfillment (the achievement once for all history) of what God sought to do in the Passover is at the cross, the cross itself sheds light back to the exodus. What is going on in the exodus helped many to see what was going on on the cross; but once it is seen what is going on in the event of the cross, then it is seen as what is going on all the time. The cross becomes the meaning, the one event of all history.
Although they may seem like fairly staid things to the casual glance in 2015, these Pelican Gospel Commentaries were just shy of incendiary when they first appeared, a fact that each separate author feels obligated to mention in one way or other. They take as their common starting point that the Gospels, whatever else they might be to the thousands of readers who bought these volumes, are ancient documents, vulnerable to deterioration and misinterpretation and the thousand other shocks that texts are heir to. It’s actually a quietly amazing thing, to read these books and realize that scholars might once have been burned alive for writing them.
It’s a sobering little thought, for a city so clearly under Heavenly interdict as Boston is this February. It’ll be a shame to burn these jam-packed little paperbacks for fuel, but with eighty more major snowstorms predicted for the next 17 days, I may not have much of a choice.