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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 66, 2018

WARREN CARTER, Telling Tales about Jesus: An Introduction to the New Testament Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016). Pp. xii + 291. Paperback. $39.00.

Warren Carter has written an informative and engaging introduction to the canonical Gospels for the beginning undergraduate or graduate student. In addition to its eleven chapters, the book includes sidebars with extra information and illustrations, questions for review and reflection, a glossary of important terms, and a topical index.

The first few chapters orient the reader to the literary genre of the Gospels and the oral traditions embedded within them. In the first chapter, Carter rejects the view that the Gospels reflect direct eyewitness testimony: the traditional names of the evangelists do not match up with characters who play major roles in the Gospel narratives with the exception of John who was not named in the Fourth Gospel, the average lifespans in the ancient world make it unlikely that followers of Jesus lived to the end of the first century CE, and the Patristic traditions served apologetic purposes (5–10). Carter follows Richard Burridge’s criteria for identifying the Gospels as bioi, but these biographies differed from the norm in re-telling the “good news” about a non-elite subject who underwent a shameful death. Judging the predictions foreshadowing the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in the Gospels to all be vaticinium ex eventu (25–31), Chapter 2 investigates the processes of oral transmission in the pre-70 period. Whereas form critics pictured the growth of simple sayings into complex forms that were then combined and embellished over time, a recent model suggests that the Jesus tradition was transmitted in clusters of sayings or speeches teeming with cultural resonances. Yet Carter’s choice of “Q” as exemplifying the dynamics of oral transmission (41–46) might be contested by Two Source theorists who infer that “Q” was a carefully crafted scribal composition on the one hand and by critics of the Two Source Hypothesis on the other.

Chapters 3, 5, 7 and 9 exhibit close readings of the narrative progression of the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John respectively. To structure his fifth chapter on Matthew, Carter pinpoints six “kernels” or pivotal “branching points” in Matthew 1:18–25, 4:17–25, 11:2–6, 16:21–28, 21:1–17 and 28:1–10 that form the skeleton of Matthew’s outline, and “satellites” or minor episodes that flesh out the outline and advance the plot from one kernel to the next (102–21). Alternatively, Chapter 7 is framed by guiding questions revolving around theology, ecclesiology, ethics and Christology, questions Luke aimed to answer to provide Theophilus with “security” or “assurance” (152–54). The conflict of Jesus with cosmic powers who exercised power through the Roman Empire and with Jerusalem-based, Rome-allied Jewish authorities is frequently highlighted. Indeed, Carter insists that the most common referent for the Ioudaioi in John’s Gospel is the alliance of powerful leaders centred on the temple (222). For another example, Carter interprets the trial narratives in the Gospels as depicting Pilate manipulating the Jewish priests into begging for Jesus’s execution, thus reinforcing their dependency on Roman rule, despite the fact that they had the shared concern to suppress potentially subversive movements (65, 117–18, 172, 205–6).

Chapters 4, 6, 8 and 10 apply diverse methodologies to the Gospels. After briefly surveying the options for the provenance of Mark’s Gospel, Carter cautiously concludes in Chapter 4 that, at the very least, there were readers of Mark’s text in Rome (80). He offers a thick description of the socio-political upheavals in the 60s CE, the circumstances of the Flavian triumph, and the appalling social conditions that affected the populace of Rome. Chapter 6 is a redactional-critical analysis of Matthew that introduces the Synoptic Problem and displays how Matthean additions, omissions, and re-arrangements of the sources shaped the Gospel’s presentation of Jesus as well as Jesus’s disciples and opponents. Chapter 8 not only focuses on the terminology and biblical roots of Jesus’s vision of the “basileia of God,” but also explores its communal dimensions including how it might address topics such as ethnicity, gender, colonialism and environmentalism. Carter often emphasises ambiguity insofar as Luke–Acts both resists and reinscribes imperial imagery, or both positively features yet domesticates the witness of women (195–207). Finally, Chapter 10 surveys competing reconstructions of the Sitz im Leben of the Johannine evangelist and convincingly likens Johannine Christology to Jewish reflections on “Lady Wisdom.”

The last chapter is an overview of the canonisation of the four Gospels and the quest for the historical Jesus. Carter notes the irony that the Gospel writers treated the Jesus tradition as flexible and malleable, yet the act of recording them was “an attempt to stabilize the traditions and to limit their expansion” (262). Nevertheless, this did not halt the proliferation of further Gospel writings. Other Christians privileged rival apostles as the recipients of esoteric revelations from Jesus (e.g., the Gospel of Mary), preferred to champion a single text such as Marcion’s edited version of Luke’s Gospel or Tatian’s harmony of the four gospels, or filled in the gaps of Jesus’s biography with imaginative details (e.g., the Infancy Gospel of Thomas) (266–71). Next, Carter turns to the redeployment of the Gospels as sources for the historical Jesus, neutrally summarising the debate over whether they accurately preserved or creatively re-worked the tradition and weighing the strengths and weaknesses of the criteria of authenticity implemented in historical Jesus research (272–77).

There may be some areas of Gospel scholarship that do not receive sufficient coverage. For instance, there seems to be little attention given to scholarly defences of the traditional authorship and dating of the Gospels, alternate generic classifications for the Gospels, competing solutions to the Synoptic Problem along with those who factor non-canonical Gospels more into the equation, or disagreements about the presence of realised or futurist eschatology in the teachings of Jesus. Perhaps a professor might supplement this book with a second textbook when running a unit on the Gospels. Nevertheless, Carter has made his valuable scholarship accessible to a popular audience, acquainting students with a range of methodological approaches, and his book could be used with profit in the classroom.

Review by
Michael J. Kok
Vose Seminary