Making the gospels: Mystery or Conspiracy? 
Paul Barnett, Cascade, 2019

The question of how the four gospels came to be as they are is intriguing and important for Christians (well, for everyone, really, but certainly for Christians). Matthew, Mark, Luke and John present Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God, the ransom for many, the one who suffers, dies and rises from the dead according to the scriptures. The man they introduce breaks many rules of ordinary humanity, and the question is whether they paint a fair and faithful portrait of Jesus, or whether some more modest Jewish figure been transformed into the miracle-working redeemer of the gospels by some innocent or not-so-innocent process of exaggeration, embellishment, and exaltation. This pressing question is complicated by the fact that we have only hints (compared to what we might like to have) as to the process by which the gospels came to be as they are.

Paul Barnett has spent a career researching, thinking and writing about the earliest Christianity, from the life of Jesus to the completion of the New Testament and the close of the apostolic age. He has taken on the hard task of discovering what we can know about matters demanding ingenious historical detective work to bring into some view. He has also taken on those who would undermine the integrity of the New Testament as a reliable testimony to the true nature of the events and people in its pages. He was this year on the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, being made a Member of the Order of Australia for significant service to the Anglican Church of Australia. He is a prolific author, who has this year added a new title to his list of publications, namely Making the gospels: Mystery or Conspiracy?

The burden of this book is to probe the mystery of the process by which we came to have the four gospels of the New Testament. In doing this, Barnett argues that although this process may remain in many ways a mystery, it is implausible and ungrounded to believe that it involved a conspiracy of any sort. The idea that the gospels present a figure confected by Paul, or Mark, or later editors of Q is not credible, given what the historical evidence makes likely about the production of the gospels. In summary, Barnett argues that the role of the disciples as witnesses of the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus is to be taken seriously, and that we should respect the indications that the New Testament gives that its authors were committed to the faithful transmission of what the eyewitnesses had said. Neither the short period between Jesus and the gospels, nor the culture governing the transmission of the accounts of Jesus, make it plausible to suppose that great metamorphoses have been wrought upon the figure at the heart of these accounts.

One new conviction Barnett comes to in the writing of this book—a conclusion which takes him by surprise—is that Jesus most likely taught publicly in both Aramaic and Greek. In Chapter 19 he cites the work of Meyers and Strange who find that in the first century BC Aramaic declined and Greek gained ground even in country areas. The Twelve have Greek names among them (Philip, Simon and Andrew) and Jesus had conversations with Gentiles (the Syrophoenician women, the centurion, even Pilate) who probably had at best limited Aramaic. Jesus’ travels in the north and east of Galilee would make it natural for him to prefer speaking Greek in these places. Crowds came to him from Greek-speaking areas like the Decapolis, and the environs of Tyre and Sidon, and it would make sense for Jesus to teach in Greek for these hearers. The upshot of this is that Jesus’s teachings need not have existed originally only in Aramaic, and so they needed no subsequent process of translation into Greek for them to take the form they do in our gospels.

Barnett further notes the probable literacy (not illiteracy) of at least some of the disciples makes it plausible that accounts of Jesus’ teachings were ‘committed to writing in Greek from the earliest times’, beginning during the earthly ministry of Jesus itself (p. 93). This pair of conclusions relativises both the role of oral transmission of the accounts of Jesus, and of Aramaic as the medium of such transmission. This in turn means the written sources which underlie the gospels may be as close to the ministry of Jesus as any oral streams of transmission in Aramaic that may also have carried the knowledge of Jesus to the gospel writers. Barnett acknowledges this is a controversial conclusion, and somewhat out of step with the recent focus on modes of oral transmission by Kenneth Bailey and James Dunn, but he’s arguing for the substantial importance of individual eyewitness accounts in written Greek.

Barnett covers a great deal of ground, and touches on verbal parallels to gospel material in the New Testament epistles, on the provenance and theologies of Mark, Q, M and L, on the use of Mark by Matthew and Luke, on the audiences the individual gospels appear attuned towards and a host of other issues. Throughout it all his constant theme is that while there is indeed mystery surrounding the process by which the gospels came to be, this in no way licences conspiracy theories. It should not be accepted that Jesus— imagined as a Jewish rabbi of reformist, charismatic or sapiential character— has been dishonourably repackaged as a dying and rising redeemer. ‘The earliest “traditions” are focussed on the redemptive Jesus.’ (p. 235)

The whole is written in vintage Barnett style, exhibiting familiarity with current scholarship and an independent development of thought. Close attention to particular texts across the New Testament and their interconnections alternates with broad awareness of the history, geography and culture of the ancient Mediterranean world in its Jewish, Hellenistic and Roman modes. Barnett writes to communicate with the general reader but does not make his content ‘lite’. In this as in many previous works, he connects the general reader to the scholarly world and the historical scene in a way that few others have done, certainly amongst Australian scholars. Here is a concise, up-to-date account of the production of the gospels by a seasoned scholar and passionate student of the history and literature surrounding the central figure of the New Testament: Jesus, whom this Paul also serves.

Ben Underwood, WA