Three Stages of Gospel Development: Some Random Thoughts
During the formative stages of form critical research on the Gospels, the scholarly construct of “three stages of gospel development” became something of a critical orthodoxy. This paradigm began within protestant circles but was also ultimately embraced by the Roman Catholic church during Vatican II and spelled out in detail in Dei Verbum (§19), and the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s document, “Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels” (§6-9).
The three stages are as follows:
Stage 1: Traditions from the Ministry of Jesus (Traditions stemming from the historical ministry of Jesus in the late 20s CE)
Stage 2: Post-Resurrectional Preaching of the Disciples (Religious convictions that arose about Jesus after his death)
Stage 3: The Writing of the Gospels by the Four Evangelists (Texts and traditions about Jesus that developed during the writing of the gospel narratives; what is often referred to as the evangelist’s Sitz im Leben)
Much contemporary research on the Gospels is rooted in this paradigm, and in the interests of full disclosure, I have taught this model approvingly for the better part of a decade now. My recent readings in historical Jesus research have caused me to think more deeply about some of the “assured results” of modern Gospels scholarship. For decades now the criteria (embarrassment, multiple attestation, dissimilarity, etc.)–which are rooted in form critical assumptions–have been used to establish the historicity of given sayings and events in the life of Jesus. However, with the growing skepticism about the value of those criteria can we really establish with a high degree of certainty “traditions from the ministry of Jesus”? To say it another way, since we have more reason to be skeptical about the prospect of discovering authentic Jesus material, how reliable is Stage 1 as a starting point? And, if Stage 1 is somewhat “up for grabs,” then how reliable is the rest of the model?