The following review first appeared in Reviews in Religion and Theology 1998/ 2, pp. 46-8. It is reproduced here with permission.
Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke (The New International Commentary on the New Testament) Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997 pp. xcii + 928 ISBN: 0-8028-2315-7 $50.00 / £32.99
The appearance of new biblical commentaries sometimes causes a sigh of despair. Why add more volumes to the mountain of twentieth century expositions of texts that have been subjected to this kind of 'creeping exegesis' so often before? Joel Green's The Gospel of Luke, the latest volume in the updated series New International Commentary on the New Testament, is a different kind of commentary. Where those of former generations see the text 'more as a window into historical processes emanating from the historical Jesus and the early Christian communities', Green's 'behold[s] the Gospel of Luke as a cultural product in the form of a narrative' (p. 19).
The approach adopted in these nine-hundred pages is a narratological one. It describes itself as the product of a shift in Lukan studies 'marked by the waning of the hegemony of historical study' (p. ix). Grounded in Luke's own apparent description of his work as dihghsiV (diegesis), Green engages in 'a mode of reading appropriate to "narrative" -- especially one that pays due respect to "order"' (p. 1).
The implied author is taken to be an intelligent and skillful artist who crafts his narrative with care. He sows seeds in his Gospel that will be developed in Acts (e.g. Luke 11.13 constitutes 'a promise that carries Luke's audience forward into his second volume', p. 450) and thinks carefully about how different sections interconnect (e.g the 'temporal, semantic and theological' links from 10.17-20 to 10.21-24, pp. 420-4). Green's approach liberates him to pay attention to the markers in the text without having to worry about old-fashioned source-critical and form-critical pericopae. On 12.35, for example, usually taken as the beginning of a fresh unit, Green stresses that 'A narratological focus presses the question of thematic unity for the discourse as a whole . . . the whole of this address, beginning in v. 1, has an eschatological timber.' (p. 497).
Many of a more traditional bent of mind will find it difficult to come to terms with this commentary. How can one discuss Luke's Sermon on the Plain without comparing it with Matthew's Sermon on the Mount? How can one discuss Jesus' Trial before Herod without asking if it 'really happened'? Green will not succumb to such demands. When he discusses the Lord's Prayer (pp. 439-44), he tells us how it relates to the material on either side of it in Luke 11.2-4 but he will not tell us how it relates to Matthew's parallel. Q is never mentioned. Green will not even tell us whether Luke has made a mistake over Quirinius, the governor of Syria (2.1).
This is an approach for which the Lukan scholar ought to be truly grateful, a timely contribution to studies of Luke-Acts that expounds the text in detail for what it claims to be, a narrative, and not an archeological tel. Of all texts that have been subjected to the excesses of historical-critical study, Luke has perhaps suffered the most. So often the Lukan parables have been scrutinised for their supposed relevance in the message of the historical Jesus without any attention being paid to their function in Luke's narrative. Likewise Luke's Central Section, regularly explained only by means of source-theories, is here explicated and appreciated for its artistic and literary merits. I had not noticed before, for example, how coherently Luke 16.14-31 can stand together as 'one narrative unit' (p. 599) concerning 'Jesus' Polemic against the Pharisees, Lovers of Money' (p. 598).
If one were to express any reservation about Green's approach, it would be that one valuable resource has not been tapped. Comparisons with the other synoptic gospels are only made under the general headings of 'historical concerns' (pp. 14-15) as if the only reason for comparing Luke with Matthew and Mark is a view to discovering sources, tradition-history and so on, something that need not be the case. The very act of comparing how similar material functions in different texts might have added to an appreciation of the way in which it functions in context in Luke. Indeed, Luke himself seems to invite comparison between his Gospel and other, similar narratives of the events that have been fulfilled among us (1.1-4). But this is something for the future, a study of synoptic intertextuality that itself might gain ground by interacting with narrative-critical concerns of the kind Green is so good at defending.
University of Birmingham