With an epistle like Galatians, it is rather transparent that there is some sort of community to whom the letter is written. But scholars (e.g. Raymond Brown) have also been known to talk about a "Johannine Community" behind the Fourth Gospel, or a "Matthean Community." There have likewise been attempts to discover a community behind Mark and behind Luke, but these seem to have met with less success, with one scholar noting, "The reason for this is that virtually every scholar who discovers a Markan community behind the Gospel ... discovers a different Markan community."

When one approaches an ancient text, whether from Qumran, from the early church, or something written by Josephus or Philo— what are the signs that some community lies behind that text?

  • The question is very broad - those who find a community behind one of the gospels usually do so to support their own brand of higher criticism Jun 9, 2015 at 16:54

1 Answer 1


Whether or not there was a formal Matthean Community, I think it is reasonable to speak of a "Matthean Community" because the Gospel seems to have been unknown to the authors of Luke and John, suggesting a community isolated from broader Christianity. If it can be shown that the author of Luke did know of Matthew's Gospel, as Dennis R. MacDonald has sought to do (I believe unsuccessfully) in Two Shipwrecked Gospels, then the concept of a separate community is less well sustained.

In the case of the "Johannine Community", this does seem to have been a formal community with its own sense of belonging to community and probably its own leaders.

Elaine Pagels, in Beyond Belief, sees a principal objective of John's Gospel to refute the beliefs of the Thomas Christians. She says that it was John who created Doubting Thomas as in, for example:

  • John 11:16 – Thomas did not believe Jesus would raise Lazarus.
  • John 14:3-6 – Thomas showed doubts.
  • John 20:25 – Thomas would not believe that Jesus had risen.

Pagels believes that John's challenging and critical portrait of the disciple that it calls “Thomas, the one called Didymus” resulted from a confrontation between two communities, the Johannine community and the "Thomas Christians", with the Johannine community eventually emerging as the winners.

Burton L. Mack believes (Who Wrote the New Testament, page 215) that a split took place in the Johannine community shortly after the turn of the second century. One faction thought it best to merge with other Christian groups of a more centrist (orthodox) leaning. Another party refused, holding to the enlightenment tradition of the community and developed in the direction of a Christian gnosticism. Mack says that before the schism, the community tradition had little interest in disciple lore or apostolic mythology. Some evidence for a change in direction is found in the material about the 'beloved disciple' and doubting Thomas, much of which was apparently added after the schism (especially chapter 21, which is widely regarded as a later addition, by the same author as the core text). Even stronger evidence for a schism is in the epistles, especially First John. Mack says (page 217) the author's polemic against his erstwhile brothers and sisters is vicious and his arguments ridiculous. He was reduced at most points of direct confrontation to labelling his opponents ‘liars’ (1 John 1:6-10; 2:4; 4:20) or consigning them to demonic, cosmic, or divine destruction (1 John 3:4 10). The Johannine letters are signed by the 'elder' or 'presbyter', suggesting that the intended audience would know who the elder was and would instantly recognise his authority.

There is some limited evidence of community in Luke's Gospel, to the extent that it opens with:

Luke 1:1-2: ... those things which are most surely believed among us, Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;

On the other hand, Mark, the first New Testament gospel, was written for the purpose of proselytising, rather than to a community. David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey and Donald Michie point out in Mark as Story that this Gospel was written to be read out aloud, as a performance (rather like Shakespeare?).

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