Reviews of

Francis B. Watson, “Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective”

In Durham, Early Christianity, Francis B. WATSON, Gospels, Justin A. Mihoc, NT reception history, SEMINAR REPORTS on January 17, 2012 at 8:13 pm

This is a report on a book preview by Prof Francis Watson, Professor of New Testament Exegesis at Durham University, at the New Testament Research Seminar, Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University, 12th of December 2011. The list of forthcoming papers in the NT Research Seminars at Durham University can be found here

The second book preview in the series inaugurated by Prof John Barclay at the beginning of November (2011) here, at Durham University, was the forthcoming monograph by Prof Francis Watson. His approach towards Gospel studies focuses on the reception and interpretation of the canonical texts, without neglecting the non-canonical gospels. In Prof Watson’s words, the phenomenon of reception is almost a universal precondition of the historical knowledge in general. History of the impact that one writing or figure had in history, or Wirkungsgeschichte as Gadamer puts it, is not a uniquely theological concept, but has specific particularities within the Christian context. And reception is not only reconstruction.

The three-part structure of the book will cover a wide range of discussions, including the early Church’s reception of the Gospels and their canonical status in relation to the apocryphal gospels.  The first section (The Eclipse of the Fourfold Gospel), represents a preliminary overture of the book as a whole. In part one it is argued that the fourfold gospel posed a problem for the early Church because of the variations between them. This part also presents the close interrelationship between Matthew, Mark and Luke, but also describes the tensions between them. The author traces this back to the pre-modern project of Gospel harmonisation (with Augustine as a central figure), or the agreement of the Evangelists. The need to harmonise is related to the wide-spreading of the Church and uniformization of the ritual (the date of Easter is one example) and the use of the four Gospels collection. The universality of the Church is reflected in the gospel usage. Augustine’s view greatly influenced the tendency of gospel harmonisation through the Enlightenment, with Hermann Samuel Reimarus. Prof Watson’s objective is not just the study of the individual gospels, but the study of the fourfold collection, as a collection of texts and a form in which the Gospels were interpreted for so many centuries.

Part two (Reframing Gospel Origins), tackles the pre-canonical and the canonical perspectives. In the pre-canonical phase no distinction between the Evangelists and their writings can be seen. Gospel writing is deliberately indeterminate because it is improper to limit the gospel production to only the four canonical ones. The apocryphal authors all consider themselves ‘evangelists’ and do not realise that what they write are authoritative texts, and not apocryphal literature. The literature that was later considered non-canonical is intertwined with the texts of the pre-canonical stage. In Prof Watson’s view, the Q document was not part of the canon, and can, in part, be reconstructed from Matthew and Luke. However, he is not convinced by the hypothesis that claims its existence.

The third part (The Canonical Construct) deals with the late second century and beyond, when the four Gospels get more and more defined as such. In chs. 8-9, Prof Watson argues that the situation is somewhat different in the Greek Church from the West. In the East, much gospel literature circulated, but we have little evidence in the West for such a circulation of gospels. Irenaeus is a key figure in this regard, being active in the West but originally from the East. The author also argues that the definition of the fourfold Gospel was not invented by Irenaeus, but it is he who defines them. What Irenaeus is doing is proposing a consensus for using the four Gospels in both East and West. He doesn’t seem to know other gospels well, and the main issue for him is with the interpretation of those gospels and not the gospels that are used in the East and West.

Prof Watson opposes the assumption that the study of the Gospels does not need to go beyond the first century. No one at the time thought to stop writing gospel literature at the end of the first century. The author is also trying to extend the time span for the study of the New Testament literature, NT being a construction of the second century. Books circulate because the Church chooses to engage with them and read them. It is perfectly reasonable to accept the four and interpret them in various ways. It can be seen that Irenaeus does not criticise his heretics for using the wrong gospels, but for the way in which they interpret them. Also, he is against the quest for the Historical Jesus, which he considers neither possible nor desirable. In his view, people setting out to find a single way of truth limit plurality to singularity. The claim that the historical work is the scope of our discipline is a long outdated understanding of the historical method. Origen, in De Principiis 4, acknowledges that some of the stories of the OT and NT did not take place as narrated; he understands that the Gospels are not only there to tell us purely observable events, but to communicate gospel. Therefore, it has been recognised from very early that there were different layers of history. The way Origen explains the Gospel’s implausibilities is profoundly impressive.

The concept of reception acknowledges that there are some events that are historically accurate (such as the conception and crucifixion), whilst the concept of construction does not. In Prof Watson’s opinion, there are two classes of material: the authentic material that goes back to Jesus, and the material that can only be traced back to the early Church, a sort of two source theory. With regards to the distinction between reception and reconstruction, the author notes that the Kingdom of God might go back to the historical Jesus, but its centrality as a master key, regarding what Jesus is about and who He is, is only assumed from Mark’s account. These traditions are certainly derived from Jesus, but not in the way that is envisaged by the followers.

The concise presentation and especially the lively discussion afterwards made this session a good preview of the much awaited publication of Prof Watson’s engaging book. Please note that a separate session of the New Testament Research Seminar, taking place on the 30th of January (2012)  is dedicated to the ‘Prologue’ of Prof Watson’s forthcoming monograph.

Justin A. Mihoc,
Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University

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  1. […] Francis Watson has a book coming out — Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective — that looks interesting. You can find an early preview here. […]

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