Reviews of

The Fourfold Gospel

In Baker Academic, Fourfold Gospel, Francis B. WATSON, Jeremiah Coogan on March 17, 2017 at 8:04 pm

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2017.03.07 | Francis Watson, The Fourfold Gospel: A Theological Reading of the New Testament Portraits of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016. ISBN: 9780801095450

Review by Jeremiah Coogan, University of Notre Dame.

What modes of reading does the fourfold gospel imply? To answer this question, Francis Watson (Durham University) presents “a theological reading of the New Testament portraits of Jesus.” As the indefinite article makes clear, Watson does not assert a prescriptive reading; rather, the specific readings demonstrate the fruitfulness of reading the fourfold gospel as a complex literary and canonical unity. He invites the reader to experience a different mode of reading, guided by a number of “pre-critical” exegetical insights. Both Watson’s reading and his argument about reading succeed, although this reviewer found the latter more abundantly fruitful than the former. Watson displays his erudition with a light hand, lucidly gesturing toward intricate debates without oversimplification or distraction. Streamlined structure and clear prose make this slim volume accessible to the elusive “educated non-specialist reader.” Innovative argument and nuanced engagement with gospel origins make it suitable for advanced undergraduates or seminarians. Academic readers will also be well-served. For those who want to delve deeper, the book is supplied with indexes of subjects, authors, and citations, as well as a valuable bibliography.

A chapter of prolegomena on early Christian gospel writing and reception precedes the body of the book, reprising material from Watson’s Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Eerdmans, 2013). That longer volume does much of the spadework for the volume under review, but this is no mere précis. Two main sections articulate a substantively new argument, focusing respectively on gospel beginnings and endings. The first (chs. 1–4, “Perspectives”) employs a number of early Christian insights to examine the four canonical gospels as unique portraits of Jesus. The second (chs. 5–8, “Convergences”) follows the gospel apparatus of Eusebius of Caesarea in mapping intersections between the four gospels. The final chapter (ch. 8) steps back from the gospels’ relationships with one another or with historical events to consider the different ways in which the gospels might converge (or fail to do so) with human flourishing.

In the first half of the monograph, Watson examines the distinctive “portraits of Jesus” found in each of the canonical gospels. In the first chapter, Watson suggests that Chrysostom’s emphasis on the Matthew’s genealogy as indicative of the gospel’s Jewishness reflects a widespread “patristic assumption that a gospel’s unique character comes most clearly to expression at its beginning” (ix; cf. 24–25). In the absence of other examples, the reviewer remains unconvinced that this represents an early Christian consensus, but Watson’s own focus on openings allows him to engage fruitfully with the particular shape of each gospel. Watson also begins to make his case about how one might read individual gospels within the fourfold collection. The hegemony of historical-critical reading, Watson maintains, has too quickly dismissed the significance of the anthological structures in the New Testament: “if the collections are dismantled, the New Testament itself disappears” (26).

Watson next turns to Mark (ch. 2), focusing on a version without the Longer Ending (although see 163–165). In this chapter, Watson grapples with the issue of multiple gospels. The decision to treat Mark after Matthew already subtly deprioritizes historical criticism. Although acknowledging Markan priority, Watson refuses to allow the synoptic problem to structure his reading of the fourfold gospel. Modern scholars have often been inclined to see Mark as providing material for Matthew and Luke, but little more. By contrast, Watson discerns a central role: “the selection process that resulted in the four-gospel collection may have had its roots in the early coexistence of Matthew and Mark” (43). With multiple gospels on the table, Watson introduces the most significant early Christian typology of gospel plurality: the visions of Ezekiel and John the Seer, using them to introduce individual gospels according to the four-beast typology (Watson follows Jerome’s scheme rather than Irenaeus’, 44–45).

In his third chapter, Watson argues that Luke envisioned a “definitive version” of Jesus’ story, replacing the previous narratives mentioned in his prologue (62). Continuing the discussion of how early Christians made sense of a plurality of gospel narratives, Watson surveys four second-century receptions of Luke. Marcion is “the second-century reader who came closest to accepting Luke’s definitive status” (62). Justin, by contrast, saw Matthew as the “definitive gospel” account, although he selectively supplemented it with related material from Luke (64). (Watson does not engage the hypothesis that Justin used a pre-existing gospel harmony.) Tatian offers a third model for reading Luke; he employed Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as other sources, to “eliminate gospel differences” in his own rewritten gospel (66). Tatian’s work was available in Greek and Syriac, “both probably prepared by Tatian himself” (65). Irenaeus of Lyon rejects Luke’s vision of a definitive gospel and instead arranges Luke as part of a four-gospel collection. On Watson’s account, individual gospel titles matter only in such a pluriform gospel: “collectively, the names underline the indirect, mediated character of the fourfold gospel’s testimony to Jesus” (68; cf. 15–16). Although this rings true as a sort of reader response, here Watson passes over the traditioned significance of gospel titles for the communities that used them. Watson’s own theological reading of Luke subtly argues for the theological complementarity of the fourfold gospel even when historical criticism finds fatal factual contradiction (74).

Turning to John (ch. 4), Watson focuses on the three-plus-one structure of the fourfold gospel. Even if Luke was the last gospel completed, modern scholars appropriately call John the “Fourth Gospel” because of its significant differences from the other three (85–86). A three-plus-one structure, moreover, “is not a modern discovery” (87). Ancient awareness of discrepancies between John and the synoptics suggests that readers saw difference as a benefit. Historical reconstruction, whether ancient or modern, misses the mark: “the fourfold gospel is not intended to provide a singular ‘life of Jesus’ in which each incident and saying is assigned to its original historical context” (88, emphasis original). As Origen had concluded in the third century, the reader who comes to the gospel seeking historical consistency will be frustrated (88–90). Theological reading requires the contingent nature of the gospels as “according to”; the gospel inexorably resists reduction.

The second half of the book explores gospel convergence, following the system of parallels created by Eusebius to argue that the gospels attest kerygmatic truth in their intricate, polyphonous endings. The fifth chapter introduces the Eusebian apparatus, along with a number of other ancient gospel paratexts; the sixth focuses on Jesus’ passion; and the seventh discusses the crucifixion and resurrection. Watson contrasts the modes of reading implied by the fourfold gospel and by modern historical criticism (115–116). The Eusebian apparatus represents “one of the most impressive achievements of early Christian scholarship” (ix). On occasion—for example, in the Geʾez Garima III gospels (145–147)—Eusebius received a portrait alongside the four evangelists, suggesting that the Eusebian apparatus was itself a sort of gospel-writing and Eusebius was a quasi-“fifth evangelist.” In contrast to a number of twentieth-century scholars who rejected the Eusebian apparatus as inferior to modern synopses, the apparatus remains a fruitful way to approach the fourfold gospel.

Watson not only provides an account of how one might read the fourfold gospel as a productive literary and theological entity; he exhibits the fruit such a reading might offer, and the firstfruits are rich indeed. For example, following Eusebius’ lead, he shows how one can retell the story of Gethsemane, of Jesus’ agonized prayer, with a pastiche of short phrases from throughout the book of John (138). Through this creative use of Eusebius’ own innovative project, Watson offers a glimpse of Gethsemane as suffusing Johannine narrative, making the familiar unfamiliar as it is rewritten through the Eusebian framework.

The Eusebian apparatus allows a gospel to be “enhanced” and “enriched” by the reader’s engagement with parallels (122). This reviewer wonders, however, if the Eusebian apparatus may also insinuate modes of reading that flatten or harmonize gospel distinctiveness. Watson’s own approach exemplifies this. He focuses on material from canons I (fourfold attestation) and II (shared by all three synoptic gospels), but exhibits rather less interest in canon X (unique to each gospel) or in the ways that juxtaposed material in canons I or II diverges. As a result, the weight of Watson’s reading falls on the cross rather than the resurrection, since there the gospel texts converge most dramatically (161–165).

The canon tables of the apparatus forcefully illustrate the unity of the fourfold gospel. Yet Watson goes further, asserting that without the Eusebian apparatus, the reader experiences a four-gospel codex “as no more than the sum of four individual volumes […] the difference between the two formats would go no deeper than the cover and the binding” (122). This neglects the illocutionary power of binding four gospels into a single volume, as well as the visual possibilities of book covers and bindings (see e.g. John Lowden in The Early Christian Book [Washington, DC, 2007]). Even without the Eusebian apparatus, such a codex articulates the four gospels as similar to one another and different from other books.

Despite his creative use of the Eusebian apparatus, Watson does not escape the tension between historical-critical and traditional-canonical readings that lies at the heart of the entire volume. At points historical criticism reasserts itself, preventing Watson from assessing Eusebius’ project on its own terms. Does Eusebius make a “mistake” by linking Johannine wine with synoptic vinegar (149)? When the Eusebian system passes over potential parallels or juxtaposes historically irreconcilable material, does this indicate oversight, “shortcoming,” or anomaly (129–130; 151; 161)? These judgments overlook Eusebius’ own interest in theological reading-together in favor of a a sort of historical synchrony foreign to Eusebius’ project.

The final chapter (ch. 8) juxtaposes the fourfold gospel with Lucretius’ critique of religion, a surprisingly modern-sounding representative of the “secularist consensus that the gospel is false and detrimental to human well-being” (170). The question is not whether gospel narratives are factually true in their various details, but rather whether and how Christianity can underwrite a meaningful, “true” life (167–171). As Watson argues, the truth of the fourfold gospel makes the most sense (perhaps only makes sense) when embedded in lived communities (170–171). Four examples (Justin, Origen, Luther, and Barth) demonstrate ways of making sense out of gospel truth.

Watson’s Fourfold Gospel exhibits an unresolved tension, perhaps inescapable in a post-Enlightenment reading culture, between historical-critical and literary-canonical reading. Watson delivers a tour de force when his theological reading of the gospels escapes the questions—importantly, not the conclusions—of modern historical criticism; the book is occasionally marred when they creep back in. This critique notwithstanding, Watson has written a superb study, lucid, erudite, and insightful.

  1. […] those interested in early Christian reading of the gospels, Reviews of Biblical and Early Christian Studies has just published my review of Francis Watson’s, The Fourfold Gospel: A Theological Reading […]

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