Review: Gospel Writing by Francis Watson

91u3ADot8kLWatson, Francis. Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.

In this volume, Francis Watson presents a new paradigm for Gospel origins. The standard account of Gospel origins that Watson seeks to unseat goes something like this: Mark wrote first, Matthew and Luke followed him (drawing on Mark and Q), and John came last, completing the canonical collection by the end of the first century. Other Gospels were composed later and are historically inferior, and differences between the four Gospels are an obstacle to be overcome (whether by harmonizing or adjudicating between traditions) rather than a resource. In Watson’s view, the fundamental problem with this paradigm is that it “overlooks or undervalues the process of reception” (6). Instead, Watson advocates for a “canonical perspective” (6) that takes seriously the fourfold canonical form of the Gospel and the historical process that generated it.

The body of the book falls into three parts. In Part One (The Eclipse of the Fourfold Gospel), Watson provides a sweeping survey of how the prevailing account of Gospel origins emerged. The story begins with Augustine’s De Consensu Evangelistarum, wherein Watson finds that “difference [between the gospels] is seen as a threat to be negotiated and techniques of harmonization are developed in order to ensure that multiple perspectives will always be reduced to singularity” (28). In opting for unity over diversity, Augustine paves the way for later Gospel harmonies, which constitute a “dismemberment of the gospels” (45) and are themselves the forerunners of the quest of the historical Jesus (44). In the second chapter, Watson focuses on Reimarus and Lessing, who push back against the harmonizing tendency but still view differences between the Gospels negatively. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the Q hypothesis, which for Watson “represents a movement against the diachronic flow of the early Christian tradition in which the life of Jesus is interpreted, in quest of an uninterpreted Jesus” (102–3). In short, the standard account of Gospel origins is heir to a long tradition of trying to flatten the fourfold Gospel, whether through harmonizing the individual witnesses or prioritizing an uninterpreted Jesus over them.

Watson begins to construct his alternative paradigm in Part Two (Reframing Gospel Origins). Drawing on Mark Goodacre’s renewed defense of the Farrer hypothesis, he argues in chapter 3 that Matthew and Luke’s non-Marcan overlaps are better attributed to Luke’s use of Matthew than to a Q source. Chapter 4 examines Luke’s role in more detail. Here Watson contends that Luke is an interpreter of Mark and Matthew. By this he seems to mean on the one hand that Luke does far more than regurgitate his source material with minor modifications (200), but on the other that Luke does not act as an independent author but rearticulates the tradition he has received (208).

Chapters 5 and 6 focus on noncanonical material. In chapter 5, Watson reconsiders the significance of the Gospel of Thomas, arguing that “Thomas preserves certain formal characteristics of the primitive Christian Sayings Collection (SC), a genre that predated the synoptic gospels and that remained important throughout the second century” (221). At first blush, to eschew Q and advocate for an early sayings collection (which is what Q is generally thought to be) might seem like a distinction without a difference. However, Watson’s SC is different from Q in at least two ways. First, it is not a single work but a genre. Second, whereas Q is composed of the non-Marcan overlaps of Matthew and Luke, the SC is simply a broad group of sayings texts that all the Synoptics could have drawn on. Watson dedicates chapter 6 to the Egerton Gospel and its relation to John, contending that John is dependent on and interprets the Egerton Gospel at a number of points. At the same time, the Egerton Gospel provides a precedent for John’s unique Christology.

Watson begins the final chapter in this section by clarifying his concept of reception, expressed in the following sevenfold form: datum > recollection > tradition > inscription > interpretation > reinterpretation > normativization (347–55). Key here is the notion that “interpretation and reinterpretation are not to be confused with free invention. They are not fictions but renewed attempts to articulate the significance of an already inscribed tradition” (370). Watson then goes on to examine the phenomenon of interpretation in John, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Peter in order to demonstrate that the canonical/noncanonical distinction lies not in the texts themselves but in later decisions about them (i.e., normativization). While Watson does acknowledge the need for normativization, he strangely contends in his conclusion that the fourfold Gospel “represents a decision about community order and organization rather than a historical, literary, or theological judgment about the nature of early gospel literature” (407). We will return to this anon.

Part 3 (The Canonical Construct) turns to matters of Gospel reception and canon formation. In chapters 8 and 9, Watson argues that the fourfold Gospel was not a given in the second century but emerged under the influence of Irenaeus for the sake of “achieving consensus between Rome and Ephesus, East and West” (472). Chapter 10 examines Origen as an example of canonical hermeneutics. Finally, chapter 11 surveys depictions of the fourfold Gospel in Christian art.

Watson concludes the book with “seven theses on Jesus and the canonical gospel” (604–19):

  1. The early church’s reception of the figure of Jesus is a dynamic interpretative process attested above all in its diverse Gospel literature.
  2. Jesus is known only through the mediation of his own reception. There is no access to the singular, uninterpreted reality of a “historical Jesus” behind the reception process.
  3. The early reception of Jesus is marked by the interaction of the oral and the textual.
  4. Differentiation between canonical and noncanonical gospels is not based on identifiable criteria inherent to the texts.
  5. The definition of “canonical status” presupposes both an ongoing production of gospel literature and divergent communal usage.
  6. Early gospel literature is retrospectively divided by the formalizing of canonical and noncanonical status. It is therefore necessary to differentiate pre- and postcanonical stages in the reception of this literature.
  7. A “canonical perspective” models a convergence of historical, theological, and hermeneutical discourses, rejecting the assumption that these are necessarily opposed to one another.

Gospel Writing is undoubtedly one of the most important books published in Gospels studies in the last decade. Watson promises a new paradigm for Gospels studies and delivers it with impressive breadth and depth. Throughout, the author moves seamlessly from Augustinian hermeneutics to detailed comparisons of canonical and noncanonical Gospels to Christian visual art. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether to adopt Watson’s paradigm wholesale, but to my mind the major contributions of this volume are as follows:

  • It takes seriously the fourfold canonical shape of the Gospel and to creates space for the differences between the Gospels to be seen as a resource rather than a problem.
  • It provides a more positive place for noncanonical material in the Gospel composition and canonization process.
  • It destabilizes the Q hypothesis and adds a significant vote in favor of the Farrer hypothesis.

At the same time,Gospel Writing is open to criticism at a number of points. First, although Watson asserts that one must embrace the diversity of the fourfold Gospel, he provides the reader with scant resources for doing so. His basic position seems to be that one should regard Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as (re)interpretations unified by their single object, Jesus. But if Luke is reinterpreting Matthew and Mark with the intention of bringing the reader closer to Jesus, how am I then to read Mark and Matthew? Should I read Luke as (more) true and his predecessors as less? It seems to me that two adjustments are needed to make Watson’s argument work. First, there must be some consideration of genre. Without knowing what sort of literature the Gospels are, we cannot know what level of correspondence to expect between them and the historical person Jesus whom they depict. Watson unfortunately includes no substantive discussion of Gospel genre in this volume. Second, the fact that the Gospels are unified by having Jesus as their object seems to suggest that in their canonical form some level of harmonization is justified since their individual portraits need to be able to somehow cohere in one person (the level of detail would be determined by their genre). However, once these adjustments have been made, Watson’s position does not seem particularly unique, so one is left wondering why all the fuss about plurality.

A second area of critique has to do with Watson’s contention that the fourfold Gospel was merely a decision about ecclesial unity rather than a historical or theological judgment. In the first place, even if Watson is correct that ecclesial unity played a large role, this does mean that historical and theological factors did not. In order to make his case convincingly, Watson would need to somehow demonstrate not only that community order was a factor but also that history and theology were not. Furthermore, Watson repeatedly asserts that the difference between canonical and noncanonical Gospels cannot be discerned “based on identifiable criteria inherent to the texts” (609). This is an odd claim, for to my knowledge we have no noncanonical Gospel that looks as much like the four canonical Gospels as they look like each other, both in their general character and overarching portrait of Jesus.

Finally, the argument as a whole could be shortened and tightened at several points. The parade example of this is Watson’s discussion of the fourfold Gospel in Christian art (chapter 11), which does not seem to contribute to the argument in a substantive way.

However, these shortcomings should not deter readers from engaging with Watson’s work. Gospel Writingis a monumental achievement that will continue to influence the Gospel origins discussion for years to come and deserves a place on the shelf of any serious New Testament scholar.

My thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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