Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective

Written by Francis Watson Reviewed By Craig L. Blomberg

The research chairholder in biblical interpretation at the University of Durham is well known for meticulously researched scholarly works, presented with detailed and complex argumentation. Having focused particularly on Paul and on theological hermeneutics in past books, he turns his attention here to the origins of canonical treatment of the four Gospels with no less careful analysis.

Each chapter could form a stand-alone essay worthy of publication in its own right. Watson’s attention ranges all the way from Augustine and other harmonizers, to Lessing, Reimarus and early source critics, to Q, M, L, the Gospel of Thomas and other apocryphal Gospels or Gospel fragments, to the difference between East and West in creating canonical constructs, to Origen’s spiritualizing hermeneutic as a solution to contradictions among the Gospels, to images, symbols and liturgy in support of the fourfold Gospel. But the sum of the parts adds up to the thesis that a fourfold Gospel with all of what Watson is happy to call contradictions need not be obliterated by turning it into a unified harmony, which inevitably does violence to the data, nor be viewed as a collection of merely human and conflicting documents. Instead, the creation of the canon both celebrates and places limits on early Christian diversity.

It is impossible to do justice to Watson’s detail in even one of his chapters in the scope of a short review. All I can do is take some soundings that demonstrate strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, it seems that Watson too easily moves from the weakest links in an alternate hypothesis to the conviction that he has rebutted the entire hypothesis. Some attempts to harmonize apparently discrepant Gospel data prove unconvincing and even silly, so therefore the task can never be undertaken responsibly. A few key agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark do not fit the Q-hypothesis well, so therefore it has been demolished. Some very slight differences between the fragments of the Egerton papyrus and its Johannine parallels might make more sense as preceding rather than following John, so therefore we have evidence for a pre-Johannine source. A few sayings of the Gospel of Thomas may be earlier than their canonical counterparts and a few other unparalleled sayings may be authentic, so therefore Thomas provides evidence of a Christian Sayings source predating the Synoptics that is not Q.

Phrasing things this baldly does not do justice to the complexity of Watson’s argumentation, but precisely because he does go into so much detail with his textual samplings to support his various hypotheses, he has no space left to demonstrate that they are representative of the much larger whole from which they are excerpted. Having worked through much of the same material myself with more breadth though in less depth, I am doubtful if he has disproved the viability of harmonizing discrepant data, overthrown Q, shown that Luke consistently depends on Matthew and Mark only, or found evidence from Thomas and Egerton for different pre-Synoptic and pre-Johannine sources.

The strength of this volume, however, lies in a different direction than each of these individual, sometimes iconoclastic hypotheses. Even if Watson has somewhat overstated the diversity of the canonical Gospels and the similarities of the non-canonical ones to the canonical, a robust diversity (that does not have to be phrased in terms of contradiction) nevertheless does remain. Bible readers who do not puzzle over the unparalleled choice to canonize four accounts of Jesus’ life (with three of them containing a fair amount of overlap and one markedly different) are just not thinking historically. In an age in which most of the self-identified Christian world divides itself into followers of Augustine (the apparent contradictions are resolvable and we must do so to defend Scripture) and those of Reimarus (the problems are insoluble and we should therefore demote the Gospels’ authority), Watson defends a third, via media: we must recognize the distinctiveness and significance of the Christian canonical choice to preserve a fourfold Gospel, with all its diversity. And yet the early Christians overall still drew boundaries, rejecting the almost limitless pluralism of the pagan world surrounding them, not unlike the rampant pluralisms of our day.

In lieu of a conclusion, Watson ends his tome with seven theses (and their elaboration) on Jesus and the canonical Gospel. (1) The early church’s reception of Jesus was a dynamic process attested particularly in the diversity of the four Gospels. (2) The “historical” Jesus can be known only as mediated through this diversity. (3) The earliest stages of Gospel formation involved a complex interaction between oral tradition and written sources. (4) Differentiation between canonical and non-canonical Gospels was not based on criteria inherent in the texts themselves. (5) The felt-need of creating a canon attests to the ongoing production of Gospels and their diverse usage in the various Christian communities of the day. (6) Because there was a time before canon consciousness began, historians must distinguish between pre-canonical and post-canonical eras and not assume attitudes to what came to be canonical and non-canonical were the same in each era. (7) The formation of the canon combined historical, theological and hermeneutical perspectives without pitting any of those categories against any of the others. After all of Watson’s more specialized theories about the origins of and relationships among the various Gospels and their sources, these theses can seem anticlimactic. But they are all valid, even if all of the ways Watson applies them along the way may not prove equally convincing.

This book is not for the faint of heart. Even someone very familiar with the contents of, and similarities and differences among all of the early Christian Gospels will need to go back to those texts again and again to follow Watson’s arguments and evaluate his claims. His command of the reception history of the issue of a canon, from earliest days to the present, is nothing short of astonishing. Yet there are some troubling omissions. All the evidence of a growing canon consciousness prior to Irenaeus is missed out (on which see esp. Charles Hill). Most of the data that show the probably late and redactional nature of what Watson finds “early” in Thomas seem to have been marginalized. And to argue that whenever Luke removes something from Matthew’s five great blocks of sermonic material, he is saving it up for use elsewhere, explains nothing, unless one can show repeatedly (not just once or twice) how Luke could have viewed the relocation as superior.

Other readers, however, may demur. More than most reviews, this one can scarcely substitute for a careful reading of the book itself or for repeated, close interaction with the texts Watson scrutinizes. And that exercise, irrespective of anyone’s specific agreements and disagreements with his proposals, can only be salutary.

Craig L. Blomberg

Craig L. Blomberg
Denver Seminary
Denver, Colorado, USA

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