Book Review – Francis Watson, Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Part 1)

Watson, Francis. Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2013. 665 pages, pb. $48  Link to Eerdmans.

Given the interest in literary methods, canonical approaches, and theological to the gospels, a monograph on Source Criticism might seem a bit behind the times. After all, Mark Goodacre described a “world without Q” sometime ago. In his recent Reading the Gospels Wisely, Jonathan Pennington proposes a “narrative and theological” approach to the gospels that simply ignores source-critical questions. Yet Watson provides a consistent presentation of the origin of all four Gospels that challenges the academic consensus and cogently argues for a theory of Gospel origins that takes into account all of the evidence available.

Watson Gospel WritingThe book has three sections. The first is a short overview of the synoptic problem, beginning with Augustine. In the second and longest section of the book Watson develops his thesis and illustrates it in each of the four Gospels.  In the third section of the book, Watson examines the “Canonical Construct” of the four Gospels by examining the canon in the East (Clement and Eusebius), the West (Irenaeus and Rome). My plan in this review is to give a brief overview of the book in this section, and then provide a critique of part two,  part three, and part four.

Background to the Synoptic Problem

The consensus view on the origin of the Synoptic Gospels is that Mark wrote first, followed by Matthew and Luke.  Both Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a model and supplemented his narrative with material from a sayings source, Q (for Quelle, source in German). This sayings source contained only the words of Jesus with no narrative. Matthew and Luke edited the narrative from Mark together with the sayings of Q to form their Gospels. This Two-source hypothesis has been occasionally modified, but for the most part it is the default position for most Gospel scholars for the last 100 years. The theory made sense and for the most part solved the so-called Synoptic Problem better than other proposed solutions. While Q remains a hypothetical source, the Gospel of Thomas at least confirms that there were collections of the sayings of Jesus.

Watson challenges this consensus by arguing that Mark wrote his gospel first, Matthew followed him and supplemented the narrative with a sayings source, and that Luke interpreted Matthew. There is therefore no need for the Q document as it is normally described in scholarship. Instead of the complex, multi-layered Q standing between Mark and Matthew, Watson suggests a sayings source that is independent of the canonical Gospels.

A second challenge to the consensus is Watson’s proposal that the “other gospels” be used to illustrate how the four canonical Gospels were formed.  He therefore includes a chapter on “Thomas and Q” as well as a chapter on the Gospel of John, the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter. Rarely does a work on the origins of the Gospels venture into the Johannine world, but Watson is trying to argue that the Gospel writers were interpreters of Scripture. John is therefore an important witness to the reception of the Gospels and their subsequent re-interpretation. The non-canonical Gospels are important witnesses for Watson because the show how other writers continued the interpretive process well into the second century.

This process of reception and interpretation is critically important to what Watson wants to do in this book – the interpretive process created a diversity of gospels which were the result of the interaction of both oral and written sources. This process occurred early (Mark) and late (Thomas, Gospel of Peter, etc.). Watson points out that the canonical Gospels are only defined as “canonical” after the appearance of these other gospels. There is an “indefinite number of broadly similar texts and intertextual links” between the four canonical Gospels and the many non-canonical gospels which were severed when the four became “the gospels” (p. 614).  By observing this process of interpretation not only at the canonical level the interpreter is venturing out into theological and historical issues usually ignored by New Testament scholars.

Part 1:  The Eclipse of the Four-Fold Gospel

In the first two chapters of Gospel Writing, Watson examines the history of the Synoptic Problem, although he does not really express it in those terms.  Beginning with Augustine’s De Consensu Evangelistarum, Watson traces the development of harmonizing the Gospels into the various rejections of harmonizing popular in the nineteenth century. Watson thinks that Augustine “laid down the principles of Gospel harmonization that remained influential even as they were rejected in post-Enlightenment scholarship” (p. 15).

Augustine did not practice the kind of conflation of the Gospels one finds in the Diatessaron, but rather saw empirical facts “parceled out between the four evangelists” (p.43).  Watson uses the announcement of the resurrection in Luke and John as an example. That there are differences in the reports is obvious, but Augustine does not see these as contradictions but two reflections on a single (historical) event. But in allowing for diverse reports of an event, Augustine opens the door for contradiction, a door that is exploited by Enlightenment critics of harmonization. Watson says, “Reimarus is unthinkable without Augustine” (p. 44).

The second chapter of Gospel Writing traces the development from Reimarus and Lessing and the response to them that developed into the current state of the “synoptic problem.” While this is one of the better introductions to the contributions of G. E. Lessing, I wonder if this level of detail is necessary for the overall argument of the book. The main point of the section is that Lessing desire to read the Gospels as a historian led him to search for sources behind the Gospels, primarily the Aramaic Gospel to the Hebrews and the implication of Papias’s statement that Matthew wrote first in the “Hebrew language.” The drive to discover the oral sources behind the text was motivated by the privileging of that oral period in the development of the gospels. The Q hypothesis is almost a natural result of this search for the original, single gospel from which the others developed.

Essentially that is the idea that Watson challenges in the main section of his book.  Rather than an early (and implicitly more pure, less Christian) proto-Gospel, Gospel writing was an ‘unfolding process of reception and interpretation” rather than a “decline into untruth and illusion” (p. 113). In order to support this unfolding process, Watson must first dispense with the need for Q.

Part two of this review is here,

Part three of this review is here.

Part four of this review is here.

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