Book Review – Francis Watson, Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Part 2)


Watson, Francis. Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2013. 665 pages, pb. $48  Link to Eerdmans.  (Part one of this review is here.)

Part 2:  Reclaiming Gospel Origins

In the second part of his book, Watson lays out his argument against the need for the hypothetical Q document.  The case for Q is based on a series of similar passages in both Matthew and Luke that appear to have circulated as a collection of sayings. The consensus view is that Matthew and Luke both used this document to supplement the general plot line of the Gospel of Mark. This seems harmless enough, but Watson warns us that this simple proposal that solves the Synoptic problem is double-edged.  “Q entails a radical reconstruction of Christian origins” that sets the real, historical Jesus against the canonical Gospels, Paul and the church as it developed in the second century.  For Watson, “Q is the definitive expression of liberal Protestant ambivalence towards catholic Christianity” (p. 118). The “real Jesus” is found in Q, not in the layers of theological development found in the Synoptic Gospels (and certainly not in the Gospel of John!)

Watson proposes that Mark did indeed write first, Matthew followed Mark and supplemented that Gospel with a “sayings source.”  Luke then wrote his Gospel fully aware of both Mark and Matthew; Luke is an interpreter of Luke.  If this case can be made, then the Q theory is unlikely (p. 119). A common sayings document like Q is only necessary if Luke is independent of Matthew. The Q document is established by common agreements between Matthew and Luke.  But Watson finds these “coincidences” too common to be mere coincidence; rather they indicate that Luke had a copy of Matthew before him as he wrote.

A key component of his argument is Luke’s prologue.  In the first few verses of his Gospel, Luke states that he did use other accounts of the events of his gospel along with eyewitnesses to these events. Using the well-known saying of Papias, Watson thinks that Mark’s gospel was not written “in order” and that Matthew addressed this problem by writing in order the sayings “in the Hebrew language.” Luke says that he used these other accounts, Watson takes this as meaning that he interpreted these earlier Gospels when he wrote his own “orderly account.” Key to this argument is the fact that both Matthew and Luke place sayings in the same Markan context. This might be a coincidence, but there are too many examples of the same sayings in the same Markan context to convince Watson of the Luke’s independence of Matthew.  If Luke is following Matthew, then there is no need for Q.

As Luke writes his Gospel, he might adapt, reject, or reserve material he finds in Matthew (p. 158-9).  The Sermon on the Plain is adapted, but some elements are rejected (some of the beatitudes, for example).  Other material is reserved for use in another context, such as Luke’s re-location of the Anxiety saying (Matt 6:25-33) to another context (Luke 12:22-31). By arguing that Luke rejected a saying, Watson does not mean to say that Luke did not like the saying.  Luke simply chose to not use it in his own gospel.  In order to demonstrate this theory, Watson wades through a great deal of detail, comparing Matthew and Luke in pericope after pericope. In the end, Watson argues that it makes more sense that the common material in Luke comes from Matthew (and Mark) rather than Luke and Matthew sharing a common source.  It might be that there was a Q, but it is by no means a necessary conclusion.  Luke has gathered sayings in Matthew and created a “sayings collection” from which Luke constructs his travel narrative (p. 216).

This process of Gospel writing is exactly what we ought to expect: the writer receives a tradition about Jesus and interprets that tradition in a new context. To show that this tradition – reception – interpretation process “works,” Watson examines the Gospel of Thomas as another example of Gospel writing.  For some readers, this strategic move might sound a bit too much like the Jesus Seminar, and Watson is careful in his use of Thomas to avoid such accusations (i.e., “GTh is a relatively late example of a much older Christian genre,” p. 287).  In fact, he works very hard to separate Thomas from Gnosticism (p. 221-49). Comparing the Gospel of Thomas to the Apocryphon of John, for example, shows that Thomas is not all that Gnostic after all (p. 248). Thomas becomes a way to solve the synoptic problem without a Q because it demonstrates the way a gospel writer receives a tradition and interprets it in the writing of a new Gospel.

The unknown author of the Gospel of Thomas received traditions from a saying source and sometimes relocates them in new contexts. As such, “Thomas is a descendant of the early Sayings Collections employed by Mark and Matthew” and a relative of the Sayings Collections used by other non-canonical gospels of the second century (284). The main point that Watson is getting at here is that there were (potentially) multiple sayings sources that cannot be reconstructed as a single “critical edition” from the parallel material in the Synoptic Gospels (plus Thomas, if desired).  These saying sources are earlier than the written Gospels and faithfully transmit the ipissima verba of Jesus (p. 285).

Watson attempts to work the same methodology with the Gospel of John and the Egerton Gospel (ch. 6). This is far more tentative due to the nature of the Egerton.  Watson argues that this gospel comes from a time when it was still possible to be a Jew and believe that Jesus was the Messiah.  John, on the other hand, writes after that is no longer a real possibility (p.329). If this is true, then there is at least a possibility that a theological trajectory can be traced from Egerton through John’s Gospel.  In chapter 7, he adds the Gospel of Peter to the trajectory. Watson examines how this apocryphal gospel receives traditions and modifies them to highlight theological interests.  For example, in the canonical gospels, Jesus is mocked as a king (Mark) and then a King of the Jews (Matt / Luke). But in GPet 3.7, 4.11, Jesus is mocked as the “King of Israel.” There is a shift away from a political description to a theological statement that Jesus is the crucified God (p.376).

This method highlights Watson’s assertion that any Gospel can be viewed from two perspectives.  It can first be viewed as contributing to the on-going process of Gospel writing, looking back on how it develops traditions received and forward to how it influences later Gospels. Alternatively, a Gospel may be viewed from the perspective of the canonical boundary. Comparing Matthew and John will yield far different results than comparing Thomas and Peter (p. 407), and I would add that comparing Matthew to Thomas creates a third perspective which is lost if the canonical boundary is absolute.

Watson believes he has successfully rendered Q unnecessary and shown that the non-canonical Gospels have something to contribute to the ongoing discussion of how any Gospel was written.  While his use of the Gospels of Thomas, Egerton and Peter may perplex some more conservative scholars, they are necessary to illustrate the process of Gospel writing which he detects in the early process.  In the end this is a compelling and well-defended argument and should change the discussion of the Synoptic Problem into a discussion of how tradition is transmitted, received and interpreted.  That alone is a positive contribution to scholarship!


Part one of this review is here.  Part three of this review is here.