Book Review – Francis Watson, Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Part 3)

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 two is here.)

Part 2b: The Process of Gospel Writing

After reading the second Part of Watson’s book, I found that the most significant contribution to my understanding of the Gospels is his sevenfold “process of reception.” He makes this explicit on pages 347, although it is developed throughout chapter 7 of the book.

TWatson Gospel Writinghe first three stages are pre-written forms:  Datum, recollection and tradition.  The “datum” is an actual event.  Somebody did or said something that was remembered by those who found it to be important (or at least memorable).  His immediate example is that Jesus was baptized by John.  That “happened” at some point and various people remembered that it happened because it was a significant event. The recollection or the event became a tradition (or “social memory”) when it was repeated many times by people of significance in the early Christian community. It does not take long for “everyone to know” that Jesus was baptized because it was an oft-repeated tradition.

The tradition is given stability by the fourth stage in the process of reception: inscription.  At some point the tradition is put into writing. That written form of the memory becomes a kind of “standard version” of the memory. This stage may refer to Proto Mark of the Sayings Collection(s) Watson proposes as an alternative to Q, but it may well refer to the Gospel of Mark, or (to extend Watson’s argument), to Matthew and Luke when they include something not in their sources.

The last three stages of the process of reception involve developments from that inscription: interpretation, reinterpretation, and finally normativization. If Matthew used Mark as a source, he is interpreting the inscripted tradition, perhaps by modifying it or by receiving it without any significant changes.  Luke also works at the interpretation level, but with Mark and Matthew. Gospel of Thomas picks up inscripted traditions from a Sayings Collection and interprets them in the same ways.  A later Gospel writer might use Mark, Luke and a Sayings Collection to re-interpret the traditions in yet another direction.

Normativization occurs when a dividing line is arbitrarily imposed on the production of Gospels, likely as a “pragmatic response to contingencies” (p. 355). Perhaps this is a response to aberrant interpretations of the tradition, although Watson does not specify this as a possibility. When a line was drawn between the four canonical gospels and the non-canonical gospels, it created a four-fold canon that was itself a literary work and was (from that time on) the normative form of the Gospels.

If I have understood this process correctly, one of the advantages of Watson’s method is that there must be something at the beginning to be remembered and passed along. This is more or less the same idea found in Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, cited by Watson several times in this section, as well as the work of James Dunn (Jesus Remembered) and Anthony Le Donne (The Historiographical Jesus). Watson’s point seems to be that this datum is real and accessible, rather than so overlayed with theological reinterpretation that it cannot be recovered as “history.”  The whole reception history movement (if that is the right way to describe it) seems to assume that if something is remembered and received as a tradition, then there must be some even that caused it to be remembered.

I agree, and think that the traditions remembered in the Gospels do reflect real events of some kind. But it seems like the datum level can be challenged on historical grounds. It seems entirely possible for someone to have “made up” the baptism of Jesus in order to make it appear as if Jesus of Nazareth were a part of John’s ministry before breaking off on his own.  I am not sure what would motivate that kind of a fabrication, but if someone had created the baptism out of nothing, and was a sufficiently respected leader, it is possible that the story of Jesus baptism is a non-event that was remember as a real event.

How can I know with any level of certainty that Matthew did not create the Baptism of Jesus? It seems to me that we are back on the ground of “historical plausibility.” Is it plausible that Jesus would submit to baptism by John? In order to establish plausibility, I might revert to the various criteria of authenticity employed by now out of fashion Historical Jesus scholars.  I might use this same historical method to argue that Jesus did not actually say that female disciples would need to somehow become men to enter the kingdom of heaven (GThomas 114). That saying is inconsistent with Judaism and Christianity and without parallel in any other source. It is therefore less likely to be authentic.

In any case, Watson’s outline of the process of reception in the creation of the Gospels seems to me to be a reasonable description of how the Gospels were formed, both the canonical Gospels as well as the “other gospels” that existed alongside the canon. Whether there is room for “Historical Jesus” scholarship at the New Testament scholars table still is a matter of debate. Watson really does shift attention away from “did it happen” to “what did people think about” the Jesus events.

3 thoughts on “Book Review – Francis Watson, Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Part 3)

  1. Thanks for the good review… Didn’t know of the book otherwise. I follow NT scholarship, but not the very latest and more from the sidelines, as it were.

    To me, frankly, it doesn’t sound like Watson has contributed much. Maybe he includes clearer criteria for what is likely to have been an “event” that is being remembered, etc… Common sense (as a starting point) says there was some of that. However and importantly, Paul led and influenced what became orthodoxy more than did any of “The Twelve”, including non-apostle, James, the clear early leader of the Jeru. group of original apostles/disciples.

    “Patched onto” Paul, it seems for at least some early Christian communities, was the story of Jesus’ ministry, and particularly “passion”, death, and claimed “resurrection” (where “appearances” are more solid than historical verification of physically departing the grave, partly bec. of numerous textual and severe inconsistency problems in the Gospel resurrection accounts). Of course, Paul had little apparent interest in referring to Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, via citing quotes, examples, etc., drawing inspiration or authority from it, etc. His “authority” was based almost solely on his claims of visions and “revelations”. (Luke in Acts tries to posit him with some via approval–marginally so–of the Jeru. leaders, but in comparing with Paul himself, it’s problematic.)

    It may well be there was little knowledge of Paul among some when at least Q or sayings collections were being done. But it sure DOES seem the further along in time and literary production we go, the more detailed and often embellished become various aspects, esp. those we can call “theological”… virgin birth, deity (John, esp.), where, when, to whom Jesus appeared, etc.

    This all seems to fit with the ancient practices of the “life of” type lit. (somewhat biography but heavy embellishment), and how a person generally (in any time period) becomes a “legend” or “hero”. (Some have likened Jesus’ depiction to the hero concept of the time, while of course mixed with Jewish forms and drawing on Heb. prophesy, so not fully parallel.)

    At any rate, is the following correct?: It doesn’t sound like Watson proposes or supports any particular, dependable way to sort out what we can have confidence goes back to actual events from what we can’t. If that is the case, how does his method differ (other than in presuppositions) from the “historical Jesus” work? I can’t see that it does, except perhaps his proneness to accept more as historical and be a bit less skeptical. (Which would throw us back to a matter of faith more than really understanding the literature.)

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    • The book has virtually nothing to say on the “historical Jesus,” that is not at all the point. He is not created a method for sorting out historical details of Jesus’ life or a set of criteria for the reliability of Jesus’ words. I think that does not matter in this particular book (although it may be important to Watson, it is not in this book).

      You are right, the “contribution” is to develop the same sorts of Markan – Matthew – Luke arguments against Q that have been around for a while. But he does this with more detail than any other book I have read. I will have a final comment of evaluation, but the main problem I have with his “sayings collection” is that I thought that was what Q was to begin with – before the more complex proto-Q and theology of Q books were written. It is almost as if the Sayings Collection in Watson is a form of Q theory as it was originally meant to be.

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  2. Thanks for the clarification, Phillip. I confess to “taking the ball and running with it” when inspired to “rant” for whatever reason (I’m not at all bipolar :). Sorry I went the wrong direction. But I do think some of my comments probably pertain re. influences on development of the texts of the canon, its basis of authority, etc.

    And glad you added what you did re. his Q criticism and “alternative.” I had had a q. about his point there also… but I’d gone long enough. It answers my suspicion of just what you said… how does his “alternative” differ in concept from that of the existence of a “source” doc.? Sounds like he buys the concept but just not the details of where some have taken it… that’s a valid objection, tho perhaps a bit of a straw man issue… I don’t know many scholars, let alone pastors and lay people who pay any attn. to Q1, 2, 3 and such. Incidentally, I like Mack’s work a lot, and have read one of his books on Q, but more so I’m impressed with his “grander” theories about the role of “social interest” and social/political/economic factors, along with what he likes to call “intellectual labor” (or some such). I sure hope other scholars and church leaders don’t dismiss his major contribution just bec. he may get too detailed with Q analysis! (Another side-trail… but I’ll excuse myself as being on an intellectual island other than the Internet, for the most part….

    Oh… I just linked from my blog to a great article by David F. White, who I happened to go to Claremont with,… on Beauty as “center of the world” – implications for spiritual “formation” (which I guess is the progressive equivalent of discipleship).

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