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.

The 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.