Book Review – Francis Watson, Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Part 4)

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

[NB: This is a review of the third and final section of Gospel Writing by Francis Watson. I covered the first section (“Eclipse of the Fourfold Gospel“) here, and the second (Reframing Gospel Origins) in two parts entitled “Reclaiming Gospel Origins” and “The Process of Gospel Writing.” My intention is to draw this lengthy review to a close in this post, briefly commenting on the final section of the book and providing some overall evaluation.]

Watson Gospel WritingPart 3:  The Canonical Construct

When I began reading Gospel Writing, I looked over the chapter titles and assumed that the last four chapters would be my least favorite of the book.  I assumed that this would be a review of the commonly known history of the development of the fourfold Canon.  Certainly that history is presented, but only in the service of the major thesis of the book that the non-canonical Gospels ought to be included in the discussion of Gospel formation. As outlined in my previous post, Watson wants to include non-canonical books like Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Peter as important witnesses of how the Gospel writers read the traditions they received and interpreted them in a different context.  I thoroughly enjoyed this section of the book, although it strikes me as rather far removed from the central section of the book. It could stand on its own as a brief monograph on the origins of the fourfold Gospel and the Canon.

Watson observes that one can approach the Gospels with the assumption that the many non-canonical Gospels post-date the four canonical Gospels. GThomas can be excluded from any account of how the Gospels were written because that book is written after the “completion of the canon” and they are therefore out-of-bounds.  On the other hand, some scholars have pushed the date of the composition of GThomas earlier and argue that the book developed independently of the canonical Gospels. Such Gospels ought to be given some sort of priority in the account of Gospel writing.

Both of these extremes are rejected simply because the dividing line between canon and non-canonical Gospels is arbitrary and value-laden.  To call a particular text “non-canonical” or “apocryphal” (or worse, unorthodox or heretical) is to presume something about that Gospel before it is read. It is entirely possible, Watson observes, that authentic and authoritative words of Jesus are to be found in a Gospel which later was not recognized as canonical.

Clement of Alexandria

Clement of Alexandria

In order to support this thesis, Watson draws on references to gospels in Clement of Alexandria. While Clement knew of a fourfold Gospel that “was handed down to us,” he also referred to the Gospel of the Egyptians. In dialogue with Julius Cassianus, Clement interacts with this non-canonical Gospel, but there is no indication that Clement did not accept at least the cited portion of the gospel as scripture.  Watson points out that Clement disagrees with the interpretation of the Gospel of the Egyptians, rather than the use of the book. In fact, Clement is able to correct Cassianus’s interpretation by quoting more of the context of the saying (p. 420-1).  He does not state that the cited text is apocryphal or non-authoritative.

For Watson, Clement lives at a time when the fourfold canon is beginning to develop the authoritative standing it will have officially by the time of Eusebius.  In fact, Eusebius’s discussion of canon relies heavily on Clement, although his references to other gospels are ‘suppressed” (p. 438). By the time Eusebius writes, the boundary between canon and non-canon is clear, and some gospels are “outside” of that boundary.  That is not necessarily “repressive,” although it might have been understood that way by some Christians who cherished the Gospel of Peter, for example (p. 452).

If Eusebius stands on one end of the creation of a fourfold canon, Irenaeus represents its beginning (p. 454). This is often recognized, and because the classic statement on the four Gospels appears in Irenaeus’ work on heresy it is often assumed that the motivation for a canonical list of Gospels is the response to heretics. Usually this canon is a response to Marcion, mostly since Marcion offered his own “canon.” But Marcion still used the traditional texts, even if he narrowed the canon. But like many other things in this book, Watson challenges this consensus view.  Irenaeus never states that the heretics are wrong because the use non-canonical gospels. In fact, Watson shows that the Gnostic Valentinius appealed to the four Gospels rather than to any Gnostic gospels.

What motivated Irenaeus is a potential division between the Eastern Church (Ephesus) and the Western Church (Rome). Mark and Luke reflect the preaching of Peter and Paul, who are assumed to represent the West, while John and Matthew represent Ephesus and Antioch to the east. By advocating a fourfold Gospel, Irenaeus achieves “an ecumenical consensus by securing Western recognition of the gospel from Asia” (p. 502).

Watson includes a chapter on Origen, one of the first commentary writers.  “Commentary presupposes normativization” (p. 528), so Origen’s commentaries on Scripture are a window into what was considered canonical in the second century. Returning to themes he began early in his book, Watson describes how origin dealt with the differences between the four Gospels.  Origen approached the fourfold Gospel as a unit and represents a “reinterpretation of the complex textual object still known as ‘the gospel, though consisting of four gospels” (p. 552).

Conclusion. Watson’s Gospel Writing is (for me at least) one of the more anticipated books of 2013. While this is not the last word on the Synoptic Problem, Watson has produced a major attack on the consensus view of Q.  While others have done similar work, Gospel Writing is one of the most comprehensive and cohesive argument against the Q theory to date. Watson offers a “process” that explains how (and why) the Gospel writers used and reinterpreted received tradition. Perhaps more troublesome for more conservative scholars is his insistence that the non-canonical Gospels be included in the discussion. But Watson never argues that these Gospels be authoritative for doctrine or practice, only that they illustrate the process of Gospel Writing in the first century.

In a book of this size there are many smaller issues that are open to question or clarification.  In some place I think that Watson goes a bit beyond the evidence. Clement’s use of the Gospel of the Egyptians, for example, does not imply that he cherished the book. He may be quoting an opponent’s favorite text and pointing out that he has interpreted it wrong. That the fourfold Gospel was not a response to heretics may be too strongly stated since Clement does state that an opponent used a non-canonical gospel. Nevertheless, Gospel Writing is a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion of the Synoptic Problem.

Eerdmans has produced a few “social media” extras for this book.  Here is an interview with Watson discussing his canonical approach to the Gospels. In addition, there is a blog for the book with photographs to supplement several footnotes in chapter 11.  This blog has not been updated since the book was published.

Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

2 thoughts on “Book Review – Francis Watson, Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Part 4)

  1. Thanks again for this thorough review, Phillip. Good to know about it, tho it may be some time before I get into it directly, if ever. And I learned interesting things from the review as well.

    From your descr. in the first paragr. of the “Conclusion”, I think this is an important “insistence” which I’ve had a “thing” about myself… noticing the same problem, and related ones around dating of various non-canonical works (not just gospels). In fact, if he didn’t broaden his “insistence” on methodology to other genres, I’d be interested why not. I understand the focus is gospel-style/content but I don’t think you can understand them in isolation from the other related works. For ex., those of “church order” (Didache), epistles (of Barnabas, 1 Clement, e.g.) or the “Pastor” of Hermas, that may well be (per many well-constructed points of some scholars) as early or EARLIER than any of our canonical gospels.

    Altho not even a complete reader of the early non-canonical lit. (yet), it has long struck me, in the copious NT scholarship reading I HAVE done, that the dating arguments (along with canonical ones) seem largely circular, and based largely on presuppositions that are theological and “matters of faith” not the result of historical inquiry and broad literary analysis. This CAN work the other way for “skeptical” scholars, but I find most of the “historical critical” ones to be more honest and widely explorative than I do the “conservative” ones or “traditionalists.” I’m glad to recently see seemingly more exceptions to this pattern, however (and more than one such has been fired or quietly left teaching posts as a result).

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