Francis Watson, What is a Gospel?

Watson, Francis. What is a Gospel? Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. xvii+335 pp. Hb; $49.99   Link to Eerdmans

Watson intended this collection of essays as a sequel to his 2013 Gospel Writing (Eerdmans, 2013, link to publisher; see here for my four-part review of the book). Chapters 1-2 and 9 are new essays. The rest of the volume collects essays published after Gospel Writings (2016-2020, except chapter 13, 2010). Each chapter begins with a brief introduction or abstract.

What is a Gospel?

The first chapter addresses the genre “gospel.” The word gospel originally refers to a preached message, not a written one, as summarized in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. But early readers attached the word “gospel” to the four canonical gospels. Therefore, the word was extended to include all the diverse material concerning Jesus’s human existence. “Gospel” was an “emergent literary genre” (7). By way of defining a genre gospel, Watson discusses whether the canonized gospels are the same genre as apocryphal gospels. Are the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Thomas the same genre? The claim gospels are more biographical is only possible if non-canonical gospels are overlooked (13). Watson concludes any attempt to define characteristics of the gospel genre “must take all available early gospel literature into account” (15), including non-canonical gospels. With this in mind, “what is the gospel?” First, the gospel genre focuses on the human Jesus and his interaction with other humans, his family, his disciples, etc. Second, Jesus is always the supreme authority figure who definitively mediates human relationships to the divine. Third, the texts ascribed to the apostles or to those closely related to them. The written gospel is authenticated by the claim that the author took part in the events, bearing witness to what they have seen and heard. He then illustrates each point of this definition from the canonical and non-canonical gospels. For Watson, “we should no longer speak of ‘the gospels’ as referring only to the canonical four” (23).

Chapters two and nine are also new contributions to this collection and show what Watson means by including all canonical and non-canonical literature available in the gospel genre. Both chapters concerned Judas. In chapter 2, “Seven Ways to Dispose of Judas,” Watson compares several ways early gospel writers dealt with the problem of Judas. Scholars working on the synoptic problem often trace Judas’s expansion from Mark to Matthew, Luke-Acts, and then John. Watson observes that even in Mark, Judas is mythologized (26). He plays a part in the sacred drama as previewed in Scripture. Matthew expands that role by attaching him to Zechariah 11 (the thirty pieces of silver, the potter’s field).

Luke-Acts takes a slightly different view on the end of Judas’s story (in Luke, supernatural punishments are particularly nasty). Watson then opens the door to non-canonical gospel writing. He points out that in Papias, Judas is a spectacle. He does not die from his fall but wanders around in a grotesque condition, inflated beyond all medical help, as an example of ungodliness. Apollinaris of Laodicea harmonizes Matthew and Luke with Papias, making Judas an example of ungodliness. In the Gospel of Peter, Judas is just ignored. But the manuscript evidence for the Gospel of Peter is thin, but Watson argues the gospel of Peter did not even have a betrayer. The Gospel of Judas is quite different. Judas responds to Jesus properly at the Last Supper and Jesus rewards him with a private revelation explaining the mysteries of the Kingdom. But that privileged knowledge excludes him from salvation. Instead of the martyrdom he desired, Judas was stoned by his fellow apostles!

The third new contribution in this collection also treats the Gospel of Judas (ch. 9). The Gospel of Judas, Watson says, “flaunts its heretical orientation even in its title. This is a false gospel from a false apostle.” Although the Gospel of Judas was immediately called a gnostic gospel when discovered, Watson thinks this categorization has disadvantages. First, calling the book a “gnostic gospel” perpetuates a divide between Gnosticism and canonical gospels (168). The Gospel of Judas has much more in common with the canonical gospels than Gnosticism. Second, calling the Gospel of Judas a gnostic gospel forces the book into a prior understanding of what Gnosticism was. Although the Gospel of Judas certainly has affinities with the Nag Hammadi texts, we should not read those texts in isolation from the landscape of early Christianity. Applying these observations to the Gospel of Judas, Watson argues the book is part of a gospel genre. The Gospel of Judas focuses on the earthly career of Jesus and his interactions with others, and on Jesus’s supreme authority as a divine figure.

Watson draws some intriguing parallels between Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi and the Gospel of Judas. In Mark and Matthew, Peter’s confession that Jesus is Messiah is the turning point of the story. Although Peter is the most faithful disciple, Jesus rebukes him: “get thee behind me, Satan!” In the gospel of John, Peter’s confession is no longer the turning point of the story, and the most faithful disciple is now the beloved disciple. “Get thee behind me, Satan” becomes Jesus’s statement, “one of you is the devil” (John 6:70) Judas now works on behalf of the devil, not Peter. In the Gospel of Thomas, Thomas confesses Jesus as Messiah and receives a privileged revelation from Jesus. Similarly, in the Gospel of Judas, it is Judas who is the confessor and receives additional revelation.

Chapters 3-8 deal with aspects of gospel writing and reception. These chapters appeared in various essay collections after Gospel Writing was published. Chapter 3 asks, “How did Mark Survive?” if Matthew is an expanded or “second edition” of Mark, why is Mark retained in the pre-canonical phase? Watson suggests the Gospel of Mark was a “work in progress” that was completed by the gospels of Matthew and Luke, but also by the non-canonical gospels. Mark survived because it was significant to early Christian communities who continued to use Mark even after Matthew was available to them. Possibly the tradition that John Mark was an interpreter for Peter enhanced Mark’s reputation.

Although the gospel of Mark was preserved, another gospel source was lost: Q. In “Does Luke need Q” (ch 4), Watson suggests Q was never lost because it never actually existed. Based on Gospel Writings, he points out gospel writers omit, relocate, or rewrite their sources. Watson shows this is what Luke did with Matthew, dispensing with the need for Q. Watson states, “a rethink of this orthodox critical dogma is long overdue” (81). Chapter 5 also deals with Q and the Logia. He begins by observing that Q is not independent of its canonical containers (100). But the Gospel of Thomas is a sayings collection like scholarly reconstructions of Q. Watson traces the story of the discovery of the gospel of Thomas (following Grenfell’s account). Still, scholars downplayed any challenge to Q or the two-source hypothesis because Q is academic orthodoxy.

In chapter 6, Watson returns to the idea that gospel writers omit, relocate, and rewrite. Using the story of John the Baptist’s birth and Zechariah’s prophecy (Luke 1), he discusses gospel rewriting in Marcion (falsification), Tatian’s Diatessaron (integration), and Irenaeus (coordination). He suggests there is no sharp distinction between text reception and text production. The desire to recover the original revelatory moment motivates rewriting a gospel. The fourfold canon rejects the assumption that the text and the truth can ever perfectly conform to one another (117).

Chapter 7 examines the ongoing process of gospel rewriting in the Book of Acts and beyond with the Epistula Apostolorum. This document is a gospel-like text that reverses the balance between Jesus’s ministry and post-Easter accounts. Dating to about 170 CE, Epistula Apostolorum adds more post-resurrection activities of Jesus, more instruction, a discussion of the resurrection and punishment, a descent into hell, and even a prediction of Saul’s conversion.

In “Jesus the Lawgiver” (ch. 8), Watson examines several apocryphal gospels which argue allegiance to Jesus is incompatible with the law-giving God of Jewish scripture. Watson briefly summarizes the Apocryphon of John, the Acts of John, First Apocalypse of John, and the reconstruction of Maricon’s Antitheses and Euangelion. For all these examples, “Jesus is not the emissary of the God of the Hebrew scriptures. He is the revealer of a previously unknown father. These texts confront a Christian reader with a choice: either to continue in the impossible service of two masters or gratefully accept the liberation from the one offered by the other” (166).

Chapters 10-12 are concerned with reception history. Watson discusses Marcion’s rejection of the four-fold canonical gospel in favor of his own highly edited Gospel of Luke, Euangelion. For Tertullian, this document was a corruption of the true four-fold canonical gospels. But if one does not impose the later four-fold canonical definition of the gospel on Marcion, Watson argues Marcion was engaged in gospel writing using similar methods as Matthew. In chapter 11, Watson examines the redactional strategy of Tatian in the Diatesseron. He takes the gospel prologue, Zechariah the priest, and the Virgin Mary as his examples and demonstrates that Tatian’s methods were like Matthew or Luke. A source could be amended and juxtaposed; redactors are not obliged to include all available source material, and source material may need to be amplified (233-35). Chapter 12 examines the art of the Lindisfarne Gospels as a form of reception.  This art is intended to interpret the gospels. We not only read the gospels but also view them (253).

Chapter 13 discusses Albert Schweitzer and the quest for the historical Jesus. This article was originally published in a WUNT volume with the subtitle “on the reception of Schweitzer in English.” He compares the original German from the quest for the historical Jesus to the English translation. He concludes, “the consistent eschatology hypothesis is false because it attempts to answer the wrong question” (278). I found this chapter fascinating. However, I’m not sure it is on the topic of this collection of essays.

The final chapter in this collection is “A Reply to My Critics.” Watson wrote this response as the conclusion of a 2019 volume of essays in dialogue with Gospel Writing. He answers several questions raised by the essays in that volume. First, was the fourfold gospel collection inevitable? He answers no, Matthew might have replaced Mark (cf. chapter 3). More gospels were produced beyond the canonical four. But he does not want to imply any kind of authoritarian suppression of non-canonical books (ala The Da Vinci Code). Second, are canonical gospels uniquely biographical? Some scholars have suggested the canonical gospels are biographical, while non-canonical gospels are not. The Gospel of Thomas is an example of this since it is a sayings gospel and not biographical. But Watson answers no. He points out that the Egerton gospel and the Gospel of Peter both include biographical material. Third, is there a gospel genre? Biographical details are insufficient to define the genre gospels (cf., chapter two). As demonstrated by the other essays in this volume, Watson agrees there is a gospel genre, but he defines it broadly enough to include the non-canonical gospels. Fourth, were ancient authors capable of complex redactional procedures? Looking back to chapter 11, Tatian could clearly make use of the previous gospels using redactional strategies not much different from Matthew. “It is a mistake to assume that sayings and parables were handed down in purely oral form and Mark’s decision to write the Jesus tradition had no precedents” (296). Sayings collections existed before Mark, Matthew, and the Gospel of Thomas.

Conclusion. Essay collections are always welcome since tracking individual volumes is difficult. This book is a welcome contribution to the study of gospel origins. Watson’s What is a Gospel? continues the dialogue started in Gospel Writing by extending the gospel genre to include many non-canonical writings about Jesus. The payoff here is further evidence for Watson’s description of the redactional strategies used in the canonical gospels originally presented in Gospel Writings.

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

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