Bird, Michael F. The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2014. xiv + 393 pages, pb. $30. Link to Eerdmans
In chapter 4 Bird offers an overview of the synoptic problem by examining “The Literary Genetics of the Gospels.” After a long section surveying the various solutions to the synoptic problem Bird offers a “fresh look” at this old problem. He argues synoptic research has operated naïvely on the assumption the Gospels writers had the identical text it appears in our neatly printed Greek New Testament. Matthew may have used a slightly different text than Mark or Luke. While this might be true, this objection does not seem to me to be very helpful in practice since very few synoptic parallels can be explained as a “variation” in the textual tradition.
Second, every Gospel synopsis has a bias towards one particular solution to the Synoptic problem. In fact, Bird states the obvious: there is a great deal of subjectivity in all solutions to the Synoptic problem. Nevertheless, Bird thinks the two- or four- source hypothesis is basically correct and he is confident in Markan priority. But instead of a full-blown, layered, Q, he describes the sayings document as a “Q-lite” (162). He wants to avoid what he calls the often “schizophrenic” views of Q in scholarship. He is adamant that Q is merely a hypothetical document even if there are good reasons for thinking something existed and was used by both Matthew and Luke. While affirming Q, he is not convinced everything in the double tradition can be attributed to Q (170). He gives numerous examples of this phenomenon such as the story of the centurion in Q, which he describes as “sticking out like a sore thumb” (174).
What is unusual is in a discussion of the Synoptic problem is Bird’s inclusion of John’s Gospel. After giving a short overview of authorship and date, Bird surveys the differences between John’s Gospel and the Synoptics. He then offers nine possible explanations for the relationship of John’s Gospel to the Synoptics. He suggests we “envision the spasmodic intrapenetration of the Synoptic and John traditions” as they crossed on another other “in the preliminary stages” (212). Ultimately John’s Gospel is “truly enigmatic. . . it defies neat categorization as’ dependent on’ or ‘independent of’ the Synoptics in any absolute way” (213). The Excursus for this chapter is a collection of Patristic Quotations on the Order of the Gospels. These are offered almost entirely without comment.
Chapter 5 is a fresh discussion of the “Genre and Goal of the Gospels: What Is a Gospel and Why Write One?” Once again Bird begins by surveying the options for genre often found in Gospels introductions. Perhaps he spends more time on ancient biographies since he will be most attracted to this view: “given the specific features of the Gospels, I choose to label the Gospels as ‘biographical kerygma’” (271). Theologically, God is the main character of the gospels; Christologically the gospels promote the story of Jesus, and intertextuality, the Gospels are a continuation of the Old Testament narrative of God’s great ask toward his people in their history.
Yet there a number of reasons why a writer might have written a “gospel.” Mark, for example, appears to be an apology for the idea of a crucified Messiah (272). In fact, many scholars assume the Gospels are “fundamentally Christian literary propaganda” (citing David Aune), perhaps created only for use in a particular community. Following Richard Bauckham, Bird thinks it is highly unlikely anyone would have considered writing something like a gospel purely for the members of a local church. What is more, the hypothetical reconstructions of communities behind the creation of the Gospels is highly speculative. The gospels are, as Bird concludes, Greco-Roman biographies, indebted to Jewish sacred literature, written for the purpose of explaining Jesus to a broad audience (280).
Bird’s Excursus for this chapter concerns the “Other Gospels,” the non-canonical Gospels often described as “lost” or “suppressed.” He clearly rejects what he calls “conspiracy fuel revisionist history of Christian origins” (282). He provides several useful charts summarizing the date and contents of these “other Gospels.” These books are called gospels simply because they are about Jesus, and we ought to be wary using the term “gospel” for some of this literature. The reason these books were rejected by orthodox Christianity is that the books were simply not orthodox. It is not as though there were Christians sensors or “theological thought police” responsible for rejecting these Gospels (294). They simply represent “dissident groups” writing in a period of proto-orthodoxy, often ascetic and anti-Jewish (297). Bird is clear there still some value to studying these Gospels. But they will always remain “marginalia” to the real Gospels, imaginative retellings rather than replacements for the canonical Gospels.
In his final chapter, Bird asks why there are four Gospels. Does the “Fourfold Gospel of Jesus Christ” have significance? In order to get at the question, Bird considers the alternative: a single Gospel. Marcion, for example, favored the Gospel of Luke and other heretical groups have created their own Gospels. In the second century Christian writers tended to harmonize the four Gospels in order to create a single story. Some Gospels may have been written to create a rival Jesus book such as the Gospel of Thomas. This chapter ranges well into the second century and discusses the views of several of the church fathers. Irenaeus justified four Gospels based on his allegorical interpretation of Ezekiel and Revelation. Bird is correct this is not a very good reason to justify four Gospels! For Bird, “the four Gospels exhibit a plurality and unity that both encourages and restricts Christological reflection” (326).
In his final excursus Bird examines “The Text of the Gospels in the Second Century.” He surveys the date and contents of the papyri as evidence for the Gospels. But his main target or studies like Bart Erhman’s The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. He agrees Erhman’s basic theses as correct: changes were introduced into the text tradition, often motivated by Christological concerns. But unlike Erhman, Bird argues the vast majority of additions seem to be accidental or geared toward harmonization (333).
Conclusion. Bird’s The Gospel of the Lord would make an excellent textbook of a seminary classroom. He is thoroughly acquainted with scholarship of the last fifty years and is able to present several sides of an issue with clarity. He certainly takes the text of the Gospels seriously and offers sensible solutions to some of the more difficult problems on Gospels study (source and form criticism and genre studies).
Bird’s writing style is quite enjoyable, ranging from serious scholarship occasionally laced with pop-cultural references to some sections which are quite cheeky. For example, he indicates form criticism faded “about the same time disco died” (114), leaving me to wonder if the rise in popularity of redaction criticism about the same time is somehow akin to the birth of punk rock. He describes the differences between the Synoptic Gospels and John as like leaving The Bourne Identity for The Matrix (188). Wondering about the accuracy of the oral tradition, Bird asks if it was “Wall Street Journal accurate or Fox News accurate?” (4), and he later suggests the four Gospels were a “kind of Gospel-boy-band” (311). While most of these side comments will be understood, it is possible readers from a non-western culture will find allusions to pop-culture. I wonder if an allusion to Jesus tradition as viral like “Gungam Style on YouTube” will be understood in 20 years. (Actually I hope this does become a mystery to future readers!)
I highly recommend the book as an introduction to Gospels studies. It ought to be on the shelf of every seminary student.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with an electronic review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.