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.

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.

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.

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

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 2:  Reclaiming Gospel Origins

In the second part of his book, Watson lays out his argument against the need for the hypothetical Q document.  The case for Q is based on a series of similar passages in both Matthew and Luke that appear to have circulated as a collection of sayings. The consensus view is that Matthew and Luke both used this document to supplement the general plot line of the Gospel of Mark. This seems harmless enough, but Watson warns us that this simple proposal that solves the Synoptic problem is double-edged.  “Q entails a radical reconstruction of Christian origins” that sets the real, historical Jesus against the canonical Gospels, Paul and the church as it developed in the second century.  For Watson, “Q is the definitive expression of liberal Protestant ambivalence towards catholic Christianity” (p. 118). The “real Jesus” is found in Q, not in the layers of theological development found in the Synoptic Gospels (and certainly not in the Gospel of John!)

Watson Gospel WritingWatson proposes that Mark did indeed write first, Matthew followed Mark and supplemented that Gospel with a “sayings source.”  Luke then wrote his Gospel fully aware of both Mark and Matthew; Luke is an interpreter of Luke.  If this case can be made, then the Q theory is unlikely (p. 119). A common sayings document like Q is only necessary if Luke is independent of Matthew. The Q document is established by common agreements between Matthew and Luke.  But Watson finds these “coincidences” too common to be mere coincidence; rather they indicate that Luke had a copy of Matthew before him as he wrote.

A key component of his argument is Luke’s prologue.  In the first few verses of his Gospel, Luke states that he did use other accounts of the events of his gospel along with eyewitnesses to these events. Using the well-known saying of Papias, Watson thinks that Mark’s gospel was not written “in order” and that Matthew addressed this problem by writing in order the sayings “in the Hebrew language.” Luke says that he used these other accounts, Watson takes this as meaning that he interpreted these earlier Gospels when he wrote his own “orderly account.” Key to this argument is the fact that both Matthew and Luke place sayings in the same Markan context. This might be a coincidence, but there are too many examples of the same sayings in the same Markan context to convince Watson of the Luke’s independence of Matthew.  If Luke is following Matthew, then there is no need for Q.

On Q

As Luke writes his Gospel, he might adapt, reject, or reserve material he finds in Matthew (p. 158-9).  The Sermon on the Plain is adapted, but some elements are rejected (some of the beatitudes, for example).  Other material is reserved for use in another context, such as Luke’s re-location of the Anxiety saying (Matt 6:25-33) to another context (Luke 12:22-31). By arguing that Luke rejected a saying, Watson does not mean to say that Luke did not like the saying.  Luke simply chose to not use it in his own gospel.  In order to demonstrate this theory, Watson wades through a great deal of detail, comparing Matthew and Luke in pericope after pericope. In the end, Watson argues that it makes more sense that the common material in Luke comes from Matthew (and Mark) rather than Luke and Matthew sharing a common source.  It might be that there was a Q, but it is by no means a necessary conclusion.  Luke has gathered sayings in Matthew and created a “sayings collection” from which Luke constructs his travel narrative (p. 216).

This process of Gospel writing is exactly what we ought to expect: the writer receives a tradition about Jesus and interprets that tradition in a new context. To show that this tradition – reception – interpretation process “works,” Watson examines the Gospel of Thomas as another example of Gospel writing.  For some readers, this strategic move might sound a bit too much like the Jesus Seminar, and Watson is careful in his use of Thomas to avoid such accusations (i.e., “GTh is a relatively late example of a much older Christian genre,” p. 287).  In fact, he works very hard to separate Thomas from Gnosticism (p. 221-49). Comparing the Gospel of Thomas to the Apocryphon of John, for example, shows that Thomas is not all that Gnostic after all (p. 248). Thomas becomes a way to solve the synoptic problem without a Q because it demonstrates the way a gospel writer receives a tradition and interprets it in the writing of a new Gospel.

The unknown author of the Gospel of Thomas received traditions from a saying source and sometimes relocates them in new contexts. As such, “Thomas is a descendant of the early Sayings Collections employed by Mark and Matthew” and a relative of the Sayings Collections used by other non-canonical gospels of the second century (284). The main point that Watson is getting at here is that there were (potentially) multiple sayings sources that cannot be reconstructed as a single “critical edition” from the parallel material in the Synoptic Gospels (plus Thomas, if desired).  These saying sources are earlier than the written Gospels and faithfully transmit the ipissima verba of Jesus (p. 285).

Watson attempts to work the same methodology with the Gospel of John and the Egerton Gospel (ch. 6). This is far more tentative due to the nature of the Egerton.  Watson argues that this gospel comes from a time when it was still possible to be a Jew and believe that Jesus was the Messiah.  John, on the other hand, writes after that is no longer a real possibility (p.329). If this is true, then there is at least a possibility that a theological trajectory can be traced from Egerton through John’s Gospel.  In chapter 7, he adds the Gospel of Peter to the trajectory. Watson examines how this apocryphal gospel receives traditions and modifies them to highlight theological interests.  For example, in the canonical gospels, Jesus is mocked as a king (Mark) and then a King of the Jews (Matt / Luke). But in GPet 3.7, 4.11, Jesus is mocked as the “King of Israel.” There is a shift away from a political description to a theological statement that Jesus is the crucified God (p.376).

This method highlights Watson’s assertion that any Gospel can be viewed from two perspectives.  It can first be viewed as contributing to the on-going process of Gospel writing, looking back on how it develops traditions received and forward to how it influences later Gospels. Alternatively, a Gospel may be viewed from the perspective of the canonical boundary. Comparing Matthew and John will yield far different results than comparing Thomas and Peter (p. 407), and I would add that comparing Matthew to Thomas creates a third perspective which is lost if the canonical boundary is absolute.

Watson believes he has successfully rendered Q unnecessary and shown that the non-canonical Gospels have something to contribute to the ongoing discussion of how any Gospel was written.  While his use of the Gospels of Thomas, Egerton and Peter may perplex some more conservative scholars, they are necessary to illustrate the process of Gospel writing which he detects in the early process.  In the end this is a compelling and well-defended argument and should change the discussion of the Synoptic Problem into a discussion of how tradition is transmitted, received and interpreted.  That alone is a positive contribution to scholarship!


Part one of this review is here.  Part three of this review is here.

Book Review – Francis Watson, Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Part 1)

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

Given the interest in literary methods, canonical approaches, and theological to the gospels, a monograph on Source Criticism might seem a bit behind the times. After all, Mark Goodacre described a “world without Q” sometime ago. In his recent Reading the Gospels Wisely, Jonathan Pennington proposes a “narrative and theological” approach to the gospels that simply ignores source-critical questions. Yet Watson provides a consistent presentation of the origin of all four Gospels that challenges the academic consensus and cogently argues for a theory of Gospel origins that takes into account all of the evidence available.

Watson Gospel WritingThe book has three sections. The first is a short overview of the synoptic problem, beginning with Augustine. In the second and longest section of the book Watson develops his thesis and illustrates it in each of the four Gospels.  In the third section of the book, Watson examines the “Canonical Construct” of the four Gospels by examining the canon in the East (Clement and Eusebius), the West (Irenaeus and Rome). My plan in this review is to give a brief overview of the book in this section, and then provide a critique of part two,  part three, and part four.

Background to the Synoptic Problem

The consensus view on the origin of the Synoptic Gospels is that Mark wrote first, followed by Matthew and Luke.  Both Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a model and supplemented his narrative with material from a sayings source, Q (for Quelle, source in German). This sayings source contained only the words of Jesus with no narrative. Matthew and Luke edited the narrative from Mark together with the sayings of Q to form their Gospels. This Two-source hypothesis has been occasionally modified, but for the most part it is the default position for most Gospel scholars for the last 100 years. The theory made sense and for the most part solved the so-called Synoptic Problem better than other proposed solutions. While Q remains a hypothetical source, the Gospel of Thomas at least confirms that there were collections of the sayings of Jesus.

Watson challenges this consensus by arguing that Mark wrote his gospel first, Matthew followed him and supplemented the narrative with a sayings source, and that Luke interpreted Matthew. There is therefore no need for the Q document as it is normally described in scholarship. Instead of the complex, multi-layered Q standing between Mark and Matthew, Watson suggests a sayings source that is independent of the canonical Gospels.

A second challenge to the consensus is Watson’s proposal that the “other gospels” be used to illustrate how the four canonical Gospels were formed.  He therefore includes a chapter on “Thomas and Q” as well as a chapter on the Gospel of John, the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter. Rarely does a work on the origins of the Gospels venture into the Johannine world, but Watson is trying to argue that the Gospel writers were interpreters of Scripture. John is therefore an important witness to the reception of the Gospels and their subsequent re-interpretation. The non-canonical Gospels are important witnesses for Watson because the show how other writers continued the interpretive process well into the second century.

This process of reception and interpretation is critically important to what Watson wants to do in this book – the interpretive process created a diversity of gospels which were the result of the interaction of both oral and written sources. This process occurred early (Mark) and late (Thomas, Gospel of Peter, etc.). Watson points out that the canonical Gospels are only defined as “canonical” after the appearance of these other gospels. There is an “indefinite number of broadly similar texts and intertextual links” between the four canonical Gospels and the many non-canonical gospels which were severed when the four became “the gospels” (p. 614).  By observing this process of interpretation not only at the canonical level the interpreter is venturing out into theological and historical issues usually ignored by New Testament scholars.

Part 1:  The Eclipse of the Four-Fold Gospel

In the first two chapters of Gospel Writing, Watson examines the history of the Synoptic Problem, although he does not really express it in those terms.  Beginning with Augustine’s De Consensu Evangelistarum, Watson traces the development of harmonizing the Gospels into the various rejections of harmonizing popular in the nineteenth century. Watson thinks that Augustine “laid down the principles of Gospel harmonization that remained influential even as they were rejected in post-Enlightenment scholarship” (p. 15).

Augustine did not practice the kind of conflation of the Gospels one finds in the Diatessaron, but rather saw empirical facts “parceled out between the four evangelists” (p.43).  Watson uses the announcement of the resurrection in Luke and John as an example. That there are differences in the reports is obvious, but Augustine does not see these as contradictions but two reflections on a single (historical) event. But in allowing for diverse reports of an event, Augustine opens the door for contradiction, a door that is exploited by Enlightenment critics of harmonization. Watson says, “Reimarus is unthinkable without Augustine” (p. 44).

The second chapter of Gospel Writing traces the development from Reimarus and Lessing and the response to them that developed into the current state of the “synoptic problem.” While this is one of the better introductions to the contributions of G. E. Lessing, I wonder if this level of detail is necessary for the overall argument of the book. The main point of the section is that Lessing desire to read the Gospels as a historian led him to search for sources behind the Gospels, primarily the Aramaic Gospel to the Hebrews and the implication of Papias’s statement that Matthew wrote first in the “Hebrew language.” The drive to discover the oral sources behind the text was motivated by the privileging of that oral period in the development of the gospels. The Q hypothesis is almost a natural result of this search for the original, single gospel from which the others developed.

Essentially that is the idea that Watson challenges in the main section of his book.  Rather than an early (and implicitly more pure, less Christian) proto-Gospel, Gospel writing was an ‘unfolding process of reception and interpretation” rather than a “decline into untruth and illusion” (p. 113). In order to support this unfolding process, Watson must first dispense with the need for Q.

Part two of this review is here,

Part three of this review is here.

Part four of this review is here.