Welcome back to the discussion of Francis Watson’s Gospel Writing. As I mentioned in the earlier part, I had a chance to interview and dialogue with Prof. Watson (FW) over the telephone last week and ask him about, not alone what he wrote in his book, but also about the whole concept of the act of writing and re-writing “gospels” as it happened in the first two centuries after Christ.
As discussed in the previous post, FW argues that the process of gospel writing is somewhat fluid in the first century, rather than formal. It is as if there is this built-up writing energy that has to flow through acts of reflection and re-interpretation of the Jesus tradition. Whilst reading Gospel Writing, I found it very interesting that FW urged that the spawning of new gospels (in particular beyond Mark) was not an unfortunate happenstance. In some way, it is a result of Jesus himself. I will quote from the part of the book that struck me:
“In the tradition, Jesus himself calls for the new interpretative activity that seeks to communicate his significance afresh. The interpretative dynamic underlying gospel writing and rewriting originates in the risen Lord who is also the earthly Jesus of the tradition” (p. 287 in Gospel Writing).
When I had read FW’s statement, I had wondered if there was, perhaps something specific Jesus did or said, in his mind, which called for this “new interpretative activity.” So I asked him about it. FW responded that he does not have in mind anyone singular moment, but the person himself. Watson told me this: “all of the ongoing activity of interpretation about which the book is concerned can be traced back to the figure of Jesus himself.” He explained that, with the gospels, we are working with a particular kind of datum (from Latin, he explained, meaning “gift”); the gospel writers understood that datum (gift) to be Jesus himself “and everything stems from him.” This point took us back to the focus on the risen Jesus. The new reality of Jesus as the apostles understood him was, in a sense, beyond words, and, thus, one gospel was not enough.
Beginning with Jesus and Not “Redaction”
FW expressed, here, the concern that, all too often in gospels studies there is a tendency to focus on the editorial interests and mindset of the individual evangelist. It is misleading, urged FW, to portray the evangelists as redactors who simply treated Jesus as a kind of “passive object whom people manipulate and fit into their own desires or needs.”
On this point, FW directed me to the influence of the work of Hans-Georg Gadamar’s Truth and Method on his own thinking. This work helped FW to see the possibility of “texts generating their own reception” rather than as inert objects. Now, that is not to say the “text” does all of the work; rather “there is a dialogue between text and interpreter.”
This can be easily applied to the situation of the reception of Jesus. FW imagines a Jesus who “because he had such an impact on his followers, continues to evoke interpretative responses.”
Interpretation is Fine, But Who is Right?
When we talk about the proliferation of interpretations (often competing, or at least “plural”), some people get uncomfortable with the subjectivity involved and make a plea for objectivity. Aren’t interpretations basically opinions? Shouldn’t we peel back the redaction and interpretation, and look for the historical or “real” Jesus?
Certainly there are whole schools of scholars who think that way, but FW is not one of them. Watson believes there can be no “uninterpreted Jesus.” Indeed, he argued to me, we need to get beyond the idea that interpretation means distortion.
On this point, I inquired further – Did Jesus encourage interpretation of his work and self?
The Call of the Risen Jesus
FW’s answer took me by surprise. This ongoing work of gospel writing and (re)interpretation was necessary because the evangelists believed Jesus rose from the dead and took reign over his kingdom and people. In FW’s own words:
Interpretative activity by Luke, Mark, or Matthew is representative of their own response to what they took to be the call of the risen Jesus mediated through the written and oral tradition about Jesus of which they had access.
There was something larger than life about Jesus, the super-abundance of his essence and activity. And this required, not merely tolerated, ongoing reflection.
Reflection is Well and Good, but Plurality?
That brought me back to a broader question about the canonical nature of a fourfold gospel which FW refers to as a “plural,” not singular, witness to Jesus. I raised the ostensible problem that, for many Christians, “plural” sounds like a bad word. Plural (for some) implies not true (hence the temptation to harmonize).
FW made a number of helpful points in response, but began with a general one.
“Most of the things we normally regard as true are plural rather than simple. Different perspectives of different observers will inevitability lead to plurality. We should question the assumption that truth is always a straightforward matter like 2 + 2 = 4. Interesting truths are always complex, are always capable of being looked at from different perspectives, and it doesn’t stop it being “true,” but we cannot just draw their truth straightforwardly or in totality in the way we can with 2 + 2 = 4.”
FW mentioned two further points related to the gospels in particular. First, he talked about how plurality was not considered a compromise by the patristic theologians, but a mark of richness (and Watson pointed me to Ephesians 3). Secondly, FW noted how he has found the later titles given to the four gospels especially stimulating – the gospel according to Matthew or according to Mark (or Luke or John). It is the Greek word kata which has been especially important to FW’s understanding of the importance of more than one gospel. He even remarked, we might say the kata should be understood as marking perspective – “the gospel in Matthew’s perspective.” So, “we have four perspectives on Jesus.”
The church collectively decided ‘we’ll henceforth work with these four perspectives on Jesus’, and that means, in a sense, that it tacitly accepted that no individual gospel gives us direct access to Jesus. There is access to Jesus, of course there is, but it is mediated through the perspective of a plurality of individuals.
Plurality or Rivalry?
I was quite comfortable with the idea of multiple perspectives and plurality, but occasionally FW used the word “rivalry” in our discussion, which could sound scandalous and dismissive. FW acknowledged the importance of seeing this historically. He appealed to what he heuristically calls a “first-century” (pre-canonical) perspective, versus a “second-century” (canonical perspective). In the former, at the point of composition, FW believes that it could be the case Matthew saw his gospel as a rival and replacement of Mark. But, when the church decides to accept Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John together and they co-exist canonically, the situation changes. In that new (fourfold) context, “the canon may well overrule the expectations and intentions of the evangelists.” While no evangelist expected his work to be placed alongside others on equal authority, the church decides that no one gospel can or should be privileged as the singular work on Jesus.
“What we have with the fourfold gospel, according to the church, is something that is more than the sum of its parts. Together they operate and shape Christian thinking about God, Jesus, and the world in ways that they could not have done if they had operated individually if we only had just one gospel or if we had a different collection. With this collection we have some ‘value added’.”
Wow! What a fresh and enriching perspective on the gospels, and I was in FW’s debt for sharing this insight with me. Who said scholarship cannot be good for the soul!
More Research on the Gospels Ahead
My last question in my hour with FW was about his ongoing research. He was kind enough to share what he has forthcoming in print, or just now in thoughts, on the subject of the gospels.
A Grant. FW was awarded an Arts & Humanities Research Council grant called “The Fourfold Gospel and Its Rivals” which provides a number of things including funding for a post-doctoral researcher and a PhD scholarship under his tutelage.
Early Four-Gospel Books. FW is interested, not just in the subject of the fourfold gospel, but the earliest evidence of the four gospels in one physical document. FW mentioned Eusebius’ fascination with the interrelationship of the four gospels that is seen in his “canon tables,” what FW calls a “brilliant intellectual achievement.”
Artwork. FW is also interested in how the fourfold (plural) gospels inspired beautiful works of art throughout history.
Introduction to the Gospels. FW mentioned that he is slated to write an introductory book on the gospels that looks at them from a canonical perspective. I am eager to see this emerge in due time!
Get the Book!
That is the conclusion of the interview, and I would just like to add that if you are interested in looking at the development and early reception of the gospels from a historical and canonical perspective, Gospel Writing is the book for you!