Francis Watson’s Fourfold Gospel (Gupta)

Watson.jpgIn 2013, Prof. Francis Watson (Durham) gave the academic world a magnum opus on the origins and early reception of the canonical gospels (Eerdmans). This year, he has published a more popular-level work called The Fourfold Gospel: A Theological Reading of the New Testament Portraits of Jesus (Baker, 2016). While Watson makes it clear this is not a condensed version of Gospel Writing, still he brings some of the major arguments from that 2013 work into this shorter book.

The Fourfold Gospel is meant to be a lighter read, with few footnotes (aside from Scripture references), an appealing text presentation, and drawing out of theological implications of his approach. Surely he has indeed made his scholarship more accessible here, though I do not think those without seminary training will find this “easy reading”!

He works from his argument that, though the gospels were written as rivals or replacements (i.e., Matthew intended to replace Mark), the church decided to preserve each of the four and treat them as complementary, like interlocking puzzle pieces. In the first four chapters after the introduction, Watson walks through the distinct perspective of each canonical gospel – Matthew offers Jesus the Jew; Mark focuses on the prophetic-renewal work of John the Baptist and the powerful gospel that leads new pilgrims on the Jesus “way.” Luke has a special interest in worship, prayer, and priesthood. John gives the eagle’s eye perspective on Jesus.

Even forasmuch as these gospels demonstrates divergences, they must also be recognized for their shared narrative and overlap. They are bound by interrelationships. Here Watson commends Eusebius’ “canon tables” (an ancient sort of gospel parallels reference set), which seems to have influenced how believers used and interpreted the gospels in the patristic and medieval period.Throughout the book he shows how the gospels can be read fruitfully with this cross-comparison (canonical) approach.

Here are some of the main ideas that he returns to throughout the book

-“Multiple versions of the same material are not interchangeable, nor are they redundant” (68)

-“the Jesus of these texts is never just Jesus, Jesus as he was himself. He is always accompanied by an evangelist who serves as his interpreter, communicating his significance from within that evangelist’s own distinctive perspective” (69)

-“Without sameness or oneness there would be no singular gospel according to…but a chaos of incompatible versions of the ‘good news.’ Without difference there would not be four gospels but one. For that reason, Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the same event must differ” (77)

-“It seems that the fourfold gospel is not intended to provide a singular ‘life of Jesus’ in which each incident and saying is assigned to its original historical context. Its relation to reality is more complex–and more interesting–than that” (88)

-“Differences between the gospels can only be a positive rather than a negative factor, even and especially in the case of the difference that separates the first three gospels from the fourth. The fourfold gospel has been constructed in such a way as to embrace plural perspectives on the figure of Jesus and to rule out the assumption that a single perspective would testify to him more adequately” (90)

As always with Watson, we have a fresh perspective, something new to chew on and surely this will lead to engaging discussion about the formation of the fourfold gospel. There are lots of eye-opening exegetical insights and thought-provoking ideas (I especially appreciated insights on the Matthean genealogy). Watson’s reception-work is fascinating. But by the end of the 188-pages I was left with these questions:

-Maybe I make too much of book titles, but what makes this a theological reading? Versus, e.g., a canonical reading? Did Watson want to distance or differentiate himself from Childs?

-In his brief soundings in each gospel, he tended to focus on the beginnings of each. Why? Are there clear clues that tell us that is the key to the thumbprint differences of each? (versus, for example, the selection of parables or teaching discourses; or terminology preferences, etc.)

-Is there a method that Watson is promoting? What does that look like? (I think what Watson offers is an orientation to the Fourfold Gospel, but is there a method too?)

-Watson seems to go back and forth between descriptive discussion (esp when it comes to reception) and prescriptive (where he is teasing out themes, pointing to the right way to read things, even the “church’s” decision) – it is hard to sense where he lands. Is he commenting ultimately on how the church ought to read the gospels? How everyone should read it? How he reads it? How God wants it to be read? (inversely, one could ask -what if the canon-izers were wrong? What if Eusebius was misguided? How do we know what the right approach to the gospels is?)

As the book itself attests, Watson likes to frustrate traditional gospel consensuses and predictable lines of disagreement. This is a welcome fly in gospels-studies ointment!

Nijay Shares about Teaching and Writing (Gupta)

Check out the podcast interview where I talk about my seminary teaching and writing projects (on Seminary Dropout, hosted by Missio Alliance). Thanks to Shane Blackshear for inviting me, and please do contact me if you are interested in seminary! (Click on the picture below to link to podcast)


Mike Bird and the Apostles’ Creed (Gupta)

I must confess (no pun intended!) that in my early Christian life I was more-or-less a “no creed but the Bible” Christian. I didn’t understand denominations and I didn’t like them. I didn’t like “confessing” any creed or doctrine, I just wanted to study and memorize Scripture.

Probably four things led me to change my mind on this

(1) The Gospels are narrated. Several years ago, I taught a course on the Fourth Gospel and we watched a movie based on that Gospel. Here’s the funny part – we all found Jesus quite random and even nonsensical. That is, without the help of the narrator. I used to think –how fun it would have been, how inspiring to be one of Jesus’ disciples. Alas, I think I would have been among those that left him! The narrators act as guides to make sense of the story. So it is with creeds. They guide us in the reading of Scripture.

(2) Paul taught “traditions.” We sometimes criticize “tradition” as human fabrications, but no doubt Jesus passed on early Christian traditions, the purpose of which was to confess and teach doctrine (e.g., 2 Thess 2:15).

(3) Everyone has a formative worldview, and creeds synthesize that worldview. I taught freshmen at Seattle Pacific University for a short bit and all students had to take a course called Christian formation. Most of us that taught that course focused on the Apostle’s Creed. What I came to see was how much deep theology is actually contained in it, if you interpret it in tandem with Scripture (I enjoyed using Karl Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline as inspiration!). It comes from and can articulate a particularly Christian worldview. It is not simply a set of “beliefs” that only pertain to “religion.” It creates a whole “world” into which we step and through which we interpret reality. Check out Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Creed.

(4) Creeds can unite. I remember reading that the churches that stood against Hitler started to recite the Apostles’ Creed aloud while standing in church – this created a bond of unity over and against the apostasy of the Reich churches. Creeds can help us not only bond together, but helps us have courage to resist what is ungodly.


Well, that is all a bit of a long way to commend to you Michael F Bird’s latest offering, What Christians Ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine through the Apostles’ Creed (Zondervan, 2016). I read through Mike’s book a few weeks ago, and it is an engaging work that unpacks the central teachings of the creeds. Obviously Mike’s specialty is making things that can be boring very interesting, and this is no exception.

Here is the book website where you can get a sample and learn more about it.The book releases July 5, 2016.

Hurtado on Earliest Christian Conversion (Gupta)

HurtadoToday I read through Prof. Larry Hurtado’s new little book Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? (Marquette Univ Press, 2016; based on the 2016 Marquette Lecture in Theology). Here I want simply to commend the book to you, and give some brief notes.

Firstly, Hurtado is less interested in answering the question, and much more concerned with prompting others to take interest in this question. So, he writes, “There must have been features of early Christian faith that made it not only distinguishable but also worth the consequences often involved in taking it up” (131).

He spends quite a bit of time in the book examining the challenges that faced Christians  – both political, but also social. He also takes a look at what sorts of people became Christians, and where. He concludes, “whatever the appeal of Christianity, it was clearly something that succeeded across various ethnic and geographic lines, and its spread did not apparently depend on any one kind of social network” (28).

I was really interested in his discussion of social challenges that affected Christian slaves (see 89-91). What could they do about holiness and purity if forced into sexual activity without consent, for example? Hurtado also has a nice section on “lapsed Christians” (see pp. 94ff.)

Towards the end of the book, Hurtado does at last venture into the possible motivations for conversion. In terms of “benefits” he notes the arguments that scholars have made for the powerful effect of (and attraction to) healings, and also the social bond of the churches. Hurtado notes, though, that there would have been other places people could turn for healing/magic, and also social cohesion – so why Christianity when it was so suspicious and ostracizing? I wish Hurtado had delved into these subjects more.

What about “ideas” from Christianity that were attractive? Hurtado mentions two: “a loving God” (something rather unusual in ancient religion), and “eternal life” (more common, but not the promise of embodied eternal existence).

Personally, I think the healing/miracles aspect is underplayed by Hurtado – I think of the perspective of Simon in Acts, as well as the scholarly movement towards recognizing St. Paul as having a significant healing/miracle-working ministry (see Twelftree’s recent Paul and the Miraculous).

Also, I don’t think Hurtado gave enough attention to the church’s charity work (he does talk a bit about it on 112, but somewhat dismisses this by noting the lack of incentive for wealthy pagans. I would respond by noting how few wealthy elites seem to have converted in the first century).  I think Bruce Longenecker has made a strong case for the rarity and notoriety of Christian charity in the ancient world (see his Remember the Poor, a book Hurtado doesn’t cite as far as I can tell), something that Hurtado does not acknowledge.

Finally, I think we first need to ask -why would pagans be interested in Judaism? That is, we need to work more on the interests of god-fearers. By the account of many (including myself), many pagan converts to Christianity came through the door or porch of the synagogue. Dunn and Fredriksen have done work on this. Acts seems to point in this direction to some degree, but many scholars mistrust Luke’s version of Paul’s ministry (I am not sure where Hurtado stands).

In any case, Hurtado is a top-notch early Christian historian and I am delighted that he published such a rich (brief!) study that can be read in one (or two) sittings. At $14 it is also very affordable!



J.R. Clarke on Literacy in Roman world (Gupta)

Potty humor.jpgI just finished John R. Clarke’s Roman Life (2007), a fascinating glimpse into Roman life from 100BC-AD 2oo with special interest in Ostia and Pompeii. Clarke is an expert on Roman visual culture and he spends much time in the book examining graffiti, inscriptions, etc. He has written at length about tavern graffiti and speech lines in wall cartoons. Here is his concluding statement:

The fact that it is not just the images but also the writings that make these tavern paintings funny reminds us of the importance of written language in Roman life. if we put together these humorous captions with the great variety of inscriptions on tombs and civic monuments, we begin to understand that life in a Roman city encouraged literacy. Even if only a few mastered the complexities of poetry and philosophy, it seems that many ordinary people could read simple texts and inscriptions. (Roman Life, 163)

Paul and His Recent Interpreters, NTW, Part 3 (Gupta)

Wright PRIThis is a multi-part review of NT Wright’s Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Fortress). Today we will look at chapters 3-5 on the New Perspective on Paul.

In chapter 3 (“The New Perspective on Paul”) Wright does a bit of pre-history and notes that the NPP path was already being paved by GF Moore, as well as Schweitzer and Davies to some degree. Interestingly, Wright makes the case that Ed Sanders’ work got a good hearing because it inadvertently  resonated with Reformed theology (i.e., a unification of Old and New Testaments; see p. 67).

One point that Wright underscores over and over again throughout these chapters on the NPP is that Wright, Dunn, and Sanders have a few common causes, but they also have disagreed on quite a lot. For example, Wright never fully took on board Sanders’ idea of “covenantal nomism” (CN). Rather, Wright wanted to see more of a story-dimension, thus Wright here introduces the terminology of “covenantal narrative” that would include many of the features of Sanders’ CN, but add the centrality of worldview and metanarrative – a hallmark of NTW’s approach to ancient and early Judaism and early Christianity (see 71).Thus, NTW faults Sanders for talking about “covenant” without making reference to key story-shaped texts like Deut 27-30 (p. 75).

Also, NTW points out that he never really agreed with Sanders on the latter’s argument of “solution-to-plight.” Yes, there is some way in which Paul was shocked and surprised by the divine redemptive solution in the crucified/risen Jesus Christ, but indeed Jews knew there was a “problem” all along.

Not, to be sure, Martin Luther’s personal problem, but the national problem of Jews under Roman rule, with scripture unfulfilled, Israel unredeemed, and, not least, Israel’s God still not returning in glory as had been promised. (79)

A final key critique NTW makes of Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism is Sanders’ narrow focus on “religion.” This effects how Sanders closes in a discussion of “getting in” and “staying in.” This makes it seem like Jews operated with a conversionistic framework, which most of them did not (see p 80).

Chapter 4: Life After Sanders

In chapter 4, NTW surveys the positive swell of interest in NPP “after Sanders.” He starts out by giving attention to Dunn, but doesn’t praise or critique Dunn too strongly: “My own view is that he has made a great many good points, but that his synthesis still lacks some of the dimensions necessary for a full account” (91). In NTW’s discussion of Dunn’s view on pistis Christou, I was surprised that NTW said this: “The [pistis Christou debate] might seem like a small exegetical either/or. But a good deal hangs on it, which is no doubt why the debate has run on in public, private and print” (97). I disagree – I think most scholars feel that it is more of a fun hobby than a serious theological matter, because both subjective and objective theological points can be true (and recognizable in Paul) whether or not Pistis Christou is interpreted as “this” or “that.” Funny comment in a footnote: at a public debate at SBL between Dunn and Hays on this, someone in the crowd called for a vote on Pistis Christou. The chair, Lee Keck, quickly killed the idea: “Nope. This ain’t the Jesus Seminar” (97n. 30).

NTW also adds the work of Hays in this chapter – not sure why. Hays has definitely supported a NPP reading, but not sure how his intertextuality work is directly related? (see 97-102). Next, NTW talks about Francis Watson – an important voice in the discussion. I wonder, though, why someone like Terence Donaldson was not included here. Or my colleague Kent Yinger.

Chapter 5: “The Old is Better”

Here NTW addresses the many and multi-faceted negative reactions to the NPP. Wright gives attention to Bob Gundry, DA Carson et al, Simon Gathercole, Seyoon Kim, and Martin Hengel. Wright considers the work of Friedrich Avemarie to be one of the stronger pushbacks. Here, NTW reaffirms that there was good resistance to Sanders’ “covenantal nomism” (repeating NTW’s move towards covenantal narrative; p. 111).

In this chapter Wright also responds to critiques of his own approach to Paul on “justification” (116-117; I have still not come around to Wright’s way of viewing this terminology). NTW also addresses the OPP defense of “imputation” of Christ’s righteousness. It is not that NTW does not believe in “imputation,” rather he thinks the evidence points to imputation of the “death and resurrection of the Messiah” – thus, Wright wants to push imputation more towards participation and away from substitution. I think Wright is correct about this, but I am not a fan of using the old-timey language of “imputation” (120-121).

In the latter part of this chapter Wright takes on Westerholm – and he has strong words indeed. Wright feels that he has been very much misrepresented and caricatured by Westerholm. But Wright himself has some potent words: “Simon Gathercole may be right, in his blurb, to say that Westerholm is ‘head and shoulders above almost everyone else’, but not ‘as an interpreter of Paul'” (128). Ouch!

I will stop there. I did a very quick run through various threads that NTW picked up in these chapters, but my little tour does not capture the outstanding analysis of Wright – again, this kind of “reading of the signs of times” is a speciality of Wright, so it makes for excellent reading. Next up – “Apocalyptic”