In 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!