Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective, Book Review

Title: Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective
Author: Francis Watson
Publisher: Eerdmans, 2013
Price: $48.00 (amz)
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 665
How and why the Gospels came to be is an enduring topic of interest among the churches and among biblical scholars and theologians.

In Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective, Francis Watson engages these lines of inquiry and seeks to consider the historical, hermeneutical, and theological significance of the fourfold Gospel corpus. Indeed, Watson understands his work to be an exercise in “historically informed theological hermeneutics” (9).

There are three parts to Watson’s study. In part one, Watson tells the story of how the fourfold Gospel was “eclipsed” in the modern period among New Testament scholars. There are both similarities and differences between the four Gospels. One way of navigating this situation is to “harmonize” the differences and demonstrate that there are no contradictions. Watson here describes Augustine’s work in producing a “harmony” of the Gospels that emphasizes the similarity of the narratives.

Next, Watson describes the development of the “Gospel synopsis” in the modern period that emphasizes the differences in the accounts. Watson argues that the foundational assumption of the approaches at both ends of this spectrum is the notion that any “difference” is a problem that means the truth of the gospel message is compromised. Watson contends that both the harmonizing and source-critical impulse deconstructs the diversity-protecting “canonical” function of a fourfold Gospel corpus.

In part two, Watson attempts to “reframe” Gospel origins by examining the composition of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John alongside other “gospel” narratives that were not later recognized as canonical. From Watson’s perspective, this type of comparative analysis is necessary because the New Testament writings are best understood as part of a broader literary environment of early Christian writings. New Testament scholars, Watson insists, need “to be concerned with the second century no less than the first” (xii).

Watson outlines the standard “two source” theory of gospel origins that posits that Mark wrote first, and then Matthew and Luke independently utilized Mark and a “sayings” source (Q). Drawing on the recent critiques of the existence of Q, Watson argues for what he calls the “L/M theory.” In this model, Mark writes first, and then Matthew expands Mark’s narrative by adding substantial blocks of discourse. Then, Luke writes using both Mark and Matthew as a source. In this scenario, Luke not only copies his sources but he also interprets these prior texts. Watson sees Luke as an involved interpreter of Matthew’s Gospel who omits, supplements, interprets, and re-interprets Matthew’s use of Mark.

If Luke writes in conscious relation to Matthew, Watson reasons, then the “two source” theory is simply not feasible (which requires Matthew and Luke to write independently from one another). Watson provides both the evidence he believes refutes the two-source theory as well as the exegetical studies that point to Luke’s knowledge of, dependence on, and reflective interpretation of Matthew and Mark. Consequently, though many will disagree with aspects of Watson’s proposals (e.g., the prominence Watson affords to texts like the Gospel of Thomas), the analysis in this section represents a serious fresh approach to gospel origins and the compositional strategies of the gospel writers.

Watson concludes his study in part three by sketching a “canonical construct” that can be seen in the reception history of the fourfold Gospel collection in the early church. In Watson’s view, there was a robust fluidity between canonical and non-canonical writings in the first and second centuries, as gospel literature continued to proliferate. By the time of Eusebius in the fourth century, however, the fourfold gospel “construct” has suppressed the several streams of non-canonical gospel literature and created the canonical/non-canonical boundary. Historically, there is a move to limit the plurality of gospel narratives and establish a politically achieved consensus about Gospel origins. Here Watson engages several familiar patristic figures: Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, Irenaeus, Origen, and Jerome.

One important point of contention with Watson’s overall approach is his working definition of “canon.” Watson argues that the prevailing canonical criteria was and is “reception” within a community (see 604-16). Defining canon in this way leads Watson to downplay any notion that there is anything inherent in the writings themselves (e.g., either content, style, or genre) that would distinguish them from any other Christian writing of the early church period. In light of this level literary playing field, Watson argues, it is only of arbitrary significance that the “canonical” gospels were composed in the “first century” and other gospel literature was written later.

Consequently, Watson typically characterizes the boundaries of the canonical collection as late and oftentimes politically motivated decisions. However, it is difficult to demonstrate that the leaders of the early church did not see authorship and something like “apostolicity” as a critical consideration that anchors discussions of a writing’s canonical status. Watson’s dismissal of this traditional position is less helpful than his other proposals.

While brimming with technical minutia, Watson’s study maintains a narrative thrust that pulls the reader along. His various hypotheses allow him to recount the journey Jesus’ teaching took from oral sayings, to written sources, to carefully composed gospel narratives. Though debatable in the way all such reconstructions are, Watson’s account of the process of composition, canonization, and consolidation of the four Gospels among the churches is in many ways remarkable in its scope and depth of detail.

Watson also demonstrates the need for students of the New Testament canon to be able to account for the broader literary environment of the early church period. Regardless of how one understands the non-canonical writings, one must be able to reckon with them. Distinguishing between this type of literature strikes at the heart of what it meant to form a Gospel collection in the first and second centuries and what it means to share in the confession that these and only these four Gospels are the church’s guide for understanding Jesus Christ.

One of Watson’s most important achievements here, too, is that his study forces the reader again and again to consider what it means for the churches to have four similar but distinct Gospel narratives.

  • See also the nifty companion website they put together for chapter 11 ("Image, Symbol, Liturgy"), which complements Watson's discussion of how the four Gospels are represented in art. As he observes, "Patristic theologians use the visionary texts to think through the fourfoldness of the canonical gospel, and they do so because these texts provide them with striking images or parables of fourfold difference within a common orientation towards Christ" (555).
  • Author Interview with Watson (from Eerdman's page). 
  • This review also appears in SWJT 58.1 (Fall 2015): 124-26.
Book Review
March 9, 2016


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