The Gospel and the Gospels: Christian Proclamation and Early Jesus Books, Book Review

Title: The Gospel and the Gospels: Christian Proclamation and Early Jesus Books
Author: Simon Gathercole
Publisher: Eerdmans, 2022
Price: $55.99 (amz)  
Binding: Hardback
Pages: 600

Is there anything internal to the canonical Gospel narratives that sets them apart from most other texts in early Christianity? 

Much current scholarship on the Gospels and the history of early Christianity argues that only external factors in subsequent centuries can explain why Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were received as the only authoritative accounts of Jesus’s life and ministry. In this scenario, there were a host of texts that appropriated elements of the Jesus tradition from a wide variety of theological frameworks. Not until much later did the theological positions solidify that were then used to select the nature and number of the church’s Gospel canon.

In this volume, Simon Gathercole makes a careful and detailed case that there was indeed something about the canonical Gospels that allowed readers to differentiate them from other gospel-like texts. His thesis is twofold. He first argues that the four canonical Gospels “share key elements of theological content that mark them out from most of the noncanonical Gospels” (15). He argues further that the reason why these four Gospels “are theologically similar to one another is that they—unlike most others—follow a preexisting apostolic ‘creed’ or preached gospel” (15). Accordingly, the theological coherence of the four New Testament Gospels was not an arbitrary element of their reception history but rather a foundational feature of their initial composition.

In his overall project, Gathercole emphasizes the point that “there were theological criteria in operation, in the preached apostolic gospel or kerygma, even before the compositions of any Gospels” (14). The preaching of the apostles was shaped by these strands of theological confession from the earliest days of the Christian church. “All written Gospels” therefore, “emerged from a situation in which there were already established, though also developing, norms of what constituted authentic apostolic proclamation” (14). An implication of this textual and social reality is that “in an important sense, a ‘canon’—in the sense of a widely held standard of teaching—preceded the composition of the Gospels, and the authors of the Gospels, deliberately or unconsciously, reflected this preaching or they did not” (14). For Gathercole, because this theological standard was operative in the first century, it should then directly inform the way the history of early Christianity is understood (cf. 463–502).

Noting the difficulty of comparing every detail of any two works, Gathercole selects the earliest form of the apostolic preaching (the “kerygma”) as the comparator by which he will compare and contrast these texts (34–35). Taking 1 Cor 15:3–4 as a starting point, Gathercole identifies four essential components of the kerygma (36–46). The apostolic preaching 1) identified Jesus as the Christ, 2) affirmed Jesus’s saving vicarious death, 3) explained Jesus’s resurrection on the third day, and 4) viewed each of these elements as a prophetic fulfillment of the Scriptures. Gathercole also argues that the kerygma is a justifiable comparator for this kind of study because this form of the apostolic preaching likely pre-dates Paul’s letters, resonates with broader New Testament theology, and was widely affirmed among diverse Christian communities (see 47–70). The kerygma is thus uniquely and strategically positioned to serve as a ruler by which to measure the texts of early Christianity.

In the most substantive section of the book, Gathercole systematically evaluates how each Gospel text does or does not address the key features of the kerygma. For Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, all the elements of the kerygma are present even with some distinctive features in their presentation (chapters 4–7). In the rest of this section, Gathercole examines seven of the best-preserved and most well-known apocryphal Gospels in early Christianity: the Gospel of Peter, Marcion’s Gospel, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Judas, and the Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians (chapters 8–14). In these chapters, Gathercole seeks to evaluate each text on its own terms and identify whether or not a given aspect of the kerygma is present or absent. After this lengthy targeted analysis of each text, Gathercole ends his volume with a concise synthesis of what a comparison and contrast of the various Gospels in early Christianity yields (chapters 15–16).

Gathercole’s concluding claim is not that “the canonical Gospels are the only works to include any of the four principal elements of the kerygma” (478). Rather, the New Testament Gospels are the only texts that contain all of the distinct elements that mark apostolic preaching in the earliest churches. For example, some extracanonical Gospels include the death of Jesus but do not ascribe it any saving significance nor do they include an account of his resurrection (e.g., the Gospel of Judas; see 438–43). Other texts include a detailed account of the resurrection but seem to deny that the body is raised in this miraculous event (e.g., the Gospel of Phillip; see 410–25).

In this vein, Gathercole observes that one of the profound differences between canonical and noncanonical texts relates to the way messianic concepts are used alongside of Scriptural intertexts. While they include some of the accounts and varying details of these events, none of the noncanonical Gospels directly identify both the death and resurrection of Jesus as the prophetic fulfillment of Scripture. Accordingly, “this theme constitutes a significant example of the distinctiveness of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John vis-à-vis the others discussed here” (478). The canonical Gospels also always associate the title “Christ” with Old Testament imagery and discernible messianic themes (e.g., the “son of David” title or the imagery of Psalm 2). In contrast to noncanonical texts, when the New Testament Gospels refer to Jesus as the Christ, they consistently activate a “scripturally rooted discourse or body of messianic tradition” that gives shape and definition to what is meant by “Messiah” (see 36–42; 81–97; 480–88).

Taken as a whole, Gathercole’s work is a rigorous and refreshing treatment of the distinctiveness of the canonical Gospels. Because his central claims are straightforward and meticulously supported, Gathercole has carved out a scholarly space in biblical studies for the assumption that the preaching of the apostles is coherent and intricately connected to the texts of the New Testament. For those who recognize the apocryphal Gospels are significant in some way but are unsure how to approach them, Gathercole provides a set of tools that will inform both the study of the canonical Gospels and the history of early Christianity. 

I am grateful for this work and hope that it helps convince a new generation of students and scholars to value and defend the theological distinctiveness of these four Gospel narratives that have changed the world.

Book Review
January 11, 2023


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