Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective

Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective

Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective

Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective


That there are four canonical versions of the one gospel story is often seen as a problem for Christian faith: where gospels multiply, so too do apparent contradictions that may seem to undermine their truth claims. In Gospel Writing Francis Watson argues that differences and tensions between canonical gospels represent opportunities for theological reflection, not problems for apologetics.

Watson presents the formation of the fourfold gospel as the defining moment in the reception of early gospel literature -- and also of Jesus himself as the subject matter of that literature. As the canonical division sets four gospel texts alongside one another, the canon also creates a new, complex, textual entity more than the sum of its parts. A canonical gospel can no longer be regarded as a definitive, self-sufficient account of its subject matter. It must play its part within an intricate fourfold polyphony, and its meaning and significance are thereby transformed.

In elaborating these claims, Watson proposes nothing less than a new paradigm for gospel studies -- one that engages fully with the available noncanonical material so as to illuminate the historical and theological significance of the canonical.


Initially an announcement communicated in person by specially commissioned messengers, “the gospel” is subsequently reduced to writing and issues in the collection generally known as “the four gospels” or simply “the gospels.” Although these texts were traditionally ascribed to four named and independent authors, three of them are closely interrelated, with the anonymous text known for convenience as “Mark” forming the basis on which the later synoptic evangelists “Matthew” and “Luke” built their own more extensive structures. These later evangelists are also widely believed to have drawn from a second text, “Q,” which can — perhaps — be reconstructed with more or less accuracy by careful analysis of the double tradition (that is, the non-Markan material common to Matthew and Luke). As for “John,” indications of a high degree of independence from the other gospels must be balanced by the many points of contact. a number of similar stories or sayings suggest either an indirect acquaintance with one or more of the synoptics or access to synoptic-like traditions. and so “the four gospels” come into being, one after another, during the period between c. 65 and 100 ce: first Mark, shortly before or after the fall of Jerusalem, followed by Matthew and Luke, in that order but in quick succession, and finally John, “the fourth gospel,” composed at the very end of a period later defined as “the first century” and bringing the canonical collection to completion.

The standard modern account of gospel origins ends at that point, but a couple of clarifications may be added in order to justify the decision to proceed no further. First, it is true that gospels or gospel-like texts continued to be composed during the second and subsequent centuries, and that several of these — or significant fragments of them — have in recent times been recovered from virtual oblivion. Yet the scholarly consensus is that this mate-

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