In this short volume Francis Watson explores the nature and significance of the fourfold gospel. This is not a survey of the gospels. It is instead an exploration of the church’s choice to value and preserve these four and the role they played in the early centuries of the church.
In his introduction (“Prolegomena: The Making of the Fourfold Gospel”) Watson raises key questions related to the fourfold gospel witness. What is a gospel? Who wrote the gospels? How many gospels are there? These seemingly simple questions have complex answers. The term “gospel,” for example, was originally applied to the message of salvation rather than the books themselves. So are there four gospels or one gospel (= message)? And why only four? Many other books were called “gospels” in the early church (Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Thomas, etc.). Why were these four selected above the others? Further, since Matthew incorporates most of Mark into his gospel, did he intend to supplement or to replace Mark? Watson suggests the latter. He writes, “Do we have here two gospels, or two editions of a single gospel? Does Luke then add a third edition?” (p. 6). Watson concludes that there was nothing inevitable about the four-gospel collection. Mark could have fallen into disuse. Luke could have superseded Matthew. John might have been rejected because of its differences. Yet the fourfold gospel prevailed. This was not, in Watson’s words, “because some bishop or council imposed it on an unwilling or unthinking majority but because of countless small-scale decisions about which texts were to be copied and used and which were to be passed over” (p. 17).
After the prolegomena, the book is divided into two parts. Part one, “Perspectives” (chs. 1–4) discusses each of the four Gospels. Chapter 1 (“The First Gospel: Jesus the Jew”) examines Matthew, which was the most prominent gospel in the early church and appears first in most ancient lists. Watson summarizes this gospel’s theme through the lens of its opening genealogy, which emphasizes both Jesus’s Jewish background and the new thing that God is doing through the virgin birth. In chapter 2 on Mark (“The Second Gospel: Preparing the Way”) Watson again focuses on one key passage to illustrate the gospel’s central theme: the appearance of John the Baptist, who will “prepare the way for the Lord.” The “way” of the Lord is the journey that begins with John’s baptism of Jesus— symbolizing Jesus’s identification with humanity—and ends with the cross, his ransom for many. In chapter 3 on Luke (“The Third Gospel: Magnificat”), Watson compares Luke’s own narrative approach with that of his later interpreters, Marcian, Justin Martyr, Tatian and Irenaeus. He then seeks to show how Luke takes four Matthean themes (genealogy, annunciation, epiphany, baptism) and develops them in this own way. (Watson here assumes the Farrer hypothesis, which claims Luke used Mark and Matthew [not Q] as his sources.) Chapter 4 on John (“The Fourth Gospel: Seeing God”) emphasizes the differences between the Fourth Gospel and the Synoptics. Like the living creature of Ezekiel and Revelation it is often identified with, John’s Gospel soars like an eagle.
Part two, “Convergences” (chs. 5–8), begins by discussing how all four distinct gospels converge in the passion narratives. After an introductory chapter (5: “Four Gospels, One Book”), he compares the four gospels in the triumphal entry and Gethsemane (ch. 6, “The City and the Garden”), and in the death, burial and resurrection (ch. 7, “Christus Victor”). The last chapter (ch. 8, “The Truth of the Gospel”) begins with a discussion of the first century BC Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus and his philosophical defense of materialism. Watson then provides four case studies from church history in response: Justin Martyr’s rejection of Platonism in favor of Christian community, Origen’s Against Celsus, Martin Luther’s identification of the four gospels as both “gift” (John) and “example” (the Synoptics), and the Barmen Declaration’s 1934 statement against the influence of Nazi ideology on the German church.
The book’s greatest strengths and most original contribution are its many insights related to how the church has viewed and utilized the gospels throughout history. Fascinating tidbits from church history permeate Watson’s volume, providing information that will be new not only to lay readers but even to many gospel specialists. To take just one of many examples, in chapter 5 Watson discusses the illuminated pages for Luke’s Gospel found in the sixth century manuscript, “St. Augustine Gospels.” These pages, which depict scenes unique to Luke’s Gospel, give lie to the popular notion that the church of the first millennium had little interest in narrative theology. These illuminated pages, in turn, are drawn from the Eusebian canons, a complex and sophisticated system developed by Eusebius of Caesarea that identified the relationships between gospel parallels. These canons, which had a profound impact on gospel manuscripts and commentary for many centuries, guide Watson’s discussion throughout his final chapters (5–8).
In terms of weaknesses, the reader will not find here a survey or even a summary overview of the gospels. The chapters on the four gospels (chs. 1–4) are quite disappointing in this regard, leaving unmentioned and unexamined even some of the most basic gospel themes and motifs. In Watson’s defense, it soon becomes clear to the reader that book was not intended to provide this kind of systematic theological analysis. But with its subtitle, “A theological reading of the New Testament portraits of Jesus,” one would expect significantly more narrative theology than is provided here.
Despite this shortcoming, the book makes a significant and original contribution to gospel studies. Watson’s mastery of early church perspectives on the gospels makes for an innovative and interesting read throughout.