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The Fourfold Gospel: A Theological Reading of the New Testament Portraits of Jesus
by francis watson
baker academic, 224 pages, $24.99

Ever since the pathbreaking work of Brevard Childs in the 1970s, what has come to be called “canon criticism” (as distinct from source criticism and form criticism) has grown steadily more important for biblical studies. Canon criticism focuses on the final form of biblical texts as they come down to us, not on their textual formation in an imagined ur-stage of development. To turn away from academic hypotheses to the Bible of the Church is to accept the text as the Word of God. We acknowledge that some early readers may have been more insightful than many of our contemporaries.

Francis Watson, a professor of New Testament theology and exegesis at Durham University, is a leader in this vein of biblical interpretation. In Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (2013), he examined the tradition of spiritual interpretation from Origen and Augustine to the early modern period, as well as the history of the liturgical use of the gospels. His goal was to determine whether the variations and contradictions among the four portraits of Jesus had been dealt with best by harmonizers such as Augustine and Calvin, or whether the elimination of their diversity had brought more loss than gain.

Although Watson was criticized by some scholars, Gospel Writing stands as one of the most important works in biblical criticism of the past fifty years, not simply in the sphere of textual study, but for biblical theology in the wider life of the Church. The present volume is a précis of Gospel Writing. It is dedicated to Watson’s parents, who requested a “shorter book accessible to non-specialist readers.” Many others will be grateful to Francis Watson for accomplishing so well his filial duty.

The Fourfold Gospel focuses on the Church’s use of the gospels in various lectionaries, especially the lectionaries of the second through fourth centuries. It examines manuscript evidence for ways in which the four evangelists were seen by early readers as distinctive, as well as complementary. Watson considers illuminated manuscripts from the fifth-century Garima Gospels of Ethiopia to European and English gospel manuscripts such as the sixth-century “St. Augustine Gospels” and the bilingual Lindisfarne Gospels. Watson shows how the visual iconography in these manuscripts is related to a general early Christian interest in the distinctive verbal markers in each of the gospels, notably in their opening words. For instance, Mark begins with a quotation of Isaiah announcing the coming king, an event that is sometimes symbolized by Mark’s emblem, the regal lion drawn from Ezekiel’s vision of the divine presence. Luke begins with the writer’s acknowledgement of previous “ministers of the word” and his choice to emphasize eyewitness accounts. He is therefore often depicted as a scholar consulting multiple texts in his study.

From Matthew’s distinctive Jewish genealogy (so different from Luke’s) to John’s ontological prologue, Watson details the conclusions of early readers regarding the perspective adopted by each gospel writer, their different emphases in narrative selection, and the structure and theological purposes ultimately achieved by each. Here he finds that the tradition sees “difference” but also “sameness,” not merely in matters of overlap, as in the synoptic gospels, but in overarching conclusions about the meaning of Jesus’s life.

Through the centuries, many interpreters of the gospels have emphasized “sameness,” seeking a simple portrait of Jesus. This is precisely what Watson wishes to avoid. In this he follows Irenaeus, who understood the diversity of the gospels in light of Ezekiel’s vision of the four living creatures, each with four different faces, surrounding the divine presence. By the time of Jerome’s Commentary on Matthew, the pattern had become standard. Matthew is the human face because he opens with Jesus’s human genealogy. Mark begins in the desert, whose danger is symbolized by the lion. Luke begins in the Temple, and so the calf of sacrifice is his symbol. John begins by soaring up to the Word from eternity, and so becomes the eagle. Augustine refines this scheme: The three synoptic gospels are earthbound, primarily concerned with the deeds of Christ in the flesh, whereas John “gazes on the light of unchanging truth” with visionary “eyes of the heart.”

Lay readers will be grateful for Watson’s discussion of the canon tables of Eusebius, the fourth-century bishop of Caesarea. In these tables, parallels and analogies are scrupulously noted, yet contrasts are preserved, providing what Watson calls “an indispensable image of gospel diversity and unity.” The tables are found at the beginnings of extant gospel manuscripts as far back as Garima, and the beauty with which they are represented indicates how much they were valued. Watson considers the cross-referencing system of Eusebius “superior to the kind found in most modern Bibles, as it locates the cross-references within a comprehensive analysis of ten different combinations in which the gospels are related to one another.”

At first it was normal for each gospel to be bound individually as a single codex, but the emergence of the concept of a fourfold gospel led naturally to all four being bound together. This practice became a sign of their authority as the principal texts in the liturgy. In church worship, the four portraits of Jesus are commented upon by the homilist not in terms of “some inert correspondence between text and referent,” but as a word to be “interpreted, heard, prayed, and lived.” The Eucharist serves as the basis for the imitation of what the gospels narrate. For Watson, this progression defines the proper object of biblical theology in the life of the Church.

David Lyle Jeffrey is distinguished professor of literature and humanities at Baylor University.