Truth and the Fourfold Canonical Gospel

During SBL back in November, I had one of the most memorable and sweet times of conversations deepening friendship with Jonathan Pennington. On a whim, and quite by accident, we ended up spending a few hours hanging out in conversation. I’m so thankful for God’s providence. Our conversation ranged from Messianic Judaism to Matthew and the Gospels to very personal things in our life and family, much more significant things than those of the academic sort. I really appreciate Jonathan. He’s a guy I would like to know better; and hope to. I feel that my faith and my thinking are sharpened by spending time with him.

Anyway, I mention Jonathan because it was he who told me I have to read Francis Watson’s new book Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective. It may come as a surprise to you given I contribute to this awesome blog(!), but I think often I’m the last one to know about the release of an important book. Jonathan mentioned it was about sources for the Gospels, which is not a subject I care very much about, perhaps another surprise given I’m supposedly a Gospel’s scholar. For me source criticism is right next to historical criticism and Jesus scholarship for the least interesting and biggest waste of time. Both of these pursuits seem to me to lead to very little secure information on which to base any kind of conclusion. I applaud what I hear and see Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne  doing- if you’ve not checked it out you can find them over at The Jesus Blog. But I still am far from convinced that pursuing the “historical Jesus” is good either for the the faith of the faithful or as an apologetic to the world — this is another subject though. I do find in Waton’s book an ally in my disinterest in getting to the “uninterpreted” Jesus. In the prologue Watson writes,

The position developed here serves to underline the mediated character of all knowledge of Jesus – over against the claim that we can have access to an uninterpreted “historical” figure by abstracting him from his own reception (8).

While Source criticism indeed is a significant element of the book,  from the very front of the book one sees just how widely provocative Watson’s robustly academic book is far beyond the topic of Gospel sources. Watson has his arms opened wide with the pointer figure of each hand firmly placed in the scholarly eye of the sympathetic and non-sympathetic reader of the Canonical Gospels.

Consider his discussion of the issue of truth in regard to the fact of a canonical gospel. Watson makes the stunning claim, and one that has a significant amount of  historical, hermeneutical and theological merit, that the fourfold canonical gospel “prescribes difference”. Plurality is a theologically indispensable element of the canonical gospels. And instead of seeing the presence of difference as either a threat or an opportunity depending on whether one is a critic or an apologist, difference should be perceived as a central part of the way the canonical gospels present the truth of who Jesus is.

Watson writes,

If the canonical gospel is to come into view as a textual object in its own right, then both difference and similarity, plurality and singularity, must be given their due. Where this delicate balance is lost, the gospels will be viewed either as heterogeneous or as uniform, and each of these undialectical extremes will represent a reaction against the other. Either way, the integrity of the canonical form will be compromised  (13).

Watson raises a critical eye toward the criterion of factual correspondence, the primary way we assess truth, for assessing the truth claims of the fourfold gospel.  First he writes,

The criterion by which a contradiction is identified has to do with the texts’ relationship not only to one another but also to prior historical reality. A contradiction arises when one factual assertion is exclusive of another. Jesus is said to have bestowed sight on a blind man both as he approached the city of Jericho (Lk. 18.35) and as he left it (Mk 10.46). Since one cannot approach and leave the same location simultaneously, this is an apparent or real contradiction . . . A contradiction between texts entails a noncorrespondence with factual occurrence (13-14)

Then he reflects,

If follows, however, that the possibility of contradiction only arises on the assumption that correspondence with factual occurrence is the appropriate criterion for assessing gospel truth—an assumption that may be held both by critic and by the apologist . . . in both cases, gospel differences are construed negatively, as entailing prima facie contradictions and potential disjunction from the actual historical occurrence. In both cases, canonical pluriformity is sacrificed in the quest for a singular historical truth, whether minimal or maximal. And in both cases, the criterion of correspondence to factual occurrence proves destructive of the form of the canonical gospel (14).

Watson asserts, profoundly I might add, that to minimize the differences between the gospels is theologically problematic. He says,

More importantly to trivialize the alleged contradictions is also to trivialize the differences that constitute the individual gospels in their discrete identities. The problem of alleged contradictions can only be resolved by recognizing that the criterion of correspondence to factual occurrence is already rejected in the canonical form itself. As Origen recognized but Augustine did not, the apparent contradiction demonstrates the inadequacy of this criterion and compels the reader to seek the truth on a different plane to that of sheer factuality (14).

Does the canonical shape of the fourfold gospel force us to look for the truth of the gospel on a different plane than sheer factuality? What does that mean for our understanding of the Bible’s inspiration and inerrancy? Does our propensity to grind the gospels on the millstone of modern historiography undermine the very truth we are trying to proclaim?

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  • John Walker

    I think it all comes down to genre. If the Gospels are more akin to theological biographies than modern histories, they may not be concerned primarily with “factual” correspondence.

  • It’s “God’s providence” when you get to speak with someone for a few hours about your favorite subject? Eric Hoffer sure was right about people attaching their egos to something bigger than themselves in order to feel bigger about whatever they think and do.

    I guess it was also “God’s providence” that the author of the earliest Gospels just happened to be enabled by God to write his tale from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, i.e., someone who “knows” what Jesus and others were thinking throughout the story, knows where Jesus went even when he was all alone, what happened when Jesus was alone (temptation), what Jesus said when everyone was asleep (last prayer), knows what Jesus alone saw and heard at his baptism, knows what was spoken at the trial, and knows what some lone Centurion said when Jesus died. And by providence, what the author learned about Jesus’ baptism just happened to match what happened when Jesus died, how convenient,* unless of course a lot of this is STORYTELLING simply in an effort to draw more people into the author’s religious views and passions.

    *Yes, how convenient that in Mark only Jesus sees the heavens “torn” open and God telling Jesus that Jesus is “my Son,” and then when Jesus dies, the curtain of the holy of holies is “torn” open and a lone Roman says, “surely this was the Son of God.” Nice framing. But is it providence or storytelling?

    Also one might consider Gospel trajectories and how they allow one to SEE the story about Jesus growing over time, which raises the question of how much in the Gospels is history and how much is storytelling:

    I’m especially unimpressed by Matthew’s typical first century “stretching of the meaning” of whatever OT passages he could find to try and make them appear like prophecies of Jesus’ first coming. Matthew is too eager to “connect the dots” any way he can in order to prove his beliefs, suggesting all of the creativity and imagination that went into the creation of the “Jesus story.” And even Matthew admits that after the resurrection “some doubted” (whatever that means, since interpretations vary on that passage as well).

    Christians are in love with the stories that Gospels writers told about Jesus, and such writers were seeking converts first and foremost. Who knows if the average devout Christian today would have loved the historical Jesus or been willing to follow such an apocalyptic prophet. I’m not sure Paul would have loved the historical Jesus either.