Francis Watson on Gospel Writing – An Interview and Reflection (Part I)

Francis Watson on Gospel Writing – An Interview and Reflection (Part I) January 21, 2014

watsonRecently I had the delightful opportunity to have a long chat with Professor Francis Watson (Durham University) about his stimulating new book, Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective. I would like to share that conversation with you through mostly summary with occasional quotes from particular statements Professor Watson (FW) made that I found especially rewarding or interesting.

The Beginning of the Journey towards Gospel Writing

We started off our conversation with my question how did you come to be interested in the subject matter of the Synoptic Problem and the composition of the gospels? FW explained that, even as a student new to the Greek New Testament, he fell in love with Albert Huck’s Greek synopsis and found issues related to the interrelationship between the gospels fascinating.

Fast-forward to FW’s years in Aberdeen, and he inherited a course on the gospels taught to first-year students. FW made it a point to include the study of, not only Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but also some of the non-canonical gospels. FW found that students welcomed engagement with these texts. He also mentioned his interest in Mark Goodacre’s The Case Against Q and how it prompted him to look at the Synoptics carefully and see how Luke may have worked from Matthew.

While FW has been publishing a lot in Pauline studies in recent years, he has regularly published in the area of gospels studies and the canonical approach to biblical interpretation.

Thinking about ThinkingGW

Given that FW has been ruminating on this subject in publications for a number of years, I asked him if he has changed his mind on any important matters. In the main, he assured me he hadn’t, but I was intrigued by his whole approach to the maturity of thought and scholarly circumspection.

“I am sure there are individual points where I have changed my mind, but it is hard to differentiate between changing one’s mind and just one’s thought developing as one thinks about things more and acquires new knowledge and understanding in new areas.”

(I found this a salutary point in view of questions about whether St. Paul “changed his mind” or “developed.” This way of looking at it, which FW has articulated, seems quite normal and human, and even necessary and rich. Perhaps so also for Paul.)

“Is Q Still a Hypothesis?”

I fondly remember an occasion, in my time as a Ph.D. student at Durham, when FW gave a richly-rewarding paper to the NT seminar called “Is Q Still a Hypothesis?” In Gospel Writing, FW argues that Q is not the best way to answer the Synoptic Problem despite its position as the default theory in many circles. I asked FW if there were other like-minded scholars who are doubtful of Q. He reminded me of a collection of essays edited by Mark Goodacre and Nicholas Perrin called Questioning Q. However, he noted that, even though there are a number of scholars critical of Q, they do not all agree on the better hypothesis. This led me to my next question:

If not Q, then What?

Gospel Writing develops very carefully FW’s own theory, but he was kind enough to explain to me the key points.

First, he told me, it is not enough to limit one’s material only to Matthew, Mark, and Luke when trying to sort out the early work of “gospel writing.”

“my basic assumption is that material related to Jesus, and specifically sayings attributed to Jesus get written down from quite an early stage.”

FW admitted that this is a point in favor of Q (the theory of an early piece of writing not in story-form), but FW appeals to the Gospel of Thomas as a “late example of what would have been an early primitive Christian genre of a ‘sayings collection’” – indeed, he added, “simple, non-literary sayings collections are one of the roots of the developing gospel tradition.”

A second point FW made was that, then, Mark is not really the first attempt to put the Jesus tradition into writing. Thirdly, Matthew, then, is a further interpretive project building from, but even seeking to replace, Mark.  Thus, Matthew serves, FW stated, “as a rival attempt at a revised, expanded, second-edition of the text.”

FW recognized that the language of “rivalry” could sound combative, but he explained that authorial names do not get firmly attached to the gospels until the mid-second century or so. In the first century, gospel writing appears to have been an anonymous activity. Thus, when readers/auditors encountered Matthew, FW is not sure whether it would have been understood as an entirely separate work from Mark, or some kind of expansion. What we see in the first century is not a clear intent for known authors to publish individual books, but, rather, all signs point to a more “fluid and ongoing process of gospel writing.”

In the next post we continue the dialogue, focusing especially on this idea of gospel writing as interpretation and re-interpretation, as well as the benefits of the plurality of the fourfold gospel collection in the New Testament.

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