Review of Francis Watson’s Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective @eerdmansbooks

Francis Watson’s newest tome, Gospel Writing, A Canonical Perspective, presents fresh ideas, refocuses others, and forces Gospel Critics into reconsidering cherished beliefs. It is a rather long examination of the totality of Gospel writing — including the process of validation for what is canonical. While Watson has many fine points along the way, some of which we will discuss shortly, his central thesis is not truly found until the later portion of the book.

“No book is inherently canonical: texts become canonical because their readers stipulate that they shall henceforth be so, and they stay that way only insofar as later readers uphold the earlier decision.”[1] Around this statement is built a premise of reading the Gospels not as a set of four, but as a line from existing sources, so that one may include known non-canonical writings as well as speculating on yet unknown sources. What Watson accomplishes is nothing less than expanding the canonical reading while at the same time preserving the Four-Fold tradition in ways even Augustine and Origen would have to admire.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One begins with Augustine and ends with the enlightened discovery of Q. Part Two examines various theories on the origins of the Gospels assuming a less-than-eyewitness account, focusing instead on the literary lineage. Finally, Part Three begins with Clement and marches us through time and space to Jerome whereby we see the preservation of the Four-Fold Gospel as something liturgical and ecumenical.

Part One, The Eclipse of the Fourfold Gospel, is filled with expert analysis of the criticism of the Gospels from Augustine to Schleiermacher and comprises two chapters. Watson begins not with the expected Irenaeus, who is saved for chapter 9, but with Augustine who is the first of what we might call the Gospel Critics.  As Watson reminds us, however, Augustine’s mission was to harmonize the Gospels rather than to seek any clues about their literary origins. The strength of these chapters lies not in the detailed history of Augustine’s textual comparison, but in the scholarly approach to each of the figureheads’ theological (or psychological) reading of the differences among the Gospels. Simply put, Augustine harmonized the Gospels with one another. Lessing and his descendants harmonized the Gospels with Reason.

Part One is the history of the interpretation of the individual passages of the Gospels, but of the reason we have four Gospels along with how do we understand them next to one another. Further, in this examination is a brief understanding of the rise of historical criticism. Without a doubt, my favorite portion thus far is Watson’s examination of Lessing.

Augustine was ready to throw away all of the Gospels if he could not harmonize them — if the story was not exactly the same. We see this same attitude today with those who rather than see the differences brought about by different methods of narrative recapitulation, call the disjointed similarities contradictions. Lessing, rather, could see them plainly as differences and allow the Gospels were not reporting historical fact. They were reporting the truth.

Part Two has five chapters, each examining one of the Gospels, either canonical or non-canonical. His focus here is not on why the first Gospel was written, but assuming that such a thing occurs, utilizes what Mark Goodacre called for in his 2001 work, The Synoptic Problem, A Way Through the Maze — Narrative Criticism. Watson accepts Markan priority, and generally holds to a non-Q theory of Matthew and Lukan expansion. This occupies chapters 3–5, with chapter 5 focused on the Gospel of Thomas. While Watson builds a solid defense against Q, he allows for a sayings collection (SC) to have existed before or even along side the earliest literary accounts of Jesus. Thomas, for Watson, is not the SC, but represents a likely derivative of the SC.

Early on in chapter 5, Watson blatantly defies standard New Testament scholarship first by de-Gnosticizing Thomas and then by suggesting, “The enduring influence of the canonical decision is also evident in connection with the Gospel of Thomas… which, some decades after its discovery, has still not been successfully integrated into any overarching account of gospel origins.”[2] What he does then is to in my opinion do what many have failed — he incorporates Thomas successfully into the “overarching account of gospel origins.” It is reminiscent of what Sanders and Davies’ once called “undefined sources.”[3]

Let us focus on chapter 5 just a bit more, as along with chapter 6, promises to be the highlight of this tome. I was pleasantly surprised to see him speak to the “gnosticism” of Thomas. Beginning with a discussion of what gnostic really means in regards to early belief systems and later literary developments, Watson cautiously demonstrates the uniqueness of Thomas among other Gnostic literature, arriving at the conclusion whereby we doubt Thomas‘ usually stated (by some) reason of its place at Nag Hammadi.[4] This is very most helpful because while Thomas does include secret sayings and a few liberating tendencies, we should no longer really ascribe to the book the belief system of later Gnostics if we actually compare it to other gnostic literature. Rightly so, the Fourth Gospel is sometimes alluded to as a gnostic type of literature. Further, we know from reading Clement of Alexandria the word and connotation of ‘gnostic’ was often a positive appellate for early Christians.

Equally so, I found Watson’s allowance for a non-Q sayings collection (SC) as typified by Thomas very intriguing.[5] By creating such an allowance, scholars can allow for Papias’ Logia and the non-cited sayings scattered in early Christian writings as still a non-Q document. I believe, if I have read him correctly, his thesis still allows room for Goodacre ‘s proposal for a Thomasine redaction of the Synoptics.[6] He does, after all, allow for the independence of the SC and the narrative of the Gospels.[7]

To show how a SC may provide a link between orality and textuality, Watson delves into Mark 4. Here, I am not so sure about his hypothesis, with Watson almost insisting on a shared source between Mark and Thomas. This is where our author seems to diverge from Goodacre’s excellent thesis. Further, he attempts to demonstrate Thomas as a SC, but not the SC that gave rise to Mark and Matthew. (Luke is still dependent upon Mark and Matthew.) Here, I find it interesting Watson has not referred to John Horman‘s book on a common Greek source shared by the authors of Mark and Thomas.[8] 

I hesitate to admit this, but a SC would help to answer some of the unknowns in the search for Mark’s literary sources, especially, as Watson points out, in the parables. Even without a narrative, several of the statements in Mark 9.14–29 (specially v19 and v23, and the exorcism formula in v25) could be part of the SC collection. Watson is right to recommend that any such SC remain hypothetical, cautioning scholars against spending precious time producing a critical edition, as they have done with Q.

All of this is immensely important as Watson turns to John and a probable (he insists and I am inclined to agree) connection between our Fourth Gospel as the Egerton fragments, or what Watson calls the Egerton Gospel. He begins this chapter with another thesis-like statement, writing “The creation of the canonical/non-canonical divide has a retroactive effect on the entire field, making it appear that canonical normativity is inherent to some texts while apocryphal marginality is equally inherent to others. This appearance cannot be dismissed as an illusion, for the fourfold canonical gospel remains a communally normative text which both includes and excludes.”[9]

I maintain a distinctive Jewish quality to Mark and Matthew (based in Deuteronomy) but a different sort to L(eviticus)uke. Where does John fit in? We know John has some issues with ‘us v. them’, ‘us v. Jews.’ This has been explained in a variety of ways. But, in the literary sense, there is little to mark the transition. I mean, how did we go from Mark to John?

This is where the work Watson has done begins to solve this problem. He provides for us a literary connection, even if he does not fully see it yet.

After discussing the movement from Egerton to John, Watson comments, “the Egerton evangelist is consciously seeking to counter the Johannine distancing of Jesus from Judaism, reincorporating him into the community” of a more Judaism-centric Christianity. He goes on, ‘This Jewish-Christian or Christian-Jewish feature of GEger is of a piece with its pre-occupation with the Moses/Jesus relationship… it is more likely to be pre-Johannine.”[10]

Might whatever Egerton represents be the literary transition between Luke and John? Unfortunately, Watson does not begin to tackle this question, failing to examine convincingly the connection between Egerton and the Synoptics. Where he does find a connection, he quickly assigns it to the SC. For example, Watson, after comparing Egerton and P. Köln 255r to Mark 1.40–5, suggests the Egerton-Köln story “may derive from a version independent of Mark.[11] Unfortunately, I think Watson stresses too much the importance of direct literary parallels. See Adam Winn‘s notes on this in his monograph on the Elijah-Elisha narratives.[12] Watson does, however, allow for some similar language at this point between Egerton–Köln and John. Had Watson allowed for a dependence on Mark, we might have seen another hallmark of a transition from the rather rabbinical Jewishness of the Synoptics to whatever new creation John is trying to be.

Watson’s seventh chapter, Reinterpreting in Parallel, examines the literary trajectory from Mark (and maybe before Mark) to John through Thomas and the afore-not-mentioned Gospel of Peter. Several of his conclusions are going to be rather essential in examining John’s relationship with the Synoptics, specifically Mark. This chapter is filled with example after examples of the trajectory we can see develop if we remove the subjective and imposed notion of canonical and non-canonical. Watson’s Figure 7.1 examines the parallel accounts of the trial narrative in Mark 15.2–18 and John 18.33–19.16. This examination is one of the most powerful examples of John’s reliance upon Mark. Watson concludes this chapter by saying, “It is only as the texts deemed non-canonical are taken into account that the true significance of the canonical boundary becomes clear.“[13]

Part Three consists of four chapters and a closing series of theses. Watson began the book by examining Gospel Criticism from Augustine to the near present. This time, he begins with Clement and studies the method by which the four gospels were selected as canonical. After all, he has shown persuasively that the literary trajectory from Mark to John includes an expanded collection.

Watson instigates the study in the East with Clement of Alexandria and a plurality of Gospels and agrapha. He pits this against the West, personified by Irenaeus. The Tradition in the East seeks to limit the number of canonical gospels while Irenaeus attempts to include just enough to keep the balance in the Church. While this may not be of interest to literary critics, Watson concedes time to the canonical theologians, showing essentially how their own view (pre-dating Childs) came to be. He does this primarily with a chapter on Origen. Wrapping up his work, he moves to showcase earlier liturgical reception of the Four-Fold Gospel in art and other imaginative spaces.

Instead of a conclusion, Watson offers a series of seven propositions. Theses I–IV center on the literary reception of Jesus. I find this rather odd as earlier in the book, Watson allows that a Jesus is not needed for the unfolding narrative of the Gospels.[14] Yet, a majority of his propositions deal with the ongoing development of the Jesus Tradition, something I could not easily tag to any particular section of the book. The remaining three statements, however, do match the thesis of the book and provide a fitting conclusion to his work in this volume.

As I have mentioned throughout this review, there are but a few issues. The first and perhaps the one encompassing all others is the length of the book. I would rather have seen this a two-volume work, with ample attention given to chapters 5 and 6 in the first volume with the second volume encompassing the sum of chapter 7. Finally, there are instances I felt Watson simply kept writing when he should have stopped. There are sometimes giant swaths of material I did not find germane to the overall thesis of the work. Beyond this, and a few minor disagreements with Watson’s conclusions, I can find nothing of serious concern. Some, no doubt, will (and rightfully so) find cause to question the publisher’s choice of paperback rather than hardback, although undoubtedly, this is kept the price low.

There will be a great distance in time between this volume and one successfully unseating it. What Watson provides is not a start or a stop, but a real way forward in the examination of the literary origins of the Gospels and canonical status. Perhaps it is up to later scholars — the New Testament scholar as well as the Patristic Scholar — to split this work into two heuristic volumes and continue the research more than begun here. Francis Watson’s work serves as a keystone in Gospel Criticism and will not be forgotten.


[1] Watson, 536

[2] Watson, 218

[3] E. P. Sanders and M. Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels (London: SCM, 1989), 117.

[4] Watson, 221

[5] Watson, 271

[6] Mark Goodacre, Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Synoptics, Eerdmans Publishing, 2012.

[7] Watson, 272

[8] John Horman, A Common Written Greek Source for Mark and Thomas (Studies in Christianity and Judaism), Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011.

[9] Watson, 288

[10] Watson, 315

[11] Watson, 322

[12] Adam Winn, Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative: Considering the Practice of Greco-Roman Imitation in the Search for Markan Source Material, Pickwick, 2011, specially pages 3–4, for no less a reason than he specifically compares a story from Matt/Luke to John.

[13] Watson, 407

[14] Watson, 157

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Post By Joel Watts (10,051 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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2 thoughts on Review of Francis Watson’s Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective @eerdmansbooks

  1. Nice review. I’ve read that it actually costs no, or very very little, more to produce a book in hardcover than in paperback. Publishers sometimes act like sheep and follow trends, the current trend (unfortunately) being to big unwieldy softcovers.

  2. Pingback Slow and Complicated |

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