Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Wesley Hill

Choosing the Church's Jesus.

Francis Watson on the "fourfold Gospel."

During the period when Augustine was composing his monumental De Trinitate, he occasionally set that project aside to work on others. (A "productive procrastinator" he might be called today: when one project loses appeal, occupy yourself with another—so the management books instruct us—until motivation reemerges to continue with the first.) One of these interim projects, completed around the turn of the 5h century, became the book De Consensu Evangelistarum, or as we know it in English translation, The Harmony of the Gospels. Augustine's aim in this book was to account for the unity of the four canonical Gospels of the New Testament in such a way that each of their distinctives was recognized and explained. Or, putting it the other way around, Augustine wanted to show how the uniqueness of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not impede the Christian confession of their basic agreement.

The contents of Augustine's book are varied and unfailingly stimulating, in part because he cannot escape discussion of thorny minutiae. Augustine notices, for instance, that in the Gospel of Matthew, when John the Baptist hails Jesus as the long-expected one, he describes his own relative lack of honor thus: "I am unworthy to carry his sandals" (Matt. 3:11). This is different from Luke's account of the same scene. In Luke—whom Augustine takes to have built on Matthew—John the Baptist says, "I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals" (Luke 3:16). Faced with this contradiction, "[i]t is reasonable," says Augustine, to pose the question what it was that John declared himself unworthy to do—whether to bear the shoes or to unloose the shoe's latchet." The way Augustine answered this question would shape the church's thinking about the diversity and harmony between the Gospels for centuries to come.

His solution to the puzzle was to posit two possible scenarios. On the one hand, the Baptist may have spoken about his unworthiness vis-à-vis Jesus on more than one occasion, now mentioning carrying Jesus' sandals, now adverting to a sentiment of not wanting even to untie them. Matthew and Luke, then, simply highlighted one and the other of these historical moments respectively, each taking one of the two moments and leaving the other moment for the other author. Or, alternatively, Augustine suggests that perhaps the Baptist said both things in the same conversation, and Matthew and Luke have simply edited his remarks for concision. Either way, Augustine thinks, there is no contradiction between Matthew and Luke on this score, nor is there any inaccuracy. The Baptist made each recorded remark at specific historical moments, and the Evangelists dutifully reported both.

I found myself thinking about a line from Karl Barth: "Were I to choose between [the historical-critical method] and the venerable doctrine of Inspiration, I should without hesitation adopt the latter.

What strikes most modern readers of this Augustinian material, I suspect, is its datedness. Those of us who have been formally trained in the academic discipline of New Testament studies have been instructed to view scholarship on the Gospels in terms of distinct epochs, one succeeding the other not only chronologically but also qualitatively, the newer exhibiting more knowledge as well as more hermeneutical sophistication. Where the patristic era—the centuries dominated by the so-called Church Fathers—offered harmonizing efforts like Augustine's, the post-Enlightenment university afforded scholars the opportunity to explore the composition and meaning of the Gospels without constraint from the supposed "dead hand of the church's dogma." Thus, many of Augustine's core convictions were abandoned. To return only to the example above, according to many (albeit not all) modern students of the Gospels, Luke didn't know Matthew. He wrote independently, using Mark but also correcting him, and adding supplementary material from other sources (like the hypothetical "Q"). Furthermore, even had Luke known Matthew, he wouldn't have worried overmuch about agreeing with Matthew's report of John the Baptist's words. Each Evangelist, we are told in modern scholarship, operated according to his own agenda. Where Augustine saw harmony, moderns see disunity; where Augustine operated on the assumption that Gospel differences could be shown to serve the purpose of an overarching unity, moderns find insuperable incommensurability between the four.

Challenged with this divergence, what is a believing Christian to do? One way of answering that question would be simple: go on believing that Augustine more or less got it right. The job of a modern reader, according to some Christians today, is to follow the Augustinian example and look for ways to make the four canonical accounts cohere in their particulars. In this way of thinking, confessing the Gospels' historicity is a matter, for instance, of positing that Judas first hanged himself (Matt. 27:5) and then fell and burst his corpse open (Acts 1:18-19, Acts being related to one of the four Gospels as a sort of historical afterword or companion piece)—thus smoothing the apparent discrepancies into one historically plausible sequence. Although the four Gospels were originally composed independently, divine providence (or, more precisely, pneumatic "inspiration") guaranteed that each is ultimately reconcilable at the level of historical description with the others.

At the opposite end of the spectrum lies the conviction that not only are the four Gospels irreconcilable historically—Judas' having hanged himself and Judas' having plunged over a cliff to his death cannot both have happened in space and time, being alternative, competing explanations for Judas' death—but they are also irreconcilable theologically. Or, to put the matter more strongly, the very idea of a fourfold canonical Gospel makes no sense: it attempts to hold together texts that, in their original authors' intention, were meant to be incompatible. Indeed, it is argued, Matthew came along after Mark and sought to correct Mark. And Luke, writing what he calls an "orderly" (1:3), probably intended, as Francis Watson remarks, to make "earlier versions of the gospel story redundant, at least in principle." In this light, surely the entire construct of an Augustinianly harmonious "fourfold Gospel" is a fiction which critical, historical study undermines?

Watson's new book The Fourfold Gospel: A Theological Reading of the New Testament Portraits of Jesus will satisfy neither the Augustinian nor the literal-minded "historical critic" as I've described them. (Nor, I think, does he provide an easy through-train to some problem-free theological Empyrean, but I'll return to that point.) His sympathies are not finally with Augustine's harmonizing project, whose natural endpoint (which Augustine himself did not achieve, and probably did not want to achieve) may be to dissolve the four into one. Augustine's vision inclines the reader to miss the distinctiveness of each of the four. But nor is Watson sanguine about the ability of the "historical-critical" project, understood in a militantly ideological, secularizing sense, to explain the early church's preference for a "fourfold Gospel" with anything other than puzzlement or, at worst, outright disdain. For many critics, the canon is something to be left behind on the way to a study of "early Christian religious history and gospel writing" stripped of its Christian theological rationale. Watson takes that option to be just as unappealing as the Augustinian one.

What Watson aims to provide is a reading of the fourfold Gospel that is downwind of modernity, alert to the gains of the "genetic method" of positing Markan priority, noting the literary dependence of Matthew and Luke on Mark, and viewing John as a later, more densely theological meditation on the meaning of Jesus' identity. Yet, by the same token, Watson wants his reading to be forthrightly canonical insofar as it takes the fourfold Gospel as, in some sense, normative for the church's ongoing quest to grasp the identity of Jesus.

In the first place, Watson is sure that the harmonizing approach is wrong. As he points out in the large study Gospel Writing[1] that laid the foundations for this more accessible work, already in the patristic era, Augustine's account had its critics. Origen (c. 185-254 CE), for example, thought differently about the matter. To his mind, the four Evangelists made use of "material that is other than historical." Certainly they tried "to speak spiritual and empirical truth together," but where that proved impossible—where their theological aims conflicted with the goals of a pure historian—they preferred "the spiritual to the empirical, frequently preserving (as one might put it) the spiritual truth in the empirical falsehood." So, we may surmise, although Origen doesn't discuss it the way Augustine did, he might countenance the idea John the Baptist didn't "empirically" say one or the other (or either?) of the sandal sayings attributed to him, but no matter: what counts is that the spiritual truth of Jesus' worthiness and John's comparative unworthiness is preserved. And at least in this respect, the concerns of modern historical critics are adumbrated, if not made theologically significant.

But Watson is equally sure that many moderns are wrong to think that historical discrepancies among the four Gospels invalidate the theological effort to read them together, by cross-referencing and on the assumption that their juxtaposition is fruitful. The early church's decision neither to opt for a diatessaron, an interweaving of the four into one, nor an unlimited plurality of gospels was theologically determinative. It was meant to generate certain sorts of theological moves—and that decision remains viable today. Subsequent readers were offered in the canonical collection a new theological object and, therewith, a new reading strategy, one that any Christian reader today may still practice with integrity: "the presence of [all four] gospels within the canonical collection obliges the interpreter to seek complementarity [among them] at the theological level even at points where a literal-historical reading can find only tension." On this view, theological readers have not yet completed their task if they only note the historically divergent accounts of Judas' death without going on to inquire into their possible theological significance. Christian readers can unearth each Evangelist's overall aims, within which some of the discrepancies between their respective narratives can acquire the character not of liabilities but goads to deeper, richer faith and theology.

Most of Watson's book is taken up with demonstrating that this hunch of the ongoing viability of the fourfold Gospel is in fact able to produce theologically fruitful readings—the proof of his hunch being, in some sense, in the pudding. And it is a wonderful gift for the reader to watch a mind as fertile and brilliant as Watson's ruminate on some passages from each of the four Gospels.

To take just one example, he shows great interest in the genealogies that appear near the beginning of both the First and the Third Gospels. Matthew's begins with Abraham and falls neatly into three sections: the initial one ends with David, the following section runs from David through the division of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah to the exile, and the last spans the time from the exile to the birth of Jesus. In Matthew's telling, each section is numerically analogous: there are 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 generations from David to the exile, and 14 generations from the exile to Jesus. But in order for this neat bit of arithmetic to work, Matthew must include Jechoniah the Judahite king twice. Jechoniah, whose three-month reign was abruptly cut short when his court succumbed to the invaders from Babylon and who subsequently spent 37 years in captivity (2 Kings 24:8-17; 25:27-30), is counted at the end of the David-to-exile portion of Matthew's genealogy (1:11) and at the beginning of the exile-to-Jesus portion (1:12). Is this, as some critics think, "a mathematical blunder" on Matthew's part?[2] Or is this repetition meant to serve as a theological drumbeat of sorts, underscoring that "the sacred history recorded in Israel's scriptures does not have the power to regenerate itself," that the divided Israelite kingdom and their monarchs and their future ultimately hang by the thread of divine mercy? Watson urges the latter option, noting how the doubling of Jechoniah highlights the fact that "the postexilic generations stand at the intersection of catastrophe and hope"—and, furthermore, how Jesus' own history is identical with that history. "He could not save his people from their sins … if he himself did not enter the sphere pervaded by" their failure and captivity.

But what then of Luke? Watson rules the Augustinian option out immediately: "the conflicting genealogies"—Matthew traces his line from Abraham to Joseph, Jesus' non-biological father, while Luke starts with Jesus and threads his lineage by a different route, bypassing Solomon and the kings of Judah and winding up with Adam as the progenitor (3:23-48)—"make it unlikely that Luke intended to complement Matthew. One does not complement a genealogy by producing an entirely different set of ancestors for the same individual." And yet Watson insists that this does not mean that we are left simply with irreconcilable diversity. Rather, at the level of canonical theology, one may discern that the "purpose of one genealogy [Matthew's] is to emphasize Jesus' Jewishness, while the other [Luke's] highlights his significance for all humanity." In this light, while it is admittedly hard to talk about "historical accuracy" in any kind of straightforward sense, it is also difficult to speak without qualification about a "contradiction." Between Augustine and, say, Bart Ehrman lies a middle path: a historically attuned but canonically driven theological decision to receive the fourfold Gospel as a new object of interpretation, as the church's guide for knowing Jesus.

Does this make the fourfold Gospel an arbitrary construction of the church? In a certain sense, Watson thinks the answer must be yes: "There was nothing inevitable about the four-gospel collection." He does not follow, for instance, the impressive work of Richard Bauckham and Charles Hill[3] in arguing that there was some awareness on the part of the earliest Christians that these four, and only these four, were the "apostolic" deposits of eyewitness testators, and I wish he had said more about why he thinks this argument isn't persuasive. From the vantage point of history's alleyways and forked roads, Watson implies, it all might well have turned out differently. Matthew's prominence might have swelled to such a height that Mark was eclipsed altogether, lost in the whirl of a burgeoning church. Or Luke's attempt to produce the most streamlined gospel might have succeeded, displacing Matthew and Mark. John, on the other hand, might have struck the early generations as too much of a departure from the others and been deemed unusable in the long-term. Yet none of these possibilities became actualities. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John won out. Gradually, over the course of accumulated and widespread use, these four outstripped their rivals. The canonical collection "took the form it did not because some bishop or council forcibly imposed it on an unwilling or an 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." In this sense, the fourfold Gospel is anything but arbitrary, being the product of faithful reading that may be seen as the precursor to our own.

But is this enough for contemporary faith in the fourfold Gospel? Can we recognize that our Bible might have been composed differently, had the brook of history been diverted slightly at its mouth, and still accord it final authority in shaping our view of Jesus? Can we trust that the church's ratification of the four—not three, not five—Gospels was right even if it wasn't an outcome determined from the beginning?

Watson's book answers yes, but it is an affirmation that feels to this reader like something of a choice. Closing his book, I found myself thinking about a line from Karl Barth: "Were I to choose between [the historical-critical method] and the venerable doctrine of Inspiration, I should without hesitation adopt the latter, which has a broader, deeper, more important justification." If Watson is right about our inability to specify some historical necessity internal to the canonical four that required them to be preferred over their non-canonical rivals, then perhaps we must, like Barth, choose to affirm "Inspiration." Perhaps we must, standing on our Christian forebears' instincts, select the fourfold Gospel as our norm. We know, after all, more about how these four were likely produced than some of their early champions did, and we know—if Augustine is wrong and Watson is right—about their historical tensions, as well as the proliferation of their non-canonical counterparts. But can we also know, again, in a new way, about their unity and ultimate authority?

That is the choice Watson presses us to make, on the basis of a massive, accumulated church tradition, one that has born great theological fruit over the centuries. We don't make a leap in the dark, he argues, because in choosing the fourfold Gospel, we take our stand on a line of readings whose strength and appeal is its own justification. But leap we do, trusting that the church's recognition of these four is surer guide to the life of Jesus than its rivals, both then and now. For those of us who remain the church, Watson thinks, we choose the venerable doctrine of the fourfold Gospel, and we go on reading it for life and faith.

Wesley Hill is assistant professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Paul and the Trinity (Eerdmans).

1. Francis Watson, Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Eerdmans, 2013).

2. W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, ICC (London: T. & T. Clark, 1988), p. 186.

3. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Eerdmans, 2008); C. E. Hill, Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy (Oxford Univ. Press, 2012).

Most ReadMost Shared