„What is a Gospel?” by F. Watson

„Watson, Francis: What is a Gospel? Grand Rapids u. a.: W. B. Eerdmans 2022. 353 S. Geb. US$ 49,00. ISBN 9780802872920″, Theologische Literaturzeitung 148 (2023) 5, 448-449

 After picking up F. Watson’s book entitled What is the Gospel? and browsing through the table of contents, a question immediately springs to mind: why does the author select these and not the other apocryphal (and heretical, as he himself states) writings? There are, after all, many more similar writings. Why does F. Watson want to introduce the reader to these and not the other biblical characters mentioned in extra-biblical early Christian writings? After all, a choice of other characters could be made.

The answer can be found in the introduction, from which we learn that the book is a collection of papers given at various seminars or academic conferences held in a number of academic centres (p. xiii). The key term linking the various chapters is ‘gospel’, which, both in Christian antiquity and today, is used not only to refer to the four canonical Gospels, but also to other early Christian writings, while not necessarily appearing in the title of those writings. The author asks himself (and thus his readers) a fundamental question: how do the canonical Gospels differ from other early Christian writings, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas or the Protoevangelium of James?

Watson argues that both collections of writings (canonical and extra-biblical) were written for similar purposes, were based on the same sources and contain similar content. The subjects of the Durham University professor’s research include the Q source, Papias’ Explanation of Lord’s Sayings, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Judas, the Protoevangelium of James, the First Apocalypse of James, the Gospel of Marcion, the works of Marcion, Tacitus, Irenaeus of Lyons and even the Quran. The content of these writings is juxtaposed by the author with that of the canonical Gospels, raising the question of the criteria that distinguish the two collections.

It seems unnecessary to introduce new designations for the canonical Gospels (GMark / GMk, GMatthew / GMt, GLuke / GLuke, GJohn / GJn) and similar ones for the apocryphal Gospels. The abbreviations of both the former and the latter have long been accepted and standardised in the biblical studies worldwide; moreover, they are common to all Christian denominations. To introduce new abbreviations is nothing but to introduce confusion, which is the least that biblical studies need. Watson contradicts himself when he writes: „[…] it is not yet clear why precisely this term ‘gospel’ is applied to them (canonical Gospels – M.R.), or why it should be applied to these four texts alone” (p. 2). Theology students know that the term ‘gospel’ is not only applied (‘alone’) to the four canonical Gospels, but also to other early Christian writings. Watson is also aware of it, since he not only uses the term ‘gospel’ to refer to writings commonly regarded as apocrypha or heretical works, but even invents new sigla for them.

It must be acknowledged that in the corpus of the book, the author undertakes numerous analyses of canonical Gospels and extra-biblical texts. The conclusions are formulated in an understandable and competent manner. They are well argued and justified in the corpus of the work. They are distinguished by logical argumentation. They follow directly from the research carried out, never to be found, as sometimes happens, too far-fetched or ungrounded.

The substantive value of Watson’s book would probably be somewhat higher if the author had taken into account several important publications relating to the subject of the monograph. These include: C.H. Talbert, What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospel (Philadelphia 1977); P.L. Shuler, Genre for the Gospels. The Biographical Character of Matthew (Philadelphia 1982); D. Dormeyer, Evangelium als literarische und theologische Gattung (Darmstadt 1989); M.L. Wills, The Quest of the Historical Gospel. Mark, John and the Origins of the Gospel Genre (London 1997); D.E. Aune, The Problem of the Genre of the Gospel: A Critique of C.H. Talbert’s ‘What is a Gospel?’ (in: R.T. France / D. Wenham (ed.), Gospel Perpectives, II, Studies of History and Tradition of the Four Gospels, Sheffield 1981, 6-90); M. Rosik, “Klassische griechische Biografie und Evangelium. Die Frage nach der literarischen Gattung“, (Studien zum Neuen Testament und seiner Umwelt 39 (2014) 111-134); C.H. Shuler, The Genre(s) of the Gospels (in D.L. Dungan (ed.), The Interrelations of the Gospels, Leuven 1990, 451-483).

The final chapter of Watson’s book is entitled A Reply to My Critics (pp. 279-284). In it, the author responds to the criticisms that followed the publication of his book entitled Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Grand Rapids 2013).

It seems that the value of the monograph by F. Watson is essentially based not on detailed analyses of the canonical Gospel texts compared with those of other ancient Christian writings (although these analyses are made in a factual and competent manner, maintaining all the standards of scholarship), but rather on returning to fundamental questions pertaining to the field under study. Several of these should be considered fundamental.

The first concerns the relationship between the academia and the Church. F. Watson notes, „[…] mapping of early Christian gospels is based on ancient Christian categories (canonical, apocryphal, heretical), but in its privileging of the canonical four it also reflects modern scholarly priorities – the more so where links between church and academy remain strong” (p. xii). The question of how much scholarly research is conditioned by denominational influences is still important and relevant.

The second question addresses the process of canonisation of the books of the New Testament. Why were certain books recognised as inspired and included in the canon of the Bible (as we know there are differences between the Catholic and Protestant canons) and others rejected? Is it correct to adopt three criteria: apostolic origin (the author of the book is an apostle or his direct disciple), liturgical use (the book was read during services in the early Church) and conformity with the message of the Hebrew Bible? What was the role of the Christian community in the process of verifying the books considered canonical?

The third question finally tackles the literary genre of the ‘gospel’. Some scholars thought that this question was concluded with the publication of the findings of Richard A. Burridge, Anglican exegete and clergyman, winner of the Proemio-Ratzinger in 2013, but F. Watson challenges his theses contained in his book What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004). Burridge responded to Watson’s theses with the article “Ancient Biography and the Development of the Canonical Collection” (in: Writing the Gospels: A Dialogue with Francis Watson, edited by Catherine Sider Hamilton with Joel Willetts, 63-80. NTL. London: T&T Clarc / Bloomsbury, 2019). This polemic indicates that the question of defining the genre of the ‘gospel’ remains open and no definitive solutions have been offered to date.

In conclusion, F. Watson’s book is important because it raises important questions, and it is courageous because the author provides unconventional answers. It is a must-read for all who are seriously interested in the exegesis and theology of the Gospels, and in early Christian literature in general.

„Watson, Francis: What is a Gospel? Grand Rapids u. a.: W. B. Eerdmans 2022. 353 S. Geb. US$ 49,00. ISBN 9780802872920”, Theologische Literaturzeitung 148 (2023) 5, 448-449.

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