“Gospel Reading and Reception in Early Christian Literature,” by Madison N. Pierce, Andrew J. Byers, and Simon Gathercole

Blake Adams
Monday, May 30th 2022

Gospel Reading and Reception in Early Christian Literature, edited by Madison N. Pierce, Andrew J. Byers, and Simon Gathercole, is an anthology of articles dedicated to Francis Watson with an eye to further and refine his life’s work on the theological interpretation of Scripture. Watson’s scholarship was pivotal in wresting biblical studies from its “Berliner captivity” (xi)—the austerities of the historical-critical method—and desegregating biblical studies and Christian theology.

As an anthology by contributors with both the pedigree and love for their subjects, this work is a joy to read (if, like me, you find special satisfaction in tracing a line of thought from start to finish in one sitting) and a challenge to review. Rather than dwell on the merits and shortcomings of each of the ten articles, I will remark instead on their aggregate significance. I begin with an interlude:

It is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are…From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospels under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit.

Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 3:11.8

In this much-commented-upon passage, Irenaeus (writing c. 170–180) presents the earliest promotion of a fixed fourfold Gospel canon. Earlier Church Fathers referred to “Gospels” (in the plural), but none explicitly or implicitly number them. What’s more, not only does Irenaeus censor any Gospels besides the four (i.e., Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), but he is suggesting that the apostolic preaching would be somehow incomplete if fewer than four Gospels were present; he apprehends a perfection in the four-ness.

When answering questions about canon development, I find it helpful to begin here, with Irenaeus. The word canon is famously tricky, but if we use it in the conventional sense of a fixed and closed list, then it is helpful to think of the Bible not as a single (if you will, capital “C”) Canon, but as a composite of several (lowercase “c”) canons. We are already accustomed to speaking of the Old Testament as a three-parter of Law, Prophets, and Psalms (cf. Luke 24:44); and the New Testament as Gospels and Apostolic Writings. Each of these is its own canon—canons within the Canon—and each canon was closed and fixed at a different point in. For example, disputes over the canonicity of certain apostolic letters (e.g., James and Second Peter) would rage for centuries, but there was notable certainty at an early point about the four-ness of the Gospels.

Thinking of the Bible as a composite of canons which together constitute a single ecclesial Canon gives us a concept for better understanding the history of the Bible. For example, you may notice the more inclined a canon is to miscellany—that is, the more diverse its material in terms of subject matter, genre, and authorship—the later it tends to be solidified. Meanwhile, books that share close and contemporary literary connections—intertextuality—are the earliest to be canonized.

This is especially true for the four Gospels. Every Gospel writer is a Gospel reader, and every Gospel writer anticipates other Gospel readers (and has notions of what sort of readers they might be). While we can read each Gospel on its own terms and appreciate its unique voice, canonicity invites a “fifth” reading: reading all four books as a single book. This is not to be assumed: it is a feature we can demonstrate from the Gospels themselves. After Mark, the Gospels exercise an awareness of each other; they talk to each other; they quote, borrow, correct,[1] update, expand, and revise each other. This is to read canonically. Scholars like Chris Keith focus on the intertextual relations; whereas Francis Watson focuses on the Fourfold Gospel as a unique historical, hermeneutical, and theological unit. This is to read theologically. Among the advantages of this approach is it frees us from infatuation with first-century origins and attends to the later history of reception, which is necessary for a full account of Canon.

Some may say that Fourfoldness already is unbiblical: it is the work of readers, not the inspired authors. The Fourfold Gospel is not, they say, strictly biblical. There is a certain truth here, but it also ignores the demonstrable historical, hermeneutical, and theological solidarity of the four Gospels. Even their bickering reinforces their unique relationship and begs for a canonical reading. They should be read together today because they were read together at the time of their composition.

I write this interlude in order to say that each canon has its own history of development and reception, and both church and academy would benefit from a series that evaluates the distinct history of each canon in turn. Gospel Reading and Reception in Early Christian Literature does this for the Fourfold Gospel canon.

This anthology is a series of expositions on “gospel reading,” here defined as “early Christianity’s theological interpretation of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus in textual form” (2). The editors argue: Gospel reading is followed by Gospel writing, never vice versa. Immediately one asks, What of Mark? Being the first Gospel writer, he had no Gospel to read! Byers and Pierce explain:

This is true even for the earliest evangelist. Mark explicitly indicates that his “Gospel of Jesus Christ” is drawn, at least in part, from a reading of Exodus, Malachi, and Deutero-Isaiah. Matthew wrote his Gospel out of his readings of Moses, the Prophets, and also Mark. Gospel writing therefore arises out of gospel reading, an early Christian practice that continues with Luke, John, and others whose compositions embody theologically robust appropriations of both the Jewish Scriptures and early Christian testimony about Jesus. Luke is quite clear that his reading of other gospel materials served as a primary impetus for writing his own (Luke 1:1–4), and John seems to envision an audience comprising experienced readers of other gospel-related texts (John 20:30; 21:25) (2).

So when Byers and Pierce say even Mark was a “Gospel reader,” this means he read the Hebrew Scriptures as Gospel genre. At any rate, every Gospel writer is a reader of Scripture—and the shape of their writing is indebted to their reading. This conviction is the “common thread running through each chapter” of this anthology (4).

Byers and Pierce continue:

No gospel was penned in hermeneutical isolation or as a purely historical chronicle of an uninterpreted series of events. These early writers were interpreters engaging with the texts of Jewish Scripture, antecedent gospel material, and other early Christian literature. “Gospel reading” is our phrase denoting this innovative and often artistic use of precursory material to discern the significance of Jesus in the first centuries of the church. (3)

When the Gospel writers were writing, they were simultaneously interpreting texts and events. While a lot of attention has been given to the historical dimension of Gospel writing, the aim of this anthology is to give

robust attention to the theological and interpretative dimensions of reception…Our collection considers the reception of the Jesus tradition through a variety of critical methods, pushing against the constrictive disciplinary borders of the historical-critical approach that has dominated gospel studies over the last century, yet resisting a purely “theological” approach that ignores historical contingency. (4)

This anthology is another addition to a renaissance in Gospel studies that make composition and reception the governing categories in scholarly discussions of Canon. Prior generations of scholars have prioritized historical biography of Gospel writers, attempting to get at their personalities and the accompanying “original authorial intent”; or the “authentic” historical Jesus lurking “behind” the text; meanwhile, historical-criticism hunted for the original autographs (or the closest approximations), which tended to obscure the identity of text’s as artifacts with a reception history. In these discussions, the basic bookishness of the Gospels was often lost or forgotten.

What’s more, this anthology is especially helpful at cultivating a deeper consciousness of the limitations of the current source-critical evidence. This comes out especially in Part 2 of the anthology: “Gospel Writers as Gospel Readers.” Dale C. Allison, arguing for the existence of “Q,” a hypothetical source text for the Gospel of Matthew, laments that not only is current evidence limited, but equivocal: “One can imagine that someone, someday will unveil a line of reasoning that will convince us all. In the meantime, one hopes that the disputes of the present will, in retrospect, have helped to prepare the way” (121). This anthology thus serves as an “orientation” of sorts, directing readers to the most fruitful avenues for further research.

Perhaps the best thing going for this anthology is its range. No matter what field of biblical studies interests you, this anthology has something to offer.

[1] “Correction” may here raise suspicion but is used in this volume in its technical sense, and is thus a key concept for demonstrating Matthew’s dependence on Mark. For example, introducing the concept of “editorial fatigue,” Goodacre argues “Matthew corrects Mark’s description of Herod as a ‘king’ to ‘tetrarch,’ only to drift into Mark’s wording later in the passage, where he also calls him ‘king’ (Matt. 14:9)” (p. 84).

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Blake Adams
Blake Adams (MA, Wheaton College) is an editor, writer, and trained historian. His research interests include early Christian history, ascetical theology, and exegesis. He serves as Lead Sacristan at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. Follow him on Substack at or Twitter @BlaketheObscure.
Monday, May 30th 2022

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