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Canonical concerns

06 September 2013

Some expert guidance on a complex topic, declares John Court

Gospel Writing: A canonical perspective
Francis Watson
Eerdmans £31.99
Church Times Bookshop £28.80  (Use code CT403 )

THIS is a rich and substantial work, offering a wide variety of stimulation, which demands close and careful consideration. The title itself requires close attention, pointing to "gospel" as a single entity, but found in written documents rather than in an oral tradition. And we are asked to consider this from "a canonical perspective".

Does this mean that you begin with a single canonical gospel writing (something that you maintain for historical or doctrinal reasons), and then seek an explanation for the problematic plurality of witnesses to this single true text (looking at scribal errors, or variations either in memory or in transmission)?

Or do you start by recognising the plurality of witnesses and gospel manuscripts, but seek to identify the factors that unify (considering either an emerging consensus among the early church communities, or the imposed authority of a canon constructed from four preferred Gospels)?

In Francis Watson's argument, canon is to be seen as the proper process of reception of a religious communication, and is not to be rejected as a dogmatic imposition. The reader is urged to move beyond the end of the first century CE as any kind of terminus, and to take seriously the wider range of textual material (often classified as apocryphal or non-canonical), not least because there are indications of such a wider range even in the first century. One should move away from what could be called an "archaeological" assumption, where the objective of the critical approach to scripture is to unearth the historical Jesus and discard the unhistorical.

Within the canonical Gospels the tensions and differences observed in the text are not problems to be explained away, but opportunities for theological reflection (what Watson calls "historically informed theological hermeneutics"). The pattern for gospel studies is to interact with the full range of non-canonical material that is available, so as to shed new light on the historical and theological signify-cance of the canonical material.

The scope of this wider interaction is breathtaking, but Watson offers expert guidance in these pages. He moves from Augustine to Lessing to Q to Thomas to the synoptic problem to the sources of John's Gospel to the Gospel of Peter to the emergence of the four-fold Gospel canon to Origen to early Christian art and liturgy.

Finally, "in lieu of a conclusion" the author offers "Seven Theses on Jesus and the Canonical Gospel". Essentially the question is whether the canon matters or not; and at this stage it could be said that he leaves the reader to take one or all of these options.

Dr John Court is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Kent in Canterbury.

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