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02 January 2015

John Court looks at a study of the Gospels

The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church wrote the story of Jesus
Michael F. Bird
Eerdmans £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT870 )

HOW did the Gospels come to be? What kind of literature are they? How do they relate to the ongoing Christian discourse about God? "Why would anyone write a 'Jesus book' like these, how did they compile and compose them, and why were there four Jesus books and not others accepted as canonical by the ancient church?"

In this volume of questions, with its significant dedication to Bishop Tom Wright, the Australian scholar Michael Bird offers comprehensive answers, although not necessarily the last word. His is a lively and fresh view of the evidence, backed up by scholarly detail, but essentially endorsing a fairly conservative position. He hopes for a resurgence in Gospel studies, and a quest for the historical Jesus, in the face of a dominance of Pauline theology.

In six chapters, Bird discusses the move from Jesus to the Gospels, the purpose and preservation of the Jesus tradition, the formation of that tradition, the "literary genetics" of the Gospels (the Synoptics and John), the genre and goal of the Gospels, and finally the fourfold gospel. Each chapter is accompanied by its own "Excursus" (in a smaller fount), which discusses research issues that have arisen along the way. These include the meaning of the Greek term for Gospel, the apparent "failure of Form Criticism", the possibility of "other" Gospels, and citations and other evidence from the Church Fathers.

This agenda covers virtually the full range of Gospel studies (no mean achievement in fewer than 350 pages plus bibliography and indices). In many ways, the most difficult case to prove conclusively is that of a seamless transition between Jesus's preaching (the Good News) and the gospel of the Early Church. Here can be no wedge between the gospels of Jesus and of the Church, as in the dictum "Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God and the Church proclaimed Jesus." The teaching of Jesus has practical application to the Church; Jesus is celebrated as the founder of the movement; and he is essential to its self-definition.

But most controversial, in this "theory of tradition process", is the claim that the ministry of the historical Jesus is the all-important content and context that makes sense of Christ's death and resurrection. Is Paul sufficiently concerned about the detail of a biography of Jesus to substantiate this claim?

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

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