A few years ago, Francis Watson penned Gospel Writing, a mammoth-sized piece of scholarship that investigated the origins of how the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) became a fourfold collection placed at the head of the New Testament. In The Fourfold Gospel, therefore, Watson chooses to dwell not so much on the origin of the fourfold gospel as on its theological “form and significance” (p.viii).
The gospel narratives have long been considered by Christians to be both four individually distinctive accounts and yet also one unified whole. In other words, Watson explains, Christians can both speak of four gospel accounts and “of a singular ‘gospel according to…’ in four different versions” (p.vii). What is the significance of this? And what, theologically, does it mean to affirm that these gospels speak most truly of Jesus when read canonically, in conversation with each other? These are the kinds of questions Watson explores throughout The Fourfold Gospel.
Origins of the Fourfold Gospel
Even though the story of the fourfold gospel’s formation isn’t the main subject of the book, Watson begins by briefly summarizing how he thinks these texts came to form the “foundation stone” of the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were gathered together into a canonical collection through a process of ecclesial judgment that wasn’t spontaneous. Some figures wanted to include more than four texts. These other documents, often termed “apocryphal” gospels, included texts like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Nicodemus (p.3). On the other end of the spectrum, there were also those who didn’t think that it was really necessary to preserve four distinct narrative accounts. Tatian, a student of Justin Martyr, attempted to replace them by producing a harmonized text (the Diatessaron) that incorporated materials from all four canonical gospels, along with extra details from other apocryphal texts into a single, hybrid document (p.65). Eventually though, Tatian’s “super gospel” was also found to be unsatisfactory.
According to Watson, the production of the gospel canon was very much a product of the early communities of Jesus followers, “especially the many unknown individuals who made the crucial decisions about which gospel books should be used and read in their own local communities” (p.16). From a Christian perspective, it’s perfectly reasonable to affirm that these innumerable choices, messy though they may have been, were providentially guided by the Spirit. Eventually, these small-seeming decisions “gradually coalesced into an international consensus accepted by the churches of the East and the West” (p.16). The Evangelists themselves may not necessarily have fully imagined the extent to which their accounts would become fourfold collection. Nevertheless, Watson asserts:
It is only within a fourfold gospel that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John can and must be seen as complementary, their differences enhancing and enriching the truth of the message rather than undermining it. The fourfold gospel is greater than the sum of its parts. (p.103)
Having briefly looked at Watson’s perspective on the formation of the gospels as part of the New Testament canon, we can now delve into a few of his reflections on the theological significance of this collection. First, he highlights the importance of early Christian figures like Irenaeus and Jerome and their use of the throne visions in Ezekiel and Revelation to help think more deeply about how the gospels relate to one another.
Four Creatures Around the Throne
In the first verses of the Book of Ezekiel, readers encounter a strange and rather surreal vision. Ezekiel gives a vivid description of the Lord’s chariot-throne, surrounded by four living creatures (p.21). These creatures “possess four wings, four faces, and four sides” (p.44). For Irenaeus and other early Christian readers, the most significant thing about this passage in regards to thinking about the fourfold gospel was that these creatures, in addition to having human faces, possessed, “the faces of a lion and a calf to the right and left and an eagle’s face behind” (p.44).
When Ezekiel extends his gaze upward from the four creatures to the throne itself, he sees that “high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man” (Ezek. 1:26, NRSV). Of course, passages Exodus 33:20 say that God Himself cannot be seen. Therefore, Watson comments, “For the early Christian reader, a visible manifestation of God could only be a prefiguring of Christ, the one in whom the hidden God is presented to human view” (p.45). This leads to an analogy between the four creatures surrounding the throne and the nature of the gospels:
Just as the prophet beholds the exalted Christ only by focusing first on the four living creatures, so we behold him only by attending to the four gospels… the differences between Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were seen to be mirrored in the differences between the living creatures’ four faces: one human, the others those of a lion, calf, and an eagle. (p.45)
Watson notes that, “For both the prophet and the church, the fourfold form is as it is because God willed it to be so” (p.46). In the same way that God was glad to make a creation filled with various creatures, from humans and lions to eagles, the early Church believed that God was pleased to use a diverse collection of gospel accounts to testify to Himself. In Irenaeus’ version of this evangelist symbol tradition, Matthew is associated with the human face, the calf with Luke, the lion with John, and lastly the eagle with Mark (p.92). However, as the Western father Jerome contemplated the meaning of these four symbolic figures when they are again described in Revelation 4, he wondered if the eagle really was such a good fit for Mark, and likewise if it might be too difficult to identify a lion’s roar with John’s “‘the Word was God'” (p.92). Jerome therefore reversed this pairing, associating Mark with a lion crying out in the wilderness and John with a soaring eagle contemplating the Word of God (p.92).
Augustine found this symbolic Johannine eagle to be a helpful means for explaining why John seemed so different from the other three gospel narratives. For Augustine, the first three gospels are concerned primarily with actions of Jesus and “what he instructs us to do by his teaching and example” (p.93). While the Johannine Evangelist also describes the actions of Jesus, he also expands the scope of his gospel narrative even further, looking explicitly beyond the earthly life of Jesus to contemplate “the eternal Word’s life with God” (p.94). Like all dichotomies, this one falls short after a certain point, but it’s intriguing to see that for important figures in early Christianity, the individuality of each gospel account enhanced rather than detracted from their fourfold witness to Christ. As Watson puts it, “they [the gospels] present not four Christs but one Christ seen through four different pairs of eyes” (p.104).
We can now delve into a second reflection made by Watson on the significance of the fourfold gospel. In addition to discussing the development of the evangelist symbol tradition, he also takes some time to explore the work of the venerable 4th century scholar Eusebius of Ceasaria, who developed one of the first cross-referencing systems for the canonical gospels (p.105).
Watson believes that, “It was the achievement of Eusebius… to show, through his canon tables, how the apparent chaos of the four different tellings of the same story can be reduced to rational and harmonious order” (p.115). Eusebius, working from an earlier cross-referencing system created by Ammonius of Alexandria, looked at gospel passages and noticed that some of them are paralleled in all four accounts, while others are found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but not John, and still others only appear in two of the gospels, or even in just one of them (p.118). Therefore, Eusebius produced a set of tables that systematically showed which passages could be found in which gospels, using ten organizational categories. “In Eusebian terms, the core of the story belongs to canon I, in which passages common to all four evangelists are listed” (p.128). Cannon II lists passages found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, while canon V organizes the passages found only in Matthew and Luke, and so on (pp.128-129). The end result is an impressively systematic framework for reading through the gospels in comparison with one another. For Watson, Eusebius’s canon tables played an important role in demonstrating the usefulness of having all four gospels in a single codex (p.122). Doing so allowed the interrelated nature of the fourfold gospel to become more easily apparent:
Without the Eusebian apparatus, a four-gospel codex would be experienced by its users as no more than the sum of the four individual volumes… With Eusebius’s tables and section enumerations in place, however, around four hundred invisible lines are threaded through the volume, linking almost every page with one, two, or three pages from the other gospels, binding them tightly together in an intricate network and demonstrating that the single set of covers around the four distinct books is more than just a matter of convenience. (pp.122-123)
Thanks to the advent of Eusebius’s cross-referencing system, along with the creation of later ones, readers of the gospels are invited to not only work “through the text,” from beginning to end, but also “across the text,” studying the similarities and differences in how the gospel writers recount incidents in the life and ministry of Jesus, thereby opening up fruitful opportunities for meaningful exegesis and highlighting “not only its [the fourfold gospel’s] diversity but also its coherence” (p.123).
The question of truth is raised implicitly throughout The Fourfold Gospel. It’s one thing to demonstrate the unity of the four gospel accounts in the midst of their diversity. Pondering how they disclose the truth about Christ is a deeper matter. Therefore, Watson ends the book by briefly contemplating what it means to call the gospel accounts true:
The truth of the gospel is not some inert correspondence between text and referent. Its capacity to transform must constantly be rediscovered as the gospels are read, interpreted, heard, prayed, and lived. (p.172).
It seems safe to suggest that Christian readers of the gospels should cultivate an awareness of the fact that they are called to read the text not only for information but also for formation. At this point, Watson’s perspective makes me think of Kevin Vanhoozer’s words in Pictures at a Theological Exhibition, “God uses the Bible both to present Christ and to form Christ in us” (p.80).
In the end, thinking alongside Watson about the theological significance of the fourfold gospel makes for a very enjoyable read. Watson has raised some valuable questions about what it means to read the gospels in canonical perspective, and he has admirably highlighted a too-frequently-forgotten side of Church history: the roles played by Irenaeus, Jerome, Eusebius, and others in establishing the fourfold gospel as a unified collection. It’s an interesting little book.
*Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic Publishing for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.