Why Four Gospels? Review

In thinking about John’s Gospel today I picked up a book I had a lot of fun reading a year ago when I received a copy. I wrote a review and thought I would repost it here since my old blog is no longer active.

In writing Why Four Gospels?The Historical Origins of the Gospels, David Alan Black has put what has become a minority opinion in scholarship into popular form. Working off of the ideas of Bernard Orchard and his own, Dr. Black has made a case to return to the majority opinion of the historic church: that of Matthean priority. The position is known as the Four-Fold Gospel Hypothesis.

The book weighs in at only 78 pages of text, consisting of three main sections. The prose is very readable making it an enjoyable read. Student and layperson alike will benefit greatly from this initial exposure into the world of the origins of the Gospels.

In his first section, “The Development of the Gospels,” Black has written a narratival reconstruction of how the Gospels were first constructed, including their circumstances. He breaks the development into four phases, wherein each of the Gospels finds a home. The four phases are the Jerusalem Phase, the Gentile Phase, the Roman Phase, and the Johannine Supplement. You can perhaps guess where each of the four Gospels fits and if you can, you will notice that the order of writing he proposes is Matthew, Luke, Mark and John, not the common proposal found today (priority often goes to Mark).

The narratival reconstruction is engagingly written but he says some strange things, at least they were strange to me. There were numerous occassions where I had no idea how he would justify, what I thought to be, a fanciful historical fiction. Black claims that Luke was written second, commissioned by Paul for use in his gentile mission, but not published until after they could get it authenticated by Peter in Rome, who then lectured in five sessions using both Matthew and Luke and his own recollections, which was immediately copied by competent scribes, including his assistant Mark, and in due course became the Gospel of Mark. I had decided ahead of time to read only the first section before going to bed one night but I had to hear more from him on it, so I proceeded to read section 2: “The Origins of the Gospels.” How on earth would he justify the story?

In the second section, Black sets forth his arguments to support the reconstruction he gave in section one. It is at this point where I started to see the pieces of the puzzle come together: he didn’t create a fanciful historical account! He actually bases his reconstruction on patristic evidence. As I now thought back to section one and saw the patristic evidence in front of me, I kept wanting to open my Bible and ask, “Does that work?” Indeed one of the best blessings of this book was the excitement to move back to the Bible to test and explore what I was reading for the first time.

But it is not as though Black is reading patristic writings that have been lost to every other scholar. So why the difference in opinion today? The problem is they have been dismissed and/or overlooked. The majority opinion is that Mark wrote first and so the patristics’ testimony must be explained away. But Black is reluctant to lose their testimony. In his preface (to the 2nd edition) he claims that they are necessary for this task. But, he says, “it is not that the fathers of the church solve the synoptic problem. It is that any approach to a solution that rejects their testimony is, by definition, illegitimate” (ix).

So what becomes of internal evidence? The sad truth is that internal evidence has not yielded the results expected of it: i.e. the priority of Mark is not proven by internal evidence. Just about any order can be justified by the internal evidence but with a guide like the evidence of the Fathers present, a more likely approach to the internal evidence is found.

Black’s final section returns to the story of the development of the Gospels by discussing each of their respective compositions. It was by the end of this section, and the end of the book, that I had the full picture in my head that bewildered me only 70 pages earlier. Only having studied Matthew and Mark heavily in the Greek (Luke much less so), I had not yet given much thought to the historical order of the Gospels besides the popular majority opinions. I now feel equipped to return to the study of the Greek Gospels with a viable hypothesis (indeed very viable) to test as I read through.

Given the target readership of the book, I have no criticisms. As I said above, it is readable and engaging. As for further study on the issue, I would love to see how the divisions of Mark’s Gospel into the five lectures of Peter proposed work with a discourse analysis approach to Mark’s Gospel. For example, can a division break be justified between 3:19 and 3:20? The text as we have it seems seamless. If so, should we attribute some redacting to Mark as well?

To read the reconstruction that at first bewildered me but gripped me, and later made perfect sense, get a hold of the book. At a very reasonable $10.19 (Amazon.com price as of 03/03/11), you can’t go wrong. It will expand your horizons, expose you to the historical majority viewpoint of the church on this issue, and help you read the Gospels with new vigour. No matter what your training, this book is worth reading. And more than that, I think Dr. Black has made a convincing case for Matthean priority. One I want to inspect more for myself now.

Thank you to Dave and Energion Publications for providing this book for review.

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