Unity, Plurality, and the Gospels – an Excerpt from The Fourfold Gospel

The following is an excerpt from Francis Watson’s The Fourfold Gospel.


The present book takes its cue from the fact that the four gospels are also a fourfold gospel. Each text is as it is only in relation to the others. The gospel texts retain their distinctiveness, yet they are coordinated with one another and do not exist outside that coordination.

Cover ArtThe plurality is a unity and the unity remains a plurality; one can therefore speak both of “four gospels” and of a singular “gospel according to . . .” in four different versions. None of the individual evangelists seem to have envisaged any such arrangement; indeed, only one of them (Mark) even uses the word “gospel” with any real enthusiasm.

The fourfold gospel is the work not so much of the evangelists as of their early readers. It is the outcome of a process of gospel reception, and—since reception creatively reshapes what is received—it is also an ongoing work of gospel production. In that work a number of well-known figures in the early church played their parts; the names of Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome will feature prominently in the pages that follow. But the work of reception was also carried forward by anonymous communities and individuals who read, prayed, lived, and cared about these books and so ensured that they continued in circulation and were available to meet new needs in new contexts.

The shaping of the four texts occurred not only in their initial selection and coordination but also in the provision of authorial identities and biographies, in the development of a gospel symbolism, and in the scholarly analysis and interpretation of gospel similarities and differences. By these and other means, the early church made sense of its own core texts, in which the one story is told and retold in four different ways.


©2016 by Francis Watson. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.


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