Book Review: Why Four Gospels?

It’s with thanks to the generosity of both Dave Black and Publisher Henry Neufeld of Energion Publications for a gratis review copy of Dr. Black’s revised edition of Why Four Gospels? The Historical Origins of the Gospels (Energion, 2010).

Robert H. Stein, in his book Studying the Synoptic Gospels: Origin and Interpretation, 2nd Edition (Baker Academic, 2001), wrote the following:

….the plausibility of the Griesbach hypothesis is greatly weakened by the difficulty of not being able to provide a credible explanation of the activity of Mark that is consistent and coherent (148).

Well, I guess he hasn’t read Dave Black’s Why Four Gospels? yet, has he? 🙂

If there were ever a sensible and indeed plausible presentation of the Griesbach Hypothesis, also known as “Matthean priority,” or more currently, the Fourfold-Gospel Hypothesis, this work put forth by David Alan Black would be it.  One of them at least since it is the first and only one that I have read.   Well, it is a variation of the Griesbach Hypothesis anyways.  Additionally, the Fourfold-Gospel Hypothesis term is based off a statement by Irenaeus in his Against Heresies (3.2.8) and the Vatican II’s Dei Verbum (vi).

This book was born out of Dave Black’s conversations over the years with students who asked him to compose a brief, clear, and easily understandable summary of his beliefs regarding the historical origins of the Gospels (v).

Apparently students experienced angst over proponents of higher criticism continually undermining the historical reliability of the Gospels.  He put together a handout for private use but in time his views became known and eventually lead to this short monograph.  By short, I mean there is only 78 pages of reading with an extensive and updated bibliography (covering 19 and 1/4 pages)!!

Much to Dr Black’s credit, he says more regarding the historical origins of the Gospels and their composition in 78 pages, than does someone like Stein, whose book has 279 pages of reading.  Really.  Much is said in this little book.

I noted that Black’s view is a variation of the Fourfold-Gospel Hypothesis.  His view is a combo of his own views and those of his colleague and friend Bernard Orchard of the Gospel Research Institute in London (vi).  But really, it seems, at the heart of things is Dr. Black’s appreciation and respect for the early Church Fathers and the importance of their testimony with regard to determining the composition of the Gospels.  He writes in the preface:

The protestant church culture in America, of which I am a part, often overlooks the immense contribution that the science of patristics makes to the way we understand the Scriptures.  Now I certainly do not wish to replace a text-centered hermeneutic with an approach that is enslaved to the dogmata of councils and creeds.  My claim in this book is not that the fathers of the church solve the synoptic problem.  It is that any approach that rejects their testimony is, by definition, illegitimate (ix).

Black is quick to assert that he is not suggesting we should have an uncritical acceptance of early Christian interpretation of Scripture.  It’s just we need to be more open to hearing what the early church fathers have to say and take their input seriously.

The concern is that there are those who claim to take account of what the fathers have to say, yet at the same time, undermine them or altogether ignore their input (mainly Markan Priorists).

The main question is if we say the Fathers have a voice and their input has value then why do Evangelicals so often disregard their witness to the Gospels?  Black is averring that all too often Evangelicals ignore the voice of the Fathers and instead take to later more modern approaches to determining the formation of the Four Gospels, when this shouldn’t be the case.

Indeed, up until nearly 200 years ago, with the onset of the Enlightenment period, the understanding that the Gospels were written and “published” in the order in which we have them, was not often disputed.  With the Enlightenment, however, theories began to abound as to their construction and formulation such that we now have discussions about a mystery document called Q, or if there was an Ur-gospel.  We debate about how could Mark leave out so much stuff if he was not first, and so on.  Dr. Black’s book offers a viable alternative to all these discussions, and his alternative is heavily reliant upon the principle witness of the Church Fathers.

When it comes to understanding or exploring the historical origins of the Gospels and their composition and arrangement, which fathers are to be consulted? The principle Patristic witnesses to the Gospels are: Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, The Muratorian Fragment, The Anti-Marcionite Prologue to Luke, The Old Latin Prologue to Mark, Eusebius, Papias, Jerome, and Augustine.  These are the most significant witnesses to how the gospels were composed and arranged because they represent the widest possible distribution (or representation?).  Black avers that this widespread witness lends significant support to the Fourfold-Gospel hypothesis but almost no support to Markan Priority (32).

Chapter 1 then, discusses the stages of the development of the four Gospels.  Based on the witness of the Fathers there is a four phase approach to their construction: the Jerusalem phase (AD 30-42; Acts 1-12); The Gentile Mission phase (AD 42-62; Acts 13-28); The Roman phase (AD 62-67); and the The Johannine Supplement.  In sum, Matthew is the foundational and primary Gospel but each was written to a specific historical situation.

Matthew was for the Jews in showing Jesus as Messiah and a document supporting the existence of the Christian church; Luke is a revision of Matthew with a view to a Gentile audience not concerned with Jewish matters – at the encouragement of Paul; Mark is verbatim of Peter’s lectures to a Roman audience “Caesar’s Knights” and was done to validate Luke’s account since Luke was not a direct eyewitness of Christ (per Paul’s request).  John comes behind all this and without concern for chronology acts as a supplementary Gospel based on the others.

Chapter 2 discusses in more detail the origins of the Gospels by citing the principle patristic witnesses noting that in conclusion:

….the patristic and historical evidence shows that all three Synoptic Gospels appeared in the lifetime of the apostles Peter and Paul, the twin founders of the western church, and also devotes much space to explaining how Mark came to exist.  This, of course, suits perfectly the Fourfold-Gospel Hypothesis but utterly fails to support the priority of Mark at any point, since the latter hypothesis generally requires all three Gospels to have been published after the death of Peter around 66/67.  How do Markan priorists deal with this evidence?

Black goes on to provide to provide and evaluation of Markan priority offering in-depth and sustained critique noting most significantly the general Markan priorists’ unwillingness to take the principle Patristic witness seriously.   Perhaps the the fundamental problem for Markan priority is that is assumes too much, which is in part, due to the lack of taking the witness of the principle fathers seriously at their word.  Their concerns were not our concerns – they did not have the same general concern about the literary interdependence of the Gospels and knew that Mark wasn’t intended to be like Matthew and Luke (nor to replace them)  or the fact that Peter neither encouraged or discouraged the publication of his Roman lectures as it is now known as “The Gospel of Mark.”   All this lends support for the Fourfold-Gospel Hypothesis as put forth by Dave black.  This view also virtually eliminates the need for Q or such “proto-gospels” and such.

Finally, chapter 3 discusses the making of the Gospels, how they were composed, discussing the composition of Matthew, Luke’s use and revision of Matthew; Mark’s synthesis, and John’s supplementary approach.  This brings me to need to point out what is most crucial in synoptic studies, which is the question “why Mark’s Gospel?” In a nutshell, Mark’s Gospel simply a verbatim copy from shorthand, the lectures Peter gave to a Roman audience recounting the life of Jesus – he did it to give approval to Luke’s Gospel since Luke was not a direct eyewitness to the life of Jesus – then folks asked Mark to publish the lectures – it was not done to make a new Gospel or even to supplement or be like the other Gospels – but since it was published it now serves as the link between the two Gospels.  That’s pretty much the reason for Mark.

There is a prologue and nearly 20 page bibliography.

Strengths: The biggest strength in this work is how much ground Dr. black covers in so little space – I guess you could say he cuts through a lot of the blather and gets right to the issue and does it effectively.

Weaknesses: I have trouble pointing out any serious weaknesses. Perhaps a Scripture index would be of some benefit?  Agree or disagree it is a well done book.  Anyone who reads it will be better for having done so.

Conclusion: I heartily recommend this book to any person lay or scholar who is interested in Gospel and or Synoptic studies – if you are for Markan priority I think it is even more important you read this book – why?  Because too often Markan priority people make comments like the quote I gave above from Stein and to save yourself from embarrassment read this book – it’ll at the very least make you a more informed Markan priorists.

I was taught on the Gospels from a Mark Priorist professor – I didn’t really know any better so I had been one myself until now… well, at least I have a more informed understanding of Matthean priority and know the position put forth by Dave Black is a very strong position worth considering.  I still have some questions but I’ll have to end this already way too long review for now.


(UPDATE 3/31/11): Here is a statement from Dr Black himself on why he wrote Why Four Gospels?

I wrote my book Why Four Gospels? not so much to argue for Matthean priority as to affirm the complete historicity and apostolicity of the Gospels. Early in my Christian experience I discovered that the Gospels were — and needed to be — central in my understanding not only of the Good News about Jesus Christ but of life itself. Only the cross of Jesus can supply meaning to life, and that is because the cross and the resurrection are an interwoven reality. Of one thing I am quite certain: Christianity is a historical faith. It is rooted and grounded in historical fact. No “leap of faith” is required to believe in Jesus. As I once heard Francis Schaeffer put it in Switzerland, you don’t have to put your brain in park or neutral to become a Christian. His cross is the center of all history. It is the crossroads of the universe. No one can avoid confrontation with it.

It is my prayer that skeptics may come to the Gospels with an open mind and heart, for there the living Christ is ready to meet Doubting Thomases in their pessimism and the travelers to Emmaus in their intellectualism.


7 responses to “Book Review: Why Four Gospels?

  1. Thanks for the thorough review! As the publisher, that’s what I like to see.

    I share your experience in having studied the gospels under a professor who advocated Markan priority, to the extent that we never really looked at the other options. Even as editor and publisher of Why Four Gospels?, I’m not fully convinced. But I had read William R. Farmer’s work before publishing Dave’s, and as a result I’m much less certain than I was regarding the priority of Mark. At a minimum, these arguments, particularly those derived from the church fathers, need some response.

  2. Thanks for this full review – I haven’t read the book but I’m quite curious about it now. Another take on the issue that has a few similarities to what you’ve described is “The Making of the NT Documents” by E. Earle Ellis – although he suggests an initial version of Mark that appeared before the other gospels. Like Black, he wants to make use of patristic information, and tries to explain why we have four overlapping gospels.

  3. Pingback: Week in Review: 02.05.2011 | Near Emmaus

  4. Pingback: Brian Fulthorp Reviews Why Four Gospels » Why Four Gospels?

  5. Pingback: King’s Seminary interviews Dave Black « συνεσταύρωμαι: living the crucified life

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