Connecting Gospels

Beyond the Canonical / Non-Canoncial Divide

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Francis Watson, Sarah Parkhouse
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As editors Francis Watson and Sarah Parkhouse explain in their introduction, the contributions to Connecting Gospels: Beyond the Canonical/Non-Canonical Divide explore thematic connections among works of early Christian gospel (or gospel-like) literature, all of which were written—the editors state—“presumably in response to popular demand for gospel-like works from a burgeoning Christian reading-and-listening public” (2). The eleven contributions are divided into three parts determined by whether the primary passages being discussed concern (a) the beginning of Jesus’s life; (b) his ministry; or (c) his death and/or resurrection.

Several of the contributions explore the varying ways in which multiple gospels discuss specific themes or topics—often in ways that appeal to different theological and/or cultural sensibilities. For example, in her chapter on the Gospel of Philip, Christine Jacobi explores the manner in which that gospel delicately exhibits the influences of the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of John, and 1 Corinthians—discussing topics derived from the canonical gospels and even reproducing specific metaphors—while nevertheless articulating an understanding of salvation that diverges from these canonical influences, appealing instead to Valentinian sensibilities. In contrast, Christopher Tuckett’s comparative analysis reveals similarities across the canonical divide. Namely, Tuckett demonstrates that both the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Mary regularly characterize women as exemplary, in stark contradistinction to Jesus’s male disciples; and yet the characterization of women becomes ambivalent at best toward the end of both gospels. (Readers must sort out on their own whether this pattern is indicative of literary dependence or of a shared social or cultural sensibility—or whether it is perhaps nothing more than a coincidental curiosity.) As a third example, Francis Watson compares the Epistula Apostolorum, which he prefers to call the Gospel of the Eleven, with John. After reviewing relevant data regarding the title of the Gospel of the Eleven and the various ways it has been classified among other works of early Christian literature, Watson analyzes the gospel’s relationship with John—especially through a comparison of their Easter morning scenes—and discusses what readers can credibly conclude regarding the author’s “assessment of his own work as subordinate to” the Gospel of John (202). He concludes that the Gospel of the Eleven does not, in fact, present itself as subordinate to John; instead, like all other gospels (whether canonical or not), it appropriates its sources—reproducing material, amending details, addressing “narrative anomalies,” and filling narrative gaps—in order to compose a new, authoritative narrative.

One emphasis that emerges from “connecting gospels” is the interpretive advantage of reading non-canonical gospels as similar to the canonical gospels. For example, Mark Goodacre reads the Proto-Gospel of James’s evocation—or, perhaps, imitation—of the Gospel of Luke’s narrative as comparable to the evocation of Septuagintal narratives in Luke, especially as it occurs in Luke’s infancy narratives. Similarly, through an examination of Nazareth rejection scenes, Matthew R. Crawford argues that Tatian’s use of the canonical gospels in the Diatessaron is not meaningfully different from, for example, Matthew’s and Luke’s uses of Mark; that is, notwithstanding his characteristic verbatim reproduction of material from the canonical gospels, Tatian exhibits the same freedom to rewrite his sources as do Matthew and Luke.

Another recurring emphasis is the interpretation of non-canonical gospels on their own terms. Perhaps the clearest example of this theme occurs in Heike Omerzu’s chapter on Christology in the Gospel of Peter. Rather than using “Eusebius’ comment on Serapion’s assessment of gospel attributed to the apostle Peter that was used in Rhossus in Syria” (165) as her starting point (i.e., assuming that the Christology of the Gospel of Peter is docetic), Omerzu reviews the presentation of Jesus in the gospel itself and concludes—perhaps to the surprise of some readers—that “Jesus as he is presented in GPeter does not bear any specific docetic traits” (188). Also exemplifying this theme in her chapter on the Gospel of Mary, Sarah Parkhouse outlines that gospel’s eschatology without projecting onto it a “dualistic-gnostic cosmology” (219), thereby resolving what might be considered a narrative tension; Parkhouse argues that the dissolution of every nature instigated by the Savior is itself a restoration. (To be clear, the scope of Parkhouse’s chapter is broader than the Gospel of Mary’s cosmic eschatology; it also encompasses its eschatology for individuals—the journey of the soul—and points of comparison with the Gospels of Thomas, Matthew, and John.)

Jens Schröter’s chapter functions as the volume’s conclusion. In this contribution, he first reflects on the authoritative statuses that early Christian writings appear to have assigned to different works of early Christian gospel literature; he then reviews evidence for the use of less authoritative gospel literature in the 2nd and 3rd centuries; and, finally, he compares canonical and non-canonical gospels seeking to discern a pattern in the development of traditions about Jesus. I expect that those who read Connecting Gospels will find this overview to be a satisfying note on which to end.

Although not a criticism, I wonder whether expanding this volume to include non-gospel early Christian narratives—especially canonical and non-canonical books of Acts—might have resulted in a richer rethinking of early Christian literature. Perhaps another time.

Be that as it may, Connecting Gospels is a thought-provoking and compelling collection. Indeed, the inclusion of certain contributions over others in this review is not indicative of the quality of those not included; without exception, each chapter presents high-quality scholarship. The authors ably demonstrate the value of reading early Christian gospel literature without being unduly constrained by canonical/non-canonical designations. Written primarily for academics, I especially recommend that it be added to personal and institutional libraries supporting scholars working on early Christianity—early Christian narratives in particular.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Kochenash is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Christian Studies and New Testament at Hunan University's Yuelu Academy.

Date of Review: 
March 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Francis Watson currently holds a Chair of Biblical Interpretation at Durham University, having previously held the Kirby Laing Chair at the University of Aberdeen (1999-2007) and posts at King's College London (1984-99). His publications include Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (2013) and The Fourfold Gospel (2016). He has served as editor of the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Early Christianity, and New Testament Studies, and he holds a Professorial Fellowship at Australian Catholic University, Melbourne.

Sarah Parkhouse is Research Fellow at Australian Catholic University, Melbourne. She gained her PhD from Durham University in 2017, having held a studentship on a research project entitled 'The Fourfold Gospel and its Rivals', funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Her research interests lie in the field of early Christian non-canonical literature, with a particular focus on gospels or gospel-related texts preserved in Coptic, from Nag Hammadi and elsewhere.


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