| |

Coloring Outside the Lines

I’m borrowing my title from Dave Black’s latest essay, because I’m talking about the same subject and I’m about to publish the second edition of his book, Why Four Gospels?. (I suggest reading Dave’s essay first. It’s short!)

I just spent a weekend with Dave as he spoke at First United Methodist Church here in Pensacola and Chumuckla Community Church a ways to the northeast of here. For some, having a Southern Baptist (Southeastern Baptist)seminary professor (though “missionary” is his preferred title) preach at a United Methodist church might be considered coloring outside the lines. If so, I think it’s a kind of coloring that we need to do more of.

Why Four Gospels? Front Cover
Almost Complete Front Cover

Now in case you haven’t caught on, this is one of my blog posts meditating on books I’m about to publish, in this case, of course, Why Four Gospels?. It’s a little book that is out of the mainstream of New Testament scholarship these days. It challenges the priority of Mark, and proposes that the gospels were written in the order of Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John.

But that isn’t the most important thing that it does. It challenges the methods used, and in fact takes a completely different approach to what is usual in looking at the reliability and the context in which the gospels were written.

One of the problems I’ve noted with historical Jesus studies (in which theories regarding gospel authorship are obviously important), is that especially in the popular literature too little time is spent discussing and justifying the basic methodology used. For example, is the best way to discover the historical record of an individual to divide what is recorded of him into small parts and then look for criteria to decided on which of these are probable and which are not?

I’m not saying one cannot discover the reasoning behind these various choices. One can. But one often has to be very diligent in doing so, because they are often glossed over. I went through a course in gospels in college without every really understanding the nuts and bolts of things like form or redaction criticism, yet I was learning “facts” about the gospels which were derived from those disciplines.

On the other hand many more conservative handbooks and commentaries poke a few holes in some critical views and then regard their task as complete. Obviously not every commentary can cover every issue in full detail, but I think it should be better covered than it is. (If I might recommend one book, I think Dr. David DeSilva’s An Introduction to the New Testament [link is to my notes] is very commendable on this issue.)

Robert H. Stein, in Jesus the Messiah [link again to my review] commendably tried to address the criteria and how they should apply. I would note that I’ve changed my mind on a couple of points since I wrote that review, but I would still say that Stein makes a valiant effort but fails to reach his goal. If I may push an analogy, he colors with different colors, but stays inside the lines.

Along with Bauckham and a few others, Dave Black is not only coloring outside the lines, but switching coloring books as well. How successful this effort will be remains to be seen, in my opinion. But it is much more likely that one can provide support for a more orthodox view of the historical Jesus in this way than simply by trying to alter the criteria one at a time.

So there’s a much more important goal that Dave Black has in mind here. He’s not just looking at a different order for the writing of the four gospels; he’s examining the way in which we determine that order and in turn attempting to place the gospels in the context of the life of the early Christian church. In a way we could call this historically anchoring the sources as well.

His effort is commendable in another way: It is concise. In about 120 pages (we may lengthen this mildly with larger type in the Energion edition), he lays out a case that is both broad and strong. I’m not saying he has convinced me on all points; I’m a stubborn character, and not easily convinced. What he has convinced me of in those few pages is that this is a book that you need to read and answer if you think you have a good grasp of gospel or historical Jesus studies.

And that leads me to the inevitable questions. I’m always asked why I publish books I disagree with. This isn’t a really good example of that, in that I don’t have all that firmly held positions on this topic, general stubbornness aside. But I really like that question. I aim to publish a range of books that tend to push the boundaries within orthodox Christianity. I hope these will make us rethink our ideas, no matter what our present position is.

Charismatics have questioned my publication of Holy Smoke! Unholy Fire!, which addresses abuses in the charismatic movement and particularly in some revival movements. Recently I’ve been questioned over the just released (and not yet available even on all major online retail sites) Finding My Way in Christianity, which leans to the liberal side. On the other hand, my own book Identifying Your Gifts and Service assumes the continuation of spiritual gifts and includes a prayer language, or speaking in tongues, among them.

So I’m delighted to add Why Four Gospels? to the mix. Of this book in particular I would say it’s a must read in its subject area. I know I’m the publisher and I’m biased, but remember that I’m also somewhat of a defender of historical-critical methodologies (though the Jesus Seminar criteria are not amongst the things I defend), and thus my bias may not all be one way.

One amazing feature of this book is the bibliography, which is the size of a chapter in itself. The conciseness and brevity of the book mean it will lead to further study, or so I hope, and the means of that study are provided here along with the questions.

Similar Posts


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *