Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Book Review: Why Four Gospels?

The authorship of the Gospels is one of those incredibly complex topics that academics love to argue about and frankly it is a topic that is way beyond most non-academic Christians. I would go further and say that most rank and file Christians have given only passing attention, if that, to the topic. The book says “Matthew” in my index so Matthew wrote it and that is about all the further we look into it. I am afraid that does an injustice to an important topic, namely where and how did we get the Gospel that we find in Scriptures? Unfortunately this is compounded by the morass of academic work that surrounds the topic that makes the subject seem overwhelming and off-limits to the average Christian.

Entering the fray is Dr. David Alan Black with a brief salvo in his recently updated book Why Four Gospels? published by the good people at Energion Publications. Dr. Black, no shocker to anyone who has benefited from reading his various essays, books and blog posts, takes a position that is contrary to the accepted stance of many academics. Rather than seeing Mark as the source for Matthew, Dr. Black argues for the priority of Matthew and further argues that Mark was designed as a “bridge” between Matthew and Luke, part of the process of legitimizing Luke. While Dr. Black is something of a maverick among contemporary academics with this stance, he is in good company with the early church fathers and he appeals quite strongly to them to support his view.

What I especially appreciated was how accessible this book was. Certainly this is a complex topic and Dr. Black has the academic chops to produce a work that is inaccessible to any but the most scholarly of readers. Instead he has put together a very nice introduction to the topic that is understandable to people who don’t live in the world of academia. Too many academics like to hide behind high brow academic tomes that put the average reader to sleep but Why Four Gospels? is interesting and engaging throughout, powerfully argued but also readable for people who have a more limited background. In spite of its accessibility I think it possesses enough meat that the professional academic will find the assertions challenging and the bibliography at the end is incredible.

Something else I found helpful was Dr. Black’s deference to the church fathers. It certainly seems plausible from what he has written that the early church fathers were unanimous in their understanding of Matthew as the first Gospel and when you consider that they lived far closer to the time of the authorship of the Gospels, their statements should carry a great deal of weight. As long as we properly recognize that while the church fathers are not authoritative in the sense of the Scriptures, their testimony can help our understanding of topics like the authorship of the Gospels.

The big advantages of this book are also the only downside. Given the relatively small size of the book, Dr. Black doesn’t go into much detail regarding the opposing positions. That is undoubtedly because he has addressed them in more detail in larger books and there are likewise a ton of books on the market already arguing against the priority of Matthew. Someone who reads Why Four Gospels? by itself is going to be getting only one side of the conversation but I hope that this introduction will serve two purposes, first to provide an introduction that puts the academic status quo on notice that the widely accepted concept of Markan priority is not without challenge and two that it will spur the reader to study this difficult but important topic in more depth.

I will confess that I didn’t fully follow everything that Dr, Black was arguing because I don’t have a sufficient background in the topic. I was introduced to it in a few New Testament courses in seminary classes but that has been a few years ago and hardly did justice to the topic. Having said that I certainly gained a lot from this book and found it an excellent introduction to a complex but important topic, an introduction that will spur further study on my part. Any book that makes you think is a good book and Why Four Gospels? certainly will make you think.

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