Gospel of the Lord | Book Review
Gospel Studies exists as a relatively neglected field that has long taken a back seat to the study of the Historical Jesus or perspectives on Paul. Yet—argues Michael F. Bird—this realm of study stands ripe with opportunities for research and theological growth. To begin addressing the historical problem of how the life and teachings of Jesus became the fourfold gospel accounts of the New Testament, Bird offers The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus. Driven by four guiding questions—Why pass on Jesus stories? How was the Jesus tradition transmitted? What is the gospel and what are the sources behind the gospels? Why four gospels and why the four gospels that we have?—this historical, literary, and theological study provides offers readers rich perspective into some of the most pressing questions of this important area of Early Christian Studies.
After introducing the scope and purpose of this volume, Bird argues for how Jesus traditions might have been preserved and why it was important for the early Church to preserve them. Here he outlines a number of motivations for maintaining these traditions—such as their basic centrality to faith, practical value, importance in Christian self-definition—as well as how these materials would have been used by early Christian communities. Especially important is an extended consideration of evidence from eyewitnesses, which Bird demands further integration into considerations of the form and function of early Jesus traditions. This investigation indicates that the Church has consistently exhibited the tendency to preserve traditions from and about Jesus.
Next, Bird outlines the factors which accounted for the formation of the Jesus tradition within the context of early Church. This chapter offers a superb overview of the various models of accessing the oral traditions of early Christianity, settling on an adaptation of Kenneth Bailey’s theory of “informally controlled” oral tradition in light of James Dunn’s Jesus Remembered and emphasis on remembrance among early followers of Jesus. While no single model of oral culture suffices, Bird advocates a conception of “Jesus in social memory” as an apt paradigm for tradition formation, indicating that the gospels arose out of networks of professing Christians as theological documents “stamped with the faith of the early church” (112).
In chapter four Bird investigates the “Synoptic Problem” (similarities and differences between Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the “Johannine Problem” (here, the Fourth Gospel’s relationship to the Synoptics) with the purpose of excavating the sources used by the evangelists and how they employed them. This section outlines and critiques six of the most important explanations to the Synoptic Problem—including the Augustinian view, Griesbach Hypothesis, Ur-Gospel model, Common Oral Tradition, Two/Four Source Hypothesis, and Farrer Theory—before Bird cogently argues for the “Holtzmann-Gundry Hypothesis,” where Mark, “Q-Late,” and Matthew served as sources for Luke. Following an examination of the relationship between the Fourth Gospel and Synoptics, Bird suggests John’s independence from the Synoptics along with likely exposure to Mark and Luke, ultimately concluding that the all four gospels emerged from “pool of oral tradition and from the gradual textualization of the Jesus tradition” (212).
Bird then examines the genre and goal of the gospels in order to situate them within their proper Greco-Roman literary contexts. Here he outlines variety of genre options for gospels, ultimately placing them within the broad category of biography, a designation confirmed by consideration of the openings, content, reception as ευαγγελλιον (euangellion, gospel) and media of the four gospels. In the end, Bird concludes that the gospels are best understood as biographical kerygma, the “textual imprint of the oral phenomenon of Christian preaching and teaching about Jesus” (270), the purposes of which were multivalent but oriented toward community needs.
The final chapter plots the origins of the fourfold gospel collection and briefly examines the theological justifications and significance of this collection. Bird takes seriously the prospect of not having four gospels, noting the historical possibilities of one gospel, gospel harmonies, additional gospels, and/or alternative gospels. After tracing the early witnesses to multiple gospels and collections of gospels through literary and manuscript evidence, Bird turns to a discussion of the theological reasons for four gospels. Here he resources Irenaeus and Augustine, while demonstrating the fourfold gospel collection’s importance for the coalescing of the wider New Testament. In the end, the four canonical gospels stand as a “fourfold rehearsal of the fact that the Bible is about the gospel of the Lord” (330).
There is much worthy of commendation in The Gospel of the Lord. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this volume resides with its internal consistency of argument and the overall narrative it paints of how early Christians told the Jesus story. In this, Bird comes across as clear, articulate, and easy-to-follow. Further, he writes with a fair and even-handed treatment of scholarship, displaying a masterful knowledge of important perspectives and offering meaningful contributions at the intersection of sometimes diverse areas of study. The critiques he offers are substantial and substantive, conveying serious engagement with his sources. Bird’s extended excurses on peripheral topics at the end of each chapter will be of particular interest to academic readers, who will appreciate his reflections on a number of important topics which might otherwise have distracted general readers from the major arguments of this book. Finally, Bird presents his readers with a fantastic bibliography, something this reviewer will be excavating for his own academic projects.
Though scholars will disagree with Bird on some of his conclusions, The Gospel of the Lord will stand as a source to be reckoned with by those studying the Gospels and their formation for many years to come. One area in which this volume could have additionally benefited from is a consolidating, “where do we go from here” type conclusion. Although Bird does a fantastic job summarizing each individual chapter, the underlying narrative of the book—admittedly question-centered to begin with—suffers from the lack of an overarching conclusion. However, this minor aside should not distract from the tremendous work of scholarship that this volume represents, which ought to be lauded and recommended for a wide variety of audiences. Accessible and valuable for scholar, student, and study-er alike, The Gospel of the Lord masterfully examines the pressing questions of contemporary Gospel Studies and charts a historically and theologically robust path forward for future studies of Early Christianity.
I received this book from Eerdmans in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.