With thanks to Dave Black and Energion Publications for this review copy. Part onepart two and part three of my review are also available.

Going against the flow is incredibly hard work. One of the things I have appreciated about this book on the Gospels is its differences. I am sure Dave Black could have easily of written a summary of the most popular Gospel literature for his students but he hasn’t. He has remained faithful to his convictions concerning the four gospels; even though it goes against what most studies of the Gospels conclude.

In this review of Chapter 3 I will discuss Black’s Matthean priori thesis and how and why he believes Matthew came to be written first.

Firstly, I thought Black’s presentation of the Patristic witness left very solid ground for Matthean priori. However, I have found Dave’s historical hypothesis to be less convincing. I will admit, this could be my own laziness. It is far easier to keep the status quo (especially as a pastor) and not think through the issues presented. I’ll need some time to consider the historical hypothesis. Having said that the synoptic hypothesis has me almost convinced! I would summarise Black’s hypothesis concerning Matthew, Luke and Mark as follows:

  • Matthew was written first to address the needs of the primitive Jerusalem church. The 12 Apostles were the overseers and witnesses of the Jesus story and provided the witness for Matthew’s presentation of Jesus. The material was collected and organised by Matthew as a teaching document to deal with the transition from Judaism to what we now know as Christianity. In Black’s opinion the gospel was written within the first decade of the church’s existence. I still think one can hold to Matthew as a pastoral document in this sense. The Sitz im Leben of Matthew dictated much of the material in my opinion.
  • The Gospel of Luke was written at the request of Paul to address the need for an account of Jesus for gentile audiences to whom he ministered. It is Black’s belief that Luke drew upon Matthew as a source as well as the other Apostolic witnesses.
  • The Gospel of Mark is essentially a collection of Peter’s sermons (5 lectures according to Black). The foundation of these sermons was, in Black’s opinion, drawn from Gospels of Matthew and Luke in order to give authenticity and authority to both accounts of the life of Jesus (especially for Luke who needed apostolic authority if it was to be respected and received).

Black argues in a more detailed fashion as to the literary relationship between the gospels and I’ll leave it to him to explain his arguments. He does answer some of the more difficult questions most students would raise and I encourage you to read what he lays out. I don’t want this review to be longer than the book itself!

In conclusion; traditionally we have understood Markan priori to be the accepted norm. Mark was first and then Matthew and Luke were written based on Mark. Of course for the expanded Jesus story as presented by Matthew and Luke a second source was required. This became known as Q. It is possible that Q is one source or many sources. However, in Black’s argument, Matthew is first and Luke follows. Mark was then written based on the witness of Luke and Matthew in order to give authority to both Gospels (especially Luke).

Essentially, as I understand it, it is the traditional hypothesis in reverse. I think Black goes some of the way to answering the literary relationship between the synoptic gospels however, I am left wondering why Mark would include details left out of Matthew (I think of the calming of the waves etc). Perhaps Peter personalised the narrative as he preached it.

So what?

What we know of the gospels is that they are related in a literary sense. Although they differ in content and style at certain points, they agree much more. What Black offers is is one hypothesis as to how they are related. But why does it matter? Well, it’s a good question and one I would like to ask Prof Black. Here are some of my thoughts:

  • If you are a historian, it matters a great deal. No one can answer for me why the Patristic witness presented by Black is so derided. Is it that unreliable? Surely not. I appreciate Black for tackling it and following where it leads. I am sure he is dismissed more than accepted by the guild for doing so! (Not a reflection of Prof Black)
  • If you’re a pastor it probably doesn’t matter as much. However, what we believe about how and the gospels came about will affect how we use them and preach them within the church. Black’s hypothesis moves us closer to the historical Jesus. In his model the relationship between the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is much closer than has often been accepted. It is my conviction the Jesus of the Gospels is the Jesus of history and I think our churches need to know this. It seems to me a little doubt sprinkled by a few has given rise to “beyond reasonable doubt” and shaken the foundations of many people’s faith. What sought of faith do we have without Jesus? The sought that appears to be on the rise! What is the point of the Gospels if Jesus does lie at the heart of their proclamation?

Next week will be my final post in this review of Why Four Gospels. I am well aware that the review is almost as long as the book but I am enjoying it. Maybe we should just agree these posts are a conversation with Prof Black more than a review and be done with it!