Why Four Gospels? Book Review

Black, David Alan. Why Four Gospels? The Historical Origins of the Gospels. Gonzalez, Florida: Energion Publications, 2010. 106. $10.19. Available on Amazon.

Introduction

Dr. Black’s treatise, Why Four Gospels? argues for Matthean priority in accordance with the internal evidence of the Synoptic gospels and the longstanding witness of the church. According to Dr. Black, patristic authors such as Clement of Rome and Irenaeus wrote that Matthew composed his gospel first, followed by Luke, then Mark while assisting Peter in Rome, and finally, John, after periods of long reflection on the significance of Jesus. The uniqueness of Dr. Black’s treatise lies in reconciling the external evidence of patristic writings with the internal evidence of the NT. The fourfold gospel hypothesis is clearly reflected in the movement of the early church in Jerusalem, which would have needed the teaching material in Matthew, to the Gentile world, for which Luke composed a gospel to meet the needs of Hellenistic believers, and finally to Rome, where the preaching of the apostle Peter lent credibility to Paul’s mission and Luke’s gospel (19).

Since the Enlightenment, the witness of academic scholarship has systematically denied the integrity of the gospels and the authors traditionally attributed to them. The modern, scholarly consensus argues that Mark, the shortest gospel, must have been written first while Matthew and Luke, if they were real people, adapted the sayings material in “Q,” a hypothetical document full of the material common to Matthew and Luke but missing from Mark, for use in their gospels. Dr. Black composes this treatise on the composition of the gospels to argue that the internal evidence in the four gospels supports the fourfold gospel hypothesis, rather than the two-source hypothesis held in today’s academy.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Much of today’s scholarship focuses on the original situations or Sitz im Leben of the early Christian communities. Oftentimes they speak of these early communities producing the gospels to address needs or resolve thorny issues that had arisen in their communities. The gospels are products of communities of large, anonymous Christians writing their works to meet their needs, and only attributing them to apostles to give them authority. This severely weakens the authority of our NT gospels, because this process parallels the process of composition in heretical gospels, such as the Nag Hammadi Codex, wherein anonymous individuals did compose false gospels for use in their communal worship and teaching services. Then, these writers attributed them to the apostles to make them appear legitimate and mislead the faithful. Under such a framework, our NT gospels do not seem like a unique, authoritative witness to the person of Jesus, but merely one document amongst many other documents written on behalf of a Christian community somewhere in the Mediterranean world.

Dr. Black’s thesis reconciles the external and internal evidence in such a way as to reject the dangerous implications of the two-source hypothesis and to support the traditional authorship of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. As stated in his book, he has provided a worthwhile Sitz im Leben for the composition of the gospels that coincides with the needs of the Christian communities (72; 78). Moreover, these communities are not filled with anonymous Christians whose beliefs may or may not coincide with traditional orthodoxy. Rather, these communities are the churches chronicled in Acts and composed of members mentioned throughout Paul’s epistles, whose needs mirror that of the needs expressed in Acts as the gospel spreads from Jerusalem to the Greco-Roman world. Thus, Dr. Black’s treatise is supported from three different authorities: the internal evidence of the gospels, the history of the early church presented in Acts, and the patristic witnesses remarking on the significance of the apostolic tradition handed down to them.

One weakness in the treatise may have been Dr. Black’s assertion for common material across Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The patristic witness to Mark, serving as Peter’s amanuensis in Rome and transcribing his sermon notes, is very strong (30-31), but the idea that Peter had the gospels of Matthew and Luke in front of him does not appear as a proposition that can be proven. While Mark must have consulted Matthew and Luke to account for the material common to the Synoptic gospels, it appeared as a significant jump to propose that Peter preached from Matthew and Luke whilst in Rome. It may have been better to hedge one’s bets (i.e., the “probably” in regards to Mark’s inclusion of the last 12 verses of Mark, 67) and propose it as a possible scenario, as Peter would have very well have preached from Matthew and Luke as if it was Christian Scripture if he believed both documents were Christian Scripture.

Conclusion

Aside from this minor critique, Dr. Black provided an excellent resource for the church that upholds the authority of Scripture and wields church tradition, patristic literature, and NT scholarship so as to support the traditional authorship of our four gospels. In this way, Dr. Black supports the integrity of the Scriptures and the importance of the tradition we have inherited, as well as providing his readers with an excellent framework to working through the fourfold witness to the person and work of Jesus.

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