“Four Gospels, One Book” by Francis Watson

Francis Watson holds a research chair in biblical interpretation at Durham University, England.

Francis Watson
Francis Watson

His new book is entitled Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective.

* * *

I write this from Durham, in the North-East of England. The city itself is celebrated for its Norman Cathedral, which regularly wins the accolade of “England’s best-loved building.” The wider area is associated more with the heavy industry — mining, ship-building, and so on — that vanished without trace in the 1980s, leaving a legacy of unemployment and social deprivation in its wake.

Yet this is also an area whose collective memory stretches right back to the 7th and 8th centuries, to the great figures of early Northumbrian Christianity: Bede, second only to Eusebius among church historians, and Cuthbert, abbot of the island monastery of Lindisfarne, a peacemaker in a time of conflicting Christian traditions. Cuthbert in particular remains an iconic figure for the region. A Durham legend credits him with raising a mist that concealed the city and its cathedral from enemy bombers during the Second World War. More credibly, he is associated with an equally iconic book: the Lindisfarne Gospels, traditionally supposed to have been written in his honour and datable to the early 8th century, a decade or two after his death. This book was removed from Durham in 1539, during Henry VIII’s plundering of the monasteries, and it eventually passed into the safe hands of the British Library in London. In a few weeks from now it will make its first return visit, as the centerpiece of a major exhibition which is expected to attract visitors in their tens of thousands. Locals have never reconciled themselves to its loss, and they speak of its “coming home at last”.

As a New Testament scholar, I might have regarded this spectacularly beautiful gospel-book as marginal to my professional concerns. New Testament scholars are trained to focus intensively on texts and contexts from the 1st century CE, and we become progressively less interested and informed as the 2nd century gets under way. It seems that a collective decision has been made to focus on the production of the individual New Testament texts at the expense of their reception. The long-drawn-out process in which a text comes to function as canonical scripture is largely ignored.

Gospel Writing
Gospel Writing

My forthcoming book (Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective) challenges this disciplinary bias. It sees the construction of the fourfold canonical gospel both as the defining moment in the reception of the individual texts and as a creative act of gospel production in its own right. Theological decisions underpinning the four gospel collection are brought to light in the writings of early gospel-users, but also through the visual arts: see chapter 11 of my book and the accompanying website. For me, it was a short step from the wonderful mosaic images of Ravenna and Rome to the Lindisfarne gospel codex. In Anglo-Saxon England as in Italy, high artistic abilities were employed in communicating and interpreting the fourfold gospel text and the single gospel message.

In the Lindisfarne Gospels, each gospel is preceded by a portrait of its evangelist. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are portrayed in the act of writing, while John faces the viewer and points towards the opening of his completed text.

Portrait of Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels; By Meister des Book of Lindisfarne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels; Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
In principio erat Verbum: in the beginning was the Word. The portraits help to establish the individuality of the evangelists and the integrity of their respective texts. The gospel comes to us not in the form of a shapeless mass of traditions about Jesus but by way of four distinct yet complementary perspectives.

Portrait of John in the Lindisfarne Gospels; By unknown but associated with Eadfrith of Lindisfarne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of John in the Lindisfarne Gospels; Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Also preceding each gospel is an elaborate abstract depiction of the cross. (Art historians refer to these as “carpet pages.” This expression trivializes them by viewing them as merely decorative, and it is also culturally inappropriate: the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic world is known for its stone crosses but not for its carpets.) In these pages the cross is transfigured by resurrection glory. They reflect a tradition in which Easter is still the Christian pascha or passover, a single divine act of deliverance from enslavement to sin and death. In these cross pages, each gospel is preceded by an eloquent image of the salvation it narrates.

Matthew Cross Page; By Eadfrith (Lindisfarne evangeliarium) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Matthew Cross Page in the Lindisfarne Gospels; Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
In the opening words of each gospel (the “Incipit”),  the art-work invades the text itself. Early gospel-users placed great emphasis on a gospel’s opening words as defining its distinct contribution. If the cross pages point towards the end and goal of the gospel narrative, the illuminated openings draw the reader-viewer back to its foundations. Here it is established that Jesus is of Jewish ancestry (Matthew), that his advent was prepared by prophetic writing and a living contemporary (Mark), that there exists a true and faithful testimony to him (Luke), and that he is the divine Word who was with God in the beginning (John).

Matthew Incipit; By Eadfrith of Lindisfarne (presumed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Matthew Incipit in the Lindisfarne Gospels; Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
The Lindisfarne artworks interpret the texts they accompany and articulate the faith of the church. They suggest that, if the fourfold gospel testimony is true, it must also be beautiful.

Click to order Francis Watson’s Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective