Book of the month

An excellent introduction to the Gospels also reveals the limitations of the ‘scientific’ scholarship of the twentieth century, says Peter Anthony

Four Gospels, One Story
Edward Adams

SPCK, 208pp, pbk
978 0281063772, £12.99 / £14.99 after May 2012


New Testament studies are held by many to stand at a crossroads. For some years an increasing dissatisfaction has been evident with the historical-critical paradigm underpinning much twentieth- century biblical scholarship. It treated the New Testament like any other historical text, and subjected it to ‘scientific’ scrutiny. Its intention was to reveal the ‘real’ persons, situations, and intended meaning lying behind the pages of the Scriptures.

That outlook, however, is not without its problems. Many claim the delusion of attaining pure ‘scientific’ knowledge untouched by our own prejudices and perspectives to be a dangerous chimera. For others, the historical-critical method, in its most cynical forms, pulls the Scriptures apart, leaving nothing left other than a vague conviction that someone called Jesus of Nazareth probably existed at one point in time. Others argue the New Testament’s significance does not exclusively reside in the simple, plain sense of what its writers intended to mean, but rather in the myriad ways in which the text has interacted with its hearers and readers through the centuries.

In certain ways, many of these tensions are evident in Adams’ Parallel Lives of Jesus.

He has produced an excellent basic introduction to study of the literary parallels which exist between the first three gospels. His book is clear and approachable. I could imagine it being used successfully in a wide range of parish teaching and catechetical contexts.

I sense Adams partially wants to rescue synoptic study from the grips of a harsh, critical agenda that only emphasizes discrepancy, tension, and difference within the New Testament’s account of Jesus’ life and teaching. It is laudable that Adams seeks to point just as much to the theological agreement and coherence found within the gospels’ picture of Jesus.

The first half of the work introduces succinctly the usual criticalexplanations forthe emergence ofthe fourgospels, and outlines their theological characteristics. The book finishes with an extended series of ‘worked examples’, in which he explores six gospel episodes whose different versions are examined side by side. I liked the way in which this fleshes out the theory Adams has outlined in the first sections. He draws heavily (and possibly a little over-adoringly) on the work Richard Burridge has done, seeing the gospels as most similar in genre to the biographical works of the ancient world. This allows him to regard the gospels as four distinct but complementing biographies of the same person.

Adams accomplishes well the task he sets the study of synoptic parallels, sympathetic himself, in producing a good introduction to to the coherent picture which, together, they give us of Jesus. However, one might suggest elements of Adams’ critique could be better made if he broke away more adventurously from the historical- critical method itself. He cannot escape from the fact that study of the gospels in parallel is a tool of critical enquiry designed to distinguish between the gospels and reveal their characteristics as fundamentally separate, though related, literary texts. Its point is to show how the gospels differ.

I would argue, however, the ways in which we apprehend the relationship between the gospels cannot be exhaustively accounted for by simple use of one historical- critical tool. At the heart of the question is a fact that Adams occasionally alludes to: the gospels are not read in parallel through Christian history simply by virtue of the shared literary relationship that characterized their creation, but also because of their inclusion in a canon of texts by the Church.

This canonical reception is crucial in establishing the relationship any reader has to the gospels. The complex ways in which we make sense of the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ life can only be fully elucidated by acknowledging the importance of their canonization by the early Church and their having been read ever since as sacred scripture. The conclusions of historical- critical scholarship, in other words, represent only part of the answer.

Widening our horizons to include the gospels’ reception history reveals a vast range of new perspectives which can illuminate our understanding of the ways in which the gospels can be understood to be, in some sense, parallel texts. Such an approach challenges modernity’s somewhat simplistic assumptions concerning which biblical texts should be read in the light of each other in order best to reveal their ‘true’ meaning.

A wide spectrum of historically conditioned influences affect how we value, compare and interpret the different synoptic accounts of the same events in surprisingly complex ways. Seen in this light, the allegedly impartial ‘scientific’ scholarship of twentieth-century historical-critical commentators is revealed to stand on the shoulders of a much longer tradition of interpretation stretching back from our own day to the earliest moments when the Christian kerygma was first heard, written down, and read. ND

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