The Gospel of the Lord, How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus by Michael F. Bird
Michael Bird, lecturer in theology at Ridley Melbourne Mission and Ministry College in Australia, has written this work to address “the questions of how the Gospels came to be, what kinds of literature they are, and how they relate to Christian discourse about God…[and] to explore how the Gospels were shaped by the Christian movement and how they shape that movement themselves” (pp vii-ix). Toward this end, Bird has provided an intense volume in which he interacts with the latest scholarship, from liberal to conservative, on all related issues. He discusses the origins of the four Gospels, oral traditions, form criticism, literary genre and goal of the Gospels. The heart of the book however, is concerned with the Synoptic problem (pp 127-187) and the Johannine question (pp 188-22).
The Synoptic problem is why Matthew, Mark and Luke are similar and yet different in many ways. Also at issue is the order of the writings and sources used (e.g. Was Mark the first gospel, or was, Matthew?). Bird admits that there exist no definitive answers to this problem (pp 155-156) and is even skeptical of the existence of Q (p 28); nevertheless he summarizes his own opinion with this statement:
In sum, I believe in a literary relationship between the Gospels, because oral tradition does not account for the strong verbal and structural correspondences that we find in the Gospels and because proto-Gospel theories are speculative and lack solid evidence. I believe in Marcan priority, because it explains why Mark is the middle term between Luke and Matthew and why Mark’s roughness in language is smoothed over by the other two Evangelists. I believe in Q because, despite its potential misgivings, it allows us to hold together a literary connection between Matthew and Luke that is indirect enough to explain their varied order and divergent utilization of the double tradition. I believe the Luke used Matthew because it accounts for the minor agreements and erases the anomaly of the so-called Q-Mark overlaps (p 187).
The Johannine question addresses the authorship of John’s Gospel (Bird believes it is the “Beloved Disciple,” not John the apostle (pp 190-191, 213), and why John’s Gospel is so different from the Synoptics.
Bird sees the four biblical Gospels as canonical and believes that they were recognized as such by the early church largely because of their apostolic authority. However there were 40-50 other ancient books calling themselves gospels that were in circulation by the first few centuries. Bird provides an excellent discussion of these and their respective value (pp 281-286). He accepts none as canonical (pp 219-293).
The Gospel of the Lord provides an excellent interaction with the latest scholarship on the biblical Gospels. This volume would be of value only to those who are interested in in-depth discussions of such issues. For such people this is a great source. There are a few negatives, however.
· Bird is somewhat sympathetic to the New Perspective on Paul, and even dedicated the book to N.T. Wright (pp vii, ix).
· He rejects, without discussion, more conservative approaches to his subjects, such as those represented by Robert Thomas and F. David Farnell (p 148). I found it interesting that Bird debates with liberal scholarship in great detail but dismisses conservative scholarship with one sentence.
· There was virtually no reference concerning the Holy Spirit’s role in the inspiration of the Gospels which is disappointing. A passing mention of John 14:26 is found on p 101 but nothing more on the true author of the Gospels. Yet the Gospels (not to mention the whole of Scripture) cannot be explained purely from the perspective of human rules. The Scriptures, including the Gospels, are authoritative and canonical only because they are God-breathed. I realize inspiration was not his subject, but totally ignoring the role of the Holy Spirit in the formation of the Gospels is a big omission.
(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2014) 394 pp + xiv, paper $30.00
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher Southern View Chapel