Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Gospel Reception and the Elusive “Final Word”

Andrew J.Byers

When we use the phrase, “the final word on the subject,” we are denoting more than just authoritative writing. An author (wordplay intended) who pens the “final word” on some topic or puzzle is presumed authoritative in an ultimate sense.

But in the humanities, is there ever really a “final word”?

Words: Ever Penultimate, Never Final

Across the disciplines, works of grounding significance tend to promote more words, not fewer. Printing a “final word” on any field would surely bode ill for the book business, yet (thankfully for publishers) authoritative writing does not close off discussion with a monograph’s concluding paragraph – that’s not how good writing works. Instead, authoritative writing incites more authoritative writing. One author’s “final word” becomes the invitation for others to pen opening words of their own. From the most important works there emerges a process of reception, one that is dynamic, generative, fecund.

Just ask the early church.

One reason canons must eventually be “closed” is that their authoritative content inspires the endless spilling of more authoritative ink. With reception marked by such burgeoning proliferation, lines are drawn to establish the scope and range of claimed textual authority. Here is the underlying principle: the best writing leads to careful reading which leads to more writing, not less.

Early Christian Gospel composition illustrates the point.

The Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity

In producing an authoritative account of Jesus of Nazareth, an evangelist inadvertently beckons other evangelists onto the scribal stage. By the time the fourth evangelist writes what we call the Gospel of John, he freely acknowledges that if all the other available material about Jesus were recorded, then “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25, NRSV). This “John” seems to be quietly recognizing other similar works while loudly admitting in his conclusion the inconclusiveness of the writing task.

So, John produces an authoritative word. Yet he does not inscribe the “final word” on the “Word” who “became flesh” (1:14, NRSV). As John would perhaps put it, this Word is alive and ever resists being finalized, that is, being definitively summed up by an evangelist or contemporary scholar, and thus comprehensively enclosed within the covers of a book.

Authoritative writing does not issue a “final word.” It inspires more words.

In our new book Gospel Reading and Reception in Early Christian Literature, my fellow editors and contributors (in honor of Professor Francis Watson, into whose labor we have entered) take seriously this dynamic nature of reception. Jesus happened. And whatever one thinks of him today, his impact brought forth onto the literary scene a fresh wave of writing yielding a textual trove extending well beyond the canonical Four of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We attend to how Gospel writing follows Gospel reading. Mark read Israel’s sacred texts and discerned Jesus within them. Matthew read those same scriptures, but also Mark’s account and possibly a sayings collection (and/or maybe Luke?). Luke read Mark, the Septuagint, sayings collections (maybe), and (perhaps more likely?) Matthew. These evangelists engaged prior authoritative texts that, in their view, did not utter the “final word on the subject.” The reading of authoritative Gospels led to the authoring of more Gospels.

Our own book claims no status finality. We simply wade along the shoreline of a great textual sea, examining how these ancient writers navigated the available sources, crafted their own ideas, and accentuated their own themes. Many books on Jesus’ reception have already been published, and more could be written. We hope you read ours.

And then write yours.

Gospel Reading and Reception in Early Christian Literature by Madison N. Pierce , Andrew J. Byers and Simon Gathercole
Gospel Reading and Reception in Early Christian Literature by Madison N. Pierce , Andrew J. Byers and Simon Gathercole

About The Author

Andrew J.Byers

Andrew J. Byers teaches in the Cambridge Theological Federation as Tutor in New Testament at Ridley Hall. He is the author of four books, including John and the Others: Jewish Rela...

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