Michael F. Bird. The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014. 408 pp. $30.00.
I’m fairly certain that Michael Bird publishes more books per year than the average person reads. But it’s not just the quantity of his output that’s impressive – the depth and quality across a wide range of topics (e.g. 1 Esdras, Pauline studies, historical Jesus, Christology, systematic theology, etc.) is just as notable. And sprinkled throughout his excellent scholarship is always a generous dash of humor. Bird’s latest book, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus, is “concerned primarily with the questions of how the Gospels came to be, what kinds of literature they are, and how they relate to Christian discourse about God” (viii). Hence it’s not a gospels survey, as it doesn’t deal with issues typically found in books on the gospels such as provenance, content overview, and life of Christ. “Primarily this volume is focused on the origins and development of the books we call ‘Gospels’ in the context of the early church” (ix).
After some introductory remarks, the first issue The Gospel of the Lord tackles is the purpose and preservation of the Jesus tradition. Some of the questions addressed are: “Why did Jesus’s followers attempt to keep his teachings alive, tell stories about him, and narrate the story of his death and resurrection? In addition, did they transmit these stories and traditions in a way that faithfully communicated what actually happened?” (22). Next, Chapter 3, “The Formation of the Jesus Tradition”, explores the process from Jesus tradition to text. Here Bird summarizes the various models of oral tradition, noting pros and cons of each and illuminating his own position; he then devotes some time to social memory theory.
Chapter 4, by far the longest chapter in the book, addresses the literary issues of the Synoptic Problem and the Johannine Question. After surveying the issues and the primary positions from the history of research, noting pros and cons of the various approaches, Bird offers his own perspective. On the Synoptic Problem he ultimately argues for the Holtzmann-Gundry Hypothesis (alternatively know as the three-source theory). In regards to the Johannine Question Bird suggests that the way to move forward is to develop new categories, because the relationship between Synoptic tradition and Johannine tradition is more complex than a simple dependent/independent dichotomy.
Chapter 5 goes on to examine the genre and goal of the Gospels. After explaining the prevailing perspectives on the genre of the gospels and noting their pros and cons, Bird contends that the Gospels are broadly a type of biography, and most analogous to Greco-Roman biographies. And like Greco-Roman biographies, the Gospels had a variety of purposes. The final chapter explores the issue of why we have four gospels. Why not just one? Why not a dozen? This chapter aims to “plot the origins of the fourfold gospel collection (i.e. tetrevangelium), to evaluate the theological rationale for the fourfold gospel, and to explicate the significance of a fourfold gospel collection for the wider biblical canon” (300). After each chapter there is an excursus, and they address a variety of interesting topics such as the “other” gospels (typically referred to as “non-canonical,” but Bird provides good reasons for not using that designation).
The Gospel of the Lord is a fantastic book on the gospels that complements the existing introductory/survey books in gospels study. While covering some of the same topics, it also addresses topics typically neglected in those types of books and typically not given a lot of attention in gospels/NT survey courses. As such, this book would be an excellent text for gospels survey or NT survey courses and truly belongs on the bookshelf of anyone with academic interest in gospels studies. This book is an especially valuable resource for those potentially interested in pursuing doctoral studies in the Gospels because of Bird’s (as always) impressive mastery of scholarly literature. He even provides potential dissertation topics in the beginning and exudes a contagious excitement for how much work there remains to be done in the area. The Gospel of the Lord is a particularly beneficial resource for the budding NT/Gospels scholar, but is also an outstanding book for all looking for an introduction to how we got the Gospels. As is typical for the Conan O’Brien of biblical studies, Bird offers the occasional humorous line and cultural reference that makes you chuckle.
Thanks to Eerdmans for the review copy!
*Modified from a review originally posted at Grace for Sinners*