The four gospels stand magisterially at the head of the canon and the centre of early Christianity. They are remarkable documents. If they had been lost for centuries, and then dug up last year in the sands of Egypt, they would be hailed as among the most extraordinary writings from antiquity. Despite the occasional efforts to push them out of their central position and substitute other documents, whether actually existing (such as the wrongly named Gospel of Thomas) or reconstructed (such as the hypothetical document ”˜Q’), the majority of scholars still believe, rightly in my view, that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John deserve their place. The fact that they are well known should not blind us to their remarkable blend of page-turning narrative, vivid portraiture (especially of their central figure), historical verisimilitude and sophisticated theology.
And yet. Reversing what St Paul says about himself, the gospels, though well known at one level, are unknown at another. An oversimplification, of course; but I refer to the overall drift of gospel studies, and to the perception of the gospels in the church community to which biblical studies remains tangentially, and sometimes uncomfortably, related. Huge strides have been made, not least by my predecessor but one, Professor Richard Bauckham, both in his work on the wide intended readership of the gospels and in his award-winning book on the gospels and the eyewitnesses. If he is even half right Â”“ and I think he is at least that ”“ then all kinds of assumptions, including some of those blessed things they used to call ”˜the assured results of criticism’, will need to be torn up. But we need to go further still. Despite generations now of redaction criticism and narrative criticism, I am not convinced that the main message of the gospels has been grasped, let alone reflected in the methods employed for further study. And since I shall contend in this lecture that the four gospels stand at the centre of the missionary and hence theological life of the early church, a failure to understand their central thrust is most likely an index of a failure to grasp several other things as well about the life and work of the first Christians.
I am not being alarmist. Fine work in many directions has been done on the gospels, a generation ago by another predecessor, Matthew Black of blessed memory. And of course Robin Wilson, of more recent memory, contributed much to our understanding of the early Christian hinterland within which the gospels and their early reception must be understood. But there comes a time in every discipline to take a deep breath, stand back, and say, ”˜Well and good; but perhaps we’re still missing something.’ That’s when we need, not simply more attention to detail, vital and central though that remains, but precisely imagination: a willingness to think beyond the fence, to ask questions hitherto screened out. And, to complete the list of recent predecessors, Markus Bockmuehl in his short stay here published a remarkable book, Seeing the Word, offering an eloquent and wide-ranging plea for just such an imaginative leap, a reassessment of the tasks and methods of the whole discipline. That is the kind of exercise which I want to share with you this afternoon, with due gratitude both for the invitation to occupy this chair and for the warm welcome I have received in St Mary’s College and in the wider University community.
Read it all.