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The Fourfold Gospel

A Theological Reading of the New Testament Portraits of Jesus

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This groundbreaking approach to the study of the fourfold gospel offers a challenging alternative to prevailing assumptions about the creation of the gospels and their portraits of Jesus. How and why does it matter that we have these four gospels? Why were they placed alongside one another as four parallel yet diverse retellings of the same story?

Francis Watson, widely regarded as one of the foremost New Testament scholars of our time, explains that the four gospels were chosen to give a portrait of Jesus. He explores the significance of the fourfold gospel's plural form for those who constructed it and for later Christian communities, showing that in its plurality it bears definitive witness to what God has done in Jesus Christ. Watson focuses on reading the gospels as a group rather than in isolation and explains that the fourfold gospel is greater than, and other than, the sum of its individual parts. Interweaving historical, exegetical, and theological perspectives, this book is accessibly written for students and pastors but is also of interest to professors and scholars.


Prolegomena: The Making of a Fourfold Gospel
More Than Four?
Fewer Than Four?
Why "Gospel"?
Why the Evangelists' Names?
Why These Four?
Part 1: Perspectives
1. The First Gospel: Jesus the Jew
The Messiah's Double Origin
Genealogy as Narrative
The Sacred Story and Its Shadow
The Genealogy of Jesus the Messiah
2. The Second Gospel: Preparing the Way
The Four Faces of the Gospel
The Voice in the Desert
The Inclusive Gospel
An End and a Beginning
3. The Third Gospel: Magnificat
How Luke Became Luke
Reassuring Theophilus
Reading in Parallel
4. The Fourth Gospel: Seeing God
Three plus One
The Johannine Eagle
In the Beginning
Part 2: Convergences
5. Four Gospels, One Book
The Evangelist: Portrait and Artist
Prefatory to a Gospel
Order out of Chaos
Parallels and Numbers
6. The City and the Garden
Reading the Event
A Man of Sorrows
7. Christus Victor
The Death of the Messiah
8. The Truth of the Gospel
The Eucharistic Milieu
Evangelical Apologetics
Form and Content
The One Word


"The Fourfold Gospel displays all the virtues that readers have come to expect from one of the finest biblical interpreters of our day: depth and breadth of learning, exegetical prowess, clarity of argument, and sure theological judgment, all in the service of the truth of the gospel."

John Webster, Professor of Divinity, St. Mary's College, University of St. Andrews

"What does it mean, theologically speaking, that we have four canonical gospels? Drawing on sources as diverse as Ezekiel's vision and Eusebius's canons, Francis Watson's reflection on this question is as astonishingly fresh as it is deeply grounded in the church's traditions. Not for specialists only, The Fourfold Gospel is rich and richly rewarding."

Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Baylor University

"The contributions of Francis Watson are always innovative and incisive, and this book, which will win a large readership, is no exception. With his unrivaled ability to combine expert historical knowledge with interpretive acuity, he is like the ideal scribe in Matthew, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

Dale C. Allison Jr., Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament Studies, Princeton Theological Seminary

"The old cliché about John's gospel is that it is like a sea in which a child may paddle or an elephant swim. The same could be said of this marvelous book, which makes an excellent introductory book for students while also brimming with both astute historical detective work and elegant and thoughtful (and sometimes moving) exegesis that is illuminating for the expert."

Simon Gathercole, Reader in New Testament, University of Cambridge; Fellow and Director of Studies in Theology, Fitzwilliam College

The Author

  1. Francis Watson

    Francis Watson

    Francis Watson (PhD, University of Oxford) is Research Chair in Biblical Interpretation at Durham University. He previously held the Kirby Laing Chair of New Testament Exegesis at the University of Aberdeen and taught at King's College London. Among his...

    Continue reading about Francis Watson


"[A] small but provocative book. . . . Watson helps us to appreciate how the fourfold gospel originated and how the early church read the four Gospels as a fourfold gospel. In doing so he implicitly challenges contemporary Gospel scholarship to reassess what it has been doing and, perhaps, to consider where it should be going. In addition to reading the Gospels for the history that lies behind them and the story that lies within them, he suggests that it is time to read them for the way in which they enrich each other by proclaiming a fourfold gospel. . . . If this project is to succeed, and I hope that it does, it will need to provide a more detailed analysis of the fourfold gospel, a task that Watson is well equipped to carry out. If he can succeed, he will change the course of Gospel studies in a significant way."

Frank J. Matera,


"In this relatively brief but substantive work Francis Watson . . . reflects on the theological significance of the fourfold gospel. . . . Watson probes this multifaceted yet unified portrayal by considering the unique beginnings and conclusions of each of the gospels. This is a theologically rich contribution that emphasizes the role of the fourfold canonical gospels in the formation of fundamental Christian faith in Christ."

Donald Senior, CP,

The Bible Today

"[Watson's] Gospel Writing stands as one of the most important works in biblical criticism of the past fifty years, not simply in the sphere of textual study, but for biblical theology in the wider life of the church. The present volume is a précis of Gospel Writing. It is dedicated to Watson's parents, who requested a 'shorter book accessible to non-specialist readers.' Many others will be grateful to Francis Watson for accomplishing so well his filial duty."

David Lyle Jeffrey,

First Things

"Watson's approach is intriguing, grounded in thorough research, sprinkled with imagination, and an informative exercise for historical theologians and church historians. His work helpfully demonstrates the potential contributions and limitations of the theological interpretation method."

Charles L. Quarles,

Bulletin for Biblical Research

"Watson displays his erudition with a light hand, lucidly gesturing toward intricate debates without oversimplification or distraction. Streamlined structure and clear prose make this slim volume accessible to the elusive 'educated non-specialist reader.' Innovative argument and nuanced engagement with gospel origins make it suitable for advanced undergraduates or seminarians. Academic readers will also be well-served. For those who want to delve deeper, the book is supplied with indexes of subjects, authors, and citations, as well as a valuable bibliography. . . . A superb study, lucid, erudite, and insightful."

Jeremiah Coogan,

Biblical and Early Christian Studies

"The strengths of the book are numerous. . . . For too long in Gospel studies the differences between the gospels have been viewed as something to explain, rather than places for theological reflection. Watson represents the more balanced postmodern turn in literary studies where objective truth is affirmed, but it is also acknowledged that the presentation and knowing of truth is always subjective. . . . His deep theological and textual reflections on the Gospel introductions were precise and thoughtful. If this is the sort of reflections that come from Watson's theoria then very few could argue against there being a place for reflections on both the distinctiveness and the unity of the Gospel presentations. . . . Watson's contribution to the study of the Gospels is welcomed. He is taking the narrative turn of the Gospels to a new step: that step is a theological/canonical reading respecting both the individual witness and the fourfold witness to the life of Jesus."

Patrick Schreiner,

Trinity Journal

"This is a highly-instructive and illuminating study. We learn not merely some arcane mechanics about how the Gospels were produced and preserved, but how they work together individually and collectively to convey a divine message of utmost importance. We see why we need all four; we see why the canonizers put them in the order they did; we see how each is masterfully constructed, and how they conspire together to present the glorious message of our Lord Jesus Christ who is truly good news! And we see how the Holy Spirit was at work in the preservation and choice of the canonical Gospels no less than in their inspiration and origin."

William W. Klein,

Denver Journal

"[Watson's] reading of the gospels does not subject them to breakneck historical criticism, nor does it negate the difficulties presented by the fourfold gospel. . . . Someone seeking an informed and balanced reading of the gospels would be well served by the first seven chapters of this book. The final chapter, however, is clearly what the whole book was working toward. The collective movement of the previous chapters, with their acknowledgement of the complicated relationship between the four gospels, leads naturally into the fundamental question underlying the whole book: What is, or how might we understand, gospel truth? The question, one must realize, is much bigger than 'Is what is written in the gospels true?' The question is what does it mean that these gospels, even in light of their differences, are true?"

Zen Hess,

Theology Forum blog