Mark Allan Powell is a veteran in biblical studies. He has published broadly for both scholars and lay readers. He has been an active contributor in academia for many years serving in the Society of Biblical literature and on the board of several respected academic periodicals. He also has a long history of teaching New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary (more than thirty years). Powell is certainly qualified to write this textbook about the Gospels.
As the title indicates, this book is intended to be an introduction, which for Powell means orienting readers to the world of the Gospels and the scholarship that has helped us to understand them (pp. 1-2). The actual introduction lays the groundwork in several key respects. It gives the reader an overview of the various academic fields of research that scholars use in studying the Gospels (e.g., archeology, sociology, and the social sciences). It describres the various dynamics that make up the world in which they were written (e.g., religious, political, social, and philosophical dynamics). Finally, it explains how the gospel genre has been understood in the past and how it is best understood today. Powell suggests that the canonical Gospels are most similar to ancient Geco-Roman biographies, with several important caveats: they display a strong influence from Jewish literature, they are not very much like modern biographies, and they are more than ancient biographies in the exalted way they depict their main character.
After the introduction Powell devotes the first chapter to the gospel tradition and its main stages of development stretching from the original events in the ancient world all the way to their reception in, and impact on, the modern world. He breaks the transmission down into six generally consecutive stages of development. I say “generally” because they are not completely distinct stages, strictly speaking, but they do generally flow from ancient to modern in terms of the focus for academic research. First, there is historical Jesus studies—which as its name suggests, is the historical task of reconstructing the words and aims of Jesus himself as he existed in history, before the writings we know as the Gospels were produced. Second, the early tradition encompasses both oral and written elements. Scholars who study the oral transmission of the gospel tradition are called form critics. Form criticism typically procedes by identifying distinct segments of material, classifying them according to type (e.g., miracle story, parable, hymn, pronouncement, and so on), discern their original function, then try to reconstruct what they looked like (or sounded like) before being included in the written document. Scholars who study the written sources of the gospel tradition are called source critics. Source criticism, simply put, studies the written sources that the evangelists might have used when composing their own written documents. This entails trying to figure out the relative relationship between the four canonical Gospels. The third stage in this sequence of tradition is the composition or redaction of the Gospels. Redaction critics study the way that the evangelists uniquely crafted their Gospels by selecting, arranging, and sometimes even emending, the stories they include. The goal is to discover something of the purpose and intention of the evangleists in the composition process. The fourth stage of transmission is manuscript preservation. Text criticism, as it is often called, studies the history and relationship of the manuscripts that provide the foundaiton for our modern critical editions of the Greek New Testament. This includes studying the various differences in manuscripts, their causes, and attempting to determine the initial reading of the text in each case. The fifth stage in the transmission of the gospel tradition is translation. Here Powell demonstrates how translating the Bible into English inevitably continues the process of developing the gospel tradition in new directions as translators wrestle with philosophical issues in their attempts to achieve varying degrees of clarity and accuracy in translation. Taking any utterance that originated in one culture and linguistic environment and trying to articulating it in another culture and linguistic environment can be incredibly difficult, and something is almost always lost in translation. The sixth and final stage of development is reception. This field of research studies how the gospels have been heard and understood down through the ages. As the gospel tradition is received in various groups that are situated in different social locations it has created different effects in its readers. Thus scholars have found value in studying the relationship between the perspective of the reader and the meaning that is found in the text. The various approaches that pay attention to this process of reception is sometimes called reader-response criticism. This field of study is further divided into several subdisciplines: rhetorical criticism, Wirkungsgeschichte, ideological criticism, postmodern criticism, and narrative criticism.
The central part of the book (chs. 2-5) is organized by devoting a chapter to each of the four canonical Gospels, with the chapter on the Gospel of Luke also including Acts. Each of these chapters follows the same basic format with four sections each. Powell begins each chapter with a section providing a source critical summary, commenting where appropriate on the general feel and structure of the Gospel and its relationship to the others. In the following section he describes from a literary standpoint the unique chracteristics of the Gospel. Next Powell walks the reader through a reconstruction of the historical context of the Gospel’s composition, considering in turn the question of authorship, location, date, and provenance. In the fourth and final section of each of these chapters he provides a description of the major themes as developed within the Gospel. This process is repeated for Mark, Matthew, Luke-Acts, and John.
The final chapter is devoted to a consideration of noncanonical Gospels. Powell limits his discussion to works that are typically considered to originate in the second century or, in a couple cases, to works that have garnered attention from New Testament scholars for various other reasons. He splits up the noncanonical Gospels into two groups.
The first group he labels “Narrative Gospels” because they comprise stories which relate to Jesus. The Protoevangelium of James which is more about Mary than Jesus, nevertheless contains some overlap with the canonical Gospels. It was popular among early Christians and remained so for many years, as evidenced by the manuscript tradition. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas focuses on Jesus’s early years as a child. It contains various miracle stories purportedly done by the child Jesus. This Gospel was not popular among church leaders presumably on account of the less than flattering picture it paints of Jesus. The Gospel of the Hebrews is only known through references to it in other documents. It was apparently received well by some heavy hitters in the church (e.g., Origen, Clement of Alexandira, and Jerome), but after the fifth century it dissapears from the historical record. Somthing similar can be said for the second century Gospel of the Egyptians which we also only know through several references in other works. The Gospel of the Savior concerns alleged speeches Jesus made toward the end of his life. Apart from its own manuscript tradition (which is small) it is not referred to by any others, good or bad. The Gospel of Peter is a second century account of Jesus’s passion. There is much overlap with canonical Gospels in terms of content, though not in wording. It was mentioned by the church historian Eusebius and also by Serapion, Bishop of Antioch.
The second group of noncanoncial Gospels Powell labels “Sayings Gospels” because they are not so much narrative as they are collections of teachings or sayings of Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas is perhaps the most important by all accounts. Its date and authorship have been of significant inderest to scholars. The fact that the death and resurrection of Jesus is absent from its purview and the theological dissonance between it and other early orthodox gospel traditions has also contributed to its significance for some New Testament scholars. It was used primarily by Gnostic groups. The Apocryphon of James reports Jesus’s teaching to James and Peter just before he ascends to heaven. The Dialogue of the Savior describes a conversation between Jesus, Matthew, Judas, and Mary, and is gnostic in its thematic content. The remaining Gospels Powell discusses in this group are gnostic in character (or anti-gnostic, as in The Epistle of the Apostles): The Gospel of Judas, The Gospel of Mary, and The Gospel of Philip. To sum up the chapter Powell himself puts it this way:
The noncanonical Gospels are a mixed lot: some were regarded as heretical by church leaders, or dismissed for some other reason, but othrs seem to have been less disparaged than they were simply marginalized.…Yet for the most part they did survive! They were copied and treasured, often for hundreds of years, even without official support or enduring, widespread popularity. (p. 245)
Mark Allan Powell has done a great service for students and interested lay persons by writing this book. It can be said with reasonable certainty that he has achieved his goal of orienting readers to the world of the Gospels and the scholarship that has helped us to understand them. A careful review of the end notes reveals that almost every single book that he references is a reputable scholarly academic work. He certainly has a firm grasp of the secondary literature on the Gospels. In line with the nature of textbooks Powell refrains, for the most part, from adjudicating on contentious or hotly debated issues, preferring instead to inform the reader of how various scholars deal with the the issues.
There are, however, a few matters where his own perspective shines through. To take one example, when he discusses the “synoptic problem” (pp. 22-27) he describes the three main views that scholars take, noting that the Two-Source Hypothesis is the most dominant view. It becomes clear in the remainder of the book that he takes the Two-Source Hypothesis—along with the postulated existence of Q—for granted (see pp. 95, 129, 147, 189). That being said, his personal bias does not get in the way of the overall objectivity of his presentation.
I offer the following reflections by way of personal response and engagament with other elements of Powell’s book. In the section dealing with historical Jesus studies (pp. 17-22), Powell gives the impression that this field of research is mostly about writing biographies about Jesus in the modern sense. In fact, Figure 3 (pp. 19-21) is labeled “Modern Biographies of Jesus,” and lists no less than ten major interpreters who have offered historical reconstructions of Jesus in recent years. I have not read all of these authors, but I am familiar with N. T. Wright’s work on Jesus. I do not think Wright would say any of his work on Jesus constitutes a “biography.” Especially considering that Powell only takes into account one of Wright’s books, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996). By contrast, Wright has written a biography on the apostle Paul—which has a very different texture to it than his work on Jesus—Paul: A Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 2018). I think Powell could improve this section by carefully distinguishing historical reconstructions from mere modern biographies.
In the chapter on the Gospel of Mark, Figure 16 (p. 75) compares the references to the “kingdom of God” with references in other Gospels to demonstrate the dominance of the concept in Mark’s Gospel. However, the figure does not display the many “kingdom of heaven” references in Matthew. It seems this would skew his representation of the situation in the chart, which gives the appearance of skewing the data to make a point.
Powell claims that Mark 1:9-11 is the only place in the Bible where the heavens are torn (pp. 78-79). However, Richard B. Hays offers a reading of this “tearing of the heavens” that is more convincing in my opinion, referring to a passage in Isaiah in which he cries out to God asking him how long until he “rends the heavens” and comes down to rescue his people. See Hays’s book, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016), 16-20. Powell seems not to be aware of this other tearing of the heavens in Isaiah 64:1.
In the chapter on Luke-Acts Powell discusses the models for understanding Jesus drawn from the Greco-Roman world. He discusses several in partricular that I found insightful: Jesus as philosopher, immortal, and benefactor (pp. 160-62). These are thought-provoking comparisons. When reflecting on Luke’s motive behind such comparisons one is reminded of what Josephus did for the Romans in translating Jewish culture for a Roman audience (I am thinking especiually of his use of terms such as “wearing the diadem,” etc., in place of messiah language). See, on this point, especially Matthew V. Novenson’s The Grammar of Messianism: An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Users (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 145-148.
When describing the various models and images that Luke employs for understanding Jesus Powell concludes by saying, “Taken together, these glimpses provide a complex and somewhat confusing portrait of Jesus that would have offered most of Luke’s readers something that was familiar, mixed, perhaps, with much that was not” (p. 163). I do not think I would describe the results of Luke’s tapestry in this way. Luke’s portrait of Jesus may seem confusing to us but we must, in my opinion, maintain a hermeneutic of trust and assume that it made sense to his first readers.
There is one small lacuna in the chapter on the Gospel of John that relates to the identity of the author. Overall Powell does a good job of describing the complexity of the issue (pp. 196-200), but he does not mention the work of Richard Bauckham in this context. See especially Backham’s chapter, “Who Was The Beloved Disciple? (Continued),” in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017). To be fair, he does reference others, but as far as I am aware Bauckham makes a contribution to the question that is somewhat unique. Although Bauckham’s position is, admittedly, a minority, he is an accomplished scholar in Johannine studies and so I think Powell’s section here would’ve benefited from mentioning his work.
When discussing the Gospel of John’s use of symbolism Powell mentions the piercing with a spear and the consequent flow of water and blood from Jesus’s side (pp. 191-192). He lists several interpretations that have been suggested (sacraments, forgiveness, Holy Spirit, etc.) including his own (birth). However, he does not mention the possibility of an intertextual allusion to Ezekiel 36:22-37:14. This is the interpretation that underlies The Bible Project’s video on “The Water of Life”: https://bibleproject.com/explore/water-of-life/
Let me hasten to say that all the above criticisms notwithstanding this is a wonderful textbook for Gospel studies. One of the greatest strengths of this book is the way it introduces readers to the world of biblical scholarship that informs our understanding of these texts so dear to us.