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 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. In brief, the former addresses why Matthew, Mark, and Luke (called the Synoptic Gospels) are so strikingly similar, and yet at times divergent. On the Synoptic Problem, Bird holds to the Holtzmann-Gundry Hypothesis (alternatively know as the three-source theory). Because the Gospel of John is so different from the other three canonical gospels, it has its own category in gospels study. The Johannine Question looks at the origins of the Johannine corpus (the gospels, epistles, and sometimes apocalypse attributed to John). Here Bird suggests that the way to more 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 that 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. It 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 is excellent supplementary reading for bible college and seminary students. In addition, students in secular colleges and universities should read this book as well. They will at some point probably take a course on the NT thinking it will be an easy “A,” but then realize they basically have Bart Ehrman as their professor (I found myself in this type of situation). The critical issues addressed in this book are the kinds of issues that will be brought up in NT courses at secular schools, and having the knowledge from this robust research by an evangelical professor will be immensely helpful.
This book is not difficult in terms of reading level and necessity of background knowledge, but it is quite technical, as is perhaps apparent by this review. It addresses issues that most lay Christians probably never ponder, but that are nevertheless important prolegomena to Gospels studies. And while the topics might seem esoteric, some may prove quite helpful for one’s apologetics toolbox in evangelistic conversations (e.g. I’ve had conversations with non-Christians in which they’ve brought up oral tradition. Imagine not being aware of oral tradition and having to admit that). That being said though, this book is probably not for everyone; but any with an academic interest in the Gospels would find this book an immensely valuable resource. As always, Bird’s mastery of the literature is impressive; and as always, occasional pop culture references (e.g. Gangnam style!) and witty/snazzy/humorous sentences spice things up.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Jennifer Guo is a bean counter by day and a book eater by night. She is passionate about the gospel and loves biblical and theological studies. She also loves the arts and is part of a performing arts ministry that uses a variety of mediums to communicate the gospel, God’s heart, and His design for sexuality, relationships, and marriage. Jennifer also loves running and cooking (and not because running allows her to eat more). You can follow her @JenniferGuo or read more reviews at her blog Jennifer Guo.