(June 29, 2007)
The Four Gospels by William Stob asks one of the most important interpretive questions that can be posed of the biblical text: why? By continually asking the “why” question of the text, the reader is challenged to consider the various dimensions of it, whether they be textual, co-textual, or intertextual. Stob’s particular question is canonical as he asks: why four Gospels? Stob states, “in spite of their supreme importance and extensive familiarity, many Christians still cannot answer the question: Why Four Gospels?” (p. 17).
This question is developed through a series of chapters that thematically examine the past, present, future and eternal. Each of these chapters corresponds to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with a summary chapter. This results in four major sections based on the gospels with ancillary chapters based on issues that reach across the Gospels. Some of the chapters include short thematic studies or biblical theology studies such as Stob’s arrangement of the “I am” sayings in Gospel of John.
The Problem of Intertextuality
The reason for the four-fold witness of the Gospels is based in part on the significance of the number four in Scripture (p. 18). The way that Stob moves from the OT to the NT will be of interest to those trying to understand intertextuality. For example, Stob finds that the four pillars of Shittim wood in Exodus 26:30-32 relate to the four-fold Gospels: “Just as these ‘four pillars’ served to display the beautiful veil, so in the four Gospels we have made manifest the perfections of the only-begotten of the Father tabernacling among men” (p. 18). The crucial question is how does the relationship work? He points helpfully to Hebrews 10:19-20, which mentions the veil that “foreshadowed” Christ’s flesh (p. 18). But what exactly is “foreshadowing?” Is it typology or allegory? Where do we stop and where do we start? The book of Hebrews makes it clear that there other intertextual or symbolic relationships that are legitimate but are outside of the scope of the writer’s goals (Hebrews 9:5).
Stob continues his examination of the importance of the number four by arguing that “Four is the number of the earth” (p. 19). Even as the fourth soil in the Parable of the Four Soils is different from the other three, so the fourth Gospel (John) is different from the other three (P. 19). But this view is problematic since it means one of the Gospels (Matthew?) corresponds to the bad soil. The reader will want to do extra work to understand the debate surrounding typology, allegory and hermeneutical principles before relying on the exegesis in the book. Stob offers interesting suggestions, but his approach to intertextuality and symbolism is so free that it borders on allegory.
The Problem of Exile
Those looking for a source to reflect on authors such as N. T. Wright will be interested in Stob’s suggestion that Jesus’ earthly ministry can be understood as “exile” (p. 94-5). Like Wright, Stob understands “exile” to be theological and not merely geographical. N. T. Wright has brought the concept of exile to the forefront of his exegesis by using it as a lens for understanding salvation history. To Wright, the Jews of the Second Temple period understood themselves to be still in exile (Wright, The New Testament at the People of God, 268-269). What Jesus brings about is not a geographical or literal return from exile but a spiritual return from exile. This idea becomes important because Wright uses national categories (e.g. exile and Jew vs. Gentile) to read Romans, arguing that Romans is more about ecclesiology than anything else.
In Wright’s view, Paul’s critique of the Jewish law has to do with their misuse of it in denying Gentiles the ability to enter into the covenant people. Thus, Jesus’ proclamation about the Kingdom is primarily about the end of exile and offer to enter into the People of God. Stob’s argumentation is significant because he also locates Israel in a state of exile during the time of Jesus—a statement that looms quite large in debates about New Testament theology today.
For Stob, Jesus Himself goes into exile in Matthew 12:14-15. From there, he argues that the church itself continues in the exile tradition (p. 94-96). One crucial question that remains unanswered by Stob is whether being an “alien and a stranger” on the earth (as David and Abraham were) is parallel to the concept of being “in exile.” Is being “in exile” important for understanding redemption as much as being “in Adam” is? To understand the provocative nature of Stob’s comments, one must enter into the current debates about the importance of exile in the study of salvation-history and New Testament theology.
What I appreciate the most about this book is that the author realizes the danger of collapsing all four Gospels into a single “life of Christ” that is devoid of all nuances and particular themes that each Gospel brings to the table. There is benefit in creating a “life of Christ” by drawing on all four witnesses. However, that should not be done to the exclusion of examining the biblical theology present in each Gospel. God inspired four Gospels for a reason. Stob is certainly correct when he laments the fact that most Christians cannot tell you why.
The author is a self-taught layman rather than a professional exegete, yet it is clear that this book is the product of many hours of study. The audiences who will enjoy this book most are those who appreciate lengthy quotations from a variety of authors. The book may be especially rewarding for those in the late stages of Bible major undergraduate programs. Seeing such work from a “non-professional” exegete is encouraging when so many churches are plagued by anti-intellectualism.