A few days ago, thanks to Energion Publications, I received a review copy of Why Four Gospels? by David Alan Black. They sent the book to me without charge (free) with only one stipulation, that I review the book. They did not ask for a good review, only for a review.
Before I begin the review, I should tell you that I personally know Dave Black, and that, in fact, he is my PhD mentor. We have talked about the issues in this book before, and I have previously read an earlier edition of the book.
With that out of the way, I can give you my review: If you are interested in the New Testament – specifically the Gospels – and specifically why we have four books that are called Gospels – then you must read this book.
The book is written so that anyone can read it and understand it. You do not need a PhD or even a seminary (or even a college) education in order to understand Black’s explanation of the development of the Gospels. (In fact, one of the things that Dave Black does very well is write books introducing readers to complicated subjects.)
However, if you are a scholar, I would urge you to read this book as well. Will you agree with Black? Perhaps not. But, perhaps he will convince you to consider a source of evidence that you (and your teachers) may have overlooked.
What evidence is that? The patristic evidence. Specifically, Black begins his study with an examination of the statements of various authors who wrote from the early second century to the fourth century. Each statement concerns the author, occasion of writing, and/or time of writing for one or more of the four Gospels.
Does Black suggest that we accept all of this information uncritically? Does he suggest that all of the available patristic evidence is uniform? The answer to both of those questions is, “No.” Instead, Black sifts the evidence for consistencies, and he finds that there are many.
On the other hand, modern New Testament scholarship has tended to dismiss the patristic evidence. Black now says that this evidence must be weighed and factored into other evidence, such as the internal evidence. For example, in order to promote Markan Priority (that is, that the Gospel of Mark was written first among the four Gospels), scholars must deal with the fact that the patristic authors overwhelmingly (unanimously?) said that Matthew was written first.
There is much more to this book. For example, Black suggest that the four Gospels (and the order of their writing) can be explained by the needs of the early church. Similarly, he offers an explanation of the zig-zag style of Mark (that is, that Mark matches Matthew, then Luke, then back to Matthew, etc.). Obviously, there is some conjecture here. But, in order to respond, I believe that other scholars must offer explanations that deal with both the internal evidence and the external evidence.
So, buy and read Why Four Gospels? Even if you do not agree with Black, it will at least be a good example of how to write on a difficult subject in a way that almost all readers will understand.