Gospel Writing Chapter 2

July 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

9780802840547Watson continues in chapter two by jumping ahead in the history of interpretation of the Gospels to the 1777-79. The Enlightened critics agreed with Augustine that contradictions in the gospels would seriously compromise the integrity of the gospels themselves.

Watson focuses on two characters and their differing views, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Hermann Samuel Reimarus.

Reimarus argues that the gospel narratives cannot be harmonized and therefore are false.

Lessing develops a position which acknowledges the individual integrity of the gospels while seeing them as deviating from the original truth embodied in Jesus.

Tying these characters back to Augustine Waston remarks:

Although Augustine would have been outrages by Reimarus’s conclusions, he could have had no objection to the assumption on which they are based: that the veracity of the gospel narratives depends on the possibility of harmonizing them with one another and with prior historical reality. In his role as counsel for the defense, Augustine operates within the same law-court setting as Reimarus (77).

Watson then goes into more depth about Lessing’s views through both the form of a parable and a critique of gospel harmonization.

The Parable of the Palace

Lessing’s parable is about a king and his palace. The palace is old, large, and irregularly constructed and remained unaltered for years. Connoisseurs of the architecture (who had never been inside) thought the palace had insufficient windows thinking they could not emit enough light. But the connoisseurs disagreed with each other about what exactly must change as they only knew the building from the outside. But there are not only connoisseurs, there are also antiquarians who are in possession of documents of the ground plan drawn up by the original builders. Unfortunately, their words and symbols are hard to interpret and therefore interpret these words and symbols as seems good to them and seek to re-construct the building based on their interpretation of these documents.

The palace is Christianity, the modernizers are the Enlightened critics. They flip the old palace with a new one more suitable in their eyes. The inspired palace turns into an uninspired palace put together by themselves which no one quite agrees on. The antiquarians are those who insist that these texts are foundational to Christianity yet do similarly to the modernizers.

And this is where Watson (via Lessing) include a third group.

Having been introduced to the Modernizers and the Antiquarians, we now meet a third group, fewer in number, who dare to question whether the ground plans are of any real significance at all. “It is enough,” they say, “for us to experience every moment that the most benevolent wisdom fills the whole Palace, and that from it nothing but beauty, order and well-being are spread across the whole land.” These Questioners interpret the ground plans more successfully than the Antiquarians, precisely because they are not committed to their absolute truth and validity; and they are promptly denounced as arsonists conspiring to burn down the Palace (81).

Lessing and Reimarus are identified with the questioners.

With the parable and characters introduced Lessing provides an event in which the Questioners are vindicated and the Antiquarians are put to shame. There is a fire in the palace. The antiquarians concerned only to save their ground plans and so they run out into the street with the plans and argue about where the fire came from. Although they cared that the fire burned the Palace to the ground, they saved the documents. But in fact there was no fire, the watchmen had been mistaken. The northern light is what the watchmen had seen.

Lessing’s parable serves his own agenda which is to oppose those who maintain the foundational status of the Bible in general and the gospels in particular. Lessing says:

The Letter is not the Spirit, and the Bible is not Religion. Consequently, objections against the Letter, and against the Bible, are not objections against the Spirit and against Religion. For the Bible clearly contains more than what belongs to Religion; and it is purely hypothetical that it must be infallible even in this surplus. Also: Religion existed before there was a Bible. Christianity existed before evangelists and apostles wrote (83).

So for Lessing since the scriptural histories are secondary the contradictions do not matter (85). They signify that for the Christian faith textuality is secondary and scripture superfluous. That is what we are intended to learn from the parable of the palace. Therefore the harmonization of the gospels should be abandoned.

As Watson says, harmonizers substitute a composite narrative of their own devising and give priority to the historia Christi. Lessing gives priority to the textuality of the gospels.


Although I thoroughly enjoyed this chapter I was also confused by it. Mainly, because it was hard for me to distinguish between Lessing’s voice and Watson’s voice. I could not figure out if Watson was describing or prescribing Lessing’s view.

There seemed to be some affinity with it for Watson for Lessing cut the Gordian knot between the connoisseurs and the antiquarians. But I also think that Watson himself holds more tightly to the historical event than Lessing. I could be wrong but later on in the book there is some evidence of this.

If he does not then this chapter becomes a project in first infusing the text with significance, meaning, power, authority and then draining it of its power.




Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

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