Fortress Introduction to the Gospels

  • Mark A. Powell
  • Jan 1, 1998
  • Series: Volume 1 - 1998

Mark A. Powell, Fortress Introduction to the Gospels. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998. vii + 184 pp. $14.00 pap.

Despite the veritable flood of scholarly literature on almost any New Testament-related topic imaginable, there is a dearth of up-to-date, user-friendly textbooks for courses on the Gospels. This is the primary reason that I wrote my own Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997). Add to this the continued polarization between evangelical and liberal scholarship, and the further theological and methodological fragmentation of each of those groups, and it becomes extremely difficult to write a text that all (or even most) interpretive communities within the academic guild will find ideologically acceptable. While very limited in the scope of issues it sets out to address, this little textbook from the pen of an increasingly well-known Lutheran scholar and seminary professor (at Trinity Lutheran in Columbus, Ohio) comes about as close as perhaps can be hoped for in today's milieu to meeting the demand for a clear introduction to the Gospels that numerous communities can find serviceable.

The book contains only five chapters plus an introduction on the "world" and "genre" of the canonical Gospels and an appendix that briefly surveys the non-canonical gospels. Chapter one introduces the stages of composition from the historical Jesus through the finished products of the four Evangelists and beyond. Then each Gospel is treated in its own chapter, examining the typical introductory questions of authorship, date, place, and so on, along with defining themes and distinctive stylistic and theological characteristics. Endnotes reflect state-of-the art research, primarily highlighting recent, full-length monographs from almost all interpretive traditions. A helpful glossary explains technical terms; there are Scripture and author indexes but no bibliographies. Each chapter on an individual Gospel, however, closes with brief references to key literary-critical and feminist studies, topics which otherwise do not figure prominently in Powell's discussions. Helpful charts and diagrams, along with a map of Israel all enhance the ease with which students may use this volume.

One could wish that the strength of evangelical arguments for the traditional ascriptions of authorship, the earlier dates and a greater historical trustworthiness of the Gospels than the critical consensus generally allows could have been perceived and represented, even as Powell does for the book of Acts in his similarly-sized survey, What Are They Saying about Acts? (New York: Paulist, 1991). Nevertheless, Powell does stress that the best identification of genre for the Gospels is as ancient biography, and he does seem to capture the right balance of historical, theological and literary motives behind their production. He acknowledges that some link between "Mark"and Peter is possible and thinks that the traditional ascription of authorship at least for the Gospel of Luke may be accurate. And his presentation of the key themes and features of each writer is immensely helpful and well-grounded

Useful, distinctive emphases not always found in works of this kind include a discussion of the subsequent history of the texts and translations of the Gospels, along with the currently disputed issue of gender-inclusive language. Hermeneutical questions also punctuate Powell's work, particularly those distinctive to our postmodern era.

There are a few places where Powell takes positions that most would not or where statements seem simply to be in error. Even if Powell is presuming the inauthenticity of Christ's "withdrawal from Galilee," his mere travel from Nazareth to Jerusalem (or from Bethlehem to Capernaum) refutes the claim that "he traveled less than fifty miles from his hometown" (p. 10). The NIV is not a dynamic equivalence translation (as claimed on p. 33, where it is grouped with the CEV, NEB, NLT and TEV); it is far more akin to the JB, NAB or NRSV, which Powell lists separately as trying "for a balance between literal and equivalent readings." It is strange to read that "Mark offers the most human portrait of Jesus" (p. 44); usually that distinction is given to Luke. Benjamin Bacon did not propose his famous outline of Matthew in 1930 (as on p. 65), the volume Paul cites reproduced his original study from the 1918 volume of the Expositor. Did Matthew really intend for his Gospel to replace Mark (p. 75), given the overlap between Mark and the core Christian kerygma that defined most early Christian preaching? Do we overthrow the dominant testimony of the Church Fathers and assume that "John the son of Zebedee had died as a martyr by the time Mark's Gospel was written" (p. 122)? And how can we say that "the purpose of John's Gospel is explicitly evangelistic" (p. 127, based on John 20:31) in light of the existence of the textual variant favored by many and the critical conclusion adopted by most that John is speaking of helping those who are already Christians "continue to believe" (points Powell himself acknowledges in the immediate context of this quotation)?

These minor caveats notwithstanding, Powell has amply succeeded in writing a short, clear, and eminently readable introduction to the Gospels that can serve educated laity and introductory theological students alike. Had he given even just a little more nod to prominent evangelical approaches, it might have found widespread use as a text in those circles as well. As it stands, unfortunately, it will most likely not receive the exposure in those circles that it merits. But perhaps that was not one of Powell's objectives in the first place.

Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary