Review of David Allan Black’s Why Four Gospels? The Historical Origins of the Gospels


David Allan Black’s Why Four Gospels? The Historical Origins of the Gospels is “essentially a popularization” of Bernard Orchard’s “Fourfold Gospel Hypothesis” and a critique of the Markan priority hypothesis.[1]This brief volume is meant primarily for the use of theological students in an academic climate that is uncritically acquiescent to the assumptions of Markan priority. Accordingly, the book is aimed at an American protestant bent that “often overlooks the immense contribution that the science of patristics makes” to hermeneutics, a mindset that is symptomatic of an exaggeration of sola scriptura that minimizes studying historical context.[2] The work comprises three chapters that detail the redemptive-historical occasions for the gospels’ production (Ch. 1) and the external (Ch. 2) and internal (Ch. 3) evidence for these occasions. After a brief postscript that pleads with Markan priorists not to be uncritically dismissive of other views, the rest of the volume, nearly a quarter of the book’s length, is a bibliography that includes “some of the more important titles” among “a large number of books and articles dealing with the synoptic problem and the weaknesses of the Markan priority hypothesis”[3]

The Development and Composition of the Gospels

One could imagine that Black, setting out to correct the minimization of history caused by a misapplied theology of sola scriptura, would fill his brief volume only with historical approaches. Rather, Black intermingles history and theology, showing how God’s sovereign redemptive-theological aims shaped the flow of a three-phased historical process by which the gospels were produced. The three phases are the Jerusalem Phase, the Gentile Mission Phase, and the Roman Phase, each of which Black informs on its occasion, gospel composition process (internal evidence), and historical backing (external evidence). For each phase, Black provides a date range along with a scripture range in Acts that helpfully illustrates his concern both for a historical and theological approach to the question of the four gospels.

The Jerusalem Phase (A.D. 30-42; Acts 1-12)

The motivations for writing the (canonically and chronologically) first gospel according to Matthew were practical-theological.  God’s people needed to be ministered to and the Word of God needed to spread amid the “fierce hostility from unconverted Sadducees, Pharisees, Levites, and high priests.”[4] Against this backdrop, the apostles were led by the Holy Spirit to develop “a handbook for teaching and administration in the church” in the genres and the language of the Hellenistic world.[5] Black shows how Matthew’s gospel, divided into three main parts that highlight five long sections of Jesus’ teaching, assumes an apologetic tone with regard to Jesus’ virgin birth, legal lineage from David, and fulfillment of OT prophecy.[6] Black quotes 14 patristic sources, many of which testify that Matthew indeed was the first to write a gospel for the purposes stated above, and that “all three synoptic gospels appeared in the lifetimes of the apostles Peter and Paul,” which “suits perfectly the Fourfold Gospel Hypothesis but utterly fails to support the priority of Mark at any point.”[7] Moreover, Black proposes 10 items of internal evidence to support Matthew’s early date (prior to A.D. 44), its target (Jewish) audience and concerns, the fact that “it was this gospel alone that was available to Paul,” and that Matthew was “the true prototype of the gospel genre.”[8]

The Gentile Mission Phase (A.D. 42-62; Acts 13-28)

In the second phase Black illustrates, we see Paul with Matthew’s gospel in hand, ministering to the gentiles in the Roman world. About a decade has elapsed since the persecution sparked by Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 8:1) that scattered Christian Jewish communities who brought the gospel to the gentiles. Plus, Peter has already received divine revelation that neither Gentile fellowship nor the eating of unclean food is forbidden (Acts 10-11). During Paul’s missionary journeys, it became apparent that the focus of Matthew’s gospel on the concerns of its original Jewish audience was less helpful than a Greek-targeted gospel account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection would be. So Paul asked Luke to produce a gospel more relevant to the spiritual needs of Gentile Christians, but would not publish it until it won approval from an eyewitness apostle (Peter).[9] As for external evidence of the above, all patristic authorities Black cites attribute Luke’s gospel to Luke, and the evidence is “consistent… that Mark and Luke were sponsored and authorized by Peter and Paul.”[10] As Black puts forward internal evidence, narrating the composition of Luke, he points out that Matthew’s gospel, though “it was irrevocably the fundamental document of the Christian faith,” was “a not wholly suitable instrument for the evangelization of the Gentiles.”[11] In response, Luke shaped his account more in conformity with a biographical style familiar to the Greeks.[12] Luke modified the structure of Matthew, moving much of the material from Matthew’s five main discourse sections to a long central journey narrative.[13] He focused largely on “the good fortune of the Gentiles in being given equality by Jesus with the original chosen people.”[14] But, for the sake of unity between Gentile and Jewish elements of the church, Paul felt that this account needed further apostolic authorization prior to widespread use in ministry, which is the context for Black’s Roman Phase.

The Roman Phase (A.D. 62-67)

The most vivid aspect of the Fourfold Gospel Hypothesis comes from Black’s Roman Phase where it is thought that Peter, being requested to review and approve Luke’s gospel, launched into a series of lectures on his recollections of Jesus’ life and death. Mark is pictured as sitting near the lecturer, alternately handing Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels to Peter, copying Peter’s five 25-minute lectures along with other amanuenses. Luke and Paul are pictured waiting for the results of the gospel’s approval, and with Caesar’s enthusiastically listening Knights eagerly seek a written copy of the lectures.[15] The bulk of Black’s external evidence supports this Markan synthesis of Luke and Matthew, the most clear being Clement of Alexandria.[16] Finally, the internal evidence for the Mark-producing Roman Phase offers a fascinatingly intuitive account for the fact that Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels never agree with each other where Mark differs: Peter “switched between the two scrolls,” zigzagging, including “only personal memories in the form of short stories at the telling of which he was present.”[17] Luke’s use in these lectures implied its approval and Mark’s publication was not suppressed by Peter.[18]

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Volume

Among Black’s strengths are his direct, almost sweeping, tone in narrating the occasion and composition of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the succinct, detailed, and organized treatment of the external (patristic) evidence. Some may see this vivid, highly-speculative treatment of the synoptic solution as non-academic and therefore a weakness. But I find it a strength in its boldness and untouchable claim of having more data undergirding itself than Markan priorists do, who, incidentally, seem to engage in even wilder (but much less vivid) speculations. As for the internal evidence, Black’s detailing of Peter’s five lectures, how they utilized the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and how this process accounts for the extant shape of Mark’s gospel is a massively strong contribution of this book. Moreover, Black’s polemic against Markan priority both in chapter 2 and in the Post-script are succinct and greatly helpful to those both new to the debate and desirous to know the evidence supporting a minority view of the gospels in academia.

Among the weaknesses of this work to my mind were Black’s casual references to (what appeared to be) the insufficiency of the gospel of Matthew for Gentile audiences. I am a Gentile and benefit greatly from learning about God’s redemptive-historical purposes in and through the OT people of God and the relationship of the NT church to them. Matthew, read through the lens of redemptive history, teaches this beautifully. I am not convinced that Matthew’s unsuitability was the necessary reason for the push to compose another gospel.

Another apparent weakness of this volume was the scant treatment of the gospel of John. John’s gospel is treated only in chapters 1 and 3, which means it is altogether missing from the patristic backing of chapter 2. If the patristic lens is one of the major contributions of this book, not to have John’s gospel treated therein suggests that it could perhaps be removed from the volume without the book’s main message being affected. I have benefitted from the background information Black includes on John, but it might be gathered into an Appendix as it is not pertinent to the volume’s main thrust, and somewhat distracting. Overall, both the book’s content and manner of delivery are immensely helpful to neophytes those who hunger for a historically and theologically rich hypothesis of how the four gospels came to be. It shakes a historical-theological fist in the face of current dominant academic assumptions, not innovating but recovering what was lost, much like the Reformers did, and for that effort, Black’s volume deserves a well done nod in the school of Semper Reformanda.


Black, David Allan. Why Four Gospels? The Historical Origins of the Gospels. 2nd Ed. Gonzales, FL: Energion Books. 2010.


[1] David Allan Black, Why Four Gospels? The Historical Origins of the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Gonzales, FL: Energion Books, 2010), vi-vii.

[2] ibid., ix.

[3] ibid., 78.

[4] ibid., 4.

[5] ibid., 5-6.

[6] ibid., 6.

[7] ibid., 32.

[8] ibid., 50, 53.

[9] ibid., 9-10; 45.

[10] ibid., 29, 34.

[11] ibid., 53.

[12] ibid., 56.

[13] ibid., 57.

[14] ibid., 58.

[15] ibid., 10-15.

[16] ibid., 31.

[17] ibid., 61-62.

[18] ibid., 68.