Four Gospels, one Jesus

Biblical scholar Richard Burridge talks to Philip Halcrow how the four Gospels offer four different perspectives on the one man. ‘We don’t have a one-size-fits-all Jesus’, he says.

Anyone who steps into a cathedral or church – to pray, learn about history or admire architecture – may be able to spot them: an eagle hovering next to a man writing a scroll, as well as similar images of an ox, a winged lion and a man with wings.

The figures appear in stone above the door of Rochester Cathedral and in a stained-glass window at Dundee Cathedral. They can be seen on glass processional doors in St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne. And they are also in the windows of the chapel at King’s College London. Down the corridor from the chapel, the Dean and Professor of Biblical Interpretation, the Rev Richard Burridge, meets me to talk about his recently reissued book that looks at the meaning behind the eagle, the ox, the lion and the man.

In his new book, Four Gospels, One Jesus? Richard shows how, in church tradition, the figures have represented the four writers of the Gospels – the Evangelists – and aims to help readers understand their four differing accounts of Jesus.

‘In writing the book, I was trying to find some way of helping people get a clear idea of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’s portraits of Jesus,’ he says.

‘The problem for many people is that they have a scrambled version of Jesus in their head. If you ask them to tell you the Christmas story, they will mix Luke’s shepherds with Matthew’s wise men and with the ox and the ass from tradition. If you ask them to talk about Good Friday, they will mix the sayings of Jesus from the cross found in the different Gospels.’

To tackle the subject, Richard turned to the four symbols that had become linked with the Gospels.

‘The four images first appear in a vision of God in the Book of Ezekiel,’ he says, ‘where the prophet describes each of the cherubim as having four faces – that of a human, a lion, an ox and an eagle. Later, in the Book of Revelation, the human, the lion, the ox and the eagle are no longer just four faces of cherubim but four living creatures around the throne of God.

‘In the early church, there was speculation about who these four creatures were. Quickly, by the middle of the 2nd century, they were associated with the four Evangelists and the four Gospels. The classic example of the tradition is in the Celtic art of the 5th to the 8th centuries. The images appear in beautifully illuminated books, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels.

‘When I looked at the Celtic art, I saw how the symbol of each Evangelist hovers above him. So, the symbol is not the Evangelist; the symbol is inspiring the Evangelist. And when, in about AD170, Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, wrote about why there are four Gospels, he said that the symbols were images of the disposition of the Son of God. So, for instance, the lion shows Jesus’ kingly nature and the ox highlights his humility.’

Richard Burridge in King's College Chapel, London

Above: Richard Burridge in the chapel of King’s College, London. Photo: Philip Halcrow

In the 2nd century, Irenaeus decided he needed to explain why there were four recognised accounts of Jesus – the four Gospels that entered the ‘canon’, the accepted books of the New Testament. Today, says Richard, some people are confused about why there is not one authorised biography.

‘Why do we need four Gospels? It was a question for the early church, and today, for instance, Muslims often say that having four accounts means that they can’t all be true.’

Irenaeus’s poetic explanation of the fab four was that just as there were four corners of the earth, four winds, four cherubim and four covenants made between God and humankind, so there had to be four Gospels. Richard approaches the subject from another angle. ‘With the Gospels, we have four witnesses to one event, but if you were to spend any time at a court case, you’d realise that everybody views things from a different angle. If four witnesses came in and all said the same thing in a flat, leaden voice, you’d think there was something fishy going on. Difference is a mark of authenticity.

‘We have four portraits of Jesus, not just one. The early church could have gone with other options. It could have opted for a single, so-called harmony of the Gospels. A guy called Tatian wrote a book called The Diatessaron, in which he mashed all the Gospels together. It really didn’t work and the church decided not to go that way.

‘Some people wanted to accept only one of the Gospels. But the church insisted that it wanted four within the Bible.

‘We don’t have a one-size-fits-all Jesus. Jesus is interpreted and reinterpreted by the Evangelists for different churches. And actually, I wouldn’t want a monochrome version of Jesus.

‘At the same time, there are four portraits of Jesus, not forty-four. There is diversity but there are limits. Some images of Jesus are not acceptable. For instance, the Nazi, blond, blue-eyed Aryan Jesus is outside the limits.’

Richard emphasises that the Gospels have to be read correctly. They belong to the genre of ancient biographies, which have different concerns and interests from modern biographies. For instance, they show little interest in Jesus’ psychological development or anything other than his public ministry.

‘The Gospels are not an historical transcript, as if someone put a tape recorder under Jesus’ nose. As all good preachers do, he told his stories time after time in lots of different ways. Some people needlessly get anxious about whether there were two blind men or one blind man that Jesus healed. But the Gospels are not video diaries.

‘The Gospels have to be judged by the criteria of the 1st century and I think they are pretty reliable documents. They share essentially the same story of Jesus’ public ministry, his teaching, his preaching, his activity, his healing and the events of the week leading to his death – and the fact that something very odd happened afterwards.’

Instead of being exhaustive accounts like Hansard transcripts of proceedings in Parliament, the Gospels, says Richard, are ‘very short books of 10,000 to 20,000 words, designed to fit on a single scroll. They are portraits, and we understand them a lot better by knowing who they were written for and in what context.’

He gives an example: ‘Matthew and Luke draw on very similar sources, but it is obvious that Matthew is assuming a Jewish audience familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures and the synagogue. On the other hand, Luke is writing for a much wider Gentile, Greek-Roman audience for which all that stuff doesn’t matter so much.’ When a reader understands the context, they can perhaps see why, for instance, Matthew’s Gospel is ‘at once the most Jewish of the Gospels and yet the most anti-Jewish’.

Richard explains: ‘Matthew’s Gospel is written for Jewish Christians who are arguing with their brother and sister Jews who do not believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Internal family arguments are always bitter. If you read the Dead Sea Scrolls and see what one Jewish group said about the religious authorities in Jerusalem, it makes Matthew look tame.

‘In Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees are the bad guys, whereas in Luke they are shown in a much gentler light.’ Each Gospel writer also shows Jesus in a particular light – and Richard characterises their portrayals with the symbols associated with them.

‘Mark’s Jesus is like a lion who rushes around and roars,’ says Richard, who points out that Mark uses words such as ‘immediately’ to build up a sense of urgency in Jesus’ mission.

‘Matthew takes Mark’s picture and clarifies it and humanises it – he shows Jesus’ human face as the teacher of Israel. ‘Luke’s picture of Jesus is much more universal. Jesus is humble and carries the burden of others like the ox – even though he is eventually a beast of sacrifice in the temple.’

In Luke, Jesus is a friend of people marginalised by society; in John, his cosmic significance and his divinity are emphasised. ‘John’s Jesus is like the high-flying, all-seeing, all-knowing eagle. He descends to us and then returns to the heights.’ But Richard believes that the four portraits all shed light on one person.

‘I find the four Gospels to be talking about the same figure. They illuminate him from four angles.

‘In their own ways, they tell the story of God coming among us as a human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and teaching, healing and liberating us. He tries to tell us that it would be a good idea if we were a bit kinder to each other – but look what we did to him. Human beings just can’t handle that kind of naked love. We rejected it, and we go on rejecting it.

‘But the extraordinary story is that God still loves us. The resurrection of Jesus is all about the fact that love is stronger than hate, life is stronger than death, truth is stronger than falsehood and the goodness of God is stronger than evil.’

Four Gospels, One Jesus? by Richard Burridge is published by SPCK.

This interview was conducted by Philip Halcrow and first appeared in The War Cry. It is © The Salvation Army and is reprinted with permission.

Photo of the hands of St Mark the evangelist in King’s College London Chapel by Philip Halcrow.