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Making sense of four Gospels

27 March 2012

John M. Court looks at two approaches for different readers

“Peter . . . watched as cruel men made Jesus carry his cross through the streets”: an illustration by Yorgos Sgouros from The Toddler Bible, a board book with simple text by Bethan James (Barnabas for Children, a BRF imprint, £6.99 (£6.30); 978-0-85746-080-6)

“Peter . . . watched as cruel men made Jesus carry his cross through the streets”: an illustration by Yorgos Sgouros from The Toddler Bible, a board b...

Jesus: A very short introduction
Richard Bauckham
OUP £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

A READER suggested to me recently that New Testament introductions should be given grades by reviewers, so that he could buy the one awarded the most stars. Scholarship and accessibility are indeed vital matters, but choice of content and method of approach are also important. This may produce significantly different books, which will satisfy one reader but not another. The two titles reviewed here demonstrate this difference.

Edward Adams offers a literary approach. Defining a Gospel as biography (with acknowledgments to Richard Burridge and the late Graham Stanton) is a starting point. But his approach involves sub­stantial use of a Synopsis (supplying verbal comparisons between the canonical Gospels). The results are then interpreted, with some thoughts on redaction criticism, but more greatly influenced by recent thinking on narratology (or how a narrative works). So the literary approach embraces more than two centuries of scholarship, but does so lucidly with charts and examples of parallel episodes.

But are the “lives of Jesus” more than merely “parallel”, by being considered synoptically in four adjacent columns? They are evidently “four Gospels”, but how accurately can they be seen as just “one story”? This book is crisply informative on structure and differences and how to “read” them, but how does one achieve the singularity of one “life”?

Adams seeks to identify a core story, and sequence of stories, attributable to a common biographical subject. He uses the narratological distinction between single story and separate narratives, and a comparison with multiple-narrative films and novels, in his claim that “one can therefore speak of the singular Jesus of the Fourfold Gospel witness.” Any reader who is prepared to read these Gospel texts closely can test out the author’s claim and share his enthusiasm in doing so.

Richard Bauckham’s “introduction to Jesus” is number 275 in the Oxford series that has been called the “thinking reader’s Wikipedia”. His approach is contextual — that is, both the historical context of the ancient world, and also the place of Jesus in the modern world. Jesus is introduced as a universal icon and discussed as a focus of specifically Christian faith. Essentially this is a personal view, “reading the Gospels as versions of the history of Jesus (. . . the sort of history people wrote in the ancient world) in the context of all that we know of the first-century context in which Jesus actually lived”.

The four Gospels are the source material and their differences are advantageous, giving more than one angle on a complex figure, as his contemporaries experienced him.

Bauckham presents Jesus as enacting the Kingdom (or Rule) of God within his healing activity and exorcisms, not by political (zealot) opposition. Jesus’s mission is prim­arily to the destitute and out­casts. Jesus is also teaching the King­dom of God by direct com­mun­ication, using a variety of media, and with the all-important pause for audi­ence thought and reaction.

But, while Jesus speaks and acts with authority, to what extent are questions about his identity (in terms of Messiahship or other titles) defined before his death? His death and resurrection constitute a new beginning, which led Christians to interpret Jesus’s earthly history from the perspective of its outcomes.

This is a pocket-sized introduction, remarkable for what it finds space to include. It is certainly not a minimalist reading, but is full of positive emphases on the historical reliability of the sources. The lack of discussion of alternative interpretations — for which there is hardly room — is in many ways a pity. We are left with perhaps unfortunate side-swipes against John Allegro, the Gospel of Thomas, and form criticism.

Dr John M. Court is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Kent, Canterbury.

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