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Portraits of Jesus

21 October 2016

Henry Wansbrough considers an NT scholar’s thoughts


The Fourfold Gospel: A theological reading of the New Testament portraits of Jesus
Francis Watson
Baker Academic £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.49



DESCRIBED on the dust-jacket as “one of the finest biblical interpreters of our day”, Francis Watson displays a skill in fresh and delicate analysis of Gospel passages, and also a delightful breadth of learning on many tangential subjects.

In this short book, contrasting with his massive Gospel Writing (2013), Watson concentrates for his portraits of Jesus on beginnings and endings; thus the first half treats in turn the beginning of each of the four Gospels, while the second half (“Convergences”) discusses more synoptically the narratives of the Passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, drawing out the theology of each.

In the first half, I found particularly attractive the extended contrast between the birth-stories of Matthew, dominated by suffering, and those of Luke, glowing with joy. In the second half, the analysis of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem is especially delicate and rich. Already in the Prolegomena, one particular gem is the insistence that the gospel is an orally delivered message, preached by Jesus and after him by the apostles; this is coherent both with Paul’s usage and with the context of the imperial cult from which Paul took the term.

Three features I found a little tiresome. First, the repeated references to the symbolism of the four animals for the Evangelists: the fact that different patristic writers apply them differently to the Evangelists diminishes their symbolic value. Second, there is a recurring preoccupation with the identity of the authors of the Gospels, about which little can or need be said. Third, the widespread use of the Canons of Eusebius: yes, the work done by that great scholar was remarkable in its time, but his findings have been largely superseded by a Gospel Synopsis in parallel columns.

But, on the whole, the book is as rich in compelling charm as it is in diverse scholarship.


Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

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