Scarcely a week goes by without some news item or documentary explaining how the 10 plagues of Egypt were the result of an unusual concatenation of natural phenomena, how the disciples fed a hungry horde through their example of sharing, how an ice floe or submersed land ridge enabled Jesus to walk on water, or how His remains have been found in the latest archaeological dig. Sometimes, it can be hard to forget these are not sketches from Comedy Central.
Among academics, the Gospel narrative has been a favorite target of critical research. This is of no surprise. The goal of research is discovery and new knowledge. When applied to biblical research, what gets attention (and funding!) is what promises new understandings of the text with ever novel theories and explanations—the more unorthodox and shocking, the better for the aspiring academic.
Thanks to modern critics like the Jesus Seminar folks and Elaine Pagels, we have learned that dozens of gospels were vying for acceptance in the early Christian community, such that there was no definitive text until the canon of Scripture was assembled in the fourth century. Furthermore, the catalogue of discrepancies in the authorized narratives has discredited the fiercely held dogma of inspired authorship.
While sophistic postulations have unsettled many a serious Bible student, able refutations of these not-so modern criticisms go as far back as the early Church fathers, historical figures who were close in time and place with the gospel writers and the events they described.
In the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr wrote about the weekly assembly that included reading the "memoirs of the apostles." Later, around AD 180, Irenaeus, anticipating heresies that later emerged, explained how the number and character of the gospel accounts provided unity with the Law and the Prophets. It is bracing to realize that Irenaeus's mentor was Polycarp, who was a student of John, author of the fourth gospel.
In the imagery of Irenaeus, the Church spreads out to the four corners of the world by cherubim, whose faces bear four images—lion, ox, man, and eagle—each representing an essential aspect of Jesus's nature and ministry. As it so happens, these were the ensigns of the four Israelite camp sites around the Tent of Meeting. (Based on the configuration given in the book of Numbers, the encampment appeared to be arranged in the pattern of a cross!)
To Irenaeus, this quadriplex pattern is repeated in the Gospel record. Matthew presents the lion "face" of Jesus, signifying His kingly role; Mark emphasizes His ox face, the sacrificial servant; Luke shows us His man face, signifying His humanity; and John focuses on His eagle face, the symbol of divinity.
In its fourfold account, the Gospel bears witness to a fully divine and human Messiah who came to save man, thus countering, with multiple eyewitness testimonies, heresies that developed concerning His nature and role in biblical history.
Stirred by Irenaeus's insights, subsequent scholars have discerned the distinctive voices of the gospel narrators conveying distinctive emphases for the distinctive audiences they were targeting.
FACES, AUDIENCES, AND EMPHASES
Matthew wrote primarily for a Jewish audience. The Jews needed to connect the dots between the old covenant of Moses and the new covenant of Jesus. Thus, Matthew introduces them to Jesus as the "Son of David," then establishes Jesus's rightful claim to that title by tracing his genealogy through Joseph—Jesus' legal lineage. By presenting the lion "face" of Jesus—the Messiah, the divinely anointed ruler promised to restore the Davidic kingdom—Matthew makes the vital connection for Jews who were exploring the claims of this charismatic leader.
Matthew gives more space to Jesus's teachings than any other gospel writer. He records numerous parables and long discourses on the coming kingdom. Over a dozen times, Matthew draws attention to a present circumstance fulfilling an old testament prophesy, the chief of which is Jesus's revelation:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." (Matthew 5:17)
Whereas Matthew emphasizes Jesus as the Son of David, Mark highlights his role as the "Son of Man"—the willing servant who stands before the throne of God as man's representative. Mark spends nearly 40 percent of his narrative on this ox "face" of Jesus. Nowhere is this aspect of his ministry more poignantly expressed than in Jesus' own words:
"Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:43-45)
In contrast to Matthew, Mark writes more about what Jesus did than what he said. Mark's account leans heavily on the memoirs of Peter, who himself, was characterized, if sometimes unflatteringly so, as a man of action. Writing in a punchy, journalistic style, Mark's emphasis on doing over teaching would have resonated with Romans who admired action figures for their military accomplishments and culture-shaping influence.
Luke, the physician, wrote for a Greek audience. The Greeks, who valued reason and logical argument, would have been impressed by a thorough, systematic account constructed from eyewitness interviews. From the get-go Luke grabs his audience with:
"Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught." (Luke 1:1-4)
The Christological focus of Luke is the man "face" of Jesus. He draws special attention to Jesus's compassion for the least, the last, and the lost. Luke reveals the rich prayer life of Jesus, who, in His human frailty, often retreated to solitary places to call upon the extreme resources of the Father.
Luke anticipated heresies that emerged after Jesus's life denying the Incarnation. By tracing Jesus's genealogy through Mary—His bloodline lineage—Luke provided objective documentation of His humanity, thereby refuting Gnostic claims that Jesus was a humanlike phantasm.
John wrote his gospel as an apologia for the divinity of Jesus and as a source of comfort and assurance for the Church. As an apologia, John presents the eagle "face" of Jesus—the unbegotten Son, co-eternal with the Father, who created all that is seen and unseen. Because of Jesus's divine, uncreated nature, John sums up his "genealogy" with the simple, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1-14).
As an intimate, first hand eyewitness, John writes, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." The inclusion of Jesus's multiple "I am" sayings—the light of the world; the bread of life; the gate; the way, truth and life, and so on—further identifies Jesus with the "I AM" of the Pentateuch, impugning criticisms (present and future) about his divinity.
In John's gospel, believers are often referred to, tenderly, as sheep cared for and held secure by the Shepherd. Early in John, Jesus reveals, "I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life" (John 5:24). As heirs to the kingdom, believers have certainty of eternal life as a present reality, not as a future hope or desire.
John reinforces this idea in the fifth chapter of his first epistle: "You who [so] believe may know that you have eternal life" (1 John 5:13). Significantly, neither Jesus nor John suggest that eternal life is something we are left to wish for or guess about; it is a possession we can know we have now!
A NARRATIVE IN FOUR COLORS
Each narrative lays down the essential contours of Jesus and the Faith; but, in isolation from the others, each is but a monochromatic silkscreen. Because of their unique emphases and purposes, the Gospels are like the filters in a four-color printing process.
In color printing, cyan, magenta, yellow, and black filters are used to reproduce a color image. Although a reproduction from a single filter would resemble the original; it would be incomplete, lacking the full color, tonality, contrast and texture of the original. To faithfully reproduce the kaleidoscopic constitution of the original so that its entire information content is transferred, all four filters are needed.
In the same way, the narrative filters of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John work in combination to produce a complete, polychromatic "image" of the work and person of Jesus Christ.
"Now, the Gospels are four. These four are, as it were, the building blocks of the faith of the Church." (Origen, c. AD 228)