interior of large cylinder of stacked books

Thoughts on “Four Gospels, One Jesus?”

Read this book a while ago. Finally got around to posting these thoughts:

Not a new book, but new to me, and according to me, wonderful.

cover of Burridge, Four Gospels, One Jesus?

Burridge offers what may be the most convincing metaphorical approach to the distinctive differences among the four gospels in his introductory discussion of four different portraits of Winston Churchill. There’s the black and white photograph of him dressed in fatigues smoking a cigar and reviewing troops about to depart on the D-Day mission; another of him dressed as a statesman at a conference with other heads of state; another of him relaxing at tea with family; a fourth of him pursuing his hobby of painting on the beach in Italy. We don’t try to harmonize those portraits – even though we recognize they’re supposed to be of “the same person.”

I understand that image won’t reach to the objections of the folks who question whether there was a single historical human story, a factual 3-D physically eventful life to which all of the gospels somehow make reference. The problem of whether Jesus “really” ate dinner with the Twelve on the first night of Passover, or was already dead by then, and similar questions, bothers those people. I get that. Burridge won’t solve that kind of problem for them. [I’ll come back to that.]

What Burridge does is shore up the argument for why we oughtn’t to try to harmonize the gospels, either as kooky mish-mashed texts (which folks have tried), or in our heads as a consequence of having spent a lot of time in church, which most Christians do fairly automatically and unconsciously. The different gospels are as much distinct portraits of a complex, multi-dimensional, fully human [and, orthodoxly theologically and faithfully speaking, equally fully divine] person as any other literary portrait of a significant human being would be. That’s something to pay attention to, celebrate, and seek to understand more deeply.

Burridge goes on to analyze and comment deeply on the distinctive perspectives of each of the gospels, weaving what each includes and excludes, how the material is arranged, what is highlighted and what is relegated to the background, to sharpen each of the gospel’s distinctive portrait of Jesus. Here he uses the mnemonic of the mascots of the four evangelists (Matthew’s angel, Mark’s lion, Luke’s ox, and John’s eagle) to draw out the major themes of each gospel, their differing literary techniques, and their distinctive central messages about Jesus. The device seemed a little precious from time to time, but it also does seem to work well as a mnemonic. I really appreciated this book, and learned a lot from it.

One consequence of reading Burridge is that I have warmer feelings towards Luke than I have had for a long time. And a little more objectivity about Matthew, whom I still love, but now with some deeper appreciation for what seems to be Matthew’s context.

Back to the “what actually happened” problem: I believe something actually happened, and that in its broad outlines, if we had been there as time travelers with tape recorders and video cameras, we would acknowledge that the canonical gospels we have are each recognizably “based on a true story.” My actual guess is that already by the time the gospels were written the details of that story had been “traditioned,” scrubbed, streamlined and conventionalized, exactly the way all family stories get traditioned, scrubbed, streamlined, and conventionalized, and brought out at particular times in particular conversations to make particular kinds of points, by different family members.

Nailing down the actual details stops being the main point. I draw on two examples from living memory – mine – to illustrate what I’m thinking about.

Recently, my spouse and I were talking about relatives. Who was at your mom’s memorial service? Who is the person who sends you Christmas cards from Florida? And … who were those men who came from California that we ate with at Cracker Barrel that one time? We worked on that one a long time, and finally figured out that the “men” were my aunt and uncle, along with my dad, and we’d eaten at O’Charley’s, and our daughter couldn’t have been more than four at the time. What I realized then was that, if we hadn’t worked out the kinks in that story together, if we’d each told it independently, it would have been a different enough story that whoever was sorting through our separate memoirs would probably have thought we were talking about two different events.

But each of those independent accounts would still have been “based on a true story,” an authentic memory, a single 3-D physical experiential happening. And each, in their own way, captured something real about what happened.

Often, it seems to me, in the gospels, which are interpretive treatments of the life of Christ, the details are more about what the story means, and less about what we would have captured with our time traveling video cameras.

I’m OK with that. The people who say “if anything is wrong in the Bible, you can’t trust any of it” are talking nonsense, and not paying attention to the real human world they, themselves, live in. D. and I know we ate lunch with some relatives of mine somewhere that time, and it was important enough and unusual enough to remember it. Even though we don’t remember it very well, we remember the most important thing about it: we have more of a family than we sometimes think we do. We should probably try to remember that more often.

The same thing seems to me to be true of the gospels. The church may have gotten vague or imaginative with some of the details, because it has tried to hang on to the more important thing: what Jesus meant. To them. And so, to us.


Burridge, Richard A. Four Gospels, One Jesus? A Symbolic Reading, Eerdmans, 1994.

An installment of the Read Me Project

A circular view of an endless stack of books
The stack of books has been getting a little shorter …

Images: “Book Tower,” Deror_avi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Cover, Burridge, Richard A., Four Gospels, One Jesus? A Symbolic Reading Third Edition, Eerdmans; The book tower again, By August Dominus (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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