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Deep in the heart of the Kent countryside, perched on the side of a gentle hill sloping from the Downs to the flat plain of the Kentish Weald, is a large country house. Chartwell, as it is known, was the country home of Sir Winston Churchill from 1922 until his death. Now belonging to the National Trust, the house reveals much of the man who was Britain's Prime Minister during the dark days of the Second World War. The walls are hung with many photographs and portraits, some of which are his own work as a painter, and some the work of others who attempted to catch, by camera or by brush, something of the character of this great man.
Here is a picture of the statesman in conference with his allies, including President Roosevelt. His face is grim and determined, for the fate of the world rests upon those shoulders. He is dressed soberly, in a dark suit and tie, but he holds a cigar in his right hand. In the background, colleagues, assistants, and secretaries keep a discreet distance, clutching papers. Serious and fateful work is afoot.
Around the corner, another picture: a painting, done by Churchill himself of the very room in which we stand, except that the room was then host to a happy family gathering. It is 'Tea-time at Chartwell, 29 August 1927'. Churchill is casually dressed, smiling at friends and family around the table. It is an ordinary family at tea - and the cares of the world do not obtrude.
Along a corridor we come upon a picture of the man at war: he rides in a camouflaged car, while uniformed men mill all around him. He too wears uniform, for this is an occasion to be 'in with the chaps'. His lips clamp the inevitable cigar in a wide beam as he gives the famous two-fingered 'V for Victory' salute. The men respond with smiles and similar gestures, while overhead fly the war machines to bring about that victory. The mood of all is confident and lifts the heart of the beholder - for so it was intended.
One final, quiet room is adorned with easels and paint pots, and a photograph of Churchill at rest. He sits in a basket chair in the gardens of the Villa Choisi on the shores of Lac Leman in Switzerland. It is August 1946, and he is on holiday, away from the pressures of leading his party in opposition, having lost the previous year's Election; now he relaxes with his painting. His palette is to one side, while he brushes in a gentle picture of trees and water. A white painter's jacket protects his clothes, a trilby is on his head and a cigar in his mouth as he concentrates on his painting, oblivious of the photographer behind him. He is alone and at peace.
Four pictures, all different - each with its own story evoking its own atmosphere and provoking its own response in the viewer - yet all are of one and the same man. This is the skill of the portrait painter, or the clever photographer. Each intends to communicate an image to us and to make us respond. It varies according to the setting, people or objects which are included or excluded, and there is scope for the creativity and inspiration of the artist. So we are introduced to the statesman, the family man, the man of war, or the solitary painter, yet all are recognizably Churchill, and some things (the cigar perhaps) are common to all four pictures. Nevertheless, there are constraints upon the artist and not all images will work equally well: Churchill the monster, with blood dripping from his jaws, killing women and children, for example, would not be recognized - except perhaps as an enemy propaganda cartoon. So, in these simple portraits we have diversity and continuity, inspiration and selectivity, artistic licence within limits.
In today's media age, we know this all too well. We are constantly bombarded by images, from our newspapers to the advertizing hoardings, from the company presentation at work to the commercial TV break at home. The image makers are big business, selling everything from dog food to politicians. Millions are spent on the careful communication of the picture intended - and this is equally true of both people and products. Yet here, too, there are limits to the publicists' creativity: there must be some continuity between reality and image, between the advert and the product, between the person being depicted and the picture being painted. When we put several different portraits of the same person together, we can see immediately both the diversity and the continuity; through comparison we appreciate the skill of the different artists and consider carefully their varying interpretations of the subject. Our appreciation of the person is likely to be enhanced by such study and a fuller, more rounded view of their character will emerge. What we do not do is to superimpose the images one on the other, or seek to harmonize them into one single photograph, or reduce them to some simple lowest common denominator. When I teach this material in lectures, I like to overlay acetates of all four portraits in the hope of obtaining a fuller and 'clearer' picture of the man - but to the mirth of my audience, all it produces is a mess, a confusing amalgam, which is far from clear!
Yet many Christians treat the portraits of Jesus in the four gospels like this. Tatian, as early as the second century AD, produced the first 'harmony of the four gospels', the Diatessaron (Greek for 'through four accounts'). Many Bibles today contain references to build up a similar harmony. Every Christmas, the well-loved passages from the prophets and from the gospels are read together by candlelight to the accompaniment of carols, while Luke's shepherds, Matthew's wise men, and tradition's ox and ass are placed together in the same stable scene. On Good Friday, the various sayings of Jesus from the different gospels' crucifixion scenes are brought together as 'The Seven Words from the Cross' for prayer and meditation; a few days later, all the separate Resurrection stories will be fitted into Luke's chronology of forty days, taken not from his gospel at all, but from the opening chapter of Acts.
Such curious combinations are not unlike attempting to boil down our four images of Churchill, giving him a paint brush in one hand and a victory salute in the other while he wears the top half of his uniform over his casual trousers and comfy slippers to negotiate with Roosevelt at tea-time! It is a ridiculous picture which does no justice either to the different photographers or painters, nor to the great subject himself. We know that there is only one Churchill, and that these four portraits each depict his personality in different ways. To appreciate the one person fully, we need the various portraits, considering each in turn with the tools of historical research. Then, and only then, can we hold them together to get a fully rounded understanding of the man, rather than a curious amalgam crashing them into one single picture.
So why do we do this to our four portraits of Jesus? Here, too, an unthinking amalgam of all four does no credit to the genius of the evangelists and can lead to an odd view of Jesus. Once again, we recognize that there is only one person behind these portraits. However, a full understanding of Jesus will be better gained by taking a stroll through the portrait gallery. Here, too, proper study and the use of historical research will lead to a better understanding than an uncritical blending which smoothes out the distinctive picture of each gospel. Admittedly, since Christians revere Jesus in a rather different way from even Churchill's most ardent admirers, some may have anxieties about this process. Therefore, we shall consider shortly the impact of critical tools upon books viewed by many as holy scripture. We will also discuss the relationship of the four portraits to the one person in our final chapter.
Before then, however, we need to expose ourselves to each picture in turn - to spend time in careful, even prayerful, reflection upon what each evangelist is trying to tell us about his understanding of Jesus - and so each gospel will have its own chapter. To prepare us for this task, we should learn something about the tools of the trade, about the different ways we can better appreciate the gospels. Churchill's pictures are better understood in the light of historical analysis and artistic criticism; the same is true of the gospels' portraits of Jesus.
What are the gospels? Genre
First, we need to ascertain what kind of creature we are about to encounter. If we were to treat a cartoon featuring Churchill as though it were a photograph, we would soon make mistakes in its interpretation. Similarly, one does not listen to a fairy story in exactly the same way as to a news broadcast. Correct interpretation of a painting or a story depends on a correct identification of what kind of communication it is, that is, of its genre. We differentiate between painting, drama and word, between the spoken word and the written word, between fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose, tragedy and comedy, legend and history, and so on.
Genre is widely acknowledged as one of the key conventions guiding both the composition and the interpretation of writings. Genre forms a kind of 'contract' or agreement, often unspoken or unwritten, or even unconscious, between an author and a reader, by which the author sets out to write according to a whole set of expectations and conventions, and we agree to read or to interpret the work using the same conventions, giving us an initial idea of what we might expect to find. Thus, TV situational comedies or soap operas are written with certain typical conventions; the viewer recognizes what kind of programme it is and interprets it accordingly. If, however, the viewer is expecting a documentary and interprets it according to the convention of that genre instead, confusion and mistakes are likely to arise! To avoid such mistakes, we learn to identify genre through a wide range of 'generic features'. These may be in advance, such as a review in the paper, or some publisher's blurb on the book jacket, or advertisement; but generic features are also embedded in the work's formal and structural composition and content. We learn these features through practice, having read similar types of book or watched similar programmes in the past.
As we distinguish between official portraits, family snapshots and political cartoons to appreciate our various pictures of Churchill, before we can read the gospels we have to discover what kind of books they might be. Traditionally, the gospels were viewed as biographies of Jesus. During the nineteenth century, biographies began to explain the character of a great person by considering his or her upbringing, formative years, schooling, psychological development and so on. The gospels began to look unlike such biographies. During the 1920s, scholars like Karl Ludwig Schmidt and Rudolf Bultmann rejected any notion that the gospels were biographies: the gospels appear to have no interest in Jesus' human personality, appearance or character, nor do they tell us anything about the rest of his life, other than his brief public ministry and an extended concentration on his death. The gospels are popular folk literature, collections of stories handed down orally over time. Such an approach became known as 'form criticism' as it concentrated on the 'forms' or 'types' of the individual stories in the gospels. Far from being biographies of Jesus, the gospels were described as 'unique' forms of literature, and this approach dominated gospel studies for the next half century or so.
However, over the last thirty or forty years, there has been renewed interest in the writers of the gospels as both theologians and as conscious literary artists. This has reopened the question of the genre of the gospels and their place within the context of first-century literature. Many genres have been proposed, but increasingly the gospels are again seen as biography. Detailed analysis of many examples of ancient biography and the gospels shows that they share many generic features in common. From the formal or structural perspective, they are written in continuous prose narrative, between 10,000 and 20,000 words in length - the amount on a typical scroll of about ten metres long. Such medium length, single scroll prose works include ancient romance or early novel, historical monographs and biographies. Unlike modern biographies, Graeco-Roman lives do not cover the whole life in strict chronological sequence, complete with detailed psychological analysis of the subject's character. Often, they have only a bare chronological outline, beginning with the birth or arrival on the public scene and ending with the death; the intervening space includes selected stories, anecdotes, speeches and sayings, all displaying something of the subject. Against this background, the gospels' concentration on Jesus' public ministry from his baptism to death does not seem very different.
The content of Graeco-Roman biographies also has similarities with the gospels. They begin with a brief mention of the hero's ancestry, family or city, followed by his birth and an occasional anecdote about his upbringing; usually we move rapidly on to his public debut later in life. Accounts of generals, politicians, or statesmen are much more chronologically ordered when recounting their great deeds and virtues, while lives of philosophers, writers, or thinkers tend to be more anecdotal, arranged around collections of material to display their ideas and teachings. While the author may claim to provide information about his subject, often his underlying aims may include apologetic (to defend the subject's memory against others' attacks), polemic (to attack his rivals) or didactic (to teach his followers about him). Similarly, the gospels concentrate on Jesus' teaching and great deeds to explain the faith of the early Christians. As for the climax, the evangelists devote between 15 and 20 per cent of the gospels to the last week of Jesus' life, his death and the resurrection; similar amounts are given over to their subjects' death in biographies by Plutarch, Tacitus, Nepos and Philostratus, since in this crisis the hero reveals his true character, gives his definitive teaching or does his greatest deed. Therefore, marked similarities of form and content can be demonstrated between the gospels and ancient biographies.
Finally, detailed analysis of the verbal structure of the gospels and ancient biographies demonstrates another generic connection. Every sentence in English and in ancient languages must have a subject - the person or object doing the action of the verb. Analysis of the subjects of the verbs can be extended from one sentence to a paragraph and then across a whole work. Most narratives, ancient or modern, have a wide variety of subjects, as different people and objects come to the fore at different times. It is a peculiar characteristic of biography that the attention stays focused on one particular person. Thus, in my analysis elsewhere of ancient biography, I have demonstrated that it is quite common for around a quarter or a third of the verbs to be dominated by one person, the hero; furthermore, another characteristic of ancient biography is that another 15 to 30 per cent of the verbs can occur in sayings, speeches or quotations of this person. So, too, in the gospels: Jesus is the subject of a quarter of the verbs in Mark's gospel, with a further fifth spoken by him in his teaching and parables. Matthew and Luke both make Jesus the subject of nearly a fifth of their verbs, while about 40 per cent are spoken by him. About half of John's verbs either have Jesus as the subject or are on his lips. Thus, we can see clearly that, just like other ancient biographies, Jesus' deeds and words are of vital importance for the four evangelists as they paint their different portraits of Jesus.
The gospels, then, are a form of ancient biography. When we study them, we walk through an ancient portrait gallery; the gospels are hung in the same hall as other ancient biographies - and we must study them with the same concentration upon their subject, to see the particular way each author tries to portray his understanding of Jesus. The gospels are Christology in narrative form, or less technically, the story of Jesus. This is why the methods of literary criticism are so vital for gospel studies. We need to learn how they were written, what they contain and how their narratives function. Such methods will help us to listen attentively to the four stories, and to consider each portrait carefully in its own right, just as we might do with Churchill's pictures.
Excerpted from Four Gospels, One Jesus? by Richard A. Burridge Copyright © 2005 by Richard A. Burridge.
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|2||The roar of the lion - Mark's Jesus||35|
|3||The teacher of Israel - Matthew's Jesus||67|
|4||The bearer of burdens - Luke's Jesus||101|
|5||The high-flying eagle - John's Jesus||133|
|6||... one Jesus?||165|