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Richard A. Burridge, Four Gospels,

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Richard A. Burridge, Four Gospels, One Jesus? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

Richard Burridge, dean of King's College, London, has produced an insightful and very accessible introduction to the gospels. The book is straightforwardly organized: After an introduction that treats the various forms of modern New Testament criticism, he offers a substantial chapter on each gospel and concludes with a chapter arguing that while the four gospels present a diverse portrait of Jesus, they also set limits to our understanding of Jesus and His ministry ("plurality within limits.")

The four chapters on the individual gospels are organized according to the traditional association of the gospel writers with the faces of the cherubim. Though inventive, this is the weakest aspect of the book, in several respects. First, Burridge discusses the different versions of this association, and follows Jerome and others in his arrangement:

Matthew human
Mark lion
Luke ox
John eagle

Though the association of the gospels with the faces of the cherubim is helpful in itself, I have doubts about Burridge's arrangement. In Ezekiel 1:10, it is true that the faces of the cherubim are given in this order, but that is not the order of the faces on the cherubim themselves. Assuming that "left" and "right" in Ezekiel 1:10 have reference to the cherub's left and right (not Ezekiel's), we find the following order:

eagle

lion ox

man

Thus, if one were to walk clockwise around a cherub, one would move from man to lion to eagle to ox. This at least shows that it is problematic to apply the order given in Ezekiel 1:10 directly to the gospels in their canonical order. For my part, I find James Jordan's views on this association most satisfying:

Matthew ox Mosaic period
Mark lion Davidic period
Luke eagle Exile/Restoration
John man New Covenant

The second problem with Burridge's use of the cherubim faces is that this schema is often very loosely linked to the content of the gospel, popping up periodically throughout the chapters on the individual gospels but often distracting from the gospel rather than enhancing it. Luke's Jesus, for example, is the ox, the "bearer of burdens for the poor and all in need" (p. 116). Luke, of course, does emphasize Jesus' ministry to and care for the poor and outcasts, but Luke doesn't use any particularly ox-like imagery to present Jesus' ministry to the poor. And once you have said, "Luke emphasizes Jesus' ministry to the poor," it is not clear what is added by saying, "And in this way Jesus shows Himself an ox-like Messiah." Or again, Luke emphasizes the powerful work of the Spirit, and this links to the ox theme, since "the ox is the most powerful creature" (p. 121). Or again, when Burridge associates the plodding pace of the ox with the pace of Luke's narrative, it is not at all clear what kind of claim he is making: Surely he is not saying that Luke consciously worked from the metaphor that "Jesus is an ox" and adjusted his story to fit that theme. This problem is most evident in his suggestion that John's gospel is shaped like an eagle, two wings (the book of signs and the book of glory) connected by the body (the "interlude" in chapters 11-12). In sum, Burridge's structure feels as if it's been imposed on the text. (I have similar reservations about the book's frequent references to Lewis and Tolkein.) To the extent that the cherubim associations are heuristic, they are minor irritations.

Another reservation about the book is that Burridge tends to be somewhat too accommodating to the conclusions of critical scholarship. His summary of various styles of New Testament criticism is generally judicious, and he argues that the gospels are historically reliable in the main. He is no raving liberal. Yet, he does assume the existence of Q and Markan priority, and in the final chapter he muddles up the issues about the factual "truth" of the gospels a bit. Burridge's positions on these issues are not egregiously wrong, but readers should exercise some caution.

Oh, my. I've spent more than half the review complaining about the book. And that after I began with praise. The praise was sincere, and I'll conclude by pointing out some specific things about the book that are particularly praiseworthy. First, Burridge insists on the distinctiveness of each gospel. This does not mean that there are four different Jesuses, but it does mean that each evangelist is portraying Jesus from a particular angle (Burridge begins the book with an illuminating discussion of four portraits of Winston Churchill). Harmonization and historical reconstruction are important and necessary, but God had a reason for giving us four somewhat different perspectives on our Savior. We should make every effort to understand the integrity of each gospel, and not run too swiftly to harmonize varying accounts.

Second, Burridge has a keen eye for the details that illuminate the particular themes in a gospel. He notes Mark's use of triples, and discusses several of Mark's "sandwich stories." He recognizes the importance of mountains in Matthew's gospel, and suggests that the five Matthean discourses are arranged in a chiastic pattern, with the parables of the kingdom in chapter 13 at the center. He discusses the theme of divine necessity in Luke, and points to John's distinctive emphasis on time. Few of these insights are original, but Burridge has a good sense of what is important and it is good to have all of these ideas collected in a single, slim volume.

Finally, Burridge writes well and avoids technical terminology. When he does refer to the Greek text, he is careful to define and explain things. Though sometimes distracting, the quotations from Lewis and Tolkein are fun.

Overall, Burridge's book is an excellent introduction to the theology and literary style of the gospels. It could be recommended, with some caveats, to lay readers who are looking for an introduction to the gospels, and could be used with profit in the classroom. Pastors looking for something on the gospels that does not get bogged down in details of Greek grammar or first-century history will find Burridge useful, and will find many eminently preachable insights.

posted by Peter J. Leithart on Thursday, August 28, 2003 at 05:19 PM

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