Part One: Introduction to the Four Gospels

FPOJ.jpgStrauss, Mark L.

Four Portraits, One Jesus: An Introduction to Jesus and the Gospels

Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007. Pp. 560. Hardcover. $44.99.

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Allow me to begin this review with one word: WOW!  Four Portraits, One Jesus is possibly the best introductory text to the four Gospels that I have ever seen.  I’ve had this book for less than three days and I’ve decided to pitch this to my pastor and my friends who pastor, as a text book for Sunday school and Tuesday/Wednesday night Bible study classes.  This is certainly a text directed toward laymen, but I can’t imagine that a seminary student would feel slighted by reading it.

The first part covers three chapters:

  1. What Are the Gospels?
  2. Exploring the Origin and Nature of the Gospels: Historical-Critical Methods of Gospel Research
  3. Reading and Hearing the Gospel Stories: Literary-Critical Methods of Gospel Research

Each chapter begins with a chapter overview as well as an objectives list.  I can certainly see the value of this as a didactic aid for those teachers who want to possibly divide the chapter up into smaller sections and prepare lesson plans.  As you begin to work through the chapter, Strauss introduces various terms and concepts, the most important of which are marked in bold print so that they can be looked up in the 14 page glossary in the back of the book [p. 526-540].  All Greek terms are transliterated, and on nearly every page there are various illustrations and figure charts which add a visual element to the learning process, and help significantly with memorization.  Each chapter then concludes with a chapter summary, a list of the key terms used throughout the chapter, and a series of discussion topics and study questions.  Also included is a select bibliography for further reading, if the student so desires.  The layout is fantastic and certainly seems better than the text books I remember from high school.

In chapter 1, Strauss lays out his basic thesis, which is that all four Gospels “paint a unique portrait of Jesus Christ. Each provides special insight into who he is and what he has accomplished.” [p. 26]  He introduces us to the genre of the Gospels which he says is “historical literature” [p. 27], noting three ways in which they are historical: (1) They have a history of composition; (2) They are set in a specific historical context; and (3) They are meant to convey accurate historical information.  He also identifies the Gospels as “narrative literature” [p. 28] and “theological literature” [p. 29], accepting along the way Richard Burridge’s research which identifies them as being in the style of ancient Greco-Roman biographies (bioi).

When turning to the question of why the Gospels were written, Strauss gives us seven points to consider [p. 30]:

  1. Historical: The need for an authoritative record of the words and deeds of Jesus.
  2. Catechetical: The need to instruct converts in the Christian faith.
  3. Liturgical: The need for worship material in the church.
  4. Exhoratory: To encourage and assure believers in their faith.
  5. Theological: The need to settle internal disputes.
  6. Apologetic: The need to respond to external attacks on the church.
  7. Evangelistic: The need to call people to faith in Jesus.

He surmises that the Gospel audiences were probably specific church communities who were expected to circulate the Gospels to other communities throughout the larger regions in which they were set.  When turning to the question of why only four Gospels, he gives a basic answer that boils down to historical veracity; the four Gospels were simply more believable than the non-canonical gospels.  I would have definitely liked to have seen this point developed more than it was.  He closes the chapter out by comparing horizontal (from beginning to end) and vertical (comparing all four accounts) readings of the Gospel, noting that attempted harmonizations can do more damage than good, because they remove the distinctive features of each Gospel.  The one benefit he sees in harmonization is in asking historical questions.  There is also an addendum to this chapter which cites sources that give information about Jesus outside of the Gospels.

In Chapter 2 Strauss examines how the Gospels came into being, as well as various historical-critical methods of Gospel research.  He sees four main stages of Gospel development [p. 44]:

  1. The life, death, and resurrection of the historical Jesus (the events themselves).
  2. The period of oral tradition, when the sayings and stories of Jesus were passed down primarily through spoken word.
  3. The period of written sources, when collections of sayings and other material began to be written down and collected.
  4. The writing of the Gospels themselves.

He goes on to cover form criticism, source criticism, and redaction criticism.  When turning his attention to source criticism, Strauss of course discusses the Synoptic problem.  In doing so, we are treated to very helpful summaries and explanations of Markan priority (Mark was the template for Matthew and Luke), the Two-Source hypothesis (Mark & Q were used by Matthew and Luke), the Four-Source hypothesis (Mark, Q, M [material unique to Matthew], & L [material unique to Luke]), and finally the Griesbach hypothesis (Matthean priority).  Surprisingly, no mention was made of the Farrer hypothesis, which I personally favor.  After outlining the basics of each hypothesis, Strauss concludes with some observations and cautions on all of the proposed solutions to the Synoptic problem.

When turning to form criticism, there is a very helpful chart on p. 56 showing the form-critical categories, attributing each to Rudolf Bultmann, Martin Dibelius, and Vincent Taylor, respectively.  The categories listed are: (1) Pronouncement Stories, (2) Miracle Stories, (3) Sayings and Parables, (4) Stories about Jesus, (5) Passion Narrative.  He notes that form critics have different identifications, and that these are simply the most commonly used categories.  When assessing form criticism he lists three positive contributions and four weaknesses or dangers [p. 58-59]:


  1. The importance of preaching the Gospel in the early Church.
  2. The importance of Genre identification.
  3. The importance of individual pericopae.


  1. Presuppositions of nonhistoricity and an antisupernatural bias.
  2. An exclusive oral period.
  3. Problems of classification.
  4. Subjectivity in identifying the setting in life and tracing a transmission history.

He ends the chapter with redaction criticism noting the goals as:

(1) to analyze how the Gospel writers “redacted” or edited their sources, (2) to discern from this redaction the theological emphases of each writer, (3) to determine each writer’s purpose in writing, and (4) to identify the community situation, or setting in life (Sitz im Leben), within which the author wrote. [p. 61]

He concludes that the basic assumptions behind redaction criticism are sound, but there is still the problem of subjectivity that we also find in form criticism.  He sees as a corrective to this problem, “keep[ing] an eye on the whole of the Gospel story, rather than only its editorial alterations.” [p. 63]

In chapter 3 Strauss turns his attention to Literary criticism.  I personally learned the most from this chapter, as this was not an area I was familiar with.  He discusses narrative criticism which arose as a corrective to methods that focused on individual accounts at the expense of the whole narrative.  He covers things such as the distinctions between the real author (the historical writer of the text), implied author (the literary version of the author as discerned in the text), and narrator (the voice we hear) of a story, as well as the real readers (original audience), implied readers (imaginary people who respond appropriately to the narrative), and narratees (the hearer).

He discusses the plot, characters, and setting of the narrative before turning his attention to narrative patterns and literary devices (rheotic).  Here we are given brief descriptions of repetition, chiasm, inclusio, intercalation, symbolism (e.g., simile, similitude, metaphor, parable), and irony (both situational and verbal).  Like in the previous chapter, he closes with an assessment of the positives and negatives of narrative critism [p. 78-79]:


  1. Reads the text according to its literary form.
  2. Respects the unity and integrity of the text.
  3. Allows more objective analysis.
  4. Allows determination of meaning without certainty concerning the life situation of the authors and their communities.
  5. Identifies artistic and literary features of the Gospels.

Negatives (pertaining more to narrative critics than the method itself)

  1. Sometimes assume the nonhistoricity of the text, treating “story” as synonymous with “fiction.”
  2. Sometimes ignore or avoid historical and cultural background.
  3. Sometimes impose modern literary categories on ancient literature.
  4. Sometimes reject historical-critical approaches.

He ends this chapter by devoting a few words to other forms of literary criticism, namely Rhetorical criticism, Canon criticism, Strucuralism, Reader-Response criticism, and the subset of Liberationist and Feminist approaches, and finally Deconstruction.

He then sets up his approach which will be used throughout the book in saying:

Our approach to the four Gospels will be an eclectic one, taking into account their historical, social, literary, and theological features. First, we will assume that the Gospels are historical documents, written to Christian communities in a first-century Mediterranean context . . . Second, we assume that these works have a composition history . . . While Markan priority is favored, most of our conclusions will be based on general Gospel comparison rather than a specific source theory. Third, Gospel comparisons (horizontal reading) will be done in the service of a narrative and theological analysis of the text (vertical reading) . . . Finally, from this narrative and theological analysis, we will seek to answer questions concerning the historical context of the authors and original audiences. [p. 84]

I found these chapters to be very well-written, easy to follow and understand, and certainly full of enough material to keep the interested student busy, especially when turning to the study questions and discussion topics.  I would have liked to see a couple of things expanded upon, but other than that I have no major criticism for Strauss’ work here.  As an introduction to Gospels studies, this text is a masterpiece.  I look forward to working through the rest of this book.  More reviews to come…


5 thoughts on “Part One: Introduction to the Four Gospels

  1. Chuck: Well, that depends I guess. For starters, this is a text book, so it’s meant for study, not really to be read in a sitting or two. I think that if it were adopted as a Sunday school or Bible study text, then readers would be happy to pick up a copy.

    But the 560 is also deceptive. As I said, there’s illustrations and charts littered throughout the book, so that reduces the ammount of actual text significantly. Then there’s a 1-3 page bibliography at the end of each chapter (20 chaps. in all), a 14 page glossary, and a 20 page index, so that reduces the actual reading text even more. And to be honest, the way that Strauss writes makes it an incredibly quick read (and I’m a very slow reader).

    So the size might scare off people who don’t want to dig a little deeper and find out what the book is all about, but then those aren’t the type of people who are really looking for a good study of the Gospels, are they?

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