Jesus at Thirty: Four Canonical Portraits (Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 3)

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by Neil Godfrey

Tomas Hägg

Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity) rightly notes that the four canonical gospels give us “four distinctive, if overlapping literary representations of Jesus.”

Yet comparatively little seems to have been written from a literary point of view to define by what means of characterization these four portraits emerge, and what the main characteristics are of each of them…. In spite of recent advances in the study of characterization in the New Testament, the general tendency seems to be to shun the figure(s) of Jesus himself and to focus on Paul, Peter, Judas, or lesser characters in the stories. In Bible commentaries one sometimes meets short, tantalizing characterizations, but nowhere (to my knowledge) any sustained comparative analysis. (p. 180)

Tomas Hägg explains that his discussion is intended to offer “just a few hints of possible approaches” to the character study of Jesus across the four gospels, “no full portraits.”

He begins by noting two “rather different” character interpretations of the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark:

To Joel Marcus, the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is

  • dynamic
  • abrasive
  • intensely emotional, “a passionate instrument for the advent of the dominion of God”

To Richard Burridge, on the other hand, the Markan Jesus is

  • enigmatic and secretive
  • rushing around doing things “immediately”
  • a miracle worker, yet one who talks about suffering and dies terribly alone and forsaken

Burridge then discusses Matthew’s Jesus but without mentioning a single “actual character trait”: Jesus is a “new Moses”, but no particular personality or character is addressed. Next, for Burridge, is the Lukan Jesus who cares for the outcasts, the lost, the Gentiles, the women, the poor.

From Mark, then, we get the temperament; from Matthew, the theology; from Luke, the ethics — no contrasting portraits, just different angles. (p. 181)

Where the difficulty evidently lies

The evangelists do not offer any direct characterization of Jesus. This is not what we normally find in other biographies. Biographers are generally only too keen to use adjectives to describe their subject, to tell us the sort of person he (how many ancient biographies are there of women?) was. In the case of the gospels, however,

The characters acquire their profiles through their speech and action. The description of emotions, when any are mentioned at all, also remains undifferentiated. Intrusions of the narrator are rare and inconspicuous; the author inserts no reflexions and comments directed at the reader; he hides completely behind his narrative and allows the course of events practically to speak for itself. (Marius Reiser, 2001, Sprache und literarische Formen des Neuen Testaments: Eine Einfuhrung (UTB, 2197; Paderborn: Schoningh) p. 99, translated by and cited in Tomas Hägg, 2012. The Art of Biography in Antiquity, p. 181)

So “Mark” himself does not tell us that Jesus was “dynamic and emotional” or “enigmatic and secretive”. Readers make such assessments on the basis of the anecdotes the evangelist has chosen to tell or the way he tells them. Hägg takes a closer look at how the gospels work in this regard by examining an incident common to all four of them, the “cleansing of the temple”.

What each cleansing of the temple tells about each Jesus

I like Hägg’s a-reverential introduction to this little analysis (or reading it like any other text, we might say):

It is the day after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem; the new day starts in a bad mood (p. 181)

Mark 11:12-17 (NRSV)

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. [Matthew adds: “And the fig tree withered at once.]

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
But you have made it a den of robbers.”

These two episodes have earned Jesus the reputation of being abrasive and irascible. His treatment of the fig tree appears to be the inspiration behind the “impulsive and egotistical young Jesus in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas” that we saw earlier.

There is little difference between the Jesus of Mark and Matthew here.

But compare Luke (19:45-46, NRSV):

Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, “It is written,

‘My house shall be a house of prayer’;
    but you have made it a den of robbers.”

Mark has placed the “two examples of Jesus’ hot temper in succession, thereby increasing the impact.” Luke, in contrast, removes the fig tree completely, reusing the tree in a parable with a quite different message and role for Jesus (13:6-9). The removal of colourful detail has left us with a comparatively anodyne Jesus.

Luke’s Jesus is obviously not a man of violence. (p. 182)

And John’s version, 2:14-17:

In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.

The wording is different from what we saw in the synoptic gospels but the detail is richer. Now Jesus makes a whip to use on the sellers; not only does he overturn the tables but he also pours out their coins. Yet the den of robbers has become a prosaic marketplace. The impulsive fit of anger is replaced by an action motivated and justified by a disciplined, determined godly zeal.

The four faces of theological interpretation

Mark Luke John
Jesus is portrayed as the Suffering Son of God. Jesus is portrayed as the Saviour of the world; Jesus is the Son of God, “serenely untroubled”.
Gethsemane: “deeply grieved, even to death” Calm and confident; master of the situation like Socrates in Phaedo. “This is a trial without anxiety or suspense, a crucifixion without suffering and without pathos. The Stranger, unnerving and imperturbable, remains unmoved by the mockery and sarcasm through which his tormentors unknowingly proclaim his true identity.” (Paula Fredriksen)
Twice throws himself on ground praying for cup to be removed. Kneels and prays just once, knowing he has to die . To his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” To the disciple, “Here is your mother”. All the rest is calm ritual.
Final words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus still in control: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” “I am thirsty” … “It is finished”
Jesus’ human condition is emphasized. He does not know all that the Father knows. Born a prophet, dies as a rejected prophet. One with the Father, the Father hides nothing from him.

Details of four literary portrayals of Jesus

The words for “anger” are never used of Jesus in the Gospel of John; but in the Gospel of Mark Jesus feels anger when people resent his healing on the sabbath (Mark 3:5).

The word for “compassion” is never used in John; but it does appear throughout the synoptics (Matthew 20:34; Mark 6:34; Luke 7:13). In the synoptics compassion moves Jesus to perform the miracle of feeding the 5000 but in John there is no such motivation.

Except for the ritual footwashing, John’s Jesus shuns physical contact; in the synoptics he touches Peter’s mother-in-law, lepers, blind and mute men, a slave’s ear, and the sick touch his garment. In John the word for “touch” appears only once: when Jesus instructs Mary not to touch him. In the synoptics Jesus picks up the children; in John there are no children.

The Lazarus exception proving the rule

In the episode of Lazarus we find Jesus no longer unemotional. He “began to weep” when he saw Mary and others weeping over the death of Lazarus. Jesus is said to be in deep inner agony when he is accused of letting Lazarus die by delaying his arrival:

He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply agitated (John 11:33)

And later at the tomb itself he is

again deeply disturbed (11:38)

Is Jesus really as compassionate and loving as he is sometimes portrayed in the synoptics? Hägg builds on Alan Culpepper’s observation:

Alan Culpepper argues, however, that the pattern of emotions displayed around Lazarus’ death is not really due to Jesus’ love for his friends from Bethany: ‘there is a great deal of talk about love in John, but Jesus does not seem to be very loving’. He misses warmth in the description of Jesus’ relationship to his ‘beloved’ disciple John, to his mother during the wedding at Cana (2.2), and so on. The observation is pertinent, but the apparent coolness may rather be attributed to the ascetic narrative style that dominates all four gospels, as soon as it comes to the description of persons and their character traits, not to speak of their physical appearance, physiognomy as well as facial expressions. That the protagonist himself is no exception in this respect reduces markedly the gospels’ character as biographies, even by ancient standards. (p. 183)

How many Jesuses?

Hägg concludes with George Bernard Shaw’s reflections on why he was unable to complete a passion play of Jesus in blank verse. The problem was, he said, that there was not one Jesus to write about, but

the three Jesuses of the gospels; the hard, bigoted, vituperative, haughty Jesus of Matthew [typo for Mark?], the charming, affable, woman-beloved Jesus of Luke, and the restlessly intellectual debater, poet and philosopher genius described in John. (Citing Stanley Weintraub 2007, ‘Rebels without a Cause: The Gospel according to George Bernard Shaw’, Times Literary Supplement, 20 July (5442), 13-15, in Hägg p. 186)

That’s not three different perspectives of the same mountain. That’s three different mountains. Hägg in passing footnotes literature scholar Harold Bloom’s count of seven Jesuses in the New Testament literature. I’ll go one step further and quote the key passage by Bloom:
There are many versions of Jesus outside the canonical New Testament, but this, to me, seems far less interesting than that there are at least seven Jesuses in the book of the New Covenant, embedded in the four Gospels (combining Acts with Luke), in Paul, in the Epistle of James, the brother of Jesus, and in the Apocalypse. (Bloom, Harold, 2005. Jesus and Yahweh: the Names Divine, Riverhead, New York.)
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Neil Godfrey

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