This book is a little gem, a fascinating study and insight into how we should handle the four gospels and how we have so often gone wrong in the way that we have done so.
Burridge is highly accomplished academic literary critic, and this volume brings a wealth of his skills to bear on the texts - but (unlike in his previous works) he brings his writing style down to a popular level making some very profound material accessible to the ordinary person seeking to read, study, understand and respond to the gospels.
The core of his argument is that each of the gospels paints a different and distinct picture of Jesus, was written for a different reason, with known materials sifted for specific purposes. Mistakenly, gospel readers have tended to 'systematise' the whole, far too early in the process of reading. That is to say they have sought to blend the gospels (especially the synoptics) into a blander, merged gospel, obliterating the unique nature of the individual portraits presented. This, argues Burridge, is to do a great disservice to the texts themselves as literary entities which are worthy of consideration in their own terms, and also to ourselves as we will fail to grasp the four vivid pictures of Jesus they present and which we are meant to respond to. Certainly a holistic merger of the information must take place as we seek to understand Jesus; but this is, according to Burridge the last stage in the process.
He provides a great illustration of his point. On a trip to Chatsworth house, he saw many portraits of Winston Churchill. One of a family man, one of a war leader, one an elderly prime minister and one a retired man quietly painting. He points out how foolish it would be to construct a montage featuring the painters-palate, some children, a tank, military fatigues, all in the house of commons! Instead each picture must first be allowed to speak before we seek to assemble a picture of the whole. This is a lesson which much popular theology has simply failed to grasp in its handling of the texts.
Burridge then goes on to sketch the four portraits, and the reasons for their construction; the Jewish Messiah of the Matthew's gospel, the mysterious Lord of Mark who leaves questions unanswered and issues hanging; the compassionate Christ of Luke's gospel whose special love of outcasts and the poor is so well loved; and the glorious high-Christology of John. He points out that each of these not only informs our picture of the whole - but may be particularly relevant for our life and faith at different times - as they were written for specific circumstances in the first instance.
This has not only given me a new appreciation for the gospels as literature, and the gospel authors as skilled writers; but also a new dimension of understanding the Christ whom they portray. This is good stuff! Thanks to Dr Stumpy Greenisland for yet another very good book recommendation.