Four Gospels, one Jesus
Biblical scholar Richard Burridge talks to Philip Halcrow how the four Gospels offer four different perspectives on the one man. ‘We don’t have a one-size-fits-all Jesus’, he says.
Anyone who steps into a cathedral or church – to pray, learn about history or admire architecture – may be able to spot them: an eagle hovering next to a man writing a scroll, as well as similar images of an ox, a winged lion and a man with wings.
The figures appear in stone above the door of Rochester Cathedral and in a stained-glass window at Dundee Cathedral. They can be seen on glass processional doors in St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne. And they are also in the windows of the chapel at King’s College London. Down the corridor from the chapel, the Dean and Professor of Biblical Interpretation, the Rev Richard Burridge, meets me to talk about his recently reissued book that looks at the meaning behind the eagle, the ox, the lion and the man.
In his new book, Four Gospels, One Jesus?, Richard shows how, in church tradition, the figures have represented the four writers of the Gospels – the Evangelists – and aims to help readers understand their four differing accounts of Jesus.
‘In writing the book, I was trying to find some way of helping people get a clear idea of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’s portraits of Jesus,’ he says.
‘The problem for many people is that they have a scrambled version of Jesus in their head. If you ask them to tell you the Christmas story, they will mix Luke’s shepherds with Matthew’s wise men and with the ox and the ass from tradition. If you ask them to talk about Good Friday, they will mix the sayings of Jesus from the cross found in the different Gospels.’
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To tackle the subject, Richard turned to the four symbols that had become linked with the Gospels.
‘The four images first appear in a vision of God in the Book of Ezekiel,’ he says, ‘where the prophet describes each of the cherubim as having four faces – that of a human, a lion, an ox and an eagle. Later, in the Book of Revelation, the human, the lion, the ox and the eagle are no longer just four faces of cherubim but four living creatures around the throne of God.
‘In the early church, there was speculation about who these four creatures were. Quickly, by the middle of the 2nd century, they were associated with the four Evangelists and the four Gospels. The classic example of the tradition is in the Celtic art of the 5th to the 8th centuries. The images appear in beautifully illuminated books, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels.
‘When I looked at the Celtic art, I saw how the symbol of each Evangelist hovers above him. So, the symbol is not the Evangelist; the symbol is inspiring the Evangelist. And when, in about AD170, Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, wrote about why there are four Gospels, he said that the symbols were images of the disposition of the Son of God. So, for instance, the lion shows Jesus’ kingly nature and the ox highlights his humility.’
In the 2nd century, Irenaeus decided he needed to explain why there were four recognised accounts of Jesus – the four Gospels that entered the ‘canon’, the accepted books of the New Testament. Today, says Richard, some people are confused about why there is not one authorised biography.
‘Why do we need four Gospels? It was a question for the early church, and today, for instance, Muslims often say that having four accounts means that they can’t all be true…