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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 50, 2002

R. K. McIver, The Four Faces of Jesus (Nampa: Pacific Press, 2000). Pp.320. Paper $US 14.99.

This book is written for “the typical church member” who has neither specialised knowledge of the New Testament nor familiarity with Greek. Although at times rather heavy going it is likely that the target audience will find McIver’s book useful, with many insights. The biblical specialist, on the other hand, will find many points with which to question or quibble and many places at which the argument feels slim or inadequate.

The book is subtitled “Four Gospel Writers, Four Unique Perspectives, Four Personal Encounters, One Complete Picture”. This invites a number of expectations. Yes, each Gospel is dealt with individually and elements in the distinctive portrait of each evangelist are described. Yes, there are a number of places in the text at which the author reflects on, or invites attention to, the personal encounter with Jesus which each evangelist is presumed to have desired for their readers. And yes, the book ultimately puts the case for having a high level of trust in the four canonical Gospels as together providing a complete and historically valid account of Jesus.

The greatest strength of the book must lie in the way it engages in detailed analysis of particular texts, in a way which (it seemed to me) would be easily understood by “the typical church member”. Chapter end-notes are used judiciously to explore in some detail the more significant technicalities of such exegetical work.

The book is inclined to give an honest acknowledgment of the differences between the Gospel accounts, but then to minimise them. Unfortunately there is no attempt to provide an overall synthesis of each evangelist’s perspective on Jesus. There is also a tendency to harmonise the four accounts into one composite reconstruction of the historical Jesus. This might well please the broad class of intended reader, but it aggravated this particular reader.

Bravely venturing into the morass of contemporary theories about Synoptic origins (chapters 19–21), the author deals fairly with conflicting scholarly hypotheses and sets out his own opinion only at the very end. This section of the book risks exposing him to a bewildered response from his intended readership, and fails ultimately to satisfy the more critical reader. For both kinds of audience, more space is needed for explanation and exploration. Perhaps this deserves treatment in a separate but companion volume.

The treatment of history throughout this book is troublesome. M. rightly critiques the “Messianic Secret” thesis of Wrede, but his conclusion is lame. He correctly deduces that we do not have access to the life of Jesus unless we look through the Cross-Resurrection complex (p. 116), but then he seems to proceed on the basis that the Gospel writers do, in fact, provide us with accurate historical accounts of Jesus. The significant interpretive role of each evangelist is unduly minimised by M.

The book is peppered with many interesting observations on the minutiae of life in Jesus’ time, but there is no attempt made to locate Jesus in the larger picture of his day. Surely the Pharisaic debates on Law are of relevance for exploring the Synoptic accounts of Jesus? Does not the setting in which Matthew wrote his Gospel deserve more than a mere paragraph (p. 75)? The possible settings of other evangelists, however, are never addressed.

John’s Gospel stands as a problem in any treatment of the four Gospels, and of the figure of Jesus. Its distinctive character is noted by M., but he rarely follows through on the rich interpretive issues which this raises. Why does John present Jesus, at his death, as being in complete control (p. 260)? What are the political dimensions of Jesus’ claim to kingship (pp. 262-3)? How might the presumed context of disputation and polemic have informed the evangelist in his task of account for Jesus? Furthermore, what does this mean for claims about the “uniqueness of Christianity” which arise from this Gospel (see p. 255)?

The doubts and qualifications set forth in this review suggest that there is always more that could be done when introducing readers to the Gospel accounts of Jesus. M. has done a good job of dealing with a number of the central issues, and I suspect that this book will be of especial use in the more conservative circles of Christianity from which it emerges. If it can point its readers to engage in thoughtful and perhaps even critical reading of the Gospels, it will perform a valuable service.

Review by
Rev. Dr John T. Squires
United Theological College
North Parramatta, NSW