AUSTRALIAN BIBLICAL REVIEW
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
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.
Rev. Dr John T. Squires
United Theological College
North Parramatta, NSW