By: Virginia Smith
The writers of the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke,
and John offer four different—sometimes intriguing, sometimes perplexing—portraits
of Jesus. Their unique challenge? Portray someone both human and divine. But how
can four diverse descriptions characterize the same person? Each Evangelist chose
words and deeds from Jesus’ life that related to his particular audience. These
audiences differed dramatically in religious background, culture, and ethnic
Each issue carries an imprimatur
from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
Which Gospel is most authentic? Which best reflects the historical
Jesus? They all do. Jesus emerges possessing greater depth, breadth, and height
than any single narrative could provide.
MARK’S HARRIED, HURRIED, HUMAN JESUS
Mark is the earliest Evangelist, writing between AD 65 and 70,shortly after the persecution of Christians by Nero.
Possibly because of the loss of so many leaders, such as Peter and Paul, Mark
deemed it necessary to produce a written record of Jesus. Christianity’s rapid
spread also suggests the need for an organized account of Jesus’ life.
Mark was not one of the Twelve. He was likely not
an eyewitness either. This Mark is traditionally associated with “John Mark,”
mentioned three times in the Acts of the Apostles (12:12, 12:25, 15:37). This
makes him Barnabas’ cousin (Col4:10)
and a companion of Paul (Acts 12:25). Tradition has Mark accompanying Peter to Rome. The Big Fisherman
(Peter) was an excellent eyewitness source of information about Jesus.
Mark’s Jesus is in a hurry. If Jesus ever sat down,
Mark failed to record it.Mark’s
drama opens to introduce a no-holds-barred John the Baptist baptizing Jesus before
his 40-day desert experience—all in the first 13 verses of chapter 1. By
chapter’s end, Jesus has called his first disciples, performed his first cure (plus
two more), and left for Capernaum.
We must take in Mark in a single gulp. Read this
Gospel in one sitting, and you’ll be introduced to a Jesus you may not have met
before—earthy, relatable, approachable, and with whom most of us would be comfortable.
Mark’s Jesus is hemmed in by crowds: “They brought to him all who were ill or
possessed by demons. The whole town
was gathered at the door”(Mk 1:32-33); “He told his disciples to
have a boat ready for him because of
the crowd, so that they would not crush him”(Mk 3:9); “[The] crowd gathered, making it impossible
for them even to eat”(Mk
3:20). “Crowd” or “crowds” is used 38 times in Mark’s Gospel.
In Mark, we meet the most human Jesus. We readily identify
with him because his feelings are obvious. When a leper, ostracized from
society, came to Jesus, he boldly reminded Jesus that he could make him clean. “Moved with pity,[Jesus]
stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made
clean’” (Mk 1:41). But if he softened at the sight of suffering, Jesus turned a
flinty eye toward those lacking compassion, such as the Pharisees who
questioned him about healing on the Sabbath: “Looking around at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of
heart,he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched
it out and his hand was restored” (Mk 3:5).
As his earthly life drew near its close, he and his
closest friends went to Gethsemane. “He took
with him Peter, James, and John, and began
to be troubled and distressed. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is sorrowful even to death’”(Mk 14:33-34). Jesus’ range of emotions
endears him to us who experience the same.
MATTHEW’S NEW MOSES: JESUS, THE TEACHER
A likely locale for Matthew’s Gospel is Antioch, Syria,
around AD 80. Syria was north
of Palestine and
had a sizable Jewish population. Using his audience’s Hebrew background,
Matthew explains Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.
Matthew begins with a rundown of Jesus’ family tree;
the more illustrious branches include Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah,
Ruth, David, Solomon, and Joseph. Properly speaking, this is Jesus’ foster
father’s lineage. Matthew makes Joseph the central figure of his infancy
Jesus emerges as the new Moses. With Jesus’ birth,
Matthew draws parallels between the Messiah and Moses. Only Matthew tells how
Herod’s jealousy forced Joseph and his family into Egyptian exile. Just as
Pharaoh feared the Hebrews in Moses’ time, so Herod feared Jesus and his
family. Herod’s phobia led to the slaughter of innocent young boys (Mt 2:16-18),
just as male Hebrew infants were doomed under Pharaoh (Ex 1:15-22). Jesus, like
Moses, is saved and, in due time, comes forth, like Moses, from Egypt.
Gentiles were joining Matthew’s Church. This
accounts for inclusion of the Magi, who were certainly gentile (Mt 2:1-12), and
Jesus’ comment, “Many will come from the east and the west, and will recline
with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt
Matthew’s comparisons to Moses continue in Jesus’
most famous discourse, the Sermon on the Mount. Placing the stamp of divinity
on Jesus, Matthew situates him above Moses by having Jesus quote from the Law
Moses brought down from Mount Sinai and expand
its meaning by his own authority from a mountain site of his own: “You have
heard that it was said to your ancestors. . . . But I say to you . . .” (Mt 5:21-22).
Matthew’s is a thoughtful Gospel, spotlighting a
reflective Jesus. Organized into components, Matthew’s Gospel is referred to as
a catechism. The Church has
frequently used it in its teaching ministry. Here we meet Jesus the teacher,
In five principal areas, Matthew assembles much of
what Jesus said on given topics and makes a single discourse of it. Each is
preceded by a narrative section that focuses on the same theme and is concluded
by some variation on the phrase, “When Jesus finished these words” (Mt 7:28,
11:1, 13:53, 19:1). The fifth and final discourse ends slightly differently: “When
Jesus finished all these words” (Mt 26:1, emphasis added). The
In this Gospel, Jesus is frequently addressed as “Teacher,”
even by his opponents. Jesus instructs the entire community as Moses did before
him, but he doesn’t go to the mountain to
receive authority; he preaches
from the mountain by his own
authority. Where Mark’s Jesus has much to show us, Matthew’s Jesus has
much to tell us.
- Sermon on the
Mount (Mt 5:1–7:29);
Discourse (Mt 10:1–11:1);
Discourse (Mt 13:1-53);
- Church Community
Discourse (Mt 18:1-35); and
(Last Things) Discourse (Mt 24:1–25:46).
LUKE’S COMPASSIONATE, FORGIVING JESUS
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Luke, like Mark, sought out others in compiling his
portrait, for he was not one of the Twelve nor was he an eyewitness (Lk 1:1-3).
Luke was a Greek who wrote for gentiles. He may have written in a province of
at about the same time as Matthew. Luke was a master writer. His skill helped
him balance a diversity of themes:
As Luke’s Gospel nears its climax, Jesus hangs in
agony from the cross and prays, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”
(Lk 23:34). When the man next to him pleads, “Remember me when you come into
your kingdom,” Jesus replies, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk
23:42-43). These incidents are recorded only in Luke.
Women have a prominent role, on a par with men. Luke often parallels two
individuals, male and female: Mary and Zechariah (Lk 1:5-38); Anna and Simeon
(Lk 2:22-38); the man with the lost sheep and the woman with the lost coin (Lk
- Holy Spirit. The Spirit receives more recognition from Luke than from any other Evangelist.
The Holy Spirit plays an even larger role in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles.
- Universal Salvation. Writing for gentiles, Luke notes that Jesus’
salvation is available to everyone, not just Jews: “All flesh shall see the
salvation of God” (Lk 3:6).
- Mercy and Forgiveness. Luke’s Jesus is a compassionate friend and
advocate for the poor, disabled, public sinners, and other outcasts. None were
ostracized more than Samaritans. For nearly a millennium, they’d been viewed as
heretics. Yet Samaritans are heroes in two of Jesus’ parables. Only Luke writes
of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29-37) and the cured Samaritan leper who expresses
gratitude (Lk 17:11-19).
The parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32) might
more aptly be titled the parable of the Forgiving Father, for it graphically
portrays God’s mercy. The father not only hopes and prays for his son’s repentance
and return but stands peering down the road. When he finally catches sight of
him, he runs to meet him, brushes aside the young man’s penitent speech, and
calls for a welcome-home party.
JOHN’S NOBLE, MAJESTIC, DIVINE JESUS
John’s Gospel is like entering a new world. John presents
a Jesus of great nobility, who deals with individuals: Nicodemus (Jn 3:1-21),
the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:4-42), the man born blind (Jn 9:1-41), Lazarus (Jn
John’s Jesus inspires awe from his opening, wanting
his audience to see Jesus as divine—coexistent with the Father: “In the
beginning [reminiscent of the opening of Genesis] was the Word [Jesus], and the
Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). John clearly speaks of one
whose humanity is undeniable but who possesses another greater nature:
divinity. The oneness of Jesus and his Father is a constant. Jesus says to the
Pharisees, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know
my Father also” (Jn 8:19). And, to Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the
Father” (Jn 14:9).
In John, Jesus is totally in control, even of his
death: “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from
me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take
it up again” (Jn 10:17-18). Aware of others’ thoughts and plans, Jesus
sidesteps or challenges them: “Since Jesus knew that they were going to come
and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone”
(Jn 6:15); “Jesus, knowing everything that was going to happen to him, went out
and said to them, ‘Whom are you looking for?’ They answered him, ‘Jesus the
Nazorean.’ He said to them, ‘I AM’” (18:4-5). Here, Jesus proclaims his divinity.
The “I AM” passages remind us of Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush.
When Moses asked who God was, the answer came, “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14).
At his trial, Jesus’ dignity surfaces again. Pilate
says, “Do you not know that I have power to release you and I have power to
crucify you?” Jesus answers, “You would have no power over me if it had not
been given to you from above” (Jn 19:10-11). Sublime to the end, Jesus’ final
words from the cross are simply, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30).
WHICH PORTRAIT DO WE CHOOSE?
All these aspects represent the same individual.
Jesus is more than any one person can describe. Each writer was aware of those
facets of Jesus’ personality, teachings, and deeds that would draw his community
into deeper faith.
Are these the only portraits that might be drawn?
By no means. All Christians are called to portray the face of Jesus in our own
Virginia Smith is cofounder of Scripture From
Scratch, a Bible study program for adult Catholics (Franciscan Media), and
a freelance writer.
NEXT: Scripture and Tradition (by Margaret Nutting Ralph)