Jesus in the First Three Gospels

Written by Millar Burrows Reviewed By Grant R. Osborne

This newest work by the distinguished author of More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls attempts a life of Christ as found in the synoptic Gospels. In so doing it traces the differences in the three accounts and applies them to a deeper understanding of the events themselves. As such, therefore, he tries to apply the results of form and redaction criticism to the life of Christ, yet does so at a level at which the educated layman can understand the discussion. The depth of interaction is good and yet the simplicity of the discussion makes it meaningful to a wide variety of people.

While Burrow’s presuppositions cause him to reject the historicity of the supernatural scenes, he attempts to be honest. He calls the birth stories ‘legendary’ on the basis of ‘the modern scientific view of the universe’ but admits that ‘if Jesus was a unique being … the process of his conception and birth could have been unique also’ (p. 24). On pages 49–50, he has a good discussion of miracles, saying: ‘I for one cannot believe that even in him (Jesus) God acted in any way inconsistent with the same natural laws … by which he works today,’ but adding, ‘It does not mean … that God cannot or does not intervene in human affairs.’ While his attempt to remain a ‘modern man’ and yet hold on to God’s unique revelation in Jesus will not satisfy many critics, we must applaud his attempt to grapple honestly with the problems.

While he follows the normal order of events in a ‘life of Christ’, the actual contents of the chapters are on the whole well conceived. In his chapter on the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, he discusses the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts and provides a good summary of recent debate. In the section on Jesus’ death, he gives an informative summary of pros and cons regarding the traditional site of Golgotha at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

However, his very format produces problems. Few specialists on the Gospels today would discuss the synoptics side-by-side, because the redactional emphases of the individual writers would be lost in the shuffle. This is exactly what has happened. In the complex lists of differences, Burrows loses sight of Matthew’s (or Mark’s or Luke’s) distinctive message, and from this standpoint his work is a retreat to a discussion thirty years outdated. Also, his approach and length force him often merely to list differences rather than to discover meaning, as in his section on the seven last words of Jesus, where one goes away disappointed at his cursory approach. Nevertheless, his purpose is to reach the beginning student rather than the experienced scholar, and so it should be judged on that basis. From that standpoint, it is a useful introduction which will help the student realize the complexity of any attempt at a ‘life of Christ’.

Grant R. Osborne

Assistant Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, USA