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Sorting Out the Four Greatest Stories Ever Told

THE FOUR WITNESSES, The Rebel, The Rabbi, The Chronicler, and The Mystic, By Robin Griffith-Jones, HarperSanFrancisco, $25, 406 pages


"Who do you say I am?" asks Jesus in the New Testament--and the provocative question resonates throughout "The Four Witnesses," a courageous exploration of the contrasting and sometimes contradictory ways in which Jesus of Nazareth is depicted in the Gospels. Robin Griffith-Jones, whose book serves as the companion volume for an upcoming PBS docudrama about the writing of the New Testament, encourages us to reread the Gospels in light of what scholarship and the biblical text itself reveal about the motives of the men who first composed them.

The life of Jesus, as Griffith-Jones points out, may be "the most famous life ever lived on Earth." And yet each of the Gospel writers offers a different answer to the question posed by Jesus himself. To sort out and make sense of these divergent points of view--"The Four Greatest Stories Ever Told," as the author puts it--"The Four Witnesses" leads us on a search for the historical context and the "controlling intelligence" beneath each of the texts.

"We might think of ourselves as detectives on a case," Griffith-Jones proposes. "To understand and assess the depositions put before us, we need to know who these witnesses are, what makes them tick, what are the needs and purposes of their own that shape the evidence they offer."

Starting with the Gospel of Mark, generally believed to be the first of the Gospels to be completed, Griffith-Jones scrutinizes the text of each Gospel, fills in the political and historical background in deft and vivid strokes, and characterizes the life experience and theological motives of each author.

Thus, for example, Mark is presented as a Jewish emigre in Rome in the years leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, "ill at ease in Rome's self-regarding glamour" and mindful of the plight of the persecuted Christian sect as he wrote a gospel that reflects his own sense of "incipient doom and eagerly awaited glory." Matthew, by contrast, witnessed the razing of the Temple in Jerusalem and the emergence of the synagogue as its spiritual replacement in the Jewish community. "On every page we can see the strategy behind Matthew's story," the author points out. "He treads a narrow path that will encourage the synagogues' members to transfer their loyalty, firmly and finally, to the church."

Luke, a "chameleon" who wrote in "stylish Greek" and adopted the stately literary forms of the Greco-Roman world, sought to reassure his readers that "this Jesus and his followers" posed no threat to the Roman Empire. "The fiercest language of hope and upheaval, the clearest promise that this world's order is to be overturned," writes Griffith-Jones, "these have been so effectively defused that we can hear them, in a proud, affluent West, without a quiver of concern."

John is "the most distinctive of all," a Gospel writer who is less interested in biography or parables than in "a stately series of set-piece miracles and long, spiraling discussions." The earthly (and sometimes downright earthy) details of the other Gospels are replaced by the deeply metaphysical notion of the Word that became flesh. "We might well wonder," allows Griffith-Jones, "if the Jesus of our first three witnesses is recognizably the same as John's at all."

Significantly, the four Gospels agree most closely on the circumstances of Jesus' death: "Our four stories have converged on the cross," is how the author puts it. Even here, however, Griffith-Jones points out the differences in tone and shading. According to Mark, Jesus "dies like a man in terrible desolation," but "John's Jesus is like a God who controls all that happens to him, not least his death's 'completion.' " Yet, as Griffith-Jones pointedly reminds his readers, the chorus of voices that make up the Gospels was meant to harmonize on a single theological note--the redemptive power of Jesus.

At moments, Griffith-Jones strikes an intentionally eccentric stance, as if to shake us out of our own comfortable assumptions about the Bible. He uses the terms "Old Order" and "New Order" in place of "Old Testament" and "New Testament," the Book of Exodus is called "Escape," and the Book of Revelation is called "the Book of Unveiling." But such conceits are not employed at the sacrifice of clarity, and "The Four Witnesses" remains lucid, urgent and persuasive even as its author blazes his own trail through the thickets of Bible scholarship.

Indeed, Griffith-Jones, a New Testament scholar and a clergyman at Temple Church in London, concedes that he has "traversed some of the most hotly disputed terrain in scholarship," but he insists that he comes as a peacemaker: "It is time to take in some fresh vistas and fresh air," the author concludes. "And in the quiet we will open our ears and hear the Gospels speak. Better still: We will hear them sing."

Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to the Book Review, is the author of "Moses: A Life" and "King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel," forthcoming from Ballantine.

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