Monday, May 27, 2024

The Amalgamated Jesus

The image of Jesus that functions in the institutional church is a composite drawn from the four canonical gospels that is undergirded by a theological statement of the church. Children are taught the theological statement from the earliest possible age and when the child reaches maturity, s/he fills out the image choosing material indiscriminately from the four canonical gospels as taught in the church’s educational program.

            In the popular ecclesiastical mind, the narratives of all four gospels are regarded as reliable historical documents. The truth is, however, that they are written a generation and more after the death of Jesus. The narratives are based on brief anonymous oral reports of the sayings and doings of Jesus. The descriptions of Jesus, his activities, and his words are the products of impressions on the minds of those nameless persons who transmitted the oral reports, and the impressions the reports made on the minds of the evangelists, who then produced the gospels. The information from the oral reports has been filtered through the faith of each evangelist, which s/he had been taught in the church.1 We have nothing directly from the mouth of Jesus. It is doubtful that anything survived the rigors of the oral period intact.

            Hence the gospels are a collage comprised of historical data, ecclesiastical theory and dogma, quotations and misquotations, and invented plots or story-lines. Critical readers of the New Testament have been aware of many of these problems since the late 1700s. The writing, The Age of Reason, by the American Statesman, Thomas Paine, anticipates “many of the insights of contemporary critical biblical scholarship.”2

            Each of the canonical gospels presents to the reader unique portraits of the man.3 A portrait is a unique painting by the artist recording how a particular painter sees the subject, and that is also true of the literary portraits by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There are always similarities and differences. At times the differences in their portraits are glaring, at other times subtle. The primary reason Matthew, Mark, and Luke (they are called the “synoptic gospels”) are so similar is because Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, and they also shared another hypothetical sayings’ source, which accounts for similarities in literary structure and in the sayings of Jesus. Matthew and Luke make changes to Mark’s text according both to their own theological proclivities and literary styles. The Gospel of John has little in common with the other three. The images of Jesus in the canonical gospels are not historical photographs but novelistic portraits.

            Here is one glaring example of their contradictory differences. In Mark 4:10, the author we call Mark puts on the lips of his literary character, Jesus, the reason why Mark thinks the historical figure, Jesus, told such difficult-to-understand stories (that is, parables):

So that they may indeed see, but not perceive, and may indeed hear, but not understand; lest they should turn again and be forgiven.

Matthew (13:13) and Luke (8:10b) completely eliminate the offensive phrase, “lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.” Matthew and Luke reject the idea that Jesus told parables to prevent people from understanding, lest they turn and be forgiven by God. John, on the other hand, does not even use the word parable and does not portray his literary character, Jesus, telling any of the classic parables known from the synoptic gospels.4

            These kinds of differences in the portraits of Jesus in the canonical gospels are lost in the pious ecclesiastical amalgamations of Jesus.

It’s just common sense, folks.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide.

2Hedrick, “Thomas Paine and the Bible,” The Fourth R (September-October 2022), 4.

3Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide. Studying Jesus (Hendrickson, 1999; reprint, 2013) 30-47.

4See the description of each portraiture of Jesus in Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide, 32-46 and “Is John a Revisionist Gospel?” pp. 151-54 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019).


  1. Wonderful summary of what the gospels are really about! "The images of Jesus in the canonical gospels are not historical photographs but novelistic portraits." Superb!

  2. Hi Charlie,

    I would say that the only persons interested in "novelistic portraits" are the scholars who hypothesize them and the few followers (of which I am one) who find the work compelling. I'm quite sure that these folks make up the smallest fraction imaginable of the general population who only want the assurance of loving arms wrapped around them, unconditionally, from birth to beyond death. Our central job responsibility is combining the novelistic portraits with unconditional love across all differences, being careful to not take refuge in the former. The educator must be lover as well.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  3. Hi Bob,
    I wish that I could claim originality for the photographs and portraits statement but we both know that others have said that before me. But Thank you in any case!

    Hi Gene,
    I am always delighted to hear from you. I wish that I could claim historical photographs status for the gospels, but alas portraits are all they are. The general population must come to accept the fact that everything we have in the gospels is merely tradition--nothing more reliable than that; the something more can be found in the results of the Jesus Seminar, where we try to sort out the probably historical from the portraiture of the tradition.

  4. Hi Charlie,

    You write that the general population "must come" to view the gospels as "merely tradition" with the work of scholars (e.g., the work of the Jesus Seminar) identifying the "probably historical" within the tradition.

    Do you have a vision of how this might come about? Would sending missionaries out two by two, New Testament style, do the job? Who would send them, and would they be advised to shake off the dust from their feet when not well received? (smile)

    I don't see the "must" word as practically workable as applied to efforts as complex as that of the Jesus Seminar. On the other hand, offering the vision of trusting a society the essential character of which is love and the giving of good gifts (e.g. Matt 7:9-11; Luke 11:11-13; Gal 5:22-26) seems like a reasonable hope which most could embrace if compelling leadership would arise.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  5. Hi Gene,
    Must: I used must after some consideration, whether or not it will happen will have to be determined. There is nothing in the blog that is not taught in mainstream seminaries and graduate schools, or what students who are so taught will eventually figure out for themselves, if they apply what they were taught in the Seminary. It is what seminary graduates who go out into churches carry with them. Every year more than two by two enter into ecclesiastical employment, and that is where the breakdown occurs. But eventually (one must hold out the hope) a little scholarly light will be cast on ecclesiastical congregations.

    What the Jesus seminar applied to the Jesus tradition (we considered everything attributed to Jesus in the first two centuries) was basically an informed common sense plus a knowledge of the languages. Anyone with an accredited terminal degree could join the deliberations and make their arguments.

    Alas, one must hope, but many congregations are not as loving as you make them out to be.

  6. Charlie, thanks for the reflections. Gene