Analytic philosopher Dr Lydia McGrew highlights some of the more surprising elements of Jesus’ character and looks at how this impacts the veracity of the Gospel accounts
If you spend much time around New Testament scholars, you’re bound to hear a reference to “The Jesus of [fill in the blank]”. “The Jesus of Mark”, “The Jesus of Luke”, “The Jesus of John”. Sometimes it’s difficult to get any clear idea about what this means. Does it just mean that the authors of these Gospels are choosing from among various historical events in Jesus’ life, based upon what interests them most? Or does it mean that they are “massaging” the facts, actively suppressing what doesn’t fit with their personal theological agendas and adding sayings and details, or even incidents, that promote those agendas?
Sometimes there is no doubt at all that it means the latter—in a book like Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher From Galilee. Nor are such concerns confined to sceptics, especially when it comes to sayings of Jesus found only in the Gospel of John. An evangelical scholar and apologist recently stated that we cannot make a “good historical case” that Jesus historically said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6 NASB). So, perhaps Jesus really said it, but even if Christians are willing to take that on faith alone, they can’t defend it historically.
A layman, whether Christian, seeker, or sceptic, could easily come away from such discussions with the impression that there are significant tensions among the “Jesuses” of the different Gospels and that it is hard to know how much to believe when it comes to what Jesus really said and did, even aside from accounts of miracles.
My work in New Testament studies has led to exactly the opposite conclusion. Not only are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all telling us about the same Jesus, but the content of their Gospels provides us with excellent historical reasons for thinking that their records are faithful historical reportage. One of the most fascinating aspects of this evidence concerns the personality of Jesus, manifested in completely different scenes in the different Gospels.
Jesus’ play on words
Consider the way that Jesus’ turn of mind is demonstrated in his comments about two different healings, one recorded in Luke and one in John. In Luke 13:10–17, we’re told that Jesus heals a woman with an affliction that makes it impossible for her to stand up. He heals her on the Sabbath, and this causes an argument. The ruler of the synagogue, perhaps afraid to tackle Jesus directly, lectures the people standing around, scolding them for coming to be healed on the Sabbath. “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day” (v 14).
This, as you can imagine, does not go over well with Jesus, and he shoots back:
“‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for 18 years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?’ As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.” (Luke 13:15–17)
What the bystanders probably found especially enjoyable in Jesus’ sharp reply to the pretentious synagogue official was the very Jewish play on words. Jesus’ opponents will untie an animal on the Sabbath to lead it to water, but they attempt to forbid his untying this daughter of Abraham on the Sabbath, though she has been bound by disease for 18 years.
Now compare the account of a completely different episode, found in John. In John 5:1–18, Jesus heals a crippled man at the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. He tells him to pick up his pallet and walk. The Jewish leaders complain, both because the man has performed “work” by carrying his pallet on the Sabbath (which Jesus told him to do) and because Jesus healed him on the Sabbath. Jesus, far from trying to calm them down, implies his equality with the father and the father’s approval of his miracle (John 5:17). This only makes them angrier and more determined to kill him.
Two chapters later, at the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus has this to say about the earlier incident:
“Jesus answered them: ‘I did one work, and you all marvel at it. Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well? Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.’” (John 7:21–24)
Notice how this manifests Jesus’ personality: Here, on the same topic as that found in Luke (healing on the Sabbath), but in an entirely different incident, is the same turn of thought, the same rhetorical flare, and the same sharp wit. It is permitted to circumcise (cutting something off) on the Sabbath, but when Jesus made a man’s entire body whole on the Sabbath, the leaders were furious.
Jesus exposes hypocrisy and misplaced priorities concerning the observation of the law, and he does it using witty word parallels – untying an animal versus untying a person, and circumcising versus making whole. The simplest, best explanation is that this is really what Jesus was like. It was really how his mind worked.
Get access to exclusive bonus content & updates: register & sign up to the Premier Unbelievable? newsletter!
Here’s another example of the unity of Jesus’ personality across the Gospels. Look at the combination of coolness under fire and sarcasm found in John 10:32. While teaching in Jerusalem, Jesus has just offended the crowd by declaring that he is one with God the father (vs 30). The people take up stones to stone him. Then we have verse 32:
“Jesus answered them: ‘I showed you many good works from the father; for which of them are you stoning Me?’”
Jesus isn’t in any doubt about why they want to stone him! But he sharply points out that he has done many good works and that this is how they thank him. In this way he challenges them to consider their other evidence about him instead of trying to stone him when he claims divine prerogatives.
Notice the similarity in a completely different incident recorded in Mark. The men have come to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He knows that he is going to be condemned, mocked, tormented and finally crucified. But he confronts them with the same calmness and insouciance that we saw in the attempted stoning in John:
“Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me, as though I were a robber? Every day I was with you in the Temple teaching, and you did not seize me; but this has happened that the scriptures might be fulfilled.” (Mark 14:48-49)
It is hard to miss the mockery in Jesus’ words. He reminds the armed crowd that has come to arrest him that for some reason, they didn’t try to seize him openly when he was recently teaching in the temple. He has, of course, never used violence, never behaved like a robber, so why are they treating him like one? He is pointing out the cowardice of coming to arrest him in the night when there are no supportive crowds of people around. (Compare Mark 14:2, which says that the leaders were afraid to arrest Jesus in a context where the crowds might riot in support of him.)
As with the question, “For which of my good works are you stoning me?” Jesus in the Garden uses a rhetorical question to point out the true character of his enemies. This use of pointed questions to skewer his opponents may not fit with our preconceived idea of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”, but it is an undeniable facet of the real Jesus of the Gospels, shown in varied stories across the Gospels.
Despite his ability to put his opponents in their place, even when they are trying to stone him or are about to arrest him, Jesus is no unmoved Superman. One feature of the Jesus of the Gospels is the interesting way in which he takes things personally, especially when it comes to betrayal and abandonment. In Luke 22:15, Jesus says to his disciples at the Last Supper: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” He wants to be with his friends that night.
In Matthew 26:38, Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest. Peter, James and John are portrayed as a sort of “inner core” of the twelve. Here, Jesus takes them aside from the rest and says to them: “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death. Remain here and keep watch with me.” But they fall asleep. When he returns (v 40) he says: “So, you men could not keep watch with me for one hour?” On this night when he expects to be betrayed and dragged off to trial and death, Jesus wants his friends with him. He is actually lonely, foreseeing his death, and he is hurt that they do not do as he requests – keep watch with him for one hour.
This vulnerable Jesus who cares about whether his friends stick with him is also evident in an earlier scene, reported only in John. After Jesus publicly preaches that his followers must “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood”, the crowds are (perhaps understandably) shocked. Some who had previously followed Jesus now decide that he is not someone they want to associate with anymore (John 6:66). Jesus turns to the twelve and says: “You do not want to go away also, do you?” (v 67). At this point Peter gives a ringing endorsement of Jesus and reiterates his and the others’ commitment. He says that there is no one else to whom they can go, that Jesus has the words of eternal life, and that they are certain that he is the Messiah (v 68-69).
One might have expected that this would be welcome to Jesus, and it probably was. (In Matthew 16:16, on the same occasion or perhaps a similar but separate occasion, Jesus blesses and commends Peter for a similar profession of faith.) But in this context in John, Jesus cannot help thinking of Judas Iscariot and says: “Did not I myself choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?” (v 70). It seems clear that at this point Jesus’ mind is taking a melancholy turn, thinking of the abandonment of the people who heard his sermon. In this context, his mind turns to his close band of disciples, the twelve. He asks them if they will also go away and predicts that one of them will even deliberately betray him to his enemies.
The real Jesus
The Jesus of the Gospels is a complex, real person. He is sharp, authoritative, loving, witty, sarcastic and vulnerable to emotional pain. This is evidence that the Gospels are portraying him as he really was, in real incidents and sayings, not inventing facts or sayings to portray him according to their own agendas. The fact that these various features come across subtly in different stories told by different authors is all the more remarkable when we realise that hyper-realistic fiction is a modern phenomenon. It is not that no fiction existed in the ancient world but that it tended to be romantic and over-the-top. It did not resemble the sober, subtly interlocking Gospel portrayals of Jesus in action, teaching, rebuking and grieving.
Can we know the real Jesus by reading the Gospels? The answer is a clear yes. Nor is this a mere “Christian” belief, held by faith without solid evidence. The vivid personality of Jesus across the four Gospels is just one part of the cumulative, historical case that confronts believers and sceptics alike with a person.
To hear more from Dr Lydia McGrew on this topic, check out her episodes on Unapologetic: Who is the true Jesus?, Can we trust the Gospels? And Is an evidential approach to Christianity feasible?
To find out about more evidence like this, read Testimonies to the Truth: Why You Can Trust the Gospels and other books about the Gospels by Lydia McGrew and check out her author page on Facebook, her Youtube channel, and the podcast of the audio from her Youtube videos.)
Dr Lydia McGrew is a widely published analytic philosopher and author. She received her PhD in English from Vanderbilt University in 1995. She has published extensively in the theory of knowledge, specialising in formal epistemology and in its application to the evaluation of testimony and to the philosophy of religion. She defends the reliability of the Gospels and Acts in four books to date, most recently, Testimonies to the Truth: Why You Can Trust the Gospels.