Book Review: The Four: A Survey of the Gospels

I can say, without any exaggeration, that Peter Leithart’s A House for My Name is a book that helped change my life. Its a whirlwind tour of the Old Testement, and such a good introduction to looking at the Bible with new eyes, that it will make you want to sit down at a table and do something strange: just read Scripture for the pure enjoyment of it.

And if you are one of the Christians who think the majority of the Bible is just a collection of moralistic stories (some cool, some boring), genealogies, and archaic building instructions with nothing beyond the immediate surface, that book will string you up by your ankles…and swing you around until you don’t know up from left from north. I would say it encourages you to go further down the rabbit whole, but that would clearly be going in the wrong direction. Rather, it encourages you to take another step up the mountain, beyond the tame foothills.

The Four: A Survey of the Gospels is (sort-of) the direct follow-up. He gives the gospels a similar, though more varied, treatment. Each Gospel gets its own chapter, which seems absurd. Any one of the Gospels can, and has, inspired books upon books upon books. But Leithart’s book is exactly what it claims to be: a survey. While not meant to be exhaustive, each chapter offers a clear invitation to dig deeper, to study and meditate more. Leithart also identifies a theme or thread that runs underneath each Gospel.

The Meat of the Book

Matthew: Righteousness That Surpasses the Scribes. Jesus is the fulfillment and the true interpreter of the Law. He is the new lawgiver, the new Moses, the living embodiment of Israel.

Mark: The Way of the Son of Man. Jesus is a man of action, always on the move. Jesus is the strong man, taking the battle to Satan and his demons.

Luke: A Table for the Poor. Jesus came to bring good news to the poor. He eats with sinners, moving from one meal to another. Jesus proclaims a true Sabbath.

John: Seeing the Father. Jesus is the Son. Jesus is the one born of the Spirit. Jesus does only what he sees his Father doing. The Father is revealed by his Word.

While each portrait has something interesting to say, my favorite to read were the chapters on Mark and Luke. In Mark, Leithart points to some examples of subtle irony that make the Pharisees look even worse than they did before, and even in some cases has the disciples looking even more confused than they had before. But the chapter ends with two questions: “Are we not as blind as the disciples about Jesus, the stronger man? Would we recognize Jesus as Son of God as He’s dying in anguish?”

With Luke, Leithart treats both the Gospel and Acts as a single volume, and that perspective offers some thought-provoking questions. Luke spends much time on the journey to Jerusalem, while Acts moves outward from Jerusalem.Some themes are left hanging, only to be completed in the second book, and there are many other parallels. It also suggests that the Jews not only have Jesus as a witness against them, but the apostles. The hardening of the Jews and their rejection of Jesus doesn’t come to completion until they also reject the apostles of Jesus. The structure of Acts also has both Peter and Paul repeating the pattern of the life of Jesus.

This will make it very hard in the future for me to study Acts as a self-contained book without making it also a study of Luke.

Each section is appended with a series of questions, which is the same format Leithart took advantage of in A House for My Name. The first sets of questions are “review questions,” which ask basic questions about the section you just read. To find the answer to these questions, you simply need to pay attention while reading. The second sets of questions are “thought questions,” and this is where you try and workout your own Biblical thought processes. Be sure and stretch first, however, because many of these have the potential to cause a sprain.

These thought questions force you down some helpful paths, offering tantalizing hints. Many would be great to kick-start a discussion in a group setting or other Bible study. Many could also be used as the premise of an entire essay. Don’t skip them. They are worth thinking about.

My only issue with them is that some of them seem so obtuse to those of us who are not as learned as Leithart. They feel like they are pointing you to a raging river with no bridge. Or maybe pointing at some tower in the distance, hidden with fog, with no obvious path on which to proceed. The way looks insurmountable.  I wish the author had answered some of these harder questions himself, or at least offered some more hints. Undoubtedly, some of them are answered in some of his other books, but it would be nice to know which ones.

Here are examples of some of the more accessible thought questions:

  • Why is it important that Jesus turns water to wine at a wedding? See John 4:27-29.
  • Compare the early chapters of Acts to the early chapters of Joshua. How are they similar? Why?
  • Mark mentions that there are wild beasts in the wilderness where Jesus is tempted. Why?

Going Meta with the Gospels

Before Leithart even gets to the main event of the book, however, he opens with a series of introductory chapters, which help prepare for what is to come, and gives some much-need history lessons and context. The second chapter is essentially a summary of the NT Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, and Leithart readily admits this in the footnotes. This was helpful, as it has been over six years since I’ve read any of Wright’s tomes, and things have gotten jumbled and layered with other books and experiences. It was a welcome review.

However, I can see it being jarring for those who have not at least dipped their toe in Wright’s views. While Wright builds his case bit by heavily-footnoted bit, gradually drawing you into the world of the first century, Leithart races through at a speed that could cause some awkward tripping. The pace is unavoidable in a book like this, but it is a slight negative.

To resolve it, just go and read Jesus and the Victory of God already. What’s taken you so long?

Another preliminary chapter has to do with the “synoptic problem” and dating the Gospels (and by good and necessary consequence, the rest of the New Testament). Regardless of what Leithart himself says about the chapter (that it is more technical and can be safely skipped or skimmed), you should read it. It summarizes some recent scholarship and offers some ammo in accepting an early date for the entire canon. How early? At least four years before 70 AD, the destruction of Jerusalem.

Overall, this is a great book. It makes you want to read the Gospels again, and with more attention than you have before. It also offers the teacher many springboards from which to jump from, both for general direction of the class or sermon itself, but also in discussion questions to engage participants.

Verdict: Buy.

This is on a simple scale of three: don’t read, borrow, or buy.