Review: The Four, A Survey of the Gospels

The Four

I’ve fallen into the opportunity with this blog to pick up books on a way to study the gospels as I’ve always wanted to do. Already I’ve reviewed commentaries on Mark, and I’ve previously reviewed Richard Hays’ Reading Backwards, a book on how the Gospel read back into the OT to show how they pointed forward to Jesus. For future reference, I have two ZECNT commentaries (Matthew and Mark) to review, along with John in the BECNT series. I think I should know something about the Gospels after all this. And on top of that, I get to review Peter Leithart’s latest book The Four: A Survey of the Gospels.

His concern here is for those who miss the point of the Gospels. While much of the technical Christological discussions are good an important, Leithart asks, “Whatever happened to the Gospels in all this? Haven’t we left the living, risen Jesus buried in a cave of jargon and metaphysics?” (p 13).

His writing style is intended to be like that of his OT survey, A House For My Name (my review).

Summary

Chapter One starts with Daniel and other prophets speaking of days to come, when God does a new thing for the Babylonian exiles. He will lead them back to their land and a new covenant will be instituted. He then covers the intertestamental period.

Chapter Two gives us a harmonized picture of Jesus’ life, and it’s done very well. Again, in keeping with the purpose of this book, the bigger picture is seen.

In Chapter Three Leitharts puts forth arguments that there is likely no Q document, agrees with the early church fathers that Matthew was written first, and successfully argues for both early gospels and an early New Testament.

Chapters four through seven give overall summaries of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

  • Matthew presents Jesus as a new Moses and new Israel, the Sermon on the mount, and our actions according to it.
  • Mark presents a Jesus of action. We see irony. He is the Son of God who only the Father, demons, and a Roman Gentile guard can see. Yet the ones who should know the most, the religious leaders and Jesus’ own disciples, don’t even have the eyes to see or the ears to hear.
  • Luke shows a Jesus who brings good news to the poor, yet the Jews reject their Messiah.
  • John brings us a “Christology from above” (p 215) as John begins with the eternal Word of God who becomes incarnate in Jesus and lives among men.

The Chocolate Milk

Besides the latter half of the chapter on Matthew, I enjoyed the readings on all of the Gospels, especially Luke. Leithart puts Luke and Acts together, though he mainly focuses on Luke. Jesus has come to release the oppressed, and Israel should take part in the true fast of “dividing bread with the hungry.” Jesus comes to defeat the enemy behind the enemy, that ultimate enemy being Satan. And in doing so he upturns the social establishment showing them what true honour is, and that it is not to be gained before men, but ultimately before God. He shows a keen understanding of the social context, how subtle it is, and how Jesus easily subverts the Pharisees understanding of honour to reveal to them that it is only the humble and lowly who will receive honour before God.

The Spoiled Milk

One thing to note about Leithart is his typology. Often times it’s good, but there are times when I disagree, and often times it’s when he doesn’t explain his typology.

  • At the end of Chapter Two Leithart says Herod the Great is a new King Saul (presumably because Leithart tries to fit the narrative with Israel’s history, ending with the Davidic kingdom? Also because this ‘King Saul’ tries to kill the coming New David?)
  • John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus is likened to a new Samuel preparing the way for a new David. There is no other reason given for John being a new Samuel, besides the fact that Jesus is a new David.
  • Jesus is another Elisha who receives a double portion of the Spirit from John the Baptist (another Elijah). I didn’t know Jesus received a “double portion” of John’s spirit. He receives the Holy Spirit, and that is probably what Leithart means. However, the typology still seems lacking (or at least the explanation).

For all of these examples there is no explanation for why the typology of Herod to Saul, or John to Samuel, or Jesus to Elisha. It is simply expressed as being the way it is.

I felt the majority of Chapter One was unnecessary. The history is important, yes, but I don’t think it was very relevant for the books purposes.

  • Leithart claims the history of this period repeats the history of Israel from the time of the patriarchs to the time of David, but he hardly shows how this is so.
  • He shows how the history reflects the prophecies from Daniel 8 and 11, though I’m still unsure of how this works (especially considering his information mainly came from James Jordan, whose interpretations can be pretty wild).
  • This chapter is not an easy read. Though I wish Leithart would have made things simpler, I also realize he is summarizing 400-500 years of Israel’s history, which is not an easy task.

On the upside, if you are well-studied in the intertestamental times, this book would give a good summary and perhaps clear some things up for you.

The Chapter on Matthew was pretty dry.

  • Rather than covering the scope of Matthew and how things relate, the first half of the chapter is on the big picture (at least, how Jesus is a new Moses, new Israel, etc), but Leithart spends too much time on it.
  • He spends 7 ½ pages on Jesus’ five discourses and how they relate to five periods in Israel’s OT history.
  • He spends time on the sermon on the mount, and how we are to be holy like God is holy, thereby having a greater righteousness than the Pharisees. We don’t forget about the weightier matters of the law (justice and mercy).

Yet in all of this, he doesn’t cover much of the book of Matthew itself and it’s interconnections like he does with the other gospels.

Recommended?

When I read Leithart’s OT survey A House For My Name, I loved it. It’s still my favourite book (or one of them) I’ve reviewed so far. But this book on the gospels, though it gets the job done, I wouldn’t make it my number one choice. Overall I felt like much of it was lacking. Many general readers who pick up this book would have a harder time getting through the first chapter, indeed even seeing it’s relevance.

I would have preferred to have seen the chapters on the Gospels themselves expanded and Chapter One lessened. As I said, this book does get the job done, but many readers will mainly enjoy the last four chapters on the gospels themselves.

Lagniappe

[Special thanks to Gene at Canon Press for allowing me to review this book! I was not obligated to provide a positive review in exchange for this book.]

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