Review: Edward Adams’, Parallel Lives of Jesus: A Guide to the Four Gospels

[1] Edward Adams has written an excellent introduction to the canonical Gospels. His introduction is at once easy to understand and yet sophisticated in its methodology. Building upon the emerging scholarly consensus that the Gospels, in terms of genre, are best understood as ancient biographies, similar to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of Greeks and Romans, Adams advocates a narrative model as the best way to navigate the unity and diversity of these canonical texts. According to this model, the Gospels “can profitably be read as four distinct yet overlapping narrative renditions of a shared story” (xi). This approach not only clarifies our understanding of the Gospels but also, moving beyond Adams, encourages synthetic reflection about the various ways in which these distinct narrative renditions intersect on a deeper level. I shall discuss one such intersection, following a review of the book’s contents.

Parallel Lives

[2] Adams’s Parallel Lives of Jesus is divided into three parts: “Approaching the Four Gospels”; “The Individual Gospels and Their Narrative Features”; and “Selected Parallel Episodes.” This tripartite structure “reflects a progressive narrowing of the subject matter: from the Gospels generally, to the Gospels individually, to specific Gospel passages” (xii).

[3] Part one, “Approaching the Four Gospels,” is comprised of two chapters. The first, “Grappling with the Gospels,” begins by noting that the common shape of the four Gospels—their shared focus on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, especially “the period of his public ministry culminating in his arrest, trial, death, and subsequent resurrection”—is what “distinguishes them from other surviving ‘Gospels’ from the early centuries of the Christian era” (3). Then follows a discussion of the similarity as well as distinguishing features of the Synoptic Gospels, the distinctiveness of John, and the particularities of each Gospel. In the course of this discussion, Adams introduces scholarly terminology, including Markan Priority, triple tradition, double tradition, Q, and the two-source hypothesis. The next section introduces further terminology in treating the formation of the Gospels (Form, Source, and Redaction criticism are briefly defined), while subsequent sections discuss the authorship, audiences, aims, and genre of the Gospels.

[4] The genre discussion is particularly helpful. Drawing on the research of Richard Burridge, Adams argues, as noted above, that the Gospels are to be identified with Greco-Roman biographies, or “lives,” since they are similar in length, form, and content as well as in their focus upon a single individual. An implication of this genre-identification is that the Gospels “should be read as books about Jesus,” rather than as books about the early Church, as classical form critics would have it (20, italics original). Additionally, the Gospels “should be read in accordance with the biographical conventions of the period,” with the result that one should not expect to find in them “precise chronological arrangement of Jesus’ activities” or the “very words” of Jesus since “[a]ncient biographers often paraphrased, abridged, and interpreted the words of their subjects”(21). Adams then observes, “Whatever theory of inspiration one brings to the Gospels, one should not require a level of exactitude in the narration of Jesus’ actions and words beyond what the Gospel writers were aiming to achieve” (21).

[5] The second chapter, “Four Narratives, One Story,” explains the methodology employed throughout the rest of the book. Since the Gospels are narratives, not paintings, Adams finds fault with the standard portrait analogy (i.e., each Gospel author painted his own portrait of Jesus) used to convey the unity and diversity of the Gospel texts. In its place, Adams advocates a narrative model rooted in the distinction between “story” and “narrative.” The former concerns what is narrated, the latter how it is narrated, a distinction which allows one to recognize that the same “story” can give rise to countless different “narratives.” Thus, according to this model, the canonical Gospels are “four ‘narrative’ versions of a single ‘story’” (24-25). Prior to discussing how the Gospels narrate the same story, Adams introduces other analytic categories drawn from the study of narrative, including the elements of story—events, characters, setting, basic structure (i.e., beginning, middle, end)—and the aspects of narrative—voice and viewpoint, textual structure, plot, style, technique (e.g., flashback, foreshadowing, intertextuality), time, space, characterization, and themes. Applying these categories to the four Gospels as a whole, Adams finds a shared story in terms of events (starting with the ministry of John the Baptist, hereafter JB), characters (Jesus, JB, the disciples, etc.), setting (first-century Palestine), and basic structure (beginning: JB and Jesus; middle: Jesus’ ministry; climax: Jerusalem, passion, and resurrection). Significantly, this shared story abstracted from the canonical Gospels is similar to early Christian preaching as reflected in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 and Acts 10:36-43. As for common narrative features, these include third-person voice and viewpoint (though see John 21:24), narrative techniques (e.g. foreshadowing of Jesus’ death), and characterization of Jesus and the disciples, among others.

[6] Having demonstrated the unity of the Gospels in terms of shared story and common narrative features, Adams discusses their individuality in part two. Part two is comprised of four chapters, one per Gospel. The chapter on Matthew is representative. Following a brief introduction, Adams discusses distinct narrative aspects, including textual structure (he combines the analyses of B. W. Bacon and Jack Kingsbury), plot (similar to Mark, with the exception of birth and resurrection accounts), style (it is smoother than Mark’s), technique (fondness for numeric patterns, repetition, and fulfillment formulae), time (broadly chronological with some topical arrangement, such as the ten miracles in chapters 8-9), space (similar geographic progression to Mark but ends in Galilee), characterization (e.g. Jesus’ identity as a new Moses, shepherd, and personified wisdom), and themes (e.g. Gentile mission).

[7] Part three concludes by concentrating on the unity and diversity of the Gospels through examining particular episodes narrated in three or all four Gospels. A chapter is devoted to each episode. Those chosen for discussion include: Jesus’ Baptism (Matt 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; alluded to in John 1:19-34); Feeding of the Five Thousand (Matt 14:13-21; Mark 6:32-44; Luke 9:10b-17; John 6:1-15); Walking on the Water (Matt 14:22-34; Mark 6:45-53; John 6:16-21); Transfiguration (Matt 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-9; Luke 9:28-36); Jesus’ Death (Matt 27:45-54; Mark 15:33-39; Luke 23:44-48; John 19:28-30); and the Empty Tomb (Matt 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-10 is discussed separately). Each chapter is comprised of a brief introduction, followed by the texts to be compared, displayed in parallel columns (common events are underlined), and then an exploration of the shared story as well as the distinct narrative features. Adams employs the categories introduced in chapter two, except that he substitutes context for the narrative feature of textual structure.

[8] The results of Adams’s analysis, which aims “not to harmonize parallel passages but to bring out their commonality and individuality” is illuminating, especially for those unacquainted with comparing parallel Gospel texts. The discussion of Jesus’ Death may serve as an example. While drawing attention to numerous elements of the shared story (e.g. common events: Jesus’ crucifixion with two others, division of Jesus’ garments, the inscription “King of the Jews,” offering of sour wine, Jesus’ last words and death), Adams also highlights significant differences. For instance, upon witnessing Jesus’ death in Mark the Gentile centurion confesses “Truly this man was God’s Son!,” but in Luke he says, “Certainly this man was innocent (dikaios).” Coming at the climax of Mark, “the confession represents what is for this evangelist the highest view of Jesus” (53) and may also reflect Markan irony since “it is a Gentile soldier, rather than one of Jesus’ close followers,” who is the first human … to confess Jesus as God’s Son” (170). For Luke, however, the declaration of dikaios “witnesses to Jesus’ judicial status” as “an innocent man” and also his status as “a ‘righteous’ man (cf. 1:6; 2:25; 14:14; 23:50), whom God will vindicate (14:14),” (173). These contrary confessions thus represent part of each evangelist’s distinct narrative rendition of Jesus’ Death.

[9] Although not undertaken by Adams, his discussion of Jesus’ Death and his approach to the Gospels, in general, encourages synthetic reflection about the various ways in which these parallel lives of Jesus intersect at a deeper level. Analyzing the evangelists’ use of intertextuality in their respective portrayals of Jesus offers a fruitful means of engaging in such reflection. Consider the centurion’s confession of Jesus as dikaios as in Luke 23:47. Although not discussed by Adams, this confession also alludes to Jesus’ identity as the Isaianic Servant (cf. LXX Isa 53:11), as is widely recognized.[1] Jesus’ role as the Isaianic Servant in Luke (cf. Isa 42:1; Luke 9:35) does receive some mention by Adams (127, 161, 162), but that role is more extensive than his brief remarks suggest (Luke 18:31–34 [cf. Isa 50:6; 53:6, 12]; Luke 22:37 [cf. Isa 53:12]; Luke 23:9 [cf. Isa 53:7]; Luke 23:35 [cf. Isa 42:1]; Luke 23:47 [cf. Isa 53:11]). This point proves important when comparing the portrayals of Jesus’ Death in Mark and Luke. Even if the Markan centurion’s confession and associated Christology differs from that of the Lukan one, it is nevertheless the case that Mark also depicts Jesus as the Isaianic Servant. For example, Isaiah 50:6 portrays the Servant as scourged, slapped, and spit upon, a portrayal collectively evoked and fulfilled in Mark 10:34; 14:65.[2] Similar to Mark and Luke, Matthew also depicts Jesus as the Isaianic Servant, as Adams notes when he states, “In 12:18–21, citing Isaiah 42:1–4, Matthew explicitly identifies Jesus as the Lord’s ‘Servant’ of the book of Isaiah” (73).[3] And, although not noted by Adams, John also alludes to Jesus’ role as the Isaianic Servant in his “lifted up” passages (John 3:14-15; 8:28; 12:32-34 [cf. Isa 52:13]).[4] Thus Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all identify Jesus as the Isaianic Servant in their distinct narrative renditions of the shared Gospel story. Adams’s book can, therefore, serve as a stimulus for synthetic reflection about the ways in which the Gospels, even where they differ, may intersect at an underlying intertextual level.

[10] All in all, Adams has written an outstanding introduction to the Gospels. With splendid simplicity, Parallel Lives of Jesus holds together in careful balance the unity and diversity of the fourfold canonical witness to Jesus Christ. Academics, pastors, and laity alike would do well to consider using Adams’s text as the starting point for a course, sermon series, or personal study of the Gospels.


[1] See, for example, Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) 827. For an entry into the longstanding discussion about Jesus’ relationship to the Isaianic Servant, see William H. Bellinger, Jr. and William R. Farmer, eds., Jesus and the Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 and Christian Origins (Harrisburg: Trinity, 1998); Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher, eds., The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources, trans. Daniel P. Bailey (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

[2] Joel Marcus, The Way of the Lord: Christological Exegesis of the Old Testament in the Gospel of Mark (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992) 186-196, esp. 190.

[3] Adams cites Richard Beaton, Isaiah’s Christ in Matthew’s Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2002).

[4] See Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) 46-50.

Alec J. Lucas

Alec J. Lucas teaches in the Biblical and Theological Studies Department at North Park University. He holds a Ph.D. in Theology, with an emphasis in New Testament and Early Christianity, from Loyola University Chicago.