Robert Guelich on The Gospels as Portraits of Jesus

Every weekday I do about forty-five minutes of reading in the Greek text of Mark’s Gospel. After I finish reading through a pericope there are two main commentaries I go to for any insights that I as an amateur undoubtedly missed: the late R.T. France’s commentary in the New International Greek Testament Commentary series and the late Robert Guelich’s commentary in the Word Biblical Commentary series. France, an insightful exegete, was a prolific author who died in 2012 at the age of seventy-three. His work spanned forty years. Guelich, a professor at Fuller Seminary, died in 1991 at the young age of 52. His commentary on Mark only covers half the book and his unexpected death resulted in Craig Evans writing a commentary on the second half of the book for the WBC series.

Guelich’s insights into the Gospel of Mark have made him one of my favorite evangelical commentators and so when I come across material written by him I try to pick it up as soon as possible. Not too long ago I came across an article by Guelich that appeared in a 1981 issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS) entitled “The Gospels: Portraits of Jesus and His Ministry.” In the article Guelich discusses perspectives on what the Gospels are: as snapshots of Jesus’ life, as “abstract paintings,” or as portraits. It is the final perspective that Guelich falls into and one that resonates with me as well. He writes that

the presence of four distinctive gospels demands that each be taken seriously with its own divinely inspired message. Harmonization that obliterates the distinctiveness of the four gospels in the interest of reconstructing the life and teachings of Jesus can actually distort the plain meaning of the text. To read the four gospels as an unscrambled Diatessaron misses the genius of having four distinct gospels. (121)

While I reject any notion that the four Gospels are divinely inspired, what Guelich says is true. Each Gospel is its own version of Jesus and the Jesus story and readers who try to make all four speak together by Olympic-level hermeneutical gymnastics are missing out on the beauty each individual Gospel brings to the Jesus story.

The article also includes a section on “Implications for Biblical Theology” which is particularly relevant for evangelical Christians.

…if the gospels are portraits and not snapshots, evangelicals can no longer assume a priori that the Jesus of history and the Christ of the gospels are one and the same without examining the data available, including not only the gospels as finished projects but also the traditional process extending from Jesus’ ministry up to the written gospel. (122)

There are also implications for the doctrine of inerrancy.

Those who define infallible and inerrant in terms of the gospels as snapshots not only have insurmountable problems in dealing with the gospels as they stand but are actually demanding more of the texts than they intended to give. Thus while seeking to protect a high view of Scripture and an orthodox view of inspiration such proponents distort the message and intention of the inspired authors by understanding the evangelists to be saying something they were not. (125)

I would recommend anyone of an evangelical persuasion read this nearly forty-year old article and reflect on Guelich’s wisdom. Because if I as an atheist can glean much from his work, a Christian surely can.

4 Comments on “Robert Guelich on The Gospels as Portraits of Jesus

  1. I had the privilege of meeting and hearing Dr. Guelich personally at the Wheaton College/Grad School Theology Club in the late 1970s in a meeting set up by my professor Dr. Walter A. Elwell. I have shared Dr. Guelich’s insights with others on several occasions. The gospels give us enough information to find–or be found by–Jesus, IMHO. Thanks for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting! Guelich’s commentary on the first half of Mark is my constant companion as I read through it in Greek. I love his insights and it is a shame he died so soon.

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  2. I find it astonishing that an atheist amateur biblical scholar reads Mark’s gospel for 45 minutes every weekday. This is essentially a religious practice. I’m sure that it goes more slowly in Greek than in your native language, but still. I would be interested in hearing more about that and what the reinforcement is for you. I guess it must be for the sake of your podcast, which I have not watched.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t find it to be religious at all. My interests lie in understanding how the text would have been understood by its original audience. The best way to figure that out is to engage with it in its original language. Moreover, it is no more religious than someone studying Homer or Virgil or the religious texts of some ANE culture. I just happen to find the biblical texts fascinating! 🙂

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