Chapter 19: The Man Jesus

Jesus in the First Three Gospels
by Millar Burrows

Chapter 19: The Man Jesus

Our review of the Gospels has shown why competent New Testament scholars have given up hope of writing a biography of Jesus. The nature of the Gospels themselves and the relations between them make any serious attempt to reconstruct the history behind them tend to resolve itself into a discussion of a series of problems, largely insoluble. A biography, moreover, involves an interpretation of personality and character. Many scholars are even more skeptical about this than they are about Jesus’ life and teaching.

From some points of view all this is not important. When stress is laid primarily on redemption by Jesus’ death and resurrection, his life becomes merely an interim between birth and death; and what kind of man he was is comparatively irrelevant. If the essence of his mission on earth is found in his teaching, what he taught is true or false regardless of his conduct or character.

The Christian church has never been willing to go that far. From the beginning the example of Jesus has been held up for imitation, although with the exception of patient suffering and love for others, it has proved difficult to apply this principle to specific situations.

Certainly any attempt to recover from the Gospels even a dim picture of Jesus should be undertaken with a sense not only of facing a difficult problem but of treading on holy ground. Much of what will be said in this chapter may be condemned as unwarranted "psychologizing"; but when a meticulous academic procedure has taken us as far as it can go, there is still a legitimate place for imagination, properly guarded. Everything that is said in the Gospels about the character of Jesus must be subjected to the same tests of historical accuracy used in dealing with the events of his life and with his teaching. After all is said and done, however, it will be the total picture, visible through the screen of particular incidents and utterances, that must be our final evidence.

There is such a picture. Through all the variations and uncertainties, the Gospels give us vivid glimpses of a definite, real, and extraordinary personality. After all, there was no sharp break between the ministry of Jesus and the experience of the church. The Lord of the church in the first generation was still the same Jesus who had lived among them and was still remembered. Colored by pious imagination, and perhaps also — God forbid that we should deny it! — by genuine spiritual communion, the memory was still there, and it is enshrined in the Gospels.

In the character of Jesus as it is reflected in the Synoptic Gospels, nothing is more certain or more typical than his devotion to the will of God. To fulfill the Father’s purpose he was willing to make any sacrifice, and he demanded the same willingness in his followers. The disciple’s eye must be single; having put his hand to the plow he must not look back; if an eye, hand, or foot should cause him to do wrong, he must get rid of it; he must even be prepared to hate those dearest to him.

Related to this utter devotion was the transparent sincerity and scorn of pretense or compromise shown by Jesus’ attitude toward the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees and the complacency and lack of compassion of the rich. His complete commitment was also the root of the courage that enabled him to set his face steadfastly to go up to Jerusalem and to stand with quiet dignity before the high priest and Pilate. The conviction that he must do what had been written of him by the prophets was of a piece with his consecration to the Father’s will.

Throughout the tragic last events of Jesus’ life, except perhaps in the anguish of Gethsemane and the desperate cry from the cross (if it is authentic), "Why hast thou forsaken me?" the Gospels picture Jesus as accepting everything with patient endurance. When the writers of the New Testament hold up this aspect of his life for imitation, they make clear allusions to Isaiah 53. Possibly in applying this prophecy to him they unconsciously drew from it some of the colors for their portrait; but if Jesus himself did not see in it the divine plan for his own mission, it must have been the fact that he so notably exemplified these qualities that reminded his followers of the prophecy, or that reminded them of him when they read it. If later they went on to assume that he must have fulfilled everything in the prophecy, this could not have happened unless they remembered him as that kind of person.

The ultimate source of his devotion to God’s will was his love for his heavenly Father, with his consciousness of being God’s son. Not only did he say, as other Jews did, that the first of all the commandments was to love God with all one’s heart and soul and strength. In his life "the law appears Drawn out in living characters" (Isaac Watts).

The second quality of Jesus’ personality stressed by the evangelists is the impression of authority that he made on people. He spoke with a firm confidence that amazed those who heard him. The temptation story may dimly reflect a time or many times of doubt and earnest searching, but for the evangelists it was a demonstration of Jesus’ Messianic authority.

In Mark and Luke the first explicit reference to Jesus’ authority has to do with his teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum at the beginning of his ministry; Matthew makes the same statement at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus spoke with the conviction of immediate personal experience and knowledge. This must have seemed to his hearers either presumptuous or refreshingly new. The same sense of authority is heard in the characteristic and unique expression, "Amen I say to you" (usually, for lack of a better rendering, translated "Verily" — or "Truly" — "I say to you").

There is no suggestion of omniscience in such language. Jesus could be surprised. He marveled at the extraordinary faith of the Roman centurion, and at the lack of faith of the people of Nazareth. Several times he is said to have asked for information. "What is your name?" "Who touched my garments?" "How many loaves have you?" " Who do men say that I am? . . . But who do you say that I am?" "How long has he had this?" (referring to a boy’s epilepsy) "What are you discussing with them?" "What were you discussing on the way?" "Say to the householder, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?’" When he said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away," he added, "But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."

He did not even claim to be good. To the rich man who addressed him as "Good Teacher" Jesus replied, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." Charged with exorcising demons by the power of Beelzebub, he said, "And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

This is a very different picture from the one presented by the Gospel of John. In addition to such examples of apparently supernatural knowledge as Jesus’ saying to Nathanael. "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you" (Jn 1:48), or telling the Samaritan woman that she had had five husbands and was then living with a man who was not her husband (4:18), the Fourth Gospel also stresses the "autonomy" of Jesus. Though he still says, "The Son can do nothing of his own accord" (5:19) and "I can do nothing on my own authority" (v 30), he will not do anything at the bidding of others but only on his own initiative and in his own way, as in turning the water to wine (2:3-4) or going up to Jerusalem for a festival (7:2-10). Equally characteristic of the Johannine Jesus and even more conspicuous is the series of "I am" discourses.

The Synoptic Gospels have two sayings that to some degree resemble these declarations. One is the "Johannine saying"; "All things have been delivered to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." Following this in Matthew is the saying, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden," with the promise of rest, an easy yoke, and a light burden. In neither case is the probability that the saying is authentic sufficient to outweigh the evidence that he considered his own knowledge limited.

The authority of Jesus in the Gospels is not only a matter of his teaching; it applies also to his acts. In the synagogue at Capernaum, when the people exclaimed, "A new teaching!" they continued, "With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." When the chief priests, scribes, and elders in the temple demanded that he tell them where he got his authority, what they questioned was his right to "do these things."

The Roman centurion takes it for granted that because he himself is "under authority" and obeys his superiors, and his soldiers obey him, Jesus can order a sick person to get well and he will. Jesus did not keep this authority to himself. When he sent the twelve out through the country, he "gave them authority over the unclean spirits"; and they exercised it.

Still another form of authority is attributed to Jesus. The healing of the paralytic is said to show "that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins." This authority, however, is not committed to the disciples, unless it is what is meant by the power of binding and loosing.

Jesus’ authority is most prominent in Mark. The question has been raised, and it is a fair one, whether this emphasis, rather than being an authentic tradition, is an article of Mark’s theology. It may be both. The fact that it is important for Mark does not prove that he invented it. He may have underlined, so to speak, what was already an important feature of the tradition. And that tradition probably had a solid basis in historical fact.

The same emphasis is found also in Luke, including his unique material. In the temptation story as he tells it, Satan, showing Jesus the kingdoms of the world, says, "To you I will give all this authority and their glory." When the seventy disciples return from their mission and report that the demons are subject to them, Jesus says, "Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy."

One root of Jesus’ sureness in word and act was his insight into human nature. His parables reveal a close and sympathetic observation of everyday life: the farmer’s sowing and reaping, the shepherd and his flock, the house built on the rock, the leaven in the dough, the lost coin and the lost sheep, the father’s joy in the return of a wayward son and the elder brother’s peevish jealousy, the mother forgetting her agony for joy that a man has been born into the world, the workers standing idle in the marketplace because no one has hired them, and many other instances.

When the disciples argued about which one of them was the greatest, Jesus "perceived the thought of their hearts," as Luke says. There are many instances of his sharp insight into human nature. When he met a man who was sincere and dissatisfied with himself, "Jesus looking upon him loved him." Yet he saw right through pretense and sham. People who encountered him found in him a disconcerting clearness and directness of perception. When his adversaries tried to trap him with the question about paying taxes to Caesar, he at once recognized their insincerity. This incident and the other conflict stories manifest a skill in debate partly explained by the same quick insight into motives and thoughts, and partly also by a notable keenness of intellect.

His own thinking, so far as we can judge, was characterized by directness and clarity rather than analytical subtlety. He went straight to the heart of an issue, brushing aside the incidental details and insisting on essentials. This is evident in his interpretation of Scripture and his attitude toward traditional interpretations. His independent use of Scripture was a part of the contrast between his teaching and that of the scribes. He could cite proof texts on occasion in debate with Sadducees or Pharisees, and it is entirely probable that from his youth he had read and deeply pondered the Scriptures for himself; but his ideas were not arrived at by deductive analysis of texts or compilation of pronouncements by recognized "authorities." Without the prestige of official position, without the sanction of precedents or the support of respected names, he declared with the confidence of immediate perception what God would do and what man must do. No less dedicated than the most earnest of the scribes to God’s will, and to the Scriptures as the revelation of God’s will, he was indifferent or opposed to the traditional definitions of what the law required.

His perception of real issues and his sense of proportion are exemplified by his rejection of asceticism. This is vividly expressed in his comparison of John the Baptist and himself. The people who have rejected both him and John, Jesus says, are hard to please. They ascribe John’s austere way of life to demonic influence, but denounce Jesus because he enjoys eating with all sorts and conditions of men. They are like petulant children who will not join their playmates in playing either wedding or funeral. (Taken strictly, those who accept neither John nor Jesus are compared, not to the children who would neither dance nor mourn, but to those who complained of their attitude. The exact words, however, cannot be pressed. The piping and wailing clearly represent Jesus’ and John’s preaching, and the refusal to dance to the one or weep with the other corresponds to the rejection of both by the nation.)

The situation indicated fits perfectly the circumstances of Jesus’ ministry, and devout tradition would never have invented the criticism of Jesus as a glutton and a drunkard. It is unnecessary, of course, to suppose that these terms correctly described Jesus’ conduct. The fact that he did not conform to conventional ideas of what a religious teacher should do or should not do would be enough to evoke such opprobrious epithets.

The second part of the charge against Jesus was true enough: he was indeed a friend of tax collectors and sinners. The exclamation, "This man receives sinners and eats with them!" was no doubt a frequent expression of shocked surprise at the disreputable company he kept. His own answer to those who asked why he did so was that not those who are well but those who are sick need a physician. His conclusion to the stories of the lost coin and the lost sheep was, "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance" The parable of the prodigal son rebukes the self-righteous, uncharitable attitude of those who like the elder son, do not rejoice when a lost brother is found.

Jesus could also associate easily and naturally with the rich and prominent. When invited, he dined at their homes. These indications, it is true, are found in the editorial and traditional framework of the narratives, but the picture of Jesus as one who "came eating and drinking," quite willing to join high or low, rich or poor, at the table, seems to be a fixed feature of the tradition.

He evidently had no fear of contamination from associating with those called sinners. This is not a fact to be documented by specific texts; it is an implication of the whole story. He was not afraid that his purity would be soiled if he came into contact with tax collectors and harlots, or that their impurity would rub off on him. He was not concerned that people might think this had happened.

So far as we can tell, with the exception of the charge of gluttony and drunkenness, no one ever said of him, "He is just one of them, and no better than the company he keeps." Instead, observers expressed surprise that he would associate with people so obviously unlike him. When he spoke kindly to a notorious woman, the Pharisee in whose house he was dining did not think, "So that is the kind of man he is!" but "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him." Jesus’ attitude is notably evident in his relations with women. There is never any indication of self-consciousness or condescension when women, good and bad, poor and rich, approached him. He was not a crusader for women’s rights; he simply regarded them and treated them as people. How high his moral standard was could not be better demonstrated than by his declaration that to look at a woman with lust is to commit adultery in one’s heart.

We have seen indications of strain between Jesus and his own family, but also reason to believe that the division was not permanent. Whether he ever married we do not know. Some argue that as a normal Jewish young man he would almost certainly marry, but there were Jews who did not — witness the Essenes. If he did, it is futile to speculate about what happened to the marriage. If he did not, it was not because he condemned marriage as a concession to the flesh, or regarded it as a lower, less holy state than celibacy. He considered it sacred and permanent, and based his conviction on the purpose of God in creating man and woman. If a statement reported by Matthew is authentic, he said there were some who made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven; but this did not mean abjuring all associations with women. His friendship with Martha and Mary, his many recorded conversations with women, and the accounts of the women who accompanied him and his disciples and served them are sufficient to prevent such a misunderstanding.

A very likable trait, the love of children and the ability to gain their confidence, is shown by two incidents. The first is Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question about greatness in the kingdom of God, when he put a child in their midst. It is interesting that there was a child there within Jesus’ reach or near enough to respond to his call, and that the child allowed Jesus to hold him while talking to the disciples. The other incident is the blessing of the children whose parents brought them to Jesus, with his indignant rebuke of the overzealous disciples who presumed to protect him from being bothered for such a purpose. He had younger brothers and sisters, and during their childhood he may have had to take the place of a father for them after Joseph died.

Another amiable and admirable quality, perceptible not in acts but in his sayings and parables, is Jesus’ love of nature. It was not a mystical, Wordsworthian communion with nature as a personified abstraction, but a more common, everyday appreciation of natural beauty and awareness of the life about him. Its most notable expression is the passage in the Sermon on the Mount about God’s loving care for his creatures. One can easily imagine that such thoughts had often occupied Jesus’ mind in his boyhood and adolescence. But the reverent pondering of his earlier years was carried over into his mature manhood as a firm assurance that, despite all appearances to the contrary, the Lord is mindful of his own.

In keeping with his love of children and nature was his concern for animals. There is not much in the Gospels about this, but he assumed that the owner of an animal would lead it to water on the Sabbath as on every other day; and if an animal should fall into a pit on the Sabbath, the owner would pull it out without regard to any rule of Sabbath observance. Perhaps he was better acquainted with practical farmers than with theoretical expounders of the law, though on this point the Pharisees undoubtedly agreed with him. The Essenes had a regulation that he would certainly condemn: "Let not a man help an animal to give birth on the Sabbath day; and if she lets her young fall into a cistern or ditch, let him not raise it on the Sabbath" (CD xiii. 14).

Attention has been drawn in several connections to another distinctive trait of Jesus, his keen sense of humor, manifested especially in grotesque hyperbole. In the light of such expressions it may be suspected that even the sternest demands for renunciation were spoken with a gentleness that took much of the sting out of them. This does not mean at all that he took lightly the sorrow and suffering and sin of mankind. Far from it. Even Mark never says that Jesus laughed or smiled. Jesus’ humor was of the kind that springs from a sense of proportion, a clear perception of what is important and what is not. In spite of the lack of explicit statements, the very nature of his sayings and acts themselves makes it incredible that he did not sometimes smile and on occasion laugh freely.

With all his utter sincerity and scorn of compromise, a rather surprising spirit of tolerance is shown by his disapproval when John the son of Zebedee reported that they had forbidden a man to cast out demons in Jesus’ name. A person who performed a "mighty work" in his name, he said, would not then speak evil of him. "For he that is not against us," he added, "is for us." He is reported also to have said, in a different connection, "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters." The two sayings are not contradictory if they mean that every person is either for Jesus or against him, there is no middle ground. In the same context with the second statement Jesus asks the Pharisees, "And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out?" He who said this might well say of a stranger who used his name to exorcise demons, "Do not forbid him."

Jesus did not react to all situations with humor or tolerance. One of the human traits that Mark mentions but Matthew and Luke pass over in silence is capacity for anger. In his account of the healing of a man with a withered hand Mark says that Jesus "looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart." This is the only place in the Gospels where the Greek noun meaning "anger" is used of Jesus. Apart from such direct statements, however, his words and conduct are sufficient to show that he was capable of blazing anger, which found expression in vivid, scorching language and at least once in direct action. It is true that he pronounced one who is angry with his brother liable to judgment. (In adding "without cause" the KJV is supported by many manuscripts and versions, but not the best ones.) The statement does not imply, however, that anger is never justified. If it did, Jesus would stand condemned by his own words.

The angry language he is said to have used appears especially in two groups of sayings, the condemnation of the Galilean cities that failed to repent and the denunciation of the Pharisees and scribes. If Jesus said even a fraction of the things attributed to him in these passages, he was a master of eloquent invective. In the first group he may have been expressing grief and disappointment rather than anger. This can hardly be said, however, of his denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees. Here, especially in Matthew, he voices a flaming wrath and withering scorn undiluted by sorrow or pity except for the victims of Pharisaic hypocrisy.

One act of Jesus, the cleansing of the temple, can best be explained, I believe, as an unpremeditated explosion of righteous indignation like that of an Old Testament prophet. We have noted other, more widely held views of it. In defense of my interpretation I will point out only that when Jesus the next day indirectly suggested that his authority was from the same source and of the same kind as John’s, he implied that he claimed and needed no other authority than that of a prophet, who spoke and acted on a divine impulse, reacting spontaneously to an immediate situation.

Sometimes it is not such fierce wrath but rather annoyance or disappointment that is manifest, as in some of the questions Jesus asked: "Have you no faith?" "Why did you doubt?" "How long must I bear with you?" When the disciples tried to prevent parents from bringing their children to Jesus to be blessed, Mark says, "he was indignant." Matthew and Luke, as usual, omit this reference to a common human emotion. The Greek verb used here by Mark expresses disapproval and displeasure rather than anger. When the Pharisees demanded a sign from heaven, Jesus "sighed deeply in his spirit," says Mark; and again Matthew and Luke omit the statement. We have observed that Jesus’ denunciation of the Galilean cities was evoked by grief as much as anger, as in his expression of grief over Jerusalem. So too when he looked around at the bystanders with anger before healing the man with a withered hand, Mark says it was because he was "grieved at their hardness of heart."

Far different was the grief Jesus felt in Gethsemane, when, according to Mark and Matthew, he said to the three disciples, "My soul is very sorrowful." Luke omits this, but a few verses later he tells of Jesus’ agony as he poured out the prayer that is the supreme expression of his dedication to his Father’s will. The evangelists stress this spiritual struggle in the garden much more than the physical pain he endured on the cross. What most of all caused his bitter anguish we can only dimly imagine. He had long faced the fear of death, and had set his face to go up to Jerusalem, telling his disciples that it awaited him there. Perhaps some hope that it might not be so never quite left him until that night in the garden. The desertion of those closest to him, and the treachery of one of those whom he had hoped to see judging the tribes of Israel, must have bulked large in his thoughts. Perhaps what was hardest to bear, however, was the fact that the whole consummation of his hopes, as he had contemplated it, seemed to be in doubt. He could accept the Father’s will; but he had thought he knew what God intended, and now he must trust without knowing. In the end, the Son, who knew the Father as no one else knew him, had to take his Father’s hand and step out into the dark.

Next to his dedication and the authority which it brought him, the quality of Jesus’ character that stands out most sharply in the Synoptic Gospels is his ready and sympathetic responsiveness to the needs of others. If on the Godward side, so to speak, the motive power of his life was devotion to God’s will, on the manward side "he was moved with compassion." It can be argued that the references to Jesus’ compassion like those to his authority, must be ascribed to the evangelists rather than the earliest tradition. Of the six places in which at least one Gospel speaks of Jesus’ compassion, not one reference appears in all the Synoptic Gospels. The fact that the evangelists all refer to his compassion, though in different places, may indeed be attributed to editorial procedure; but it also attests a unanimous tradition that this was a distinctive trait of his character.

There is some suggestion of tension between Jesus’ devotion to God and his compassion for men early in the story, when he goes out before dawn to a lonely place to pray, and says to the disciples, who tell him that every one is looking for him, that he must go on to other cities. The real tension, however, was between two aspects of the service of man to which God had called him. The physical needs of the people about him pulled one way; the inner compulsion to carry his good news to as wide an audience as possible pulled the other way. Moved as he was by the sight of distress, he steeled himself to sacrifice the immediate need to his wider mission.

Compassion was blended with insight in his readiness to forgive and to declare that God had forgiven. "My son," he said to the paralytic, "your sins are forgiven." When a woman anointed his feet while he was dining at a Pharisee’s house, he said to host, "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much." And at the end there is the prayer on the cross, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."

Whether Jesus’ spiritual experience included ecstatic visions or auditions, such as prophets often have, is a very difficult question to answer with any assurance. The descent of the Spirit at his baptism can be so understood; but, as we have noted, the accounts differ in such ways that it is impossible to tell whether the Spirit was seen and the voice heard by Jesus alone or by the bystanders also. For him the experience may have been profound and decisive without being ecstatic; yet it may have been that too. Even the struggle with Satan in the wilderness can be interpreted as an experience involving hallucination. Fasting is a common part of the technique for inducing a trance. Altogether more likely, however, is a symbolic description of a completely conscious and rational inner conflict. The transfiguration bears a striking similarity to the experience at his baptism, but here the narratives indicate a vision seen and a voice heard by the three disciples rather than an experience of Jesus himself. The significance of the event is in any case much too uncertain to throw light on the nature of Jesus’ spiritual life. Another possible but uncertain instance of ecstatic experience may be mentioned. When the seventy disciples reported to Jesus that the demons had submitted to them, he said, Luke reports, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven." In spite of the shaky historical basis of this mission, the saying may be authentic.

Jesus was a Jew, not a Hindu. He was not a mystic in the sense of one who enjoys that "beatific vision" in which individual personality is absorbed in the undifferentiated unity of the All. There was mysticism in ancient Judaism: the tradition back of the Kabbala is its most notable manifestation. The characteristic form of Jewish mysticism, however, is the "I and Thou" type, in which the consciousness of distinct identity is maintained, if not heightened, and along with the feeling of communion there is also a keen sense of the distance between God and man.

If mysticism means "practicing the presence of God," then Jesus was a mystic. His praying is mentioned often by the evangelists. The children brought to him, Matthew says, were brought "that he might lay his hands on them and pray." Mark says twice and Matthew once that Jesus went out to a lonely place or up into the hills to pray alone. Twice Luke speaks of his withdrawing to the wilderness or the hills to pray, saying once, "and all night he continued in prayer to God." There are also five other places where Luke mentions Jesus’ praying. If some or all of these references express a special interest of Luke or of the circle he represents, they also reflect something that must have been characteristic of Jesus.

Such general statements do not indicate the content of Jesus’ prayers. Just before the prediction of Peter’s denial of his Master, Jesus tells him, according to Luke, that Satan has desired to win the disciples (the "you" here is plural), and adds, "But I have prayed for you" (here it is singular) "that your faith may not fail." Such intercessory prayer may well have been a frequent theme in Jesus’ devotional life.

How much use Jesus made of regular prescribed prayers is unknown, but he evidently followed the Jewish practice of giving thanks at meals. We have also one report of a special, spontaneous thanksgiving; "I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will." Matthew and Luke report this in quite different connections but in exactly the same words. It is entirely probable and in keeping with all we know about him that Jesus thanked God, perhaps often, for revealing to simple folk what the learned scribes could not perceive.

The climax of what is recorded about Jesus’ prayers is the story of his agony in Gethsemane. Here is a soul wrestling in bitter torment and perplexity, yet with unshaken commitment to the Father’s will. One word is preserved by Mark in the language that Jesus spoke, the Aramaic word abba. As he does elsewhere, Mark gives with the original word its Greek equivalent. Matthew and Luke give only the Greek translation. If nothing else in his recorded sayings could be accepted with confidence as the very word Jesus used, we could be quite sure that he used this word constantly in addressing God and in speaking of God. So great was the impression made by the way he used it that even the Greek-speaking church evidently continued to use it in worship, for Paul quotes it twice (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6). Like Mark, Paul adds the Greek translation. Perhaps Greek-speaking Christians commonly did so in prayer.

According to Matthew, when the mob came with Judas to take Jesus, and one of the bystanders cut off an ear of the high priest’s slave, Jesus condemned the act and spoke of a prayer he might have made but did not; "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?"

The last prayers of Jesus reported in the Gospels are some of the words from the cross, which we have discussed in connection with the crucifixion. Of these the first and the last seem most in keeping with the other prayers that we have been considering. Both are reported by Luke; "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do"; and "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!"

In the picture of Jesus as we encounter him in the Synoptic Gospels, how much is tradition? How much is editing or interpretation? Each may claim many details, but in the aggregate the records reveal a real personality. Not only the lack of evidence, or the kind of evidence available, prevents giving a satisfying description of him. A sense of his incomparable greatness strikes us dumb.

After all, listing and documenting characteristics can no more convey a vital perception of a person than a face can be visualized through describing its features one by one. To get a clear and vivid impression of the man Jesus we have to live with the Gospels and let the whole picture take possession of us. When we do that, we sometimes receive an overwhelming impression of a person who almost frightens us. To me this has come in a few widely separated experiences. Such an experience, like the disciples’ Vision on the Mount of Transfiguration, cannot last. The splendor fades, because human nature is not capable of retaining it. Yet something is left that can never be lost, unless one becomes utterly unfaithful and estranged, and perhaps not wholly even then. Some day perhaps we shall really see Jesus, not as reflected in the dim mirror of our knowledge but face to face, know him as we are known, and see him as he is (I Cor 13:12; 1 Jn 3:2). Meanwhile we can at least try to see him as he was. That is all the more important if he is indeed (Heb 13:8) "the same yesterday and today and for ever."