Jesus: A Portrait


O'Collins, Gerald SJ
Darton, Longman & Todd (2008)
Buy this book from

When I asked that great scholar of Judaism and Christianity, Hyam Maccoby, long before it was fashionable to use the term "Jesus the Jew", what Jesus was like, he replied with characteristic humour and directness: "Dishevelled, squat and swarthy", decidedly not a view shared by Holman Hunt!

I tell this story because the title of this book is, at one level, somewhat disingenuous. It sets off at a cracking pace on the right track by citing Augustine on the beauty of Jesus, supporting the thesis with some acute references to art; but the book soon settles into a reliable, if slightly laboured, analysis of what we know about Jesus from the Gospels, principally of Mark and John. It might be thought these were chosen to facilitate a contrast between the vibrantly narrative Mark and the deeply reflective John but if that was so it was a secondary consideration. O'Collins, a somewhat traditional Roman Catholic scholar, in spite of the occasion foray into speculation - commonplace in Anglicanism but adventurous in the Roman context - has gratefully embraced Richard Bauckham's thesis, in his Jesus and The Eyewitnesses, which has recently won the Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing, and he therefore accepts that Mark's Gospel was largely 'dictated' by Peter and that John, the "Beloved Disciple" was both a witness of the life and death of Jesus and the author of the Fourth Gospel. He therefore thinks these two accounts the most reliable, without ever being explicit. This book would have been eminently viable without Bauckham but his thesis that the Gospels were written by or were largely accounts of eyewitnesses, and that the writing was far closer to the lifetime of Jesus than recent scholarship has estimated, gives O'Collins scope for a level of assumption and directness which is both the book's strength and weakness, its strength being a degree of internal consistency and its weakness being the failure adequately, if at all, to take account of awkward pieces of evidence. He never quite alters the facts to fit his thesis but on occasions he comes close; and I was reminded of Gödel's theorem that the more elegant a thesis, the less universally applicable.

The grouping of Gospel passages around themes is useful for scholars and preachers but it would have been assisted greatly by a topic index to accompany the Index of Names; but the content largely conforms to chapter titles and the sequence is pleasingly simple and direct.

Of course, nobody can read everything, but the bibliography is surprisingly thin and lacks some of the more obvious works of the last 20 years which O'Collins might have cited if only to reject their conclusions; in that respect, the 'argument' is somewhat claustrophobic and dangerously circular; and after the promising start and a now fashionable interest in Dostoyevsky, the artistic, musical and literary references are sparse and shallow.

The usefulness of the book lies primarily in the way that the material is organised rather than in anything it has to say; but the very organisation inevitably leads to repetition so that, as I approached the end, I found myself wanting to skip a second and even a third discussion of the same passage. I also found myself continually comparing the author's comments on John with Richard Burridge, finding that the latter almost invariably came off better in terms of the sharp eye for detail and a sense of balance; one tiny but illuminating example is Burridge's contention that the Samaritan Woman in John 5 went to the well at noon because she was an outcast, whereas O'Collins dismisses the timing of her encounter with Jesus as "an accident".

Those who are interested in new theories will be fascinated by O'Collins' adoption of Bauckham's thesis that the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus and the disciple who struck the High Priest's servant were anonymous in the synoptics for their own protection but could be named by the time John wrote, whenever that was.

IN short, this book contains a mass of detail helpfully organised, but the whole is likely to irritate those who disagree with O'Collins' view of the provenance of the Evangelists and their Gospels. His assumptions, in turn, lead to a form of writing which is never far from the sentimental.


Please select a section:

  1. Preface
  2. Chapter 1: The Beauty of Jesus
  3. Chapter 2: God's Kingdom in Person
  4. Chapter 3: Divine and Human
  5. Chapter 4: Jesus The Healer
  6. Chapter 5: The Meanings of The Miracles
  7. Chapter 6: Jesus The Story-Teller
  8. Chapter 7: The Parable of The Father's Love
  9. Chapter 8: Jesus The Teacher
  10. Chapter 9: Facing Death
  11. Chapter 10: Jesus The Suffering Servant
  12. Chapter 12: Jesus The Abiding Presence
  13. Epilogue