The Four Evangelists

The picture on the right is the proposed cover of my new book, John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened. I’ll give you the scoop on the artwork, if you’ll tell me what you think!

“The Four Evangelists,” by the 17th century Flemish artist Jacob Jordaens, presumably depicts the authors of our four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Many think the four evangelists are portrayed left-to-right in the same order as the Gospels, and point to this mysterious verse in Mark to identify the boy:

A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind. –Mark 14:51-52.

But was Mark really writing about himself? Could the lad in these verses be young John the Apostle, with his trademark angelic face and curly hair? John is universally thought to be the youngest of the Twelve. Is Jordaens hiding a secret unshared, by wrapping John in a white linen?

The story continues in Mark with Peter following from a distance, but the Gospel of John tells a different story: A second unnamed disciple follows Jesus with Peter. This mystery disciple is thought by most to be John the Apostle. Might it also be the same lad who fled, leaving his outer garment?

A few days later in Mark’s story, a young man dressed in a white robe sits outside the tomb, informing visitors that Jesus has risen. Is this young man Mark? John? An angel, as depicted in later Gospel tradition?

Adding to the mystique of the painting is the dispute over whether it was titled “The Four Evangelists” at all. Some art historians argue that the lad is simply too young to be one of the evangelists. Also, he appears to wear what may be a prayer shawl, as may have been worn in the Temple, rather than a “linen garment.” These historians therefore identify the painting as “Jesus Among the Sages,” a depiction of the twelve-year-old Jesus conversing with the teachers in the Jerusalem Temple (see Luke 2:46-47).

The mystery remains. Since my book encourages us to embrace mystery and ambiguity in the scripture, I fell in love with the painting as a cover theme.

(heh – editorial note: The picture has been reversed for the book cover, so they are no longer Matthew/Mark/Luke/John from “left to right” but “right to left”.)