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The Riddle of the Four Faces: Solving an Ancient Mystery

hy are there four Gospels in the New Testament? Christians have been confronted with that question since the second century, as well as with the variances if not outright contradictions between the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And, as historians are quick to observe, other Gospel versions besides the familiar ones were available to early believers, such as the mystically-tinged “Gospels” attributed to Peter and Thomas. The selection of four seems both arbitrary and problematic.

Or is it? The second-century bishop Irenaeus of Lyons speculated that the four canonical Gospels correspond with visionary depictions of angels, or “cherubim,” found in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel and in the New Testament book of Revelation. The cherubs of Ezekiel each have four faces — those of a man, a lion, an ox (or bull) and an eagle — corresponding to the four cardinal points of the compass (Ezek. 1:10). In Revelation the man, lion, ox and eagle appear as separate beings but are still grouped together (Rev. 4:7). Irenaeus attempted to relate each of the creatures to one of the Gospels. He saw Matthew as corresponding to the man’s face because it opens with a human genealogy of Jesus and because, in the view of Irenaeus, Jesus’ humanity is emphasized throughout the book. Because Luke opens with a narrative involving priestly duties and temple services, Irenaeus associated it with the only sacrificial animal in the foursome, the ox. He linked the early mention of Holy Spirit in Mark with the winged creature, the eagle, while proposing that John’s prologue concerning Jesus’ divinely “royal” parentage marks that book as belonging to the regal animal, the lion (Against Heresies 3.11.8). 

Irenaeus’ conjecture about a relationship between the four faces and the four Gospels continued to fascinate Christian commentators in subsequent centuries, even as their tendency to reshuffle the face-to-Gospel assignments cast doubt on it. Augustine, like Irenaeus, assigned the ox to Luke, but gave the lion to Matthew, the man to Mark and the Eagle to John (The Harmony of the Gospels 4.10). Jerome, by contrast, heard the lion’s roar in the opening command of Mark to “prepare the way of the Lord” and felt himself soaring to heaven on eagles’ wings as he read the prologue of John, but stuck with the man for Matthew and the ox for Luke. Jerome’s classification has proven to be the most durable, but commentators have periodically revisited the question and proposed yet other assignments (see Jerome, Commentary on Ezekiel 1.1; in the book Cosmic Codes, 1999, evangelical writer Chuck Missler suggests an assignment of the lion to Matthew, the ox to Mark, the man to Luke and the eagle to John). 

Since the various opinions concerning the cherub faces and their relationship to the four Gospels all rest on subjective arguments, deciding between them would seem to be futile, as would continuing to plow such well-turned earth by taking up the question yet again. But that is exactly what I propose to do here. I will argue, in fact, that assignments can be made objectively and systematically. The actual relationship between the faces of Ezekiel and the Gospels not only differs from the interpretations of church fathers, it also poses a formidable challenge to secular theories which assume a purely human origin of the Gospels.

Of Sphinxes and Cherubs

It may be helpful to note briefly the history of composite creatures in ancient religion. Anyone who has seen representations of gods from pagan Egypt or Mesopotamia will appreciate the tendency of ancient cultures to portray their deities by combining features of different animals or features of animals and humans. Men with the heads of birds or jackals, winged bulls and lions with or without human heads and similar figures are commonplace. The combination of man, lion, bull and eagle is not as odd as it sounds, since each was seen as dominating some sphere of the natural world: the lion over wild animals, the bull or ox over domestic animals, the eagle over birds and man over creation in general. The oldest occurrence of the foursome may be on a 3,200-year-old bronze cult stand from Cyprus which portrays a cherub with the head of a man, the wings of an eagle, the forelegs of a lion and the hindquarters of a bull (see Elie Borowski, “Cherubim: God’s Throne?” in Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), July/August, 1995). 

The creatures of Ezekiel therefore are easier to understand in an ancient context than they are in a modern one. What better way to emphasize the transcendence of human limitations by the angelic beings who surround the throne of God than by attributing to them ferocity, power and swiftness using common animal symbols of the time? We might be tempted to stop at that explanation and seek no deeper meaning relating to the four Gospels of the New Testament if not for a characteristic of the Gospels themselves which leads us back inevitably to Ezekiel’s vision.

The Key to Classifying the Gospels

During a Bible study recently, my family and I were talking about the symbolism of the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation. Specifically, we were discussing the four-sided shape of the city. Four-walled, four-cornered design also is emphasized in the description of the temple in Ezekiel chapters forty through forty-six. My wife commented that if the four-walled city or temple is representative of Christ and the church (Eph. 2:19-22), then perhaps the foursome consists of Jesus along with disciples from the three ethnic/spiritual classes of mankind, that is, Jew, Samaritan and Gentile. 

In keeping with the Mosaic Law’s injunction that a dispute be settled on the testimony of “two witness or three” (Deut. 17:6), the New Testament divides mankind simply into Jew and Gentile (Rom. 10:12) or more technically into Jew, Samaritan and Gentile (Mt. 10:5-6). The Samaritans of the first century were, of course, the racially mixed remnant of what had once been the ten-tribe northern kingdom of ancient Israel. Samaritans accepted the Pentateuch and kept circumcision and the dietary provisions of the Law but rejected the prophetic Hebrew writings and the system of temple worship in Jerusalem, and were regarded by the Jews of Jesus’ day as little better than Gentiles. At the time I let my wife’s suggestion go by without much notice. Later I realized that she had in fact handed me the key to unlocking the riddle of the four faces as Gospel symbols. Her comment led me to ask myself if the Gospels can be categorized in some sense as “Jewish,” “Samaritan,” “Gentile” and simply “Jesus.” The question once asked practically answers itself. Matthew’s Gospel has long been recognized as characteristically Jewish in its point of view. Matthew opens by identifying Jesus as a descendant of Abraham and David. It refers repeatedly, almost obsessively, to Jesus’ fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures. Matthew contains 26 occurrences of the names “Judah,” “David” and “Solomon,” nearly as many as the other three Gospels combined, which have 28. Matthew alone contains an instruction from Jesus in which he tells his disciples to preach to Israel, meaning Jews, rather than to Samaritans or Gentiles (Mt. 10:5-6). 

Mark, with its parenthetical explanations of Jewish customs and key Aramaic terms, is obviously written for a Gentile, in particular a Roman, audience. Mark contains more loan words from Latin than does any other Gospel, and is the only one, for example, to use the Latin spelling of the word “centurion” rather than its Greek equivalent. The sole expression of faith in Jesus’ divine sonship which Mark records is the one made, it happens, by a Roman centurion (Mk. 15:39). And Mark alone says that Jesus effectively “declared all foods clean,” a pronouncement which in Acts is emblematic for the admission of the Gentiles into the church, beginning with the Roman centurion Cornelius (Mk. 7:19; Acts 10:11-15). 

So far, so good. But can either Luke or John plausibly be called a “Samaritan” Gospel? Neither seems to have been written for the limited audience represented by first-century Samaritans. Between the two of them we find four passages having to do with Samaria or Samaritans, three from Luke and one from John. Luke contains (1) the refusal of Samaritans to allow Jesus to enter one of their villages on his way to Jerusalem, (2) Jesus’ parable of the “Good Samaritan” and (3) Jesus’ healing of ten lepers, one of which is a Samaritan (Lk. 9:51-56; 10:30-35; 17:11-19). John, on the other hand, contains the story of the Samaritan woman Jesus encounters at a well near Sychar and the favorable reception given him by the Samaritans of that town (Jn. 4:4-42). At first glance the two books would seem to be “Samaritan” in roughly equal proportions. 

If we look more closely, however, we find that the second and third items from Luke are unlike anything else in the Gospels, including the Sychar story from John, in that they portray Samaritans who are more righteous than Jews. When Jesus heals ten lepers, only a Samaritan turns back to thank him; the majority if not all of the remaining nine are Jews, as can be understood from Jesus’ instructions to them to show themselves to the priest, as well as by his concluding reproach. In the Good Samaritan parable, the title character offers lifesaving aid to an injured man by the side of the road after a Jewish priest and a Levite callously pass him by. On a typological level the story illustrates the way Jesus furnished salvation to dying humanity when the Mosaic Law proved unable to do so. In other words, this parable found only in Luke casts Jesus himself in the role of a Samaritan. Through its exaltation of Samaritans, Luke emerges as clearly the most “Samaritan” of the Gospels. 

Other evidence can be cited to confirm Luke’s Samaritan connection. Only Luke contains the names of both great prophets of Samaria, Elijah and Elisha (Lk. 4:25-27), and only Luke reports the Elijah- and Elisha-like resurrection of the son of a widow in the village of Nain just three miles from where Elisha performed a similar miracle (2 Kgs. 4:8-37; Lk. 7:11-15). In Luke’s genealogy the name “Joseph” occurs three times — more than any other — evoking the tribal forefather of the northern kingdom of Israel (Lk. 3:23, 24, 30; 1 Chron. 5:1-2). 

The process of elimination leaves John as the “Jesus” Gospel, an identification which fits ideally. John stresses the importance of faith in the person of Jesus as opposed merely to faith in his message or his work. John alone contains a declaration which in this context seems especially significant: “Here is the man” (Jn. 19:5). 

Having categorized the Gospels this way, the animal assignments fall into place easily. The Jews of Jesus’ time were primarily members of the tribe of Judah, the symbol for which is the lion (Gen. 49:9; Ezek. 19:1-9; Rev. 5:5). The imperial Gentile powers who were allowed to oppress Israel are described as eagles (Deut. 28:49-52; Ezek. 17:1-15; Hos. 8:1). Moreover, the armies of Rome, the last of such powers, marched under the standard of the eagle. The northern kingdom of Israel with its capital of Samaria was called the “house of Joseph,” whose symbol is the bull (Josh. 18:5; Deut. 33:16-17). The northern tribes, predominantly those representing Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh, were known for cattle-raising. The “bulls of Bashan,” famous for their size and strength, came from the northern kingdom (Ps. 22:12). God referred to the ten-tribe federation as an “untrained calf” or a “stubborn heifer” and its women as the “cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria” (Jer. 31:18; Hosea 4:1, 16; 10:11). The miracle-working prophets of Samaria, Elijah and Elisha, made offerings of bulls and oxen (1 Kgs. 18:33; 19:21). Idolatry in the north was directed toward images of bulls and calves (1 Kgs. 12:28; Hos. 8:5-6; see Amihai Mazar, “Bronze Bull found in Israelite ‘High Place’ from the Time of the Judges,” in BAR, Sept/Oct, 1983). 

As if to confirm the Samaritan bull or ox as an identifier, when Luke quotes Jesus concerning an animal which might fall into a pit on the Sabbath, the animal is not a sheep as in Matthew, but instead an ox (Mt. 12:11; Lk. 14:5). In Luke’s parable of the Prodigal Son, the father slaughters a young bull so that his repentant son may feast (Lk. 15:11-32). The Prodigal Son story’s typology of Christ as the bull whose flesh is offered to sustain believers was not lost on Irenaeus, who correctly saw it as a validation of the bull as Luke’s symbol (Irenaeus, loc. cit.). 

The classification of the Gospels as Matthew/Jew/lion, Mark/Gentile/eagle, Luke/Samaritan/bull and John/Jesus/man is not subjective. Commentaries from across the theological spectrum will confirm the Jewishness of Matthew, the Roman Gentile affinity of Mark, the special sympathy for Samaritans evident in Luke and, finally, the peculiar “Jesus-centeredness” of John. The animal symbols corresponding to the ethnic groups are similarly straightforward. No one can claim, for example, that the symbol of the lion is just as appropriate for Rome, the leading Gentile power of the first century, as it is for Judea, or that the bull is no more fitting than the eagle as a symbol for Samaria. 

Additionally, the identification I propose illuminates certain passages in both Old and New Testaments. It explains, for example, why the cult stands for Solomon’s temple bore the images of the lion and ox but not the eagle, since during the first temple period the northern and southern parts of the nation were united under the covenant to the exclusion, naturally, of Gentiles (1 Kgs. 7:29). It also discloses the historical subtext of Luke’s Prodigal Son parable, referred to above. The respected British scholar N. T. Wright has speculated that the younger, wayward son stands for Jews returning from Babylonian exile, while the older brother includes Samaritans who opposed the building of the second temple (Jesus and the Victory of God, 1996, p. 127). But Wright’s theory turns out to be a near miss. The Jewish people were descendants of Judah, an older brother of the principal forebear of the Samaritans, Joseph (Ezek. 37:16). It was the northern kingdom of Israel, the “younger brother,” which withdrew from the national family and squandered its spiritual inheritance, becoming ethnically and ritually impure in the process (cp. Ezek. 4:13 with Lk. 15:15-16; Jer. 31:18-20 and Hos. 2:7 with Lk. 15:17-20; Hos. 4:14 with Lk. 15:30).

The Plot Thickens

We have seen that the intriguing alignment of the canonical Gospels with ethnic categories and their animal symbols may be demonstrated from various passages. One Old Testament book seems disproportionately represented as a source for these, the book of Ezekiel. The importance of four-sided design in the Ezekiel temple plan is illustrated by the square outer wall, which has a rectangular kitchen court at each of its corners (46:21-22). Ezekiel also contains the only passage in the Hebrew scriptures to predict that the three ethnic/spiritual categories of mankind would be reconciled to God, listing them as Jerusalem, Samaria and Sodom (Ezek. 16). Messianic references occur at Ezekiel 34:24 and 37:25. A mysterious angelic “man” who reveals the temple plan stands beside Ezekiel in the inner temple court just as God announces this room to be the resting place for the “soles of my feet” (Ezek. 43:6-7). Key ingredients of a foursome consisting of Messiah as a man and three divisions of humanity are therefore present. What about the animal symbols?

Ezekiel 19:1-9 is the only Old Testament passage apart from Genesis 49:9 to identify plainly the lion as the symbol for Judah and its dynasty. Ezekiel also contains the most explicit reference to imperial Gentile powers as “eagles” (Ezek. 17:1-15). The symbol for Samaria, the bull or ox, would seem to be missing until we look closely at instructions Ezekiel is given for a mock assault upon Israel. He is told to pantomime a siege of the northern kingdom for 390 days, followed by a 40-day siege of Jerusalem and Judah. During the first siege he must eat coarse bread baked over a fire made with human excrement to illustrate the consumption of unclean food by Samaritan refugees. The implication is that the exiles will suffer so severely as to be forced to eat food contaminated by their own dung. When Ezekiel protests that the enactment is too revolting for him to bear, God allows him to cook with manure of cattle (baqar) in place of human offal (Ezek. 4:9-15). The concession subtly equates the people of Samaria with cattle or oxen. Remarkably, then, all three of the animal symbols of the Synoptic Gospels are confirmed in Ezekiel, the very book which introduces them as the three animal faces of the cherubim.

Case Closed?

It is time to credit Irenaeus for his insight. A relationship does indeed exist between the four faces of the cherubim and the canonical Gospels, a relationship so systematic that it stubbornly resists being written off as coincidental. At the same time, the commentators of the past may be excused for erroneously assigning some of the faces. Apart from Irenaeus’ shrewd guesswork concerning Luke, any attempt such as his to make the assignments without the intermediate determination of ethnic identities is a blind draw with twenty-three-to-one odds against success. 

To Christian believers the symbolism of the four faces is no less impressive for being explicable supernaturally, but from a secular perspective the mystery lingers. The contemporary view of the Gospels as projections of late first-century church beliefs onto a historically remote Jesus of Nazareth cannot account for it. Why would the three animal faces seen by Ezekiel happen to correspond with the scriptural divisions of mankind, and why would they occur alongside a human face which is joined to them and at the same time distinct from them? Further, why would the four Gospels of the New Testament canon, which no one can believe resulted from a collaboration among their authors, precisely reflect these four figures? 

Since modern scholarship has little room for the word “inspiration” in its vocabulary, perhaps in confronting the phenomenon of the four faces the most that can be expected of it is honest acknowledgment followed by that which is rare in any academic discipline: humble silence.