It's tragic and fixable, but as of now this is generally true. The four Gospels appear to most readers as one giant hodge-podge of Jesus stories and Jesus sayings... which of course helps explain why cherry picking our favorite bits and baking them into our own personal Jesus(es) has become so commonplace.
However, the print formatting isn't the root of the problem, but a symptom. Evidently, those editorial headings and breaks have remained popular because they must be performing a function that works, at least for someone's purposes. A similar phenomenon is the christian lectionary, also a tool that works precisely as designed. The lectionary doesn't only serve the needs of liturgy. Pre-selecting manageable portions of Gospel text in advance also serves the needs of sermon preparation very well indeed. And sermon prep, for at least seventeen centuries, has been primarily aimed at one thing: keeping people in check. But lest you think I digress...
Here's my point: The cacophony of Jesus views, which we find ourselves with today, is both the direct and indirect but entirely the unintended consequence of the heavy handed manipulation of scripture which has gone on for centuries - by the church!
In other words, we have chaos in our printed Gospels because the publishers mimicked the lectionary, and yet the lectionary faithfully served the needs of church fathers since late antiquity, whose conscious intention was to use scripture as proof texts for
My apologies. That was one very long sentence. Let me sum it up in much simpler terms.
Religious leaders have often preferred bite-sized Jesus. He's easier to use.
Now, please note: I'm not even saying the churches' interpretation has necessarily (or ever) been wrong. That's a different discussion. What I'm saying is that the early fathers simplified things for utilitarian purposes and the institutional christendom maintained the tradition for centuries because it worked really well. (Not in my opinion, you gather. But for moralizing and crowd control, it worked amazingly well.) Nevertheless, the usefulness or (un)righteousness of what they did isn't the point at the moment.
This one gigantic, destructive, unintended side-effect is what I'm trying to comment on, today.
The lectionary led to the chaotic format (and our general mental approach) to the Gospels. It isn't that modern scholars and liberal protestants suddenly came along and started spinning their own views of Jesus, based on selecting bite sized chunks of the Gospels. It's that the church taught them how to do this in the first place!!!
It is western christendom which first chopped Jesus up into manageable snippets. Maybe the orthodox (theological) views of Jesus are entirely fair, and maybe they're not, but (again) that isn't my point at the moment. This is: when bite-sized Jesus began to dominate christian interaction with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, I'm telling you, the very integrity of their fourfold witness began to disintegrate, in our perception of them.
Thus, we don't often read Matthew from start to finish, and appreciate his unique view. At least, that's not the standard way to read Matthew among christians at large. And we never go on to (w)holistically combine the four Gospel perspectives into something completely integrative. It's an undeveloped and misguided instinct that attempts to find the solution in Gospel Harmonies, as I once did. But some combination is necessary.
Let me say that again. Combination is necessary.
What's ironic is that, although I keep on repeating this desperately, the western church (officially) does not disagree.
The church has long had its own program(s) for combining the four Jesus portraits in scripture. Anthony Le Donne recently pointed out that we do it in hymns! In more formal writing, Christian Theologians of all stripes are encouraged to draw source material from across all four Gospels when they write about Jesus. Doctrines about Jesus were, are and will continue to be constructed (and refined) from statements and implications found in various parts of the New Testament. So yes. Combination is helpful, apparently. For Theologians, but somehow not for Historians?
Today, churches and individual christians across christendom-at-large have created multiple views of Jesus because theological combination is too susceptible to creative and subjective interpretation, and theological conclusions are too easily justified by scriptural proof texting and romantic literary imaginations. The main reason why churches get away with such obvious cheating is because of Tradition. When new strains of christianity crop up, the charismatic founder simply creates new Tradition, and the succeeding generations of his/her followers reinforce the 'new view'. Still, tradition enforces the problems of subjectivity.
Thus, when someone like Scot McKnight protests against historians by saying "The church has a Jesus", it sounds to me like what he's really saying, "Let the religious authorities deal with this stuff and don't make it more complicated. We're barely holding onto things now as it is!"
Of course, Scot's not hardly wrong about most historians, as it stands.
Okay. So this is the part where I'm supposed to present you with *my* solution. Afterwards, of course, you'll all (rightfully) ask, "Why does a critique about too many Jesuses end with yet one more plan for discovering "the real Jesus"? At least, you *would* ask that, if I had my own 'new' or 'secret' solution to offer. But I don't. At least, I don't have a 'new' one, and it's not much of a 'secret'.
The secret is that I actually agree with McKnight. The church *does* have a Jesus. Where I disagree with McKnight, however, is that I don't think we're viewing that Jesus holistically enough, and standard religious/theological practice is one of the main causes for this.
The secret is that I actually agree with the critical historians. The "real" Jesus has been obscured by the church. Where I disagree is that this distortion wasn't caused by the Gospel writers, but by centuries of authoritarian manipulation since then.
The secret is that I actually agree with the Theologians. We need to reach across the four Gospel accounts and combine content from all of them them into forming a coherent view of Jesus, for all our sakes' (God and Jesus included!) Where I disagree is that analysis toward forming this combination shouldn't begin with the mind of a poet or a philosopher, but with the basic and common sense inquiries of a historian, or a journalist.
The secret is that I trust the Gospels, but I did not personally find a coherent picture of Jesus in them until long after I started reading the Gospels historically, and long after I began focusing primarily on the types of questions a journalist would ask ('who?', 'what?', 'when?', 'where?', 'how?', and 'with whom?') instead of starting first with a theo-philosopher's interest ('why?', or 'what does this mean?') or a moralists ('what does this tell us about how to behave?').
A theologian will tell me we can't answer those journalist questions with any kind of certainty. The same theologian will most likely also tell me how certain the trinity is, or the nature of destiny, or how salvation depends on sincerity (but not really), or on doing good works (but not really), or what Jesus meant by any given passage, plucked at random, from the four perfect accounts we've been given of the Good News about Him.
Ahem. So much for all that. Let me sum up and conclude.
The problem isn't the Gospels. The problem is how we approach them.
Christian views of Jesus are generally and often wildly incoherent. And yet, HE is right there, in the Gospels.
What are YOU going to do about that? What am I?
Let's find out together with diligence and humility. Let's pray that God will show us how to quit cheating in constructing a combined view of the fourfold witness to Jesus. Let's stop trying to use such reconstructions to help us promote today's ecclesial or political agendas. Let's take on the best qualities of everyone I just criticized, and take on none of their faults. Let's take the faith of a Theologian and the critical mind of a Historian. Let's take a long, slow, painstaking, historical look at the Gospels. Let's take the rest of our lives doing it.
Let's allow the Gospels to be what the Gospels actually are, and let's allow the Past to be what the Past actually is: not what we wish it to be.
The Gospels reveal Jesus. The "real" Jesus is right here, in their pages, but some combination is necessary.
May all readers (& writers) take care... and may the Lord reveal himself to those who would see.