In his introduction, Rowe states that the essence of Jesus involves who he was as a person as well as his teachings. Starting with the four gospels, which Rowe calls "our earliest sources," Rowe attempts to outline who Jesus is.
Chapter 1 reviews the few extra-biblical references to Jesus in the earliest period following his death: Josephus, the Jewish historian, and Tacitus, the Roman historian. They add little to the gospel record, Rowe says, but Josephus notes that Jesus "was a doer of startling deeds."
For Rowe, distinctive portions of Matthew's portrait of Jesus include a genealogy that connects Jesus back to such Old Testament figures as Abraham, an extended birth story that includes Jesus' father Joseph's dream, and an emphasis on appealing to an audience of early Christians who came from Jewish roots or felt the need for better grounding in Jesus' connection to Judaism.
In contrast, Mark has no birth story and was probably written as reassurance to early Christians who were enduring persecution. Mark also may have hoped to encourage people who were shy about their faith or who felt they had failed in being faithful, as Peter at times felt he had. Finally, Mark wanted to "correct the false picture of Jesus as a wonder worker" and instead to focus on his crucifixion as "integral" to his mission.
Luke emphasized Jesus' role as a prophet. This tone is set from the beginning, with a story of Jesus' birth that includes the angel's prophetic message to Jesus about his destiny. Luke could well have been writing to gentile converts to Christianity, in other words, people who had never been Jewish, and, also, possibly, wealthy people.
Rowe notes the gospel of John is in a "different key" from the other gospels. It begins with a "majestic prologue" that identifies Jesus as no less than the Word or Logos of God. This gospel focuses on miracles and the crucifixion. John wrote this book to bring people to the faith or to encourage them in their faith.
Despite these differences, the four gospels share common elements: all tell of John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus, the temptations of Jesus, Jesus' public ministry, the fact that he challenged people, the fact that he taught people, the fact that he had a turning point in which he began to tell the disciples about his coming death, the Passion (the last week of his life, culminating in his crucifixion) and the concept that Jesus rose from the dead.