Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Why believe the gospels?

The portrait shown here is my great-grandmother, one of my mother's grandmothers. I met her a few times when I was very young. I'll explain in just a moment what she has to do with the question of whether to believe the gospels.

The usual approaches, when it comes to the gospels, tend towards the more polarized views. Some hold a view that roughly claims the gospels were dictated by the Father, received by the Indwelling Holy Spirit in the various authors, written word-for-word as inspired, and are therefore inerrant. The opposing view is roughly that the signs of editing in the documents, and the presence of supernatural elements, means that they are largely untrustworthy about what happened: that they are legendary, products of pious imagination that do not correspond to reality.

On both sides, I'm not comfortable with the assumptions. I don't buy the assumption that the authors of the gospels considered themselves to be writing something word-for-word as received spiritually channeled direct from heaven; they seemed to think they were writing down things that the people who knew Jesus had said about him, or in the case of the Gospel of John, what they claimed to have seen themselves. I don't buy the assumption that editing equals tampering; some of my own longer posts on this blog show telltale signs of editing, and it's simply because I didn't write them all in one sitting. I also don't buy the assumption that supernatural always automatically must be legendary, though it has to be considered among the possibilities. The origin of legend is that it is passed along by people far removed from the source; the stories take on a life of their own in the hands of people who don't know the facts.

The earliest of the gospels, going by current consensus, was the Gospel of Mark. I've given my reasons before why I think it was written before the fall of Jerusalem -- that is, within 40 years of the events recorded. Some people would put it a few years later: say, 45 years after the events recorded. To compare that to today, as we are in the year 2009, that would be like writing now about the 1960's. I don't really remember the 1960's personally, but I've heard about key events from people who remember them. My mother can still tell me about hearing MLK's "I Have A Dream" speech, broadcast the day it was first given. She can still tell me what she was doing and where she was when she heard that JFK had been shot. Other people who remember the 1960's remember the moon landing or the Cuban missile crisis. And for such important events as these, a number of facts are remembered with crystal clarity even many years after the events, etched on the memories of those who lived them.

The latest of the gospels, going by current consensus and also by ancient records, was the Gospel of John. The usual date assigned to it is somewhere in the 90's A.D. Interestingly, the ancient records mention that John lived into the reign of the emperor Trajan, who took the throne in 98 A.D. I've mentioned before how the ancient records dating back to the 100's A.D. account for the appendix to the Gospel of John, and how in light of that I do not consider the editing there to be tampering at all. But what about writing sometime in the 90's A.D about events of the year 30 A.D.? That may be roughly 60 or 65 years. To compare that to today, as we are in the year 2009, that would be like writing now about 1944 -- about World War II. I have heard from both my parents what they remembered of World War II, though their memories are limited. When my grandparents were alive, I heard some of their stories about World War II. To the end of his days my grandfather could still tell me where he was, and what he was doing, when he heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. The "day that will live in infamy" was in 1941; this year we will mark the 68th anniversary of it. There are people around -- people who are old by now -- who still remember that day. The Gospel of John was written when the authors were old, at about the same distance from the life of Jesus as we are from the events of World War II.

I have heard many stories about my great-grandmother, the one in the picture. Some of them date back to the 1910's, about how she met my great-grandfather; those stories are at a longer distance in time from her life than any of the canonical gospels are from the life of Jesus. I have heard stories of her son my grandfather's escapades in college, from the 1930's. I have heard stories of my grandmother, her daughter-in-law, from the 1930's. These stories are over 70 years old now, a distance in time from then to now that is probably longer than from any of the canonical gospels are from the life of Jesus, though possibly comparable to the Gospel of John at its later possible dates. And as for the stories I've heard about the 1960's -- comparable in distance to the Gospel of Mark from the life of Jesus -- I have heard the same events from so many different people it would never occur to me to doubt their reality even if they had never made it into the history books.

I take the gospels in the same way: not as channeled from God nor as so far removed from the sources to be legendary. I take it as what people remembered, as best they could, either directly themselves -- as per the claims of the Gospel of John -- or as they had heard from people who knew directly, as in the case of the Gospel of Mark. Some people would like to argue "inspiration" for the gospels; but that could mean all kinds of things. How I take it is that the gospels were written by people who were, historically, in a position to know what they were talking about, and to talk to people who still remembered. I know that doesn't make me an "inerrantist" in the traditional sense of the word. But it does mean this: that I take the events recorded in the gospels as being just as real as the things I have heard from people I know about things of comparable distances in the past.


Tony-Allen said...

I share some of the same sentiments with you. People quickly forget that when Paul wrote "scriptures" he was referring to the Old Testament and Jewish scripture in general, not his own writings. They also forget when John gave his warning at the end of Revelation it was a common practice for writers at the time, not a warning about a book that didn't exist at the time.

Jennie said...

I appreciate your perspective on the Gospels in terms of their historical distance from Jesus. But I still struggle with the differences (or perhaps the "apparent" differences) between the Gospels. How do we determine the "real" story, or does that question not ultimately matter?

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Tony-Allen - good to hear from you. Thank you for the encouragement.


Hi Jennie - I'm not shy about talking about the differences between the Gospels. But I'm not sure what you had in mind. I'll mention a couple of things I've looked at from time to time.

I think I was still in grade school when I noticed the genealogies didn't match from Matthew to Luke. It was many years later that I found that *way* back in the early church, people had noticed the very same thing and had asked around, and at that time some of Jesus' blood relatives were still handy to field the question. Turns out there was a Levirate marriage or two involved (the old provision in Jewish law where someone's line would never die out even if they had no son, where the guy dies but leaves no son so his widow has to marry his nearest male relative and their firstborn son is legally reckoned the son of the guy who died).

Then once I met this supposedly "ultimate atheist challenge" about the resurrection and how it was "just impossible" to build a coherent narrative with all the applicable verses. So, being who I am, I had to try. And it only took a couple of hours. Considering the volume of material (from 4 gospels, a section early in Acts, a section in I Corinthians), that's really not bad time.

Meantime, if you ask me whether Jesus cleared the Temple way early in his ministry (GJohn) or just a few days before the crucifixion (the other gospels) or both, I have no idea. And I wouldn't even say "it doesn't matter" (what, do we pick what matters by whether we know the answer? a little too convenient for me). But I would say I don't lose any sleep over it. If it were one of those "tier 1 importance" things (like: "Did Jesus rise from the dead or not") and we had a contradiction, that would be a deal-breaker for me.

But I'm rambling & don't even know if I'm noticing the same kinds of things you are.

Feel free to vent, I promise I don't look funny at people with honest questions.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Tony-Allen said...

I think something to keep in mind is that even the early Christians knew of some slight differences. From what I recall, Church Tradition holds that Mark didn't write his gospel in chronological order. Other differences are more complimentary than anything else. For example, Matthew says both thieves mocked Jesus, while Luke says one repented. The Church Fathers teach that in the beginning both thieves did mock Jesus, but the Wise Thief, realizing what was going on, repented.

I think, however, we must remember that there is no huge contradiction between the gospels that completely destroys Christian theology. The fact that in one gospel Jesus may have healed two men whereas in another He healed one does not change the fact Jesus healed a man, had the power the heal, and had the power from His Divinity. Otherwise, Muslims, atheists and other detractors would truly have a valid case.

Weekend Fisher said...

You can't worry too much about the detractors. Here it is, Holy Week, time for the annual anti-Christian anti-Resurrection pageant in the "mainstream" press. And you know what, here we are nearly 2000 years later, and still 100% of the historical witness we have from contemporaries on the subject is in unanimous agreement about the resurrection. Why do they spend all their time trying to poke holes in the Christian testimony? 'Cause they have none of their own ...

I think "inerrancy" is not necessarily a good claim; I'm not sure the authors would have claimed it about their own writings. But if the authors were merely basically honest and basically sane people, then we have before us the record of the most amazing thing to happen in the history of the world.

Which drives people crazy, who would rather have uncertainty. ;)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for your musings.

Whether inerrant or not (and one should define that term before getting into an argument over it) I believe that God preserved the Gospels, and allowed them to be translated, for us to read, and for people of the future to read, too.

BruceA said...

Good post. Although WWII was a big deal for those who fought it, Jesus' life was a much bigger deal for his early followers. Even before the gospels were written, Christians were gathering on Sunday mornings to worship him. So the stories about Jesus would have not just been remembered by those who were there, but would have been familiar to others who had heard them repeated week after week over the course of many years.

So it's not just an individual's memory at work, but the memory of a whole community.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Martin - I think God did preserve the Gospels ... but he seems to like to keep his treasures in jars of clay. I think he gave his people the gift of being that means of preservation.


Hey, Bruce, good to see you again -- definitely on the community. Reading Acts carefully, it looks as though Luke was also there, had taken communion with people who had been at the original Last Supper ... It's impossible, reading the gospels and acts and epistles, to miss that they were a very close-knit group.


Take care & God bless
Anne / WF