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.