Reading the Gospels

There is an interesting article in the current issue of The New Yorker titled, What Did Jesus Do? Reading and Unreading the Gospels. In talking about the large appetite for historical study of the New Testament, the author, Adam Gopnik, reminds us that the “intractable complexities of fact” mean that there is much we can never know about the historical Jesus.

In talking about the “current scholarly tone” of new books on the subject, Gopnik points out that while the scholarship is accepting of a historical Jesus, it “also tends to suggest that the search for him is a little like the search for the historical Sherlock Holmes” in that the “really interesting bits” were “shaped by the needs of storytelling.”

I confess that although I’ve read some scholarship aimed at finding the true Jesus, for example, John Meier’s multi-volume Jesus, A Marginal Jew, I am far from a scholar in the area. However, it seems that some things are indisputably true. First, we know that the Gospels were not written until many years after the death of Jesus. Second, it seems clear that although we name four evangelists, bits and pieces of the four Gospels clearly came from multiple sources. Third, while there are some stories told consistently in more than one Gospel, there are also stories that vary from Gospel to Gospel, or that appear in only one of the four Gospels. Fourth, we know that each of the Gospels was written with a different audience in mind, something that affects what was emphasized. What are we to make of all this?

At one point in the article, the author observes that “belief remains a bounce, faith a leap.” I think there is some truth to this. While it may not be fully satisfactory to some people, at some level we simply have to accept two things. First, the Gospels are not intended as historical biography. Second, there is a larger truth does not depend on the historical accuracy of all of the stories about the life of Jesus. The stories about Jesus are neither completely mythical, as some have suggested, nor can every word written in the Gospels be verified as truly having happened…and doubtless some of the things recorded there did not happen. But there is a truth there about God and God’s relationship to us, made more imminent and intimate by the incarnation and life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And it is that truth that matters.

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