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Monday, March 23, 2009

What the Gospels Meant

On my last foray to the library I picked up a non-fiction audio CD book by Gary Wills - What the Gospels Meant. I'm only in the beginning but it's really interesting and I'm already beginning to think differently about the gospels (in a good way :). Looking around just now, I saw a review of the book from the New York Times and thought I'd post part of it ....

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What Jesus Really Did

By DAVID GIBSON
Published: March 2, 2008

Garry Wills is not only one of the country’s most distinguished intellectuals, but also one of its most provocative, bringing his learning to bear on great questions of history and contemporary politics, often at the same time. Add to this his regular disquisitions on the church (he is Roman Catholic) and you have a combustible mix that can delight, infuriate or illuminate, usually all three. The irony of Wills’s latest work, “What the Gospels Meant,” is that it lacks polemics yet is full of observations sure to rile fearful souls who view ambiguity as the enemy of faith .....

What readers will find here is an engaging look at the Gospels, informed by the best biblical scholarship, as well as by Wills’s own faith, which he discusses openly. Wills relies almost exclusively on the writings of the late Raymond Brown, a Catholic priest whose works are the gold standard of New Testament exegesis.

“What the Gospels Meant” starts straightforwardly with a helpful explanation of just what a Gospel is: “a meditation on the meaning of Jesus in the light of sacred history as recorded in the sacred writings.” Wills then parses the Gospel of Mark, the earliest account, as a “report from the suffering body of Jesus,” written to comfort early Christians facing persecution. Matthew’s is the teaching Gospel, recounting many of Christianity’s most familiar sermons. The erudite Luke presents “the reconciling body of Jesus,” a Gospel of poignant stories like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan that display the humanity of Jesus and the universality of his message. John is, as ever, the theologian, a prophetic voice from “the mystical body of Jesus.” .....

Wills emphasizes the eschatological power of Jesus’ message, and the revolutionary fire that his words, now banked to a dull glow by familiarity, kindled in his contemporaries. The adage that “Jesus began as biography and ended as creed” is an article of faith to those who believe that the truth of what really happened 2,000 years ago has been buried under layers of dogma and deception. Wills shows that the reverse is true: Jesus’ disciples followed him to the cross because they believed he was the Messiah, and then spread his message as they — like generations after them — came to believe that he had been raised from the dead in fulfillment of the Scriptures. Creed came first, then the Gospel truth. Or truths .....

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9 Comments:

Anonymous Paul Maurice Martin said...

I always find this sort of material provocative because like millions of other people, Jesus’ identity is a source of endless fascination for me.

For myself, I can "accept as an article of faith" neither that “Jesus began as biography and ended as creed” nor that "Jesus’ disciples followed him to the cross because they believed he was the Messiah." I can only say “Could be…” to both.

The fact that the New Testament consists of faith documents written by members of the early church decades after Jesus’ death and that this is our only source of information about Jesus and his followers means that, bottom line, we have no real historical information to go by. It’s theology from the ground up. That makes everything else speculation, whether it's done in a sentence or two or in six volumes.

Like everyone, I have my own preferred idea of what Jesus was like and what he was trying to do and what the disciples may have been like - but even that doesn't reach anywhere near the level of an article of faith for me! I know I’m speculating.

7:18 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:26 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Paul,

I think there is more evidence of Jesus than you think. Saw this somewhere ....

"Although references to Jesus Christ by early secular historians are meager, such references do exist.

Cornelius Tacitus, a respected first-century Roman historian, wrote: “The name [Christian] is derived from Christ, whom the procurator Pontius Pilate had executed in the reign of Tiberius.”

Suetonius and Pliny the Younger, other Roman writers of the time, also referred to Christ.

In addition, Flavius Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, wrote of James, whom he identified as “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”"


And about the relying on the gospels as documents about historical people, here's some perspective - a spiritual director told me once ...

"The gospels might have been written a generation or two after the events of Jesus' life but that doesn't make them untrustworthy as documents. As documents, the gospels (and the rest of the NT) are much better attested than anything else we have from the ancient world. There are more copies, better mutual agreement, and less time between first composition and first extant manuscript than for any other text. Plato, Caesar, Alexander ... all are very poorly attested compared compared with the NT."

As I read elsewhere, about Alexander for instance ... .

"The historicity of Alexander the Great and his military conquests is drawn from five ancient sources, none of whom were eyewitnesses. Although written 400 years after Alexander, Plutarch’s Life of Alexander is the primary account of his life. Since Plutarch and the other writers were several hundred years removed from the events of Alexander’s life, they based their information on prior accounts. Of the twenty contemporary historical accounts on Alexander, not one survives. Later accounts exist, but each presents a different “Alexander,” with much left to our imagination. But regardless of the time gap of several hundred years, historians are convinced that Alexander was a real man and that the essential details of what we read about his life are true."

If you're interested, I'm sure you could dig up more info on the historical Jesus.

8:28 PM  
Anonymous Deacon Denny said...

Sounds like an interesting book. Gary Wills always gets to me a bit ... maybe I ought to read this as a Lenten penance. Could be good for me. :)

10:49 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Denny,

I had only read one thing by him before - an article about abortion, I think. But then I saw a video of him at Grace Cathedral, talking about another of his books, and thought I'd look for him at the library.

11:58 PM  
Anonymous Paul Maurice Martin said...

I wasn't suggesting the evidence for Jesus' existence isn't there. That's my understanding too - that there are a few brief yet independent references to him elsewhere. Even if there weren't, the idea that he was "made up" seems a lot more complicated and unlikely to me than assuming that all these people were writing about someone who actually was going around doing some sort of preaching at that time. The gospels don't read like fiction or mythology - not that tightly organized.

The books of the New Testament are faith documents written by people who'd reached theological conclusions about Jesus’ identity. That's not to say whether correctly or incorrectly, only that the books of the New Testament are faith documents and not historiography or biography.

As to their apparent mutual corroboration, it's thought that the synoptic gospels great resemblance to each other is the result of their authors having made use of a common source document that no longer exists. (As I recall, scholars refer to it as the “Q source” – I forget what the Q stands for.) And of course, the NT is an anthology of selected early church writings. Later church councils decided that other writings of the period were heretical, leaving them out of the canon and adding to its consistency.

“If you're interested, I'm sure you could dig up more info on the historical Jesus.” Like a lot of people, I’ve been interested for a long time; and everything I read and heard in divinity school indicates that there is essentially no historical information about Jesus. That’s because virtually all that’s been written about him is contained in the NT, which isn’t historiography. As you suggest, source documents for the ancient world in general just don’t do history, journalism or biography in the modern sense. Those sorts of standards for verification and objectivity didn't exist at the time; those forms of study and writing hadn’t come into being yet.

Believing that Jesus existed is historically likely. Believing that he was the theologically delineated Person presented in the early church faith documents we know collectively as the New Testament is a religious belief.

5:57 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Paul,

Yes, the Q document - but that doesn't explain John's gospel, and even the non-canonical gospels, which have some exotic stuff in them or which draw different conclusions about what Jesus' teachings meant, still have Jesus as teacher/messiah being dead and resurrected.

everything I read and heard in divinity school indicates that there is essentially no historical information about Jesus. That’s because virtually all that’s been written about him is contained in the NT, which isn’t historiography

I'm not sure what you mean by historical info - like date of birth/death, stuff he did/said, people he knew? It seems like the NT is as good at this as Plutarch’s Life of Alexander is for him. The fact that the writers draw a theological conclusion from what info they had doesn't do away with the info.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Paul Maurice Martin said...

People weren't writing biography/history/doing journalism in the ancient world. They didn't have our ideas about verifying and correlating sources, trying to be as objective as possible and so forth.

I don't know enough about Plutarch or other ancient hisory figures to say that this one or that one is more reliable than another.

The people who wrote the NT had drawn faith-conclusions about Jesus that are inextricably woven into the narratives. When you read words with quotation marks that Jesus is supposed to have said, it isn't like reading quotations of Abraham Lincoln or other figures from more recent periods of time where the primary source material is what we'd recognize as clearly being "news" (good or otherwise...)

If it were known that Jesus thought he was the Messiah and died trying to tell people that, the NT narrative would be taught as historical information. But that's not what it is - not any more than the Koran or the Old Testament.

The narrative is clearly mainly theology. That's not to speak for or against faith in Jesus as God, only to say that the New Testament isn't "information" in the modern sense of that word.

6:24 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

If it were known that Jesus thought he was the Messiah and died trying to tell people that, the NT narrative would be taught as historical information. But that's not what it is - not any more than the Koran or the Old Testament.


I think I see what you mean, but we do accept as historical fact info of the same of lesser quality about other historical figures of a comparable time. We don't take ancient history clases and have the teacher say - well, there's no point in talking about Alexander because the sources just aren't good enough. It's one thing to say that we cannot know if Jesus was the messiah based on the NT, but I think we can pretty safely say that we can know the writers of the NT believed he was.

8:47 PM  

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