The Gospel Truth

Or, some things that I've been thinking about that would seem to suggest that the Christian scriptures (a.k.a. the Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Revelation) may in fact be something other than simply documents of their time but which I do not know enough of the scholarship in New Testament studies to prove and so would like reading suggestions if anyone has any:

1. SteveG makes the interesting point in his Catholic Ramblings that, unlike the New Testament (or, indeed, the Hebrew Scriptures), the scriptures on which the "other" great monotheistic religions, namely Islam and the Church of the Latter Day Saints are founded depend upon a revelation given to a single individual. As he observes:

"This puts everything to be believed in the trust that this one individual in question had a true revelation from God and not a self-delusional episode, or worse yet, committed a willing deception. Did Joseph Smith really find golden tablets that only he could read? Did these angels really appear to him? Did Mohamed (sic) really go into divinely inspired trances and converse with God and the angels? At bottom, it’s all about that one individual, and whether we can have any thought as to whether their particular revelation was legitimate. This puts far too much trust for my taste into the purely mystical experience of a single person."

I am not making any claims here about whether I think SteveG is right (although I suspect you can guess where my sympathies lie), but I was struck by his observation because it had never really occurred to me to make precisely this comparison. It is as if Christianity were to depend wholly on the Gospel of John and Revelation (assuming these texts were both written by the same person) or wholly on Luke-Acts, rather than, as it does, on multiple witnesses to a particular historical event--which witnesses, it should be noted, do not always strictly speaking seem to agree.

2. Which is my next point: there really are things in the Gospels that don't seem to agree with either the doctrine of the Incarnation as it has been developed over the centuries or with each other. I'm thinking here, for example, of the passages in which Christ, although the Second Person of the Trinity and therefore presumably God, seems not to know certain things that it seems that He should, like when the Judgment is coming (Mark 13:32), or to be afraid of His impending death (Matthew 26:38-39; Mark 14:33; John 12:27) when, as God, surely He knew that there was nothing to worry about.

Harvard historian of Christianity Kevin Madigan points to other such troubling passages, which, by the by, the Arians of antiquity used to try to prove that Christ, while divine, was not equal in divinity to the Father: where Jesus is said to have "increased in wisdom" (Luke 2:52) when according to orthodox doctrine He is Eternal Wisdom, therefore not susceptible to increase; where Jesus is said to have cried out at His death, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46: Mark 15:34) when according to John (1:1-2) He is the Word of God with the Father from the beginning; where Jesus is said to have prayed (Matthew 26:39; Luke 23:46) as if His and the Father's will were not already one. If, in fact, Christianity was all a great put-up job, it seems curious that the Gospels themselves should be so, well, complicated, hardly admitting of easy answers even today when scholars are relatively confident that they have placed them in their intellectual and cultural milieu. One would not want one's faith to hinge on such "proof by inconsistency," but surely if the Gospels were purely human compositions about simply a human being whom his followers were deluded into thinking was God, their authors (and the Church that recognized them as scripture) would have done a better job at hiding the messy counterevidence (if, of course, it is counterevidence).

3. Neither Jesus nor the New Testament texts really make sense in the context of first-century antiquity. This is one of the things that has struck me most in the last few weeks. We are so used to the Gospels, it is easy to take them for granted, but as texts produced at the time that they were (late first century), they really are, let's face it, strange.

Sure, there are other texts like them, sayings collections and lives of the philosophers, for example, but (and here's where my ignorance of the ancient texts is going to show) is there really anybody in antiquity who was ever shown to be as concerned with women, the poor, the outcasts and sinners as Jesus? The philosophers cared about wisdom and leading the good life, but their sayings were more along the lines of the sorts of advice that modern Americans get from their yoga teachers: advice about how to live comfortably despite the vicissitudes of fortune grounded in the assumption that it was possible to do so simply by training one's attention. Nothing messy about the Kingdom or crucifixion. And unlike the mystery religions, Christianity was always about spreading the good news of the Resurrection to everyone, not (as the Gnostics would have it) preserving such wisdom for a select, inner group.

I wish I had more concrete examples to support this hunch, but it does seem to me worth thinking in a comparative context about how very strange the Gospels really are as narratives, particularly given the weight of exegesis that they have proven capable of supporting over the centuries. Not just any text can do this. In human history, there are relatively few, which, again, does tend to suggest that there is something to them other than simply human authorship, although I'm not sure I would put all my eggs in this basket alone. But think of it this way: if somebody in the first century had set about to "make up" Christ, is the Christ that we see in the Gospels the Christ we would expect?

4. The reason that there is such a thing as Christianity at all is that so many people at the time were witnesses to its truth. Okay, so this one still feels like something of an article of faith, rather than an historical proof, but it occurs to me that we do wrong to place so much emphasis (as we have tended to do, particularly since the "search for the historical Jesus" began in the 19th century) on the Gospels. All of the texts of the New Testament are witness to the power of Jesus' presence in the lives of his followers, including the oh-so-problematic letters of Paul.*

I must confess that I haven't spent as much time reading Acts and the Epistles as I should (not since a great course that I took with Werner Kelber on Paul's letters in college), but I'm starting to become really curious about these texts: is there anything remotely like them in antiquity either? For example, 1 John 4:7-12:

"Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us."

Again, ancient Mediterranean non-Christian peoples are not particularly famous for their emphasis on God as love. G.K. Chesterton has done a better job of making this point than I ever could, against those who would insist that Christianity was just one of many movements in antiquity such that at its heart it is still really "Pagan." In Chesterton's words (Heretics [1905], p. 83):

"There is only one thing in the modern world that has been face to face with Paganism; there is only one thing in the modern world which in that sense knows anything about Paganism: and that is Christianity. That fact is really the weak point in the whole of that hedonistic neo-Paganism of which I have spoken. All that genuinely remains of the ancient hymns of the ancient dances of Europe, all that has honestly come to us from the festivals of Phoebus or Pan, is to be found in the festivals of the Christian Church. If any one wants to hold the end of a chain which really goes back to the heathen mysteries, he had better take hold of a festoon of flowers at Easter or a string of sausages at Christmas. Everything else in the modern world is of Christian origin, even everything that seems most anti-Christian. The French Revolution is of Christian origin. The newspaper is of Christian origin. The anarchists are of Christian origin. Physical science is of Christian origin. The attack on Christianity is of Christian origin. There is one thing, and one thing only, in existence at the present day which can in any sense accurately be said to be of pagan origin, and that is Christianity.

"The real difference between Paganism and Christianity is perfectly summed up in the difference between the pagan, or natural, virtues, and those three virtues of Christianity which the Church of Rome calls virtues of grace. The pagan, or rational, virtues are such things as justice and temperance, and Christianity has adopted them. The three mystical virtues which Christianity has not adopted, but invented, are faith, hope, and charity [or love]."

This is one of the reasons that I cringe when people start comparing the Virgin Mary to the "other," pagan goddesses; yes, of course, there were precursors to the revelation of God as man. But as C.S. Lewis argues (at least, I think I'm getting this from Lewis), the reason these stories exist at all is because they are intimations of the Truth that was to come and now has. No, I don't think I want to go there (comparative mythologies) just now. What I want is a sense of the way in which how the image of God developed in the New Testament actually compares with ideas about divinity that would have been available to its authors if they had never encountered Jesus.

5. Finally, something that has come to me thanks to the reading that I've been doing about centering prayer (plus, of course, the prayer itself): it doesn't really make any difference to the Christian revelation "God is love" what other religious traditions say about the divine. God loves us, full stop. And that's the Gospel truth.

*You know, the ones where he condemns "unnatural intercourse" (Romans 1:26-27) and insists that women keep their mouths shut in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35).

Comments

  1. On the issue of the teaching that is in the Bible and its influence on early Christian thinkers that distinguishes them from their Greek and Roman counterparts I like this quote from Robert Wilkens "The Spirit of Early Christian Thought"

    “Neither would ancient Greeks and Romans have been familiar with the biblical images of the heavenly Jerusalem or City of God, the second Adam or the body of Christ, the poetry of the Song of Songs or the canticle of Mary in the Gospel of Luke, the vivid theological locutions of Saint Paul, “image of the invisible God,” “first born of creation,” the hymn of Christ’s “emptying” in Philippians, the prologue of the Gospel of John and Saint John’s meditation on love in his first epistle. There prayer books would have been innocent of the intensely personal language used by the psalmists to address God: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned,” (Psalm 51) and “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away … Where can I flee from your presence?”(Psalm 139). Though ancient writers would have used many of the words found in the scriptures, the overtones of such terms such as grace, faith, obedience, love, truth, patience, hope, image of God, adoption, servant, creation, will of God, election, law, God the father, Word of God, Holy Spirit would have escaped them, They would not have looked upon the history of the Jewish people as their own history. The Bible formed Christians into a people and gave them a language.” (52)

    Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003

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  2. Thanks, I'll have a look at Wilkens' book!

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  3. For further reading on item #3, allow me to recommend:

    Dudrey, Russ. "What the Writers Should Have Done Better: A Case for the Resurrection of Jesus Based on Ancient Criticisms of the Resurrection Reports." Stone-Campbell Journal 3.1 (2000): 55-78.

    This piece speaks to exactly the question you raise in the last line of item 3; arguing, as you can no doubt tell, that Christ is not what we would expect.

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  4. @Matthew: Thank you! I finally got a chance to look at this article and it is very helpful. I need now to go after some of his references, including Celsus and Porphyry.

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