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The Gospels: Fact or fiction?BY: Kile Smith 05.29.2012
What did Jesus really say on the cross? Are the Gospels fairy tales or journalism? How can you take them seriously when they contradict each other? A colloquy between two aficionados of Bach’s St. John Passion.
The Gospel truth? That dependsKILE SMITH
With Thomas Lloyd
I would prefer to characterize the Gospel of John as “one of the canonical interpretations of what happened” rather than a “report of what happened,” since there are irreconcilable conflicts between all four of the Gospels, all written years after the events themselves.
Lots of folks don’t believe John’s or any of the Gospels. I don’t consider the differences among the books at all irreconcilable, but that’s another issue.
Of course there are many shadings of what people believe, or even think it means to “believe.” And the Gospels can be reconciled in many ways. But I was only suggesting that taken as a literal account of what happened (which I don’t think was their original purpose in any case), they simply can’t be factually reconciled (which I don’t see as a problem one way or another for faith, just a given).
More importantly, I think they also represent very different theological and Christological points of view (as you say) that can be held in tension by people both inside and outside the faith tradition, but can lose something of their particular truth when reduced to a rationalized equivalency.
The a priori faith in a supposed lack of factuality in the Gospels—that it’s “just a given"— is not a convincing tenet to me, but as I say, it doesn’t touch on this issue.
Just to clarify my side point: I’m not suggesting a lack of factuality in the Gospels (i.e., that nothing in the Gospels is related to events that actually happened) but a lack of consistent factuality.
For example, on a simple and non-contentious level, the four Gospels give three differing accounts of what Jesus’s last words on the cross were (Matthew/Mark: “Eli, Eli....”; Luke: “Why hast thou forsaken me?”; John: “It is finished”). Only one of them can represent Jesus’s actual last words on the cross. Today, we can only speculate on the answer because none of the Gospels is a first-person account.
This is only one of many similar examples in the passion account itself (as Raymond Brown has explored in depth in his two-volume The Death of the Messiah). Are these inconsistencies an insurmountable impediment to faith? No. Do they prove that there is no factual basis at all to the Gospel accounts of Jesus life and death? Of course not.
But the idea that the Gospels are simply a reporting of what happened in a way that is factually consistent and indisputable cannot be rationally supported by a straightforward reading of the texts themselves.
I say: Let the fundamentalists and atheists argue over this modernist way of understanding faith and scripture. For the rest of us “looking through the glass darkly” from the perspective of Christian faith, the Gospels are testimonies of faith representing differing perspectives about the meaning of what they remembered of the life and death of an actual historical person named Jesus— perspectives determined as normative by those in the faith tradition long before us.
Their complete factual consistency wasn’t important to the evangelists, and it needn’t be important to us.
I don’t think we disagree by much. But John, at least, puts himself at the cross as an eyewitness. In “a straightforward reading of the texts themselves” (indeed, the best kind of reading), there are no contradictions of fact. As you point out, there are different reports as to what Jesus said when, but no contradiction. Nowhere do the authors say that such-and-such are the “actual last words on the cross,” bar none. Rather, he said this, he said that, he cried out, he died, with unknowable gaps between, all happening before a shifting group of witnesses in a span of who knows how long.
These and other understandable differences, acknowledged since the early Fathers, are easy to reconcile, and have been. Besides, we don’t expect any account to be exhaustive— which would, you and I agree, unfairly place a modern view of reportage onto ancient documents.
I think we may actually be fairly far apart on this, which is of course OK. I, for one, believe that even as we grow in knowledge, faith and experience, our mortal perspective will always be limited.
I agree that the particular example I cited from Raymond Brown doesn’t represent a significant theological conflict. But the fact that each Gospel does not say, “Here are the actual last words of Jesus on the cross, bar none” (rather than simply saying, “Jesus said...and then died") actually supports my point, which is that concerns for this kind of historical consistency were of much less interest to the early church than to the modern church.
More essentially to our point, while whoever composed the final version of John’s Gospel wrote as a first-person witness, there is little evidence to support that this is more than a literary commonplace. The current overwhelming scholarly consensus (though it could always be proven wrong with new evidence) is that John’s is the latest and the least historically-based of the four accounts.
Some see the question of whether the Gospel was written by an actual eyewitness who was John the Apostle rather than an interpretation of an oral tradition compiled three generations later by more than one hand as a critical matter of faith. I am not among those.
If our example supports both our points, I’m willing to leave it at that. I’m sure we’ve long since tried the patience of the most devoted BSR reader, but I’ll only add that if ever there were a consensus among Biblical scholars on anything— let alone anything about the historical-critical method— that would count as a miracle of Gospel-of-John proportions!♦
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