The Gospels are Memory, Not Fiction

The Gospels are Memory, Not Fiction June 8, 2018

A reader sends along this great passage:

“Textual problems have led some modern scholars to question the credibility of the Gospels and even to doubt the historical existence of Jesus. These studies provoked an intriguing reaction from an unlikely source: Julien Gracq, an old and prestigious novelist…which is all the more arresting for coming from an agnostic. Gracq first acknowledged the impressive learning of one of these scholars…as well as the devastating logic of his reasoning; but…he still found himself left with one fundamental objection: for all his formidable erudition, the scholar in question simply had no ear—he could not hear what should be obvious to any sensitive reader—that, underlying the text of the Gospels, there is a masterly and powerful unity of style, which derives from one unique and inimitable voice; there is the presence of one singular and exceptional personality, whose expression is so original, so bold that one could positively call it impudent. Now, if you deny the existence of Jesus, you must transfer all these attributes to some obscure, anonymous writer, who should have had the improbable genius of inventing such a character—or, even more implausibly, you must transfer this prodigious capacity for invention to an entire committee of writers. And Gracq concluded: in the end, if modern scholars, progressive-minded clerics, and the docile public all surrender to this critical erosion of the Scriptures, the last group of defenders who will obstinately maintain that there is a living Jesus at the central core of the Gospels will be made up of artists and creative writers, for whom the psychological evidence of style carries much more weight than mere philological arguments.”

I love that.  It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ remarks on biblical scholars who confidently declare that a gospel is a romance or legend.  He doesn’t want to know how long they have been engaged in close study of that gospel.  He wants to know how many romances and legends the scholar has read.  Because Lewis had been reading legends and romances his whole life and the gospels are nothing like them.

A man who has spent his youth and manhood in the minute study of New Testament texts and of other people’s studies of them, whose literary experience of those texts lacks any standard of comparison such as can only grow from a wide and deep and genial experience of literature in general, is . . . very likely to miss the obvious things about them.

As an English major and a Lit major, I have always had the same impression as Lewis of pop anti-Christian biblical scholarship: the sort that tells us “Jesus never existed” or which cavalierly dismisses the miraculous or any gospel narrative the scholar finds awkward to his worldview. One skeptic announces that Jesus never existed, while another declares that the narrative of his birth in Bethlehem is an invention to link him to Jewish prophecy when he “really” came from Nazareth. Such skeptics need to get their stories straight since a non-existent Jesus can’t “really” come from anywhere.

And I see no reason to think either are right. As I argued some time back, the gospels do things that no con man in his right mind would do:

 The gospels are, in large part, a work of pious fiction according to Crossan. The Resurrection never occurred. It’s just a comforting tale early believers came up with to deal with the loss of Christ. The portrayal of Jesus as born at Bethlehem is something the gospel writers have to concoct in order to identify Jesus with the Messiah. And so, to get him there, Luke tells the story–of a worldwide taxation enrollment.

I drum my fingers on the table top and reminisce. Comedian Steve Martin used to do a routine in which he smiled broadly with that distinct smile of his and said, “Remember a couple of years back when the earth (wry pause)… exploded? Remember how they built that giant space ark and loaded all of humanity into it, but the government decided not to tell the stupid people what was going on so that they wouldn’t panic…..” The light of understanding would then break across his face as he surveyed the faces of the audience and he would quickly backtrack saying, “Oooooooh! Uh….. Never mind!”

I can’t help but think of that as I read Crossan’s take on Luke. We are being asked to believe that the gospels are works of cunning fiction by people laboring under some huge need to bring others under the spell of their delusion of a Risen Christ. Part of their messianic delusion requires them to link the Nazarene carpenter with King David by portraying him as born in “the city of David”, Bethlehem. And so they do what to get Jesus there in time for his birth and debut as the Son of David?

Well, a lot of options are open to the creative gospel writer whose only goal is to write a tall tale. You could just say that Mary’s grandmother took sick and she went to visit her. You could claim that Joseph bought a plot of land and didn’t want to leave Mary behind while he went to inspect it. You could cook up an angelic visitation commanding the Holy Family to go to Bethlehem and wait for their son to be born. Any of these stories have the tremendous advantage of being extremely hard to refute decades after the event. And since you’ve already stuffed your gospel full of miracles, what’s one more angel?

But no, according to Crossan, Luke tells the equivalent of Martin’s space ark story: “Remember, a few decades back when the entire world was enrolled for taxation?” He invites, not just somebody to refute it, but everybody in his entire audience. That’s an awfully strange thing to do if the enrollment never happened and an awfully odd way to establish the bona fides of your main character.

But, more than anything, what strikes me about the gospels is precisely what Gracq says.  Occam’s Razor says that the simplest explanation for the Jesus we meet in the gospels is that there was a real Jesus who is the source of the sayings and stories of the gospels, rather than that four evangelists all invented such a character.

Yeah, yeah.  I know.  Marcan priority.  Luke and Matthew are just copying Mark.  Except, of course, they aren’t “just” copying Mark.  They certainly seem to have him as a source (you know, like writers do when they are writing their own stuff).  But they also appear to have lots of other sources as well.  Why?  Because not just four evangelists but a whole community of people are remembering a real man named Jesus, to whose life they are “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” as Luke calls them.  In short, the gospel are memoirs of a community of eyewitnesses and bear all the earmarks we would expect if that were so:

Even more intriguing is this:

What strikes me is, very simply, how easily this is accounted for by simply treating the documents as works of memory and not as fiction. Are they theologized?  Of course.  Are they modern biographies?  Of course not.  But they depend, at the end of the day, on a real bedrock of eyewitness memory, not on mere fiction or invention of Jesus.

Why does Mark (and he alone) mention that Alexander and Rufus were the sons of Simon of Cyrene when they play absolutely no role in the gospel narrative whatsoever? Because Alexander and Rufus are known to the actual flesh and blood people to whom Mark is writing at Rome (Romans 16:13). These are not tales told loooong after the events. They are living memories being written down as the generation that witnessed them is getting old, but by no means is gone. These are people separated in time from the events by the same span of time that separates us from Reagan, Carter, Nixon, Johnson, and Kennedy.  Alexander and Rufus are standing right next to the people in the liturgy and agape feast where this gospel is being read for the first time.  And much of it they already know because Mark is largely writing down Peter’s preaching. (That, by the way, is a very good reason for Marcan primacy in the other two synoptics.  When you have the testimony of Simon Peter himself in writing, you use it if you are composing your own gospel.)

The people who insist that Luke and Matthew are simply copying Mark and that the evangelists deified a merely mortal Jesus over time have to face the fact that Mark’s Jesus makes a bald-faced claim to deity at his trial:

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am; and you will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mk 14:61–62).

No ambiguous “You have said it” for Mark’s Jesus.  “I AM”.  It’s as plain a claim to be God as you could ask for, given in reply to a question that is seeking to know precisely if that is his claim.

So the reality is that the proclamation of the deity of Jesus is not a “late development”.  It is there at the birth of the Church. It is implied in the central rite of the Church–the Eucharist–every time the Divine Victim tells us, “This is my body, this is my blood.” It is, indeed, virtually the only news the Church has.  Jesus, the Son of God, who is the I AM, has been raised from the dead and now offers us his divinized flesh and blood in the Eucharist.  That’s the news.  That’s what all the gospels spend a quarter of their ink on.  Everything else is just prefatory remarks.  The gospels are, in the words of one theologian, “Passion Narratives with long introductions.”  It is sheer fantasy to try to make them anything else–or to imagine the tale they tell was substantially the invention of Mark, the greatest and most influential fiction writer in the history of the world.

Nope.  At the heart of the gospels stands a figure who looks like the same utterly unique personality in each one, not because Mark was a literary genius who invented the most staggeringly influential fictional protagonist in history and then Luke and and Matthew plagiarized him, but because all three gospel writers are drawing on the real memories of a real community (and, in Matthew and Mark’s cases, on their own memories as well).

Occam’s Razor really is the way to go here, especially since the alternative is to say, on the one hand, that Matthew and Luke are merely slavishly repeating what Mark tells them while, at the same time, insisting they are radically corrupting the merely human Jesus of Mark into the God figure he mutated into.  This urban legend just does not fit the facts.  Just face the fact that the gospels show us a man who is unlike any other figure because they are preserving the eyewitness testimony of the community that knew that man and offers a coherent memory of him.

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