November 23, 2017

Mark Shea: The Gospel as per your Uncle Bill

Scripture as seasoned: The Bible is not meant to be a modern, historical account of events. Multiple authors wrote in different genres and for different purposes, at some remove from the actual happenings. PHOTO: Filipe Almeida

Last time in this space, we looked at the problem of making overly-confident claims about the minutiae of day-to-day life of peasants in the first century Holy Land. To be sure, no article of faith is at stake in quibbling about what a Canaanite peasant woman may have thought about dogs.

I’m willing to concede that my reader is probably right on the whole about the view of dogs in that culture. But my point is that we don’t really know that he is right. In short, we should approach Scripture with some circumspection about disputable issues lest we wind up approaching it with confident wrongness about indisputable issues.

That said, in this column I want to say that my reader makes a point I do agree with and one which many readers of Scripture often overlook. It is this: When we approach Scripture, we need to realize that we are a couple of removes from simply “hearing the words of Jesus” in the gospels and that matters as we try to understand what we are reading.

In short, we need to pay attention, not merely to what Jesus says and does in a story reported by an Evangelist, but to why the Evangelist is telling us that story and not some other, and why he tells it in one way and not another.

Character was a must, not so chronological precision. PHOTO: Swaraj Tiwari

Here’s the deal: the Evangelists are not tape recorders. They are people telling, as best they can, the true stories of what Jesus said and did. But they are not always and everywhere giving us the exact words of Jesus.

We are getting eyewitness testimony (for more on that I strongly recommend Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses), but it is eyewitness testimony of sayings and events that are being relayed to an audience with specific needs, fears, loves, questions and pastoral issues that the Evangelist is trying to address using the wisdom Christ gave to him. And so the language used to tell it and the particular memories being shared will vary.

Don’t feel threatened by that. You do the same thing when you choose to tell that story about when Uncle Bill accidently backed his car out of the garage without opening the door and not the story of cousin Vinnie and his pet goat, in order to cheer up the friend who wrecked his car. He needs the Uncle story, not the goat story.

And it’s a great story. You’ve told it for years. Plus it’s really true. You aren’t making it up. But you don’t tell it exactly the same way every time. And when your wife tells it, she includes details you don’t because she was in the living room with Bill’s wife Sally and heard the crash but didn’t see what you saw.

Stories were told and then retold before being written down, and yet they are still inspired. What does God mean to tell us? PHOTO: Cristina Gottardi

And the neighbor who ran over to help has another version that includes most of the same details but leaves out Sally because he didn’t know her very well.

In short, the gospels have all the benefits—and problems—of eyewitness testimony mediated to us through a community that remembers Jesus and gets its information from both apostles and people recording apostles or other eyewitnesses.

Sometimes, no doubt, the words we read really are the exact words of Jesus. Jesus, like any good teacher, has a knack for casting his teaching in easy to remember phrases. For example, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” are recorded in identical words in both Matthew 7:7–8 and Luke 11:9-10.

That could be because one is copying the other, but it is more likely that both are drawing from one common source of easy-to-remember sayings: Jesus and the community that circulated and remembered what he said and did.

At the same time, what is notable is that the Evangelists don’t all make use of all the materials floating around in the memory of the early Church. So Mark never quotes the Ask Seek Knock saying.

The reasons for this are complex and partly hidden from our view, just as the composition process for any book is. What you get is the finished product. And the finished product contains not merely sayings, but variations on sayings, as well as paraphrases.

Of which more next time.

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