They Told Stories About Him
Updated: Mar 29
"… Jesus was the kind of extraordinary person who inspired people so profoundly that they told stories about him. As they did, they sometimes embellished those stories in ways that deepened, expanded, and intensified the meaning he embodied, not to mislead or deceive, but so that the transforming experience of him could be conveyed. On top of whatever he did in the literal sense, he inspired people to experience something so meaningful that they had to stretch language beyond mere factual reporting to its fullest literary capacities. Their experience felt like liberation. Like love. Like healing and reconciliation. Like good news of great joy for all creation. They wanted us to experience these things too."
McLaren, Brian D.. Do I Stay Christian? (pp. 119-120). St. Martin's Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
If you're in the process of examining the tenets of your Christian faith, somewhere along the way your presuppositions about Bible will meet some dangerous-looking ideas in the dark alley of an unfamiliar scholar's work. Not to worry. These writers are actually friends, inviting you to understand what it looks like to have a deeper, more satisfactory foundation under your commitment to the Bible.
Many of us are accustomed to reading the gospels in small pieces with a narrow set of questions in the driver's seat:
What do I see here?
What do the words mean?
What's the point of the passage?
What does it mean for me in my context?
Let's consider the idea that reading the Bible that way is unique to our culture, and not in any way how one of Paul's letters was used or understood in the first century. Not that it’s a bad idea to read it our way, but there are insights to be gained from asking some different questions of the texts, like:
What happens when you do it differently? Like reading larger sections to find answers to some different questions:
Which gospel was earliest? Were there any New Testament ideas or texts that preceded our gospels?
What ideas or concepts appear to be added by later texts that aren't in the earlier ones?
Is there a difference between Paul and other writers?
Why is there some contradictory material in the Matthew and Luke, like the birth narratives?
What were the underlying rhetorical purposes behind John's gospel and are they different than Mark's?
So. Many. Questions. And if we're looking for original meanings and wisdom to bring over to our modern social conditions, it helps to know as much as possible about ancient texts and the contexts in which they were used.
Brian McLaren in the above quote addresses an important prerequisite for reading ancient documents: sorting out your own preferred "way of seeing" these texts. His is a literary (not literal) approach. He resonates with the narrative, the author's motives, the truths surfaced by story, the meanings beyond the language. McLaren's career and training was in English Literature, which uniquely equips him to approach the Bible from a novelist's mindset.
It's common for those of us in a deconstruction process to awaken to the reality of being firmly bound by one particular "orthodox" way of seeing the Bible, for example:
Mostly literal, i.e., face-value interpretation, allegorizing when needed but mostly depending on whatever the plain English means to us in our context.
Inspired, Inerrant and Infallible
Univocal- the Bible is fully coherent on all topics it addresses
…and when we encounter some different but fully rational and intellectually satisfying explanations that unlock new possibilities, we realize that abandoning these orthodox principles might be worth the stress of disagreeing with our faith community.
Imagine a shelf of books among the stacks at a local Barnes and Noble bookstore. The green-and-white sign above indicates the topic in that section: "Martin Luther King, Jr." Aha, you say to yourself, I've heard so many things about Martin Luther King, I'd like to find out what's really true about him, his life, his impact on our society and importance to our general search for purpose and meaning. Maybe you're also looking for a bit of inspiration to broaden your perspective of the world.
You come across a slim text entitled The Life and Times of Martin Luther King, Jr. You flip it open to check out the table of contents and notice under the title that it's by John Lewis. You recognize that as the name of one of King's closest colleagues in the struggle for civil rights in the 1960's and recall that he was a member of congress until his recent demise a couple of years ago.
Perfect! An eyewitness account.
You buy it, take it home and start reading. In a chapter on contemporary issues surrounding police violence toward non-white people, the author mentions his personal response to the death of Daunte Wright, killed by Kim Potter, a police officer in Minnesota. It's an emotional and moving passage that evokes the trauma of that day; unjust violence toward innocent people.
It's not until much later that the double take occurs. Hang on a minute…
Daunte Wright was shot in April of 2021. John Lewis died on July 17th, 2020. Wait, what?
Now you start to wonder… Did someone add that story on after Lewis had written the memoir? Was the entire book written by someone else, using Lewis's name- maybe a forgery? How can readers know what material is original to Lewis and what isn't? Is it possible that other authors got their information about King from this book, not knowing that it is pseudonymous?
Can we benefit from the story even though some of it is embellished or constructed over time?
These are similar to the questions asked by New Testament scholarship. One giant difference between the scenario above and the study of the New Testament is that the earliest production and diffusion of the texts in the first two centuries of Christianity was radically different than our book-saturated culture. Actual copies of original texts were few, expensive and accessible only to an elite social class that could read them. Public libraries, bookstores and the internet were far off in the future, and it just wasn't possible to check an author's citations, credentials or even their true identity. And on top of that, scholarly precision just didn't matter to the first generations of participants in the various branches of the early Jesus movement.
Consider the famous quote from Greek historian Thucydides, on his method for recording events in his work The Peloponnesian War:
"Regarding the speeches which each speaker made either on the eve of war or when they were already in it, it has been difficult to remember with perfect accuracy the spoken words, both for me, of the speeches which I myself heard, being present, and for those who reported to me [speeches] given at different times and places; so that each speaker is made to say what seemed to me most essential for him to say, given the circumstances in each case, while I have tried to keep as close as possible to the overall intention of the actual speech."
Thuc. 1. 22, 3rd C. BCE
The gospels record many speeches, parables, aphorisms and conversations that we assume to be the exact words of Jesus as remembered and written down by Matthew, Mark, Luke's eyewitnesses and John. That's how we think about it in the 21st century, but it's certainly not how events were handed down to others in the first century. A large body of archaeological, textual, social, and historical evidence indicates against this imagined notion of firsthand, accurate representations of what was said and done. The accounts we have in the gospels probably wound their way through oral storytelling at first, while perhaps a few sayings were written on papyrus pages or scrolls. Then, when the first Jewish-Christian Jesus movements needed them, the stories and sayings were assembled into coherent narratives by unknown authors whose differing agendas can be detected in their compositional decisions.
Most of us rely on second or third-hand accounts of the life and teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. We have film, photos, written letters and eyewitness accounts, recorded sermons. We can interview people who were there when he spoke, wrote, marched for justice, and died. His assassination was April 4th, 1968, more than 50 years ago at the writing of this article; assuming that his reputation and following continues to influence American society, what will his story look like 100 years from now? 200 years? In 2230, could there exist a "church" or a "centered set" oriented toward King's priorities of justice and equality? Will we put the man, Martin King, at the center or will it be the pro-social principles he fought for? Maybe both?
Will we talk about his resurrection or high status in heaven? Maybe not, but had he lived in the first century, it would have been completely appropriate to deify MLK as a man of great honor, and portray him as one who was more than merely human like the rest of us. Not only was it acceptable, it was compulsory that an influential public figure's birth would be accompanied by supernatural occurrences, and possibly direct intervention by a divine being.*
The earliest references to Jesus as "Christ" are in Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, written sometime in the 50's CE. That's around twenty years after the original events. Paul's message emphasizes the imminent apocalypse, and a defense of his authority. Already, only twenty years later, Jesus is depicted as an exalted figure, raised from the dead, and there is some thinking about the Old Testament prophet Joel's poured-out Holy Spirit as a harbinger of the Age to Come. Give the story another 20 years and it develops even further.
We see the first gospel account appear, probably Mark, after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Other texts begin to proliferate around the Mediterranean, wildly different from each other. Communities of people who have found an affinity to this novel Jewish sect demonstrate a need for something written to anchor their beliefs, to attempt to unify around a common story, and identify between belongers and enemies.
And the long journey to our modern English Bibles begins!
Questions to Think About:
Look at a sampling of "Statements of Faith" on a few diverse church websites. How does a liberal mainline church like the PCUSA differ from a conservative evangelical church like the Southern Baptists in their beliefs about the Bible?
What were the criteria for deciding between the many different texts being considered for canonization?
Why do you think Matthew and Luke composed different (and longer) stories than Mark? Why is John's gospel so different from the other three?