Monday, March 9, 2009

The Gospel According to Jesus

Reading in and between the lines,
an investigative reporter finds much more
in the four Gospels. And less.

First Gospel
Frontispiece: Follow i
Foreword ii-v
One. Ways to Get the Scriptures Wrong 1-6
Two. What if…? 7-14
Three. Jesus Afoot 15-26
Four. The Text: Word Census 27-35
Five: Ringside at the Miracles 36-47
Six: Parables: Telling but Teasing 48-53
Seven: Do These 54-63
Eight: Shun These 64-67
Nine: Opposition and Rejection 68-72
Ten: Followers and Fellowship 73-78
Eleven: The Past, the Future and the Timeless 79-91
Twelve: Surveying Christ 92-111
Thirteen: What Jesus Didn’t Do 112-113
Fourteen: What Jesus Did 114-

Second Gospel
Fifteen: Skirting Religious Pitfalls
Sixteen: Work Works
Seventeen: Mary: Exhibit A

Now here is this man mending his nets
After a long day, his fingers
Nicked, here and there, by ropes and hooks
Pain like tomorrow in the small of his back,
His feet blue with his name, stinking of baits,
His mind on a beer and supper—nothing else—
A man who describes the settled shape
Of his life every time his hands
Make and snug a perfect knot.

I want to understand, if only for the story,
How a man like this,
A man like my father in harvest,
Like Bunk MacVane in the stench of lobstering,
Or a teamster, a steelworker,
How an ordinary working stiff,
Even a high-tempered one,
Could just be called away.

It’s only in one account
He first brings in a netful—
In all the others, he just calls,
They return the look or stare and then
They “straightaway” leave their nets to follow.
That’s all there is. You have to figure
What was in that call, that look.

(And I wouldn’t try it on a tired working man
Unless I was God’s son—
He’d kick your ass right off the pier.)
If they had been vagrants,
Poets, or minstrels, I’d understand that,
Men who follow a different dog.
But how does a man whose movement,
Day after day after day,
Absolutely trusts the shape it fills
Put everything down and walk away?

I’d pass up all the fancy stunting
With Lazarus and the lepers
To see that one.

—Roland Flint
Resuming Green
© 1983 Roland Flint

3/9/2009 1:36 PM; 2175ww
In these epistles [from Paul] there are
certain things difficult to understand…
—2 Peter 3:16

Now Jesus did many other signs
in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book.
—John 20:30

But there are also many other things which Jesus did;
were every one of them to be written,
I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
—John 21:25

I’m no theologian or biblical scholar. At most I’m a writer with a background in journalism. But perhaps I could bring some probing, investigative skills to a task I see as long overdue. Have the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John been thoroughly mined? Maybe not. Had they been, would there be so many books trying to explain what Christ and Christianity are all about? My current tally stands at 71,335,429,605. Of course I’ve read only a handful, but still, enough to set me wondering.

Is the person of Christ well served in most of them? Not to my satisfaction, most probably not to his either. Granted: many of Jesus’ contemporaries, even his followers, also fell short. Then too the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are partial, sketchy and disjointed, to say the least. Besides, they’re not particularly good at establishing chronological links. The absence of anything approaching a biography may explain why so many commentators are so eager to interpret and theorize. The question is: have they been overeager?

I maintain there’s more in the four gospels, both explicit and implicit, than most people impatiently conclude. Before asking what all Christ means, shouldn’t we first compile and integrate all the evidence as to what he did and said? A failure to do so often nets us just so many words: abstract, polysyllabic, ethereal, unengaging and sometimes even obfuscatory words (like the five adjectives I just used). I’m not accusing anyone of getting Christ wrong—just not getting him adequately in focus.

The first to write about Jesus, though indirectly, was St. Paul, whose first letter probably dates from the mid-50s A.D. Until then Christian groups had lived off an oral tradition stemming especially from the apostles. By 70 A.D., when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple, practically all the books making up the New Testament had been written and circulated. St. John is the main exception, since his gospel, three letters and book of Revelation didn’t see the light of day until near the end of the first century. With the death of this last privileged eyewitness, the revelations making up the New Covenant (and Testament) ended, as many authorities proclaim and common sense seconds.

Now, it’s no surprise that Paul has been considered the early Church’s first theologian and interpreter of Christ (once he suddenly stopped being its prime persecutor). He was very well steeped in the Old Testament, whose zealous defender and practitioner he clearly had been. Of all the New Testament writers, except maybe for Luke, he was the best educated and of no small speculative bent. Moreover, what didn’t this type-A apostle do to spread the Good News over Asia Minor and half of the Mediterranean world?

It was his abiding solicitude for the churches he founded that led him to dash off so many of those spontaneous and untidy pastoral exhortations known as his epistles (just a fancy word for letters, for treatises they clearly aren’t). It’s no wonder that some of their contents were (and still are) not easy to grasp, as St. Peter mentions in his second letter. His reservations, shared by many, may refer to the difficulty of sorting out the metaphorical from Paul’s literal meaning.

Starting in Damascus, the new convert doubtless drank in the oral tradition then in vogue at this Christian outpost. At what point and how acquainted was Paul with the three gospels quilled during his lifetime? We don’t know. Surely they reached him, especially since Luke, a frequent companion of Paul in his travels, crafted one. Which letters he wrote before and after his study of Matthew, Mark and Luke is hard to determine.
One liability did dog Paul the thinker and teacher, though. However many locutions, visions or private revelations visited the Apostle, he never rubbed elbows with Jesus while the latter trod the earth for some 33 years. Surely this is no little disadvantage. If Christ were indeed the God-man, wasn’t it above all through the means of his novel humanity that he was to beckon and call humans to their destiny, partaking somehow of his divinity? Yet the best whiffs of an embodied God that Paul could garner were all second-hand.

So are ours, for that matter. Yet, presumably, those who come to Christianity after the first hour are not necessarily at a disadvantage with respect to the original Twelve. There may be ways to overcome the absence of personal dealings with Jesus in the flesh. But the effective desire to do so puts an even higher priority on what we can glean concretely from the gospels. If in answer to so many human shortcomings Christ is God writ small, audible and visible, at least that much is what humanity is bound to study, prize, gape and gawk at. At the very least the gospels, not to mention the Old Testament, should be the context for interpreting authoritative writings in the apostolic age. In other words, Paul should be filtered at least through those first-hand accounts, rather than vice versa. I’m not detracting from Paul or his epistles; the beef may lie entirely with Paul’s students.

It’s not easy to take a fresh look at Christ, to view him as he came across to his contemporaries. The self-dubbed “Son of Man” is no fan of organization or subtle arguments, no practitioner of noise or bustle. He seems so off-hand and casual. What’s the game plan? His only worry and hurry seems to get his passion and death over with. Doesn’t such an overly good naïf cry out for some sort of system to organize and above all explain his brief career? Many authors apparently think so. But, as Charlotte Harris shows in her The Human Face of Jesus, they usually end up remaking Christ in their own image and likeness. But what Jesus was really up to can incautiously be confused with what he did in the foreground. Maybe what he came to earth to show us was so unwieldy and huge that his very deeds and words were but tips of the proverbial iceberg. Could he have been generating hints of his exceeding transcendence and no less of his most intimate immanence? But enough of these long, off-putting words and abstractions! Let’s get down to business.

Whether Jesus was both divine and human falls outside this work’s scope[1]. Neither are we interested in whether Scripture is divinely inspired nor whether it is free of error. For now also we put aside the validation given to the gospels by the oral tradition and their interpretation by any church teaching authority. It’s not that we scorn those questions (or answers); it’s just that ours is a preliminary one. We want to flesh out as completely as possible what all Jesus did and said, lest we miss any clues as to what and who he was…is?
In doing so, we may discover behavior patterns that only make sense when attributed to any hypothetical God-man at work and play. We may also see that what the historical Christ did is pretty much what each of us would have done, had we been in God’s shoes. Then, from that enhanced perspective, Jesus’ deeds and words will likely converge on a single conclusion: his overriding desire to win our friendship.

To give you a taste of what’s to follow, let me point to three Gospel passages that in part answer the question: What was Jesus like? At least for me on reflection they spelled huge discoveries.
The first passage: John the Baptist “looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples [Andrew and John] heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, ‘What do you seek?’ And they said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying; and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour” (Jn 1:36-39).
Nothing out of the ordinary there, you may be thinking. I had the same reaction, till I realized that the evangelist John described the scene he took part in some 50-60 years later. In other words: Such was the indelible impression that Jesus wrought in the first of his disciples that at least one could recall a half century later the very hour when he first met up with Christ. Not some ordinary encounter, then. A further clue to the Galilean carpenter’s magnetic personality can be gleaned from the next passage.
“And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.’” (Mk 2:19[2] Mt 9:14-15, Lk 5:33-35). So, being in Jesus’ extended company was akin to a long-running wedding reception. Now, anyone conversant with how the Jews, at least then, went all out for weddings (often lasting up to 8 days), can easily see how this festive spirit would crowd out any feelings for repentance. This already tells us lots about Christ’s attractiveness. He’s forever sweeping people off their feet.
A third scene is well-known and has to do, again, with weddings. But don’t skim through Jn 2:2-11: “Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples. When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now six stone jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast.’ So they took it. When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.’ This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
Quite a sign! Doing the calculation is very telling. Six times 20-30 gallons translates into some 150 gallons of new choice wine. Or 600 quarts or 2400 cups or 4800 servings! And all that on top of what had been already quaffed! Whatever else Jesus intended to convey with this transformation, it bespeaks lavishness beyond human measure. And the water’s disappearance certainly shouldn’t be construed as an aversion on Jesus’ part to cleanliness. Rather he seems intent on revealing something about himself, even at the risk of excessive drinking among the wedding party.
[1] I do address this question in a recent work, The Case for Jesus.
[2] Here I introduce my own device (“”) to indicate parallel texts. The text cited first is identified as coming from which gospel, followed by chapter and verse. If essentially the same scene or saying appears in other gospels, it is called “parallel”; such citations follow the two vertical parallel bars.

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