Gospels as Literary Creations


The Gospels are, it must be said with gratitude, works of art, the supreme fictions in our culture, narratives produced by enormously influential literary artists who put their art in the service of a theological vision. It is, of course, not uncommon to recognize literary artistry in the Gospels; there is perhaps no more beautiful short story than “The Prodigal Son,” no more moving sentence in all world literature than “I am with you always, until the end of time” (Matt. 28:20) – Randel Helms

A previous post argued that the gospels should have a qualifier to the consensus genre classification of greco roman biography, namely that they should be legendary biographies and not historical biographies.  The genre gives an indication of what to expect, so we should see a lot of legendary and mythological embellishment in the biography.  But this does not necessarily imply that all is fiction since there could be some historical content embedded in the narratives.  There are criteria that historians use to determine if content is historical or not, but I don’t have much confidence in the results, as Richard Carrier has outlined that many arguments can be fallacious.  Besides I tend to think that the Gospels are more literary than anything else, as this post will illustrate by drawing chiefly on Bart Ehrman’s analysis.

 

To put it plainly, the Gospel stories should be viewed as pieces of theological literature with little historical value.  What undermines their historicity is not so much the miracle stories and mythology – as most biographies of their time period contain – nor their favorable bias towards the subject matter, but rather their direct use of literary devices and editing to make theological and idiosyncratic points.  After all, if you start with one thing (Gospel of Mark) and change it to another thing (the other Gospels), how do you know which is correct?  This post will focus on how each author borrowed and changed content from the Gospel of Mark to construct their own ideas and implications of the life and death of Jesus Christ, while a later post will explore the different literary devices used to craft such stories.

 

The Gospels are filled with symbolism – things that mean something beyond their literal meaning. If you miss this, then you miss the best parts of the story.  Metaphor is a type of symbolism that equates one thing to another, not using like or as.  Most pervasively though, the stories use allusion, which makes references to people or events outside of the Gospels, most commonly from the Old Testament.  Just as heavily, the Gospels are filled with allegory, which makes references to other stories outside of the Gospels by subtly recasting characters or retelling events.  Parables are the most common form of allegory found in the Gospels, and they teach moral or spiritual lessons.  Lastly, rhetorical devices that are meant to persuade are quite common, consisting of hyperbole, chreia, personification, amplification, irony and incomplete syllogisms [3].

 

To explain the tools of analysis, redaction is the process of editing and redaction criticism is the study of how authors have created a story by editing another story.  As Bart Ehrman says, “If enough changes point in the same direction, we may be able to uncover the redactor’s principal concerns and emphases.”  Redaction criticism is very important to the study of the Gospels since both Matthew and Luke relied on the Gospel of Mark to create their story.  In fact, 80% of Mark is contained in the Gospel of Matthew.  Remember that the Gospel of Mark was written first, roughly around 70 CE. The Gospel of John’s story uses sources that are more controversial; he may or may not have relied directly on Mark, Matthew or Luke.  As a side, the authors of the Gospels are all anonymous, and for brevity sake, I’ll be referring to them by their traditional names assigned to them by the Church.

 

As a first example of editing, in Mark, it starts out by having the heavens open up and a voice from above says, “You are my beloved Son”, while in Matthew it says “This is my beloved Son.”  The change may be grammatically slight, but it’s significant in meaning.  Matthew is trying to show that his identity of being the Son of God is not hidden to everyone as it is in the Gospel of Mark.  By saying this is my beloved Son, you know you have an audience (Pharisees and Sadducees).  As another example of this difference, there is the walking on water narrative.  In the Gospel of Mark, people do not understand the implications when Jesus walks on water and “their hearts were hardened”, while in Matthew, they react by falling down in worship, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God”.  Matthew deliberately made a change to Mark to make a different point.  Why did Matthew make this change? Matthew probably made this change to emphasize the culpability of the Jews, which works more dramatically in Matthew than in Mark since they were conscious of his identity all along.  Moreover, “in John, for example, as in Luke, three times Pilate tries to release Jesus by declaring him innocent (unlike in Mark).  And at the end, so, too, does the centurion (Roman soldier).  The Romans all agree on Jesus’ innocence.  Who then is guilty for his death? Not the Romans, but the Jewish authorities, or the Jewish people themselves” [1].

 

To mix things up, we can go to the end of the story of Mark, the crucifixion narrative. His dying words on the cross were “My God My God why hast though forsaken me.”  This is a direct quote from Psalm 22 of the Hebrew scriptures.  This passage and others (35 and 69) were known as the Psalms of Lament (22, 35 and 69) – speaks of a righteous man who suffers at the hand’s of God’s enemies and becomes vindicated by God in the end [1].  Knowing that the author had in their hands a copy of the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), it’s hard to not think that the passion-crucifixion narrative was influenced by these passages, including Isaiah 52, the Songs of The Suffering Servant.  After all, there’s a direct quotation, and the beginning of the story says this is to follow in accordance with Scripture.  Whether or not the author wanted people to know that this was allegorical or something that Jesus actually said, we’ll never know for sure.  Now Luke changes the words completely by appealing to Psalms 31, “Into your hands I will commit my spirit.”  Again, this is a direct quotation out of the Septuagint in order to fulfill scripture.  Luke’s Jesus accepts his death and willingly gives himself over during the crucifixion.  By contrast, Mark’s Jesus is in agony and seems to be completely unaware of his purpose, which is an atonement for our sins.  Luke changes this to fit his formulation of Jesus.  Luke’s Jesus is a prophet that was rejected by God’s people; he preaches as a prophet, heals as a prophet and also dies as a prophet.  The greatest prophets from scripture, e.g., Elijah, Amos, Ezekiel, all were persecuted and sometimes even martyred by their own people [1].  Luke has placed his Jesus alongside these great prophets. “Luke emphasizes that Jesus dies as a righteous, blameless martyr of God.  As a prophet he knew that this had to happen” [1].  Right, prophets are visionaries, they can foresee the future. This explains why Jesus has complete confidence that his death will bring him in God’s special care as his final words were a prayer not a plea.

 

Towards the end of both Mark and Luke, the curtain in the holy Temple gets torn in half. The curtain tearing, however, happens at different times and for different reasons.  The Temple is where sacrifices were offered up to God, and the most sacred place in the Temple was the square room, “in whose darkness God’s presence was thought to dwell.” No one could enter this room unless it was the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) when the high priest would go behind the curtain into the presence of God to perform a sacrifice to atone the sins of the people [1].  Mark indicates that when Jesus died, the curtain separating the holiest of places from the outside world was torn in half [1].  This is symbolic in that the tear has opened up the holiest of places to the rest of the world; God is no longer separated by the curtain and all have access to him now.  The ultimate sacrifice has been made, voiding the necessity of all others. Jesus, the Son of God, has “given his life as a ransom for many” (Mark).  People now have direct access to God, who comes to them in the death of Jesus [1].  On the other hand, In Luke, the curtain is torn when Jesus was on the cross and when darkness comes upon the land.  The torn curtain is symbolic of the people rejecting God’s gift (Jesus) and shows God’s judgment upon them. The torn curtain accompanies the eerie darkness over the land as a sign of God’s judgment upon his people who have rejected his gift of “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke).  What underscores this point of God’s wrath is when Jesus says to his enemies (Jewish authorities) that “this is your hour and the power of darkness” (Luke).

 

The centurion (commander in a Roman army) at the end of Mark says that, “Truly this man was God’s Son.”  The centurion in Luke says, “Certainly this man was innocent.”  These two passages are clearly different.  We can try to reconcile them, but what is more likely the case is that the authors wanted to get across different messages.  Mark is portraying Jesus as the atonement for sin, so his phrase reconfirms that Jesus, the Son of God, had to die for our salvation.  By contrast, Luke wanted to emphasize that Jesus was truly innocent and whose death would not bring, in it of itself, salvation or forgiveness.  Jesus died because he was a prophet rejected by God’s people.  And the people need to repent of their sins and return to God, and then they will be forgiven and granted salvation.  So Mark’s theology regarding salvation (forgiveness for sin) is more of a “get out of jail free card”, while in Luke’s you have to work for it.

 

Lastly, but certainly not the last of the discrepancies, is the day that Jesus actually died.  This is a contradiction not easily reconciled, despite numerous attempts by apologists.   In the Gospel of Mark, the Passover Meal is the Last Supper.  Passover was a most significant event for Jews during Jesus’ time.  For this year, it started on Thursday evening and continued on to Friday day since Jews viewed the start of the day as the beginning of nightfall.  So Thursday evening was the beginning of Passover.  Thursday day was the Day of Preparation where people brought their lambs to be slaughtered for sacrifice for their sins, and the meal was prepared that afternoon to be eaten that evening, on Passover.  The Last Supper includes the ceremonial wine and bread, where Jesus says after breaking the bread and giving it to his disciples, “This is my body.”  This is symbolic for when his body is broken for the salvation of all.  Jesus then gave the cup of wine to his disciples and said, “This is my blood of the covenant, that is poured out for many” (Mark).  And this is symbolic for the blood that will be shed.  After the Last Supper, Jesus is later taken by the authorities and spends the night in jail, while being found guilty by Pontius Pilate the next day.  He dies on Friday at 9 AM on Passover Day.  In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist announces that “Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.”  This is the only Gospel in which a metaphor for a lamb is used for Jesus.  The Passover meal in John takes place on Friday evening.  Jesus’ Last Supper is not a Passover meal; it occurs on a Thursday, the evening before the Passover lambs are slaughtered.  After the meal, Jesus spends the night in jail and then Pontius Pilate announces that he will be crucified on the Day of Preparation at noon – the day the lambs are slaughtered, which is a Thursday [1].  Therefore, in Mark, Jesus dies on Friday Passover Day, and, in John, Jesus dies on the Day of Preparation, which is a Thursday.  So Jesus is the slaughtered lamb in the Gospel of John.

 

Looking at these differences, and there a lot more to point out, one can conclude that either the writers based their stories on different sources of information or that they are literary creations.  I believe that since the changes made coincide with an authors particular vision of Jesus Christ that they are most certainly fabrications, molded to fit a theme or to make a point.  One could argue, as most Christian apologists do, that the differences are historically compatible.  They could argue that, using the centurion as an example, he was both innocent and also the Son of God, so there is no contradiction but rather one author chose to emphasize one point over the other.  However, Luke had the centurion say that “certainly this man is innocent” for a reason; Jesus was a prophet in which his people outright rejected him, and it’s structured this way to fit within Luke’s theology of guilt and repentance.  Moreover, it’s a climatic phrase for the centurion to say, and therefore has all the hallmarks of a literary creation.  I don’t think anyone was recording what the centurion was saying and passed it on through oral tradition; it’s just part of the story.  This goes for all the modifications aforementioned.  In my view, the editing in it of itself makes it hard to know which is historical and which is not, but an even better argument is that the changes made are too integral to the author’s theme to be anything but literary creations.

 

Notes:

[1]  Ehrman, Bart D. (2009-02-20). Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

[2]  Helms, Randel. Gospel Fictions. Kindle Edition.

[3]  Witherington III, Ben.  (2009).  New Testament Rhetoric: An Introductory Guide to the Art of Persuasion in and of the New Testament.  Cascade Books.

Comments

  1. Owlmirror says

    Passover was a most significant event for Jews during Jesus’ time. It started on Thursday evening and continued on to Friday day since Jews viewed the start of the day as the beginning of nightfall.

    A nit: the wording makes it look like Passover always starts on the same day of the week, which is wrong. Since the Jewish calendar is a lunar one, the time that Passover starts (the evening of the 14th of Nisan; always on or near the full moon) will be on whichever day of the week that 14 Nisan happens to fall.

    In the NT narrative, it looks like the authors were assuming that 14 Nisan fell on Thursday, and 15 Nisan on Friday — but that would only have been applicable for that specific year.

    • joncavaz says

      Thanks for the comment. You are right in that I could be more clear on that point. I tried to keep out the Jewish calendar to simplify things. But I’ll see if I can make it accurate.

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