Biblical facts aren't really the point

May 13, 1998|By Joseph Gallagher

IN its recently published "The Acts of Jesus," the controversial Jesus Seminar proclaims that Jesus didn't walk on water, turn water to wine, multiply the loaves and fishes, nor do many of the other miracles ascribed to him.

In 1993, the Seminar published "The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus," a study of the words that early Christian writings ascribe to Jesus. The five are the four New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, plus the Gospel of Thomas. The latter was found about 50 years ago in a 1600-year-old sealed jar in Egypt and consists of 114 sayings of Jesus, half of which were new.

Most members of the Jesus Seminar, a group of some 80 biblical scholars, have Christian backgrounds. They take the words and deeds of Jesus very seriously, know the Bible thoroughly and want to separate factual history from later redactions or interpretations of Jesus. (Some of these redactions have proved lethal, e.g., as an excuse for anti-Semitism.)

The redactions originated both in fluid oral traditions about Jesus and in the fixed views that are found in the written Gospels. Evidence supports the existence of about 20 gospels besides the four that early church leaders endorsed for inclusion in the Bible. It did not seem to bother the church that these four had some conflicting accounts.

Many modern Christians picture a composite Gospel and don't realize how different the four official Gospels are. The Gospel of John, for example, never uses the word apostle or even mentions a "John" as an early disciple. Many scholars, Christian and otherwise, say we don't know for certain who wrote the four Gospels or whether they were written by eyewitnesses.

Scholars also say the church's main concern was preserving the core of the oral tradition about Jesus rather than interpreting history literally. But the Gospels are "good news," and that is good from a point of view. They are purposeful portraits colored by faith.

In the Gospels, the news is about the redeeming life and death of a Galilean peasant who left no writings, gave no known commands about writing his biography and whose words and deeds went through decades of diverse telling and interpretation before they were committed to writing.

Moreover, these writings were produced by believers who were addressing different groups of fellow believers (some Jewish, some not). These groups needed updated ideas about what Jesus would have said and done in their situation.

Trying to put Jesus into context spiritually, early Christians pondered their Hebrew Scriptures -- the only ones they had -- and found many passages, especially in Psalms, Isaiah and Daniel, which struck them as having found their fulfillment in Jesus. When the Gospel writers finally put the words and deeds of Jesus into one continuous narrative, they felt authorized by their sincere faith to create details that gave certain floating biblical prophecies "a local habitation and a name," as Shakespeare wrote.

This kind of creative updating was not invented by Christians. Viewing the word of God as a living reality, the earliest biblical writers also felt free to handle earlier traditions creatively. They attributed to Moses, for example, ideas that would not have fit his times but theirs.

These updatings were not regarded as written in stone by later Jewish groups. Commenting on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the eminent scholar Geza Vermes stressed the astonishing "scribal creative freedom they reveal." "The redactor-copyists [of the biblical books stored or transcribed in this Jewish monastery] felt at liberty to improve the composition they were reproducing."

Only a few documents of the early Jesus movement have survived. But we still have Mark's premier Gospel, which was heavily used by Matthew and Luke. We can plainly see how free the latter felt to add, subtract, rearrange and reinterpret what they took from Mark.

The Jesus Seminar, then, didn't invent the problem of how to get to the original words and deeds of Jesus. Nor is its "Acts of Jesus" the ax of Jesus. In the view of some other scholars, however, the Seminar uses overly narrow criteria for deciding what is certain, likely, unlikely and very dubious in the early traditions about Jesus. Its scholars effectively rule out the miraculous and limit themselves to arguments that would be persuasive to nonbelievers. Of the 176 events cataloged, the Jesus Seminar concluded that only 16 percent occurred with any historical probability.

But Catholic scholars, for instance, have church authority to use many of the Seminar techniques, especially "form criticism." This method recognizes that there are many kinds of writing in the Bible and not all are literally historical in the modern sense. Indeed, the contemporary Catholic scholar, the Rev. John P. Meier, (author of "The Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus") is on some points more skeptical than the Seminar group.

One final point: When the Seminar judges that a given saying or deed of Jesus is dubious as a literal fact, that does not automatically mean that the item is untrue to the spirit of Jesus, or that it is not spiritually nourishing. Some of the world's greatest fiction feeds the soul more deeply than mere facts. Such facts can be thin gruel for the spirit, as poets and lovers have always known. And it remains a fact that the four Gospels are among the most influential spiritual documents ever penned. As such, they have enriched the story of humankind in countless, rust proof ways.

The Rev. Joseph Gallagher is a retired priest of the Baltimore archdiocese.

Pub Date: 5/13/98

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