Most of us understand that the Gospels are theological narratives and do not report literal history. At the same time, probably most critically inclined readers believe that those theological narratives are ultimately inspired by historical persons and events. Their authors (or those responsible for their source information) are so “spiritually overwhelmed” by the inexpressibility of the wonder of these historical events that they are compelled to write about them through a language of theological surrealism.
Comparisons are even drawn with ancient historiography. Ancient historians regularly introduced supernatural events and persons into their accounts of historical persons. It is worth looking at a few examples. We are meant to be assured that the Gospel narratives are of a similar ilk.
As he [Caesar] stood in doubt, this sign was given him. On a sudden there appeared hard by a being of wondrous stature and beauty, who sat and played upon a reed; and when not only the shepherds flocked to hear him, but many of the soldiers left their posts, and among them some of the trumpeters, the apparition snatched a trumpet from one of them, rushed to the river, and sounding the war-note with mighty blast, strode to the opposite bank. Then Caesar cried: “Take we the course which the signs of the gods and the false dealing of our foes point out. The die is cast,” said he. (Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar, 32)
No one doubts the reality of Augustus Caesar despite it being “recorded” of him by Philo that he stilled storms and healed diseases:
This is Caesar, who calmed the storms which were raging in every direction, who healed the common diseases which were afflicting both Greeks and barbarians . . .(Philo, Embassy to Gaius, 145)
The stilling of the storms may have been a metaphorical synopsis of Augustus putting an end to the wars that had long ravaged the empire but the philosopher Empedocles was reputed to have done as much literally:
Ten thousand other more divine and more admirable particulars likewise are uniformly and unanimously related of the man: such as infallible predictions of earthquakes, rapid expulsions of pestilence and violent winds, instantaneous cessations of the effusion of hail, and a tranquillization of the waves of rivers and seas, in order that his disciples might easily pass over them. Of which things also, Empedocles the Agrigentine, Epimenides the Cretan, and Abaris the Hyperborean, receiving the power of effecting, performed certain miracles of this kind in many places. Their deeds, however, are manifest. To which we may add, that Empedocles was surnamed an expeller of winds (Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras, 135-136)
And of course we know of the tales of miraculous births of Alexander the Great and Plato. Both were conceived by a god. There are many more. King Pyrrhus healed by touching a reclining patient with his foot. Emperor Vespasian healed a withered hand and restored the sight of a blind man.
So there we supposedly have it. The gospels, we are assured, are no different from other ancient accounts of famous historical persons, mixtures of fact and fable.
I don’t think so.
The miraculous events told of historical persons are like the decorative badges of honour pinned on to otherwise historical or biographical narratives. We can read of the real historical deeds of Julius Caesar with assurance that we have much evidence external to the texts we are reading to lend them credibility. Besides, we know the identities of the authors we are reading and hence their biases and extent of access to reliable information and the reasons they are writing. And the miraculous adornments to their generally worldly and human tales do not extinguish that evidently historically based content.
When reading a life of Julius Caesar we are reading an essentially historiographical narrative at one level, but every so often we are interrupted by a divine or miraculous intrusion. Very often the ancient authors are conscious enough of the unnaturalness of this intrusion to express some sympathy with their readers if they choose to doubt the tale. So when Tacitus narrates the story of emperor Vespasian performing miraculous cures he concludes with:
Both these incidents are still vouched for by eye-witnesses, though there is now nothing to be gained by lying. (Tacitus, Histories, 81)
Livy, like Tacitus and other historians ever since Herodotus, would likewise make critical observations of accounts that ran counter to the natural processes of human life and experience. So when Romulus appeared to miraculously disappear in a cloud, and though many believed he had thus been taken up by the gods, Livy opined more cynically:
I believe, however, that even then there were some who secretly hinted that he had been torn limb from limb by the senators-a tradition to this effect, though certainly a very dim one, has filtered down to us. The other, which I follow, has been the prevailing one, due, no doubt, to the admiration felt for the man and the apprehensions excited by his disappearance. (Livy, History of Rome, 1.16)
And so he proceeds to tell the other legendary tale of the ghost of Romulus being seen by a reputable passerby who could assure the masses that he had truly been taken from this world by the deities.
Curiously, there is no similar self-conscious assurance or suspicious questioning by any gospel author in relation to the tales of the miracles of Jesus.
But apart from the absence of an authorial or narrative voice expressing some viewpoint on the veracity of the miracles, are the Gospels really comparable to ancient historical or biographical accounts?
No, they are not.
Even the most ordinary or human of experiences that appear in the gospels on closer reading turn out to be very extraordinary and anything but naturally human.
Take as our first example the simple calling of the first disciples in the Gospel of Mark, presumably the earliest of our canonical gospels. Now nothing can be more natural than a teacher attracting students and a charismatic itinerant teacher garnering a few loyal followers. And so we are told often enough that that is what Jesus did and how the “institution” of the twelve disciples began.
But this story of a natural process is actually a substitute for what we read in the Bible. The Gospel of Mark narrates no such natural event. The Gospel story in fact must be discarded and replaced by a “natural alternative” in the minds of readers who wish it to reflect real history. Look at it in Mark 1:16-20
Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers.
And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.
And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him.
And when he had gone a little farther thence, he saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the ship mending their nets.
And straightway he called them: and they left their father Zebedee in the ship with the hired servants, and went after him.
The author (let’s call him Mark) does not sum up some past event in which Jesus called disciples. No. Rather, he creates a dramatic dialogue and says that Jesus said, in effect, “Follow me”. And the disciples who (according to the terms of Mark’s narrative) had never set eyes upon Jesus before simply drop everything and walk away from their livelihoods and families. It is not completely unlike a scene from one of those horror movies where a stranger has mysterious hypnotic powers over ordinary folk.
Now naturally we know that such things do not really happen like that. And since most readers are convinced before they take up the Bible to read it that it contains historical truth at some level at least, they translate what they read into something else. They rationalize it. Make it “real”. Or rather, no, they replace it completely with another story that has some few points of similarity but that also has something the biblical account lacks: historical verisimilitude. I suppose all of us at some time have excused what we read here by imagining Mark really meant, or at least was thinking of, something quite different. What really happened was that the disciples previously knew Jesus and what he taught and stood for. Jesus did not just say, “Follow me”, but he said much more and Mark was giving us the highlights. And the disciples didn’t just walk off abandoning their families like that. Mark skips all the details of the farewells, etc etc etc.
And so we reject and replace what Mark wrote with something we find easier to imagine happening in real life. In history.
What we lose by doing this is an understanding of what it is that Mark was writing. (Recall my previous post: What is Rule One?)
What Mark is writing is a theological parable. One part of us knows this. And that’s why we have so often replaced it in our minds with something else. We want history. Truth. Reality.
Mark is telling us the story of a divine voice (we have just been assured that Jesus is the Son of God) that calls, and of faithful disciples who hear and obey. They drop all and leave their past lives, their families, and follow him.
That’s exactly what Mark will explain, through the voice of Jesus, is the ideal of a true follower of God (Mark 10). Readers who know the earlier foundational Jewish Scriptures also know the story of Elijah calling Elisha and how this story of Jesus calling the disciples is so patently an emulation, even a transvaluation, of that earlier story. Elisha wanted to return to say farewell to his family. Jesus’ disciples did not look back for a moment.
The call of Jesus is a divine call. It is not the story of a charismatic teacher attracting a following by the cleverness of his words or persuasiveness of his tone or manner. Such a scenario is our history-seeking substitute we want to tuck under the Gospel story as a support.
But our “human imagination”, our “history-seeking” proclivities, do not help or enhance Mark’s story. They only undermine it. They destroy it.
Did Mark really want his readers to think the supernatural tale he told was also historical? I have no idea what Mark was thinking. But I can read and I can see that he told a tale of a divine call and that any attempt to replace it with something “historically plausible” runs counter to the function of that tale.
I suggest that there is not a single tale in any of the canonical Gospels that does not function as a parable or theological lesson of some kind.
I believe some scholars are well aware of this. That’s why they seek ways to hone tools that hopefully will still uncover history behind the theological narratives. By so doing they are, in effect, really conceding that the Gospels are unlike other historical or biographical narratives by the ancients. The miraculous events in the Gospels are not pinned on to a natural cloak for decoration. They are as much the core of the Gospel’s theological narrative as any other event — like the calling of the disciples.
By trying to divine history behind the theology they are assuming that the theology emerged as a rationalization of real events. But how likely is that? Is it not simpler to postulate that a theological tale, complete with characters whose very names very often are puns with theological double entendres, emerged from the creative mind of a theologian? If it were the other way around would not we expect to find some residue of those historical events so that that the Gospels really did read, at least just a little more, like other ancient historiographies?