Taking the Gospels Seriously

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by Neil Godfrey

It seems to me that most scholarly studies that treat the Gospels as sources of historical information about Jesus and the early disciples do not always rely on the Gospel narratives to transmit historical information. Being post-Enlightenment minds (leaving aside the disturbing frequency with which I see anti-Enlightenment sentiments expressed among scholars, and not only biblical ones) we tend to rationalize and “naturalize” the claims of the miraculous.

Just as once Old Testament scholars would look for shallow waters or earthquake activity to explain Moses’ miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, or seek out evidence of Mesopotamian flooding to explain the story of Noah’s ark, so we have studies into psychological and mystical proclivities to explain the resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ.

One question that comes to my mind with such attempts to explain the origins of the resurrection belief is how to explain the transition from disciples having some sort of vision of Jesus after his death to the respective gospel narrative accounts of the resurrection appearances. No doubt this has been tackled in the literature, and I would welcome being alerted to any of those discussions. Till then, what is unclear to me is how and why someone having a visionary experience of Jesus some time after the crucifixion would have his particular experience or story turned in to the particular gospel resurrection appearances of Jesus to his followers in Jerusalem (or Galilee). I can understand a narrative of someone having vision of God appearing to them in the night, as we find in various Old Testament stories, or even of a vision happening some time after the crucifixion, such as we read about in the case of Stephen.

But the Gospel resurrection narratives are nothing like any of those. Rather, they are very much integral parts of the gospel stories. Recall my recent posts that argued for treating this sort of literature iconically, or as artistic literary units. Bob Carlson in a recent comment linked to an article that contained a half-pertinent statement by Bultmann, and one that almost qualifies to be added to my growing hoard of “quote-mined” material.

The eminent German scholar Rudolph Bultmann emphasized what must be the most basic tenets of Biblical hermeneutics when he argued, simply enough, that each Gospel is “a primary source for the historical situation out of which it arose, and is only a secondary source for the historical details concerning which it gives information.”

The first part is right. The Gospel is at most a primary source for the historical situation out of which it arose, whatever, wherever and whenever that historical situation was. Most scholars seem to believe this, too, but I wish a number of them would understand more clearly the implications of that.

But in the second half of that sentence Bultmann falls into the same fallacy into which the bulk of his peers then and since have fallen. He merely assumes that the narrative itself contains historical information about, well, real history. This would be very fine if we had some evidential reason for the assumption. Lacking that, however, and given that we do have artfully constructed works of literature (literary artifices), it is easier to validly justify taking the Gospels as literary creations and to leave aside other assumptions while they remain groundless.

But why not take the Gospels seriously, as they are? That is, as works of literature with a theological tale to tell. And not only take them seriously in their own right for preaching or meditative purposes, but as historical documents. We understand the historical function of the Exodus narrative best by understanding its literary and theological functions within its original culture, and not by trying to find understand how the story grew from some literal historical Exodus. Ditto for the Noah’s flood story.

As someone I’ve referred to several times already said, by removing the miraculous from the bible stories we do not understand the stories better, we only destroy the stories. Think of Douglas Adams’ nonworking cat. The analogy is not exact, but it’s close.

What if there were no historical visionary experiences from which the Gospel resurrection appearances emerged? After all, we have no evidence for them, so it is prima facie a reasonable, even simpler, hypothesis to work with.

This must sound a little perverse to anyone who might have read my recent posts about mystical visionary experiences among early Christians. So I might explain that to my way of thinking the resurrection appearances of Jesus in the Gospels are antithetical to the sorts of visionary experiences one reads about in the literature we have been surveying, such as the Enochian works, the Apocalypse of Abraham, the Ascension of Isaiah, etc.

The difference is as wide as the gulf between heaven and earth. DeConick is one who argues that the heavenly visions represented a soteriology grounded on vision, seeing, knowledge, whereas the earthly visions of the past, once and for all and no longer to be repeated, stand for a salvation based on faith and things unseen.

This is, of course, a mere scratch on the surface of the topic.

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Taking the Gospels Seriously”

  1. Christianity originated as a school for mystics, who were taught how to experience a mystical vision of a philosophical drama that takes place far above the Earth, on the Firmament. Christianity was mystical, abstract and esoteric and therefore was experienced and appreciated only by a tiny group of people with mentalities suited for such thinking.

    The drama’s original concept was that incomprehensible God had manifested Himself as a human-like “Son of God” who had been sent down from Heaven’s seventh level on a mission to the Firmament. There the drama happened — this Son of God was crucified and buried and then he rose from the dead and ascended back up toward Heaven’s seventh level.

    The first Christians were taught to experience and understand that drama through a mystical vision. When they saw the crucifixion and burial of the Son of God, they understood that God the Father Himself really did feel sympathy and love toward human beings. And therefore they as thus enlightened human beings should feel sympathy and love toward their fellow human beings.

    Eventually the mystical drama added a prophetic epilogue foretelling that the Son of God would descend again from Heaven’s seventh level and would conduct a cosmic war that would destroy most of the Universe below Heaven’s seventh level. Some human beings would be selected to join the army of the Son of God. Those selected human beings would be raised up from the Earth to participate in a surprise attack on the Firmament. Those human beings who survived the subsequent battles on the Firmament would be raised up into Heaven’s seventh level, where they would serve eternally as priests in that level’s perfect Temple.

    Thus, a few human beings, a few of these Christians, would be saved from the massive destruction. The saved few would be like Noah’s family that was saved from the Flood or like Lot’s family that was saved from the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah.

    The addition of this epilogue to the mystical drama eventually discredited the original Christianity, because the prophecy of the imminent descent of the Son of God and of the subsequent cosmic war never was fulfilled.

    What saved Christianity from oblivion as a religion was the development of the gospels. A gospel was a story-telling genre in which the Son of God descended not only to the Firmament but descended all the way to Earth, where the Son of God acted out a mini-drama that usually had a happy ending. For example, a gospel would tell how the Son of God descended to Earth and healed a sick or handicapped person.

    In the gospels, the Son of God appeared to and interacted with ordinary people. The gospels thus expressed ordinary people’s desires in relation to God — the divine intercession that ordinary people desired in their own lives and the appreciation that ordinary people felt toward such divine intercession. Ordinary people wanted God to heal their sicknesses and handicaps. Ordinary people wanted God to enable them to meet with their relatives and friends again in an afterlife. Ordinary people wanted a religion based on reason, justice and sympathy, not on mindless obedience to ancient laws.

    The evolved Christianity of the gospels spread and eclipsed the original Christianity of the mystical vision. The Christianity of the gospels should be appreciated for its success as a popular and compelling religion that expressed — and also shaped — popular desires and attitudes. Jesus Christ was loved, respected and worshipped as a human-like manifestation of the incomprehensible God the Father, and so Christianity became a satisfying religion on many intellectual levels for major populations and cultures.

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