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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Gospel Fictions

In the first century of the Common Era, there appeared at the eastern end of the Mediterranean a remarkable religious leader who taught the worship of one true God and declared that religion meant not the sacrifice of beasts but the practice of charity and piety and the shunning of hatred and enmity. He was said to have worked miracles of goodness, casting out demons, healing the sick, raising the dead. His exemplary life led some of his followers to claim he was a son of God, though called himself the son of a man. Accused of sedition against Rome, he was arrested. After his death, his disciples claimed he had risen from the dead, appeared to them alive, and then ascended to heaven. Who was this teacher and wonder-worker? His name was Apollonius of Tyana; he died about 98. A.D., and his story may be read in Flabius Philostratus's Life of Apollonius.







Thus begins a fine little book by Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions.







Helms wrote this book 20 years ago. If you have an interest in how a literary critic might approach these marvelous stories in the New Testament, you would do well to start with Helms. He writes:

...It is not my purpose here to articulate a quarrel with Christian faith, or to call the evangelists liars, or to assert that the Gospels have no historical content; I write as a literary critic, not as a debunker. 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 service of a theological vision. (p. 11)
Helms looks at the nativity stories, the miracle stories, the passion narratives and the resurrection accounts and shows how the various gospel authors used stories of the Old Testament as sources for their theological fictions.

When you read the gospels you will often run across the phrase, "according to the scriptures," or "as was spoken by the prophet", or sometimes just a quote from the Hebrew Scriptures. This is done to show that in Jesus "the scriptures were fulfilled."

In Sunday school I was told that meant that the Old Testament predicted the New Testament. The events recounted in the Gospels really happened and had been foretold by the prophets. Helms has a different idea. From his point of view, the earliest Christians turned the Hebrew scriptures (and they used, for the most part, the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek language "Old Testament") into a story about Jesus. Every story in the Old Testament is really about Jesus Christ. With this theology, they didn't look for evidence for the historical person of Jesus as we would today, they were interested in the theological Jesus who they found by interpreting the Old Testament.

This is from Acts (written by the author of Luke):

Let me tell you plainly, my friends, that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this very day. It is clear therefore that he spoke as a prophet,...and when he said he was not abandoned to death, and his flesh never suffered corruption, he spoke with foreknowledge of the resurrection of the Messiah. (Acts 2:29-31, p. 20)
The Old Testament is a source of authoritative reports about Jesus.




So if you wanted to recount an event about Jesus, you went to the Old Testament and retold one of those stories with Jesus as the main character. That isn't quite the same thing as we might do today.





You might remember this story. Our hero is in the wilderness with a large number of people. They are hungry. The food available is too small to feed the large crowd. The hero's assistant complains that there is not enough food. The hero says feed them anyway. They eat and there is food left.

You find that story in 2 Kings 4. Elisha is the hero, the "man of God." He has 100 men to feed with 20 barley loaves. Of course you also find that story in the Gospels. Jesus does Elisha better and feeds 5000 with five loaves and two fish.

Helms shows us story after story in which the literary antecedents for the gospel narratives are found in the Old Testament and sometimes in Greek literature. It is really fun and eye-opening. Helms wrote this book 20 years ago. Literary criticism of the Bible has moved ahead since then. But if this type of criticism sounds interesting, this accessible and informative book by Helms is a good place to begin.

O.K., time to be pastoral. This is not really that amazing, frankly. The only reason folks might think this is controversial is because Christians, in my view, have made an idol of the Bible. They have decided that it must be historically accurate by our standards of history. Each event must be historically accurate or it isn't true.

In my ministry I have had church members become angry when I mention literary criticism. You know why they were angry? They were angry that their ministers knew about this kind of stuff before and never mentioned it. So they had to spend all those years thinking they had to believe the Bible in some literal way when scholarship (and their common sense) provided a far more satisfying alternative.

Go figure.

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