What is History? Events reconstructed with words aren’t what happened. They’re the best we can do at describing what we think might have happened. And that’s not what most people think History is. But – for worse and for better – that’s what History is.
So then, what are the Gospels? Most scholars these days will concede that the Four Gospels of the New Testament are the best window we have into Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, Son of Man, the Messiah. Skeptics debate how much accuracy they offer, on face value. Theologians defend Christian Faith by retreating from fights over historical value. The Gospels aren’t History, say our Christian Scholars. They are narratives, written to convey theological views of our Lord Jesus Christ. That view's worked well for christendom at large, at least in recent centuries.... but now times are in flux. Today, many say 'We don't care as much for dogma and defense of the faith. We want more questions asked, fewer answered.'
So, again, what is History? All written accounts of the past are limited re-presentations of real life situations we can no longer access. The people, events, ideas, relationships, physical structures, social context and the infinite number of decisions made based on unknown factors – decisions both simple and complex, either rash or deliberate – the vast web of interactive human experience for a given region and time – these are inscrutable. All we have is aspects, pieces, cross-sections of real life, as it actually took place. All we have is accounts of the past. We do not have the past, any longer, at hand.
Yet, we do have these accounts. We do have the Four Gospels. And they do give us a great deal about Jesus and his activities. He taught. He healed. He prayed. He led women and men across Galilee and Judea, proclaiming that God was eager to make a new way to rule over them all. And he did many things. We don’t know all that the Lord did, but we do know – however sharp or fuzzy this picture may turn out to be – that these are indeed aspects of the true past. The Four Gospels do give us something of Jesus’ History. The only debates on this topic – yes, in all of the many debates across the vastness of Christian and Secular New Testament Scholarship – always boil down to how much they do give us.
Now to you, my dear blog reader, come these very same questions. In what ways, to what degree, and to what effect are the Gospels qualified to speak of Jesus historically? Does his actual life matter?
Personally, I say that if his life mattered not, then our life matters not. But if the Gospels all about meaning and message, and if my Christian life is really all about what I believe... then why would his life matter? And what about mine? I could just sit and listen, think and agree, pray the right prayer, and voila! The power of the Gospel is my name on a salvation card.
Paul of Tarsus wrote a lot about why Jesus died, and I absolutely do believe each little word.
But the New Testament opens with how Jesus lived.
It also says a lot more about how Jesus lived than some think it does. But that's a topic for some other day. For now, here is what we should just stop disputing:
History matters. Events matter. What we do to, with and for one another... these things matter much more than what we believe about salvation or angels or even (gasp) the Holy Spirit. Facts are facts, and the more often it happens that Christians come out from inside the barrier walls of their institutional borders, the less it sounds like we still care so much about fine theological distinctions.
These Christian scholars who need to make narratives all about hidden theology, well, they're no longer doing quite so well as they used to at holding congregations together, using that old approach. God protect us from whatever they cook up next, to keep their flocks in the pens... and it'll probably be a retreat back to authoritarian dogma... but in the meantime I'd like to put out my little cry that we might take advantage of a growing opportunity here.
People are starting to seem less automatically predisposed against what I've been yearning for.
We should study the life of the Lord Jesus Christ, through the Gospels, as History.