May 7, 2020

The Synoptic Climax

Have in mind the things of God...

When Matthew 1:1 declares its subject is Jesus, it does not introduce him. The audience is expected to know something about him beforehand. How much did they know? I would estimate the minimum-- the least amount of information sufficient to identify Jesus and distinguish him from other famous figures--is that he was (1) a popular Galilean teacher (2) crucified in Jerusalem. If we assume that the audience is expected to know these two things already, during a "first read" (first hearing) of the material, certain things change.

For one example. anything formerly called a "foreshadowing" of Jesus's death, should now be recognized as "dramatic irony." Cueing your audience to "remember" the famous future (which their historical figure has not yet experienced as a literary protagonist) is almost unavoidable when constructing historical narrative. I have blogged here previously about dramatic irony in the Gospels and this topic is central to my Masters thesis, so I will leave that point there for the moment.

For another example, these two points of information define the basic temporal framework of Jesus's personal storyline. No audience member who can successfully identify Jesus as a distinct historical figure would ever fail to remember this necessarily teleological sequence. Obviously, the popular Galilean teacher is going to experience a phase of popularity in Galilee BEFORE he gets killed in Jersualem. Furthermore, the pivot point of the basic narrative structure (in all three synoptic Gospels) is the point of transition between Galilee and Jersualem.

This leads us to a third example, which is what I call The Synoptic Climax

The climax of the synoptic timeline--the moment at which the developing actions stop building up from their beginning and begin sliding down towards their end--is when Jesus announces that he is planning to go to Jerusalem and be killed. To be clear, the climactic point is NOT being told that Jesus is going to be killed. That is not our dramatic turning point because nobody in the original audience could have been expected to feel surprised by this revelation. The audience already knew: Jesus dies at the end. Rather, the dramatic surprise is that Jesus knew going in, announced it, and embraced it as God's plan for his life. When the Gospel writers sat down to communicate, THIS was one of the key talking points they were hoping to establish. THIS was part of their purpose in writing. THIS was their point. THIS was their spin.

I should quickly add, discerning that this was an authorial agenda does not necessarily imply that such spin was in any way contrived or non-factual. To the contrary, often times people spinning the hardest are doing so precisely because they believe passionately that their perspective--their own personal view of the facts--is helpful, insightful, and the proper bias that everyone ought to uphold. On the other hand, just as obviously, the earnestness or enthusiasm of political spin does not and cannot tell us that a version of past events *IS* necessarily accurate, either. We cannot separate "facts" from "interpretation" because, as my advisor Chris Keith and others have shown decisively, "There are no uninterpreted facts." Therefore, as a point of historical inquiry, we will never know for certain whether Jesus actually predicted his death beforehand and embraced it OR NOT... but our ignorance is not alleviated merely by observing this act of emplotment.

What we CAN do, instead, is enjoy and appreciate the drama. At least for starters, we can recognize that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are depicting a world in which Jesus made this dramatic revelation. Just as "Did Jesus expect his own death?" is an important historical question precisely because it notes the Gospel writers' agenda(s), so also "Jesus expected his own death" is an important aspect of the story to recognize, for the same reason: precisely because it strikes at the heart of an idea which the authors were aiming to convey.

The Gospels are ancient biographies that have been somewhat emplotted. Their purpose was not just to inform people about Jesus but to cast a particular light onto well known events of his famous existence. For the Gospel writers, it was high on their list of priorities to convey that crucifixion was not a mistake. They were passionate about communicating that Jesus's death was one event God intended to happen. The story of the Gospels is that Jesus, who had always embraced sacrificial living for the glory of his beloved father in heaven, at some point realized and embraced God's plan for the ultimate sacrifice. 

Personally, none of this is anything I prefer to argue about or try and prove.

This is the story of Jesus. This is the word of the Lord.


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